Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Royal Banquet in Seoul

In the sparkling Korean capital of Seoul, it really is possible to eat like a king – the banquets served here replicate those held for the kings of the Joseon dynasty, who ruled from the 14th to the early 20th century. These royal banquets have tables groaning under innumerable exquisite dishes, whose myriad tastes and colors nonetheless blend into a gentle Eastern harmony.

Bustling with commerce, drenched with neon, and pierced by innumerable skyscrapers, Seoul is one of the world’s most absorbingly modern cities. However, it is also a place of substantial historical merit, having served as the seat of the Joseon dynasty from 1392 until its annexation by Japan in 1910. Joseon’s first king, Taejo, was evidently hugely ambitious – the first few years of his rule saw the birth of two mighty palaces, a huge ancestral shrine, and a city wall studded with gargantuan gates. Amazingly, despite the passing of half a millennium, the Japanese occupation, and the devastating civil war of the 1950s, all of these sites remain, with superb restoration work bringing back their dynastic beauty.
Korea’s wonderful cuisine has also emerged unscathed from troubled times, and the food of the Joseon royal court remains at the very top of the tree.
Harmony is the key to these banquet-style feasts, with their near-perfect balance of color, flavor, aromas, texture, and shape. This is partly thanks to the Korean concept of yeobaek, which dictates that, for example, fiery-red elements such as spicy gimchi or kimchee (preserved vegetables) are counterbalanced by bland soups and delicately seasoned roots.
Traditionally, banquets are made up of 12 main dishes, augmented by smaller side dishes known as banchan. Ingredients are always the finest the season can offer, culled from both land and sea. The variety is quite incredible, with offerings as diverse as buckwheat noodles, pumpkin congee, mung-bean pancakes, and pheasant-meat dumplings. Many of these dishes can be found in Korean home cooking, but two of the most visually arresting are unique to royal cuisine. The sinsollo is a bronze urn used at the table to make a richly aromatic meatball-and-vegetable stew, heated by charcoal embers. Most beautiful of all is the kaleidoscopically colorful gujeolpan, an octagonal tray of lacquered wood split into nine sections – the outer eight contain assorted roots, shoots, and marinaded leaves, to be wrapped up in paper-thin pancakes stacked in the central ninth segment. The only down-side, it seems, to feasting on royal Korean cuisine is that one must destroy what is effectively a work of art.

The colorful gujeolpan often forms the centerpiece of a Korean royal banquet

Best Places for Korean Royal Cuisine


This deceptively homey restaurant is Korea’s only remaining link to the royal court cuisine of old. Its founder, Hwang Hye-seong, learned her trade from one of the last royal chefs of the Joseon dynasty, absorbing the ancient secrets over the course of several decades. These have now been passed on to her daughter Han Bong-nyeo; like her illustrious mother, Han has been designated an official national treasure. After taking your seat, you’ll soon find the table blanketed with dishes, almost creaking under the weight of more than 30 individually prepared creations. You’ll literally be eating like a king in almost every sense, since both the way in which the meal is laid out and the ingredients in the dishes are as close as possible to what Joseon royalty would have been presented with each evening.
Celadon bowls, bronze chopsticks, and lacquered wooden trays heighten the air of authenticity, while floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the pine-studded garden outside.
170–3 Gaheodong, Seoul; open noon–3 PM & 5:30–9 PM;
Also in Seoul
Set within a clutch of traditional wooden buildings on Pildong Iga, Korea House (; expensive) serves up mammoth royal banquets – not quite scaling the heights of the cuisine in Goongyeon, but first-time visitors will scarcely be able to tell the difference. For a small extra fee you’ll be able to watch colorful performances of traditional folk songs and dancing, which take place after the meal in an on-site theater. Attendants clad in silken hanbok – traditional Korean clothing – contribute further to the courtly air, while just north of the restaurant you’ll find Namsangol, a small, re-created Joseon village.
Restaurants serving yangbansik – meals served to aristocrats during Joseon times – are cheaper and more numerous than those serving royal cuisine. One recommendation is Doore (; moderate), which serves what are essentially smaller versions of the royal feasts in a pleasantly rustic courtyard setting on Insadonggil, a street of tea shops, galleries, and craft workshops popular with visitors (see A Day in Seoul, facing page).
Yangbansik was essentially a derivation of royal court food, which was itself a take on Korea’s traditional Buddhist temple food.
Restaurants serving this meat-free cuisine can also be found around Seoul, the best being Baru (; expensive), a pinelined fifth-floor venue on Gyeonjidong in which to enjoy a delectable vegetable banquet overlooking Jogyesa, a major Buddhist temple.
What Else to Eat in Korea
Royal court food represents the refined epitome of Korean cuisine, but at the other end of the scale – and much-beloved of local students – are homey restaurants, usually decked out with East Asian bric-a-brac, serving cheap but filling traditional dishes. Most popular are jeon, savory pancakes made from corn, mung beans, or even potatoes; the fillings are equally diverse, with sesame leaves and seafood being particularly common choices. One other item found on the menu at such places is dubu-gimchi, a delicious mix of hot gimchi and soft tofu. However, many are not here for the food, for these restaurants also serve milky rice wines known as makkeolli and dongdongju. Be warned – these taste deceptively weak and many a visitor has been known to “hit the wall” after a night on this uniquely Korean hooch.
A Day in Seoul

Nighttime bustle in the Myeongdong shopping district
Despite Seoul’s size, the city’s main sightseeing area is small enough to explore on foot. Here you’ll find royal palaces, colossal markets, picturesque temples, and countless restaurants, cafés, and shops.
MORNING : The majestic palace of Gyeongbokgung is at its best in the early morning, when its colorful wooden buildings slowly emerge from silhouette. The northern mountains provide the perfect backdrop, glowing pink and orange with the sun’s first beams.
AFTERNOON : Seoul is a shopper’s dream. Hunt down calligraphic brushes, handmade paper, and artsy trinkets in the traditional stores of Insadonggil Street, or head just south to Myeongdong for more contemporary offerings. In between runs the gentle stream of Cheonggyecheon, whose quiet banks offer calming strolls.
EVENING : It would be a shame to visit Seoul without hitting Dongdaemun market, parts of which are open all night. If you’ve not booked a banquet, you’ll be able to pick up rice wine and mung-bean pancakes at the particularly photogenic Gwangjang stand area.

The changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace – the royal Palace of Shining Happiness – in the north of Seoul
Getting to Seoul
Flights arrive at Incheon International Airport, around an hour away from the downtown by express bus. Seoul has an extensive subway network, though taxis are remarkably cheap.
Where to stay in Seoul
Doulos (inexpensive) has spick-and-span rooms and is ideally located in the middle of the sightseeing area.
Rakkojae (moderate) is a throwback to Joseon times, its wooden buildings set around a beautiful courtyard.
Westin Chosun (expensive) was Korea’s first hotel and retains a gentle elegance, though a stylish overhaul has brought its rooms up to date.

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