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[ICONIC FOOD] A history of Korea’s overflowing table: While it looks traditional, hanjeongsik is actually a fairly new style of eating

May 27,2019
A Korean tabletop filled with all kinds of banchan, also known as side dishes. This style of meal is called hanjeongsik, meaning that the restaurant decides what to serve instead of guests ordering their food. The meals depend on what is in season and what is available. Basic items that should be included are rice, soup and kimchi. [JOONGANG ILBO]
A tabletop filled from end to end with small dishes containing different colorful ingredients is one of the first images many think of when they picture Korean food.

With a bowl of rice and soup in front of each person’s seat around a rectangular table, the scene of an entire tabletop covered with fish, beef, pork, chicken and vegetables is an eye-catching sight, especially for those unfamiliar with Korean cooking traditions. The particular presentation of the food is commonly referred to as hanjeongsik.

Many international tourists seek out these side-dish-filled meals during their visits thanks to its prominence in tourism videos and on social media. Since the side dishes, known in Korean as banchan, are usually made with fresh, in-season ingredients, the experience provides diners the opportunity to taste a wide range of fresh Korean food in a short period of time.

Hanjeongsik is often thought of as a tradition that has been handed down for generations. However, the history of the meal isn’t very long. Local culinary experts speculate that the concept and the word were coined around the 1950s. The jeongsik in Hanjeongsik means “food that’s been selected,” referring to restaurants or chefs deciding on their own what to serve to customers instead of having customers order what they want.

Food critic Hwang Kyo-ik doubts that this concept existed during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It is more likely something that started during Japanese colonial rule, he said, adding that it seems to cater to invited guests. The food overflows with amounts that invited guests can never finish. This concept of “serving” guests came from restaurants that had women serving guests called gisaengjip - a house with gisaeng, a concept similar to geisha in Japanese culture. These restaurants started to emerge in the early 1900s and then died down around the 1950s as Korea went through the Korean War. Myeongwolgwan and Taehwagwan were some of the most well-known and still-remembered restaurants of the time.

Hwang explained that the concept of overflowing food become common at many other restaurants due to the change of the tax system in the 1960s. Since restaurants that had gisaeng were categorized as “entertainment restaurants” instead of “general restaurants” and had to pay more tax, some of the restaurants started to remove the sign declaring that they had gisaeng service, and continued to offer the meals they had offered before. The new signs often read “Hanjeongsik.”

“If people see culture in the 1960s and ’70s as part of Korean culture, people should be able to call hanjeongsik part of Korean tradition that has contributed to the food scene,” said Hwang.

But tracing the origins of many people sharing a table and dishes together is a more difficult task. Back in Joseon, each person had a small, individual dining table with their own rice, soup and banchan, instead of sitting around one table crowded with food. At special events, like weddings and parties, there used to be a table in the center with all types of food, but they were more for the presentation, and the food was put into individual dishes later on.

“I tried to look into the origins of the concept of hanjeongsik, but there are no documents or any other medium that could help me figure out when it started and what form it previously took,” said Cho Hee-sook, chef at the Michelin-starred Hansik Gonggan in central Seoul, which serves Korean food.

While working at a hotel in the 1980s, Cho saw hanjeongsik changing to serve diners each dish in a particular order, like what is commonly seen at a Western-style restaurants. The course-style hanjeongsik usually starts with light and refreshing dishes in the beginning, moves on to heavier dishes and finishes with dessert. The change has become more common as more people want to stay away from wasting too much food.

“This style of hanjeongsik, in a way, is a commercialized hansik or Korean food,” said Cho. “While the base is everything-on-the-table, we need to continue to think about what form we need to have if we were to serve Korean food in a course or any other style.”

Restaurants that serve hanjeongsik are abundant in neighborhoods that have many traditional buildings such as Samcheong-dong or Insa-dong in central Seoul. The style is also found in towns outside of Seoul, such as Jeonju, known for its hanok (traditional Korean house) village. Icheon, Gyeonggi, is another town known for having all kinds of banchan on the table because the area is known for its rice and developed a style to better feature its signature rice.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]