It would be hard to find a universal example of a dinner “fit for a King”. There are myriad variables: from the culture one belongs to, to family tradition, to personal childhood memories, and of course, personal tastes acquired over time and experience.
This goes for every place in the world, no matter what the latitude. Except in South Korea, where the expression “a dinner fit for a king” has a codified meaning that’s been passed down orally for generations. A dinner that follows specific rules of etiquette, ones that are coming back into fashion after almost a century of disuse. All it takes is a trip to Seoul where you’ll find various opportunities to take part in a “royal court banquet”, which of course, was once an experience limited only to members of the royal family and their guests.
The Korean tradition of a royal banquet dates back to the era of the Three Kingdoms, but was consolidated under the Joseon dynasty, which lead the country without interruption from 1392 to 1910. In the Joseon courts, food played such an important role that there were six special ministers whose sole job was to oversee the procuring, preparation and consummation of the royal family’s meals. There was one minister who was in charge only of rice, and another just for the preparation of alcoholic beverages. Another important job was to gather provisions from all of the eight provinces of the kingdom to ensure that they were all equally represented at the royal table over the course of the year. And of course, there was the one responsible for cooking: this was usually executed by two women of humble birth who spent their whole lives learning to prepare and serve royal meals.
The last of these cooks, Hee-sun Hana, after having worked in a food hall during the Japanese occupation, managed to establish the Institute for Royal Cuisine and was committed to this cause, fighting diligently until it became a part of the nation’s Culture Heritage. Thanks to her, as well as a recent and wildly successful television series, the Korean concept of a royal banquet has become extraordinarily popular.
The King ate five times a day, every day – with the exception of those days in which he drank medicinal infusions in the morning. On those occasions, he’d skip breakfast, which usually consisted of a rice-based dish, which was considered the most healthful food according to Confucian beliefs. The main meals (sura in Korean) were two: breakfast, served at 10 am, and dinner, served between six and seven in the evening. Except for on special occasions, the royal couple ate alone in a special room (called the suragan) where they were surrounded by their servants.
In front of the King, who sat on the floor next to the King, three small tables (surasang) were placed. And atop these tables, according to a very precise order that took into consideration colour, temperature and taste, there were the twelve dishes that made up the royal meal. There were additional “side dishes” that accompanied the 12 main dishes, which meant that in a single meal there might be 25 different servings on three different tables.
The menu was rich and the main dishes changed day by day and every month – not so much as to follow the seasons, but more to respect the balance of the where the ingredients and products came from in the vast kingdom. The cooking methods, instead, were a constant: vegetables were served either served fresh or steamed; roasted meats and fish were served cold, there were stews of either meat or vegetables, dried meat, salted fish and slices of boiled beef, there were poached eggs, sashimi and a dish of roasted beef or fish, this time served hot. The “side dishes” instead remained a constant: two different kinds of boiled rice (white and with red beans), three different kinds of kimchi, two types of Jochi (soup), three kinds of sauces, two stews and a dish of steamed fish.
According to tradition, the act of eating was a fundamental moment in the King’s reign and duties: from the quality of what he ate – foods from all the territories of his kingdom – the King could understand the state of health of his subjects and the seasonal conditions of the regions without leaving his palace in Seoul.
Today, if you want to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the royal banquets, a good address is the Korea House in the centre of Seoul, where every day 17 cooks prepare around seventy dishes from the royal menu. Diners are seated in a special, traditional room and for one night, at least, they will get the full experience of a dinner “fit for a king”. Korean style.