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For Lee Jun, hansik is more than side dishes

Dec 07,2017
In theater, it is common for audience members to receive a playbill containing a list of performers and notes explaining the piece’s background for those who are unfamiliar with the play.

At Soigne, a modern Korean restaurant in Seocho District, southern Seoul, which serves a different themed menu every three months, Chef Lee Jun has adopted a similar concept by giving diners a booklet to read.

For his latest menu, which runs until February, Lee has reinterpreted old Korean recipes. The idea behind the booklet is to familiarize diners with the recipes he uses to recreate food that were served during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and before.

Just as the television drama “Jewel in the Palace,” also known as “Dae Jang Geum,” used fictional stories based on true history to show food served in the Joseon court, Lee has added his own touch to make old Korean dishes more exciting. The booklet details the recipes he followed and how he modified them for contemporary tastes.

“Just as the TV show was a great way to spread the word on Korean food but wasn’t a documentary, what I did with old recipes seems to be on a similar note,” Lee said, explaining why he wanted to add “fun” elements to the dining experience. “Ironically, because Korean people think they already know what makes Korean food, they are often blinded with some things that are very Korean [unless they have yet to try it.] I wanted them to break out of the box of prejudice, so I edited recipes so that they could be more consumer-friendly.”

There were some familiar ingredients he found in the old recipes, including cream, yogurt and a cheese that resembled mozzarella, suggesting the Joseon court also had these ingredients available.

Some of the cooking techniques were similar to the French style of slow cooking called sous vide. One recipe indicated people used to cover raw meat with dough and grill it, so he did the same. The dough keeps the juice inside and prevents the meat from getting burned. All Lee has to do is remove the outside dough after the meat is cooked enough.

“This old recipe can be perfect for campers today when they try to grill meat outside but don’t want to burn it,” Lee said. “What you put in the dough can be lightly smeared into the meat as it is cooked, hence more complex flavor can be brought out.”

To make recipes from centuries ago work, he read about 15 books 20 times each. Since they did not contain detailed measurements, Lee had to use trial and error to determine the right portions for ingredients. He also visited local libraries and the Korean Food Promotion Institute to get more access to older documents and gain insight from knowledgeable professionals.

“No one exercised pressure to make French cooking popular, but people have kept using the skills as they thought the food cooked with French techniques was tasty,” Lee said. “If people can use certain Korean cooking techniques like making dongchimi [white kimchi] water a base to make different dishes even when they don’t necessarily think they make Korean food, that is how we can start forming what constitutes Korean cuisine, and that’s how French cuisine got to where it is now.”

For Lee, thinking outside the box is key to seeing the bigger picture of Korean cuisine, or hansik.

“Rice and soup together isn’t the prerequisite to call a certain meal hansik, and a number of side dishes is also not what defines Korean food,” Lee said. “The more prejudice hansik breaks, the more possibilities we have for hansik.”

Two years ago, for his “Wild” themed menu, he used frogs and silkworm larva and learned that the more radical approach he takes, the more excited response he gets from diners. He eventually decided to retire his year-end “best of” menus that revisit popular dishes from the year and push on with challenging himself and his staff with new culinary creations.

“I had my doubts wondering whether people would come for certain dishes,” he said, “but I try out different ingredients and methods, and then rule out any methods I’m uncertain about and find ways to appeal better to my guests.”

Overhauling his menu every three months isn’t the only way Lee is pushing hansik beyond its boundaries. Every two to three months, he also hands over control of the kitchen to one of his staff members for pop-up events, where regular patrons are invited to experience new dishes and give feedback on whether they’re ready to go on a future menu at Soigne - or maybe even be served at a new restaurant in the city.

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