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A different kind of traditional Korean feast : Westin Chosun Seoul recreates a Western-style meal from the Joseon era

Oct 12,2017
A view of Seokjojeon, a Western-style stone building located inside Deoksu Palace. [SHUTTERSTOCK]
Many of the dishes recreated were based on records from the early 20th century. At right, a royal feast held during the late Joseon Dynasty was recreated at Seokjojeon, where international delegates once shared a meal with Korean officials. [WESTIN CHOSUN SEOUL]
Westin Chosun Seoul staff makes a bed at the Seokjojeon inside of Deoksu Palace. [WESTIN CHOSUN SEOUL]
When you think of what makes up “traditional” Korean food culture, what may immediately come to mind might be an image of people wearing hanbok (traditional clothes) eating bulgogi served in a brass dishes inside of hanok, traditional homes with windows made of paper and roofs made with stone tiles called giwa.

But as recently as the early 20th century, Korean royals and high-level officials have been holding feasts for international delegates while wearing Western-style suits and eating foie gras, truffles, lamb steak, asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, and pineapple ice cream, according to the Westin Chosun Hotel and its three partners - The Cultural Heritage Administration, Pai Chai University and the National Trust for Cultural Heritage - who came together to study how they could recreate a formal meal of the time period. Many of the dishes and ingredients that are found in modern French cuisine were served for royal guests. The meal was not held in a traditional-style wooden hanok, but inside of Seokjojeon, a large stone building inside of Deoksu Palace, central Seoul.

That feast was recreated for those living in the 21st century on Wednesday at the Westin Chosun Hotel. The hotel also recreated and presented dishes at Seokjojeon last month, but that was only to see from the modern-day viewpoint how the events may have been organized in late 1890s and early 1900s - eating inside the historic stone building is strictly prohibited.

Fifty experts in the field of food history were invited to sample some of the dishes enjoyed by Korean royals and high-level officials with their guests from far-flung places like the United Kingdom and France. The guests were invited to see how Koreans at the time interpreted food widely enjoyed across Europe, especially in France. Served Wednesday was a 12-course French lunch starting with quenelle consomme, followed by grilled fish, mushroom, pheasant, as well as a foie gras pate, and tenderloin garnished with truffles. Lamb steak was also served as well as asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, stir-fried string beans, a salad, pineapple ice cream and cheese. It is estimated that many of the Western ingredients might have been imported from Japan.

The event was put together to celebrate the 120 years since the establishment of the Korean Empire, as well as the 103rd anniversary of the opening of the Chosun Hotel. Korea seems to have developed its own version of modern or Western-style dining culture when it started to see more Westerners coming to the peninsula during the Korean Empire (1897-1910) under the reign of Emperor Gojong, right before the Japanese Colonial rule (1910-45). Although not abundant, there are some books, photos and other documents that the organizers had access to. Emma Kroebel, a German who worked as an official in charge of holding royal events during the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) left a book detailing many events that she organized. To recreate the feast as true to how it was in the past, the organizers checked details, alongside a menu from a feast in September 1905 and others. The shapes of the cooked ingredients were decided after researchers checked cooking molds which are preserved at the National Palace Museum of Korea. Kroebel said in her records that truffles and caviar were one of the most common ingredients that adorned the tabletop and that French champagne was flowing even more than at a similar event in France.

“As part of the effort to maintain traditional cultural heritage, [recreating a royal event] is meaningful in a way to create historical and cultural content as well as to draw more attention [to the history of] the Korean Empire,” said a professor from Pai Chai University who participated in organizing the event.

“It is meaningful to put a new light on the food culture of the Korean Empire, which was disconnected in Korea’s food cultural history, as well as to understand the forms and ways of Korea’s acceptance of Western-style food.”

It is the first time for the Westin Chosun, which is considered the first modern hotel to open in Korea, to recreate food items served during a particular time period. The hotel has been working on multiple projects focused on preserving cultural heritage, including keeping the Seokjojeon clean. Since last year, the five-star hotel has dispatched professional cleaning teams each month to make sure that the historic stone building remains spotless.

“As the hotel with the longest history in Korea, we will continue doing more to preserve and hand down traditional cultural heritage,” said CEO Sung Young-mok of Shinsegae Chosun Hotel.

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