By Kim Ji-myung
Among the incredible diversity of traditional Korean cuisine, I am particularly amazed at the variety and sophistication of rice cakes (tteok) and noodles.
One cannot help but admire the materials and methods used, the varying shapes and colors, the differing usages, meanings and stories involved, and of course the unique tastes.
Koreans have long enjoyed these two foods not only at special occasions but in everyday life but now they are being viewed in a new light.
These days, television seems almost overrun by food-related programs _ shows on the history of unique local foods, cooking techniques, food tours, gourmet restaurants, stories related to food, old documents on food and living masters of traditional cooking among others. Food really has become a favorite topic for most people.
Personally my palate is not refined enough as to notice the subtle distinctions in gourmet cuisine. To be frank, eating in my life has often been a mechanical act of sustenance, a means to prepare myself for the next load of work. And that has often been rushed since I am usually pressed for time.
I don't really understand the zeal of people who wait for hours to have their favorite food at famed restaurants (and for that matter, those who stand in line for hours to get the latest iPad or whatever new gadget that is released).
However, my recent experience with a "naengmyeon" (cold noodle) dish at a "matjip" restaurant in the southern city of Jinju might have changed all that. This occurred as I was travelling back to Seoul from a vacation in Namhae and Tongyeong, two beautiful coastal cities.
As I have already confessed, I am not at all qualified as a gourmet. On the other hand, from experience I knew how terrible and unhappy it is to be forced to eat bad food in an unfamiliar city. Therefore, I Googled and found a famed naengmyeon restaurant called Matjib in Jinju.
While driving for an hour to our destination, I searched on the Internet and found that the naengmyeon dish of that very restaurant was introduced in a famous cartoon series called "Sikgaek", or meal guest, by cartoonist Heo Young-man.
During the Joseon period (1392-1910) and in the early 20th century, the "yangban", or literati, Korean families used to entertain "gaek", or guests who would visit them and often stay for a long time at the host's house. Many were uninvited guests but they were seldom refused.
French priest Charles Dallet, in his 1874 book on Korea, criticized these long-term resident guests and the custom. He termed them as "greedy beggars" who tried to attain position with the help of the host while doing nothing productive.
Many guests might have appeared to be shameless and useless creatures to a foreign eye from a rational point of view. But Korea was a land of high idealism for men, especially during the Joseon period under the ruling philosophy of Confucianism.
The ultimate job of a yangban, or gentleman, was to study and master Chinese classics, with his performance tested at the state examination for officialdom. Success in the exam opened a window to a new world of prosperity and fame; powerful government positions and financial resources usually followed.
Probably the best and only suitable activities for Joseon period noblemen were to read and master Chinese classics and write poetry. By today's standards, they would be like life-long students, spending all their time and energy to prepare for the state exam. Not all of them succeeded, of course. Many travelled around, staying at houses of the wealthy.
If a guest was a noble sharing a high-brow spiritual friendship and mutual respect with the host, he would be called "mungaek", or literary guest. The lowest in the hierarchy of guests was a sikgaek. He could not make any intellectual exchange with the host, but he was present at every meal without fail. Even the servants of the host family knew he was an unwelcome guest, and the food for him was different from the others.
This long background information on the word is needed to introduce the cartoon series "Sikgaek".
This series comprised of 27 books containing 131 episodes on food and cooking. The author would stay with the cook of the restaurant, very often the owner, for many days to grasp the whole process. The cartoons were eventually made into a television drama and movie.
The Jinju naengmyeon was introduced in book 27, the last of the series. I had to wait some 25 minutes before being seated. And even after a one hour drive, the wait was worth it. I usually like and enjoy naengmyeon, but this one was truly a revelation. It takes three days to make the broth, and The Recipe is a closely guarded secret
Food and cooking is a great part of any culture, and naengmyeon is just one example of so many unique Korean dishes and tastes. Traditional Korean cuisine is still a gold mine yet to be fully explored and enjoyed by gourmands throughout the world. And traditional food is almost without exception healthy, which is not surprising since Koreans have traditionally considered food and medicine to share the same roots.
Korean food is great although sometimes I have doubts about some of the more adventurous fusion dishes that seem to pop up each day.
The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). Her email address is Heritagekorea21@gmail.com.
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