When my partner and I googled for a Korean restaurant in the vicinity of where we were staying in the new year, we were surprised to find one in Krefeld, a city with a little over 200,000 inhabitants in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Although only a train ride away from the larger city Düsseldorf, which boasts an 11,000-strong Japanese community and a smaller Korean one, the journey nonetheless takes almost an hour, making it less attractive for Koreans to venture out. The focus of this one-year old restaurant Soban on serving Korean cuisine to a primarily local clientele is certainly reflected in the kinds of foods offered there.
Chimaek (치맥), something which K-lovers worldwide will have at least heard about, is one such dish offered by the owner and chef. Chimaek, short for chicken and maegju (맥주), meaning beer, is a contemporary Korean cuisine’s combination of double-fried chicken with beer (until recently Korean Hite beer would have been the most common, nowadays many German wheat beers have hit the ground running in Korea’s pubs and eateries, especially in Seoul). Now although this is not offered as Chimaek per se, the way it is listed on the menu as a special dish to be had with beer certainly invites guests to take on the combo and discover for themselves this perfect duo. Dak Gang Jeong (닭강정) is deep-fried bite-sized boneless chicken pieces coated with sticky syrup – either a soy sauce or a peperoni version (it can also be ordered without coating for a drier version). Be warned, you will be hooked immediately.
Another dish which has me hooked is the chef’s special Gujeolpan (구절판) – eight finely cut ingredients to be wrapped in small, delicate pancakes. I say special, because I have yet to find it being offered in London and even in New York. I also say special, because the chef’s background is in cooking Korean royal palace food (Gungjung Eumsig 궁중음식). He previously worked at Korea House (한국의집) in Seoul, one of the few restaurants to be certified by the KTO (Korean Tourism Organization) for offering a truly Korean royal cuisine experience. And it is not just tourists visiting there, but many Koreans as well, since royal palace food is far from a daily occurrence, in fact many will never have tried it before.
Royal palace foods, as the name might give away, were reserved for the members of the royal family and their guests only. They are considered by many to be at the height of Korean cuisine, not least due to a complex system whereby special personnel oversaw the preparation and serving of specific foods by hundreds of women and slaves.
The finest delicacies were presented by the governors from each of the eight regions, not only giving the cooks a wide assortment of ingredients to choose from, but also allowing for each meal to be unique. As opposed to commoners, the royal family was not bound to regional seasonal foods. However, as Professor Michael Pettid argues, some royal palace customs such as those for major life rituals (ancestor rites, marriage, etc.) did trickle down and influence other status groups.
In 1971, 61 years after the collapse of the last Korean dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty royal cuisine was declared a national treasure (Important Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 38). Fast forward to today, The Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine continues to recover old recipes and revive the food of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), a more than 500-year old dynasty in which people were diligent to write everything down. The foundation of the institute was based on the mastery and skills of the last head of cuisine court lady Han Heesun (1889-1972) who served the last royal family of the Joseon period.
With highly elaborate meals served to the king and queen, Gujeolpan, offered as an appetizer at Soban, really is only an appetizer of the preparation and care that went into royal palace food. The king and queen would be served five meals per day, three of those light, but two (called surasang 수라상 – royal meal) of highest extravagance. During surasang the king and queen would each be presented with three sura tables and a hotpot per person, which would include two types of rice (bap), of soup (guk), and of stew (jjigae), one dish of cheongol (a meat and vegetable casserole), and of jjim (a meat stew), three types of jang (sauces), and of kimchi and last but not least, twelve side dishes (varying according to season). Foods with a strong smell or strong flavours such as salty or spicy foods were avoided and no strong seasonings in food preparation were used in order to highlight the natural taste of the ingredients.
This was truly the feast of a king, with ingredients supplied from all over the country and prepared meticulously. And it is such variety and precision which Gujeolpan at Soban embodies. Aside from being one of the many dishes served for the king and queen, Gujeolpan is also commonly served during Lunar New Year/Seollal (설날) in Korea, the first day of the lunar calendar (more commonly known in the Western hemisphere as Chinese New Year, although other East Asian countries celebrate the day as well).
Gujeolpan is a serving dish, originally a wooden tray, divided into nine compartments, hence the words gu (Korean for nine), jeol (Korean for section), and pan (Korean for plate) in the name. The middle section is reserved for small, very thin and delicate wheat pancakes/flat cakes called miljeonbyeong (밀전병), usually topped with a few pine nuts. The surrounding sections contain different types of fillings, mostly vegetables cut up into fine strips of equal length and thickness (a very time-consuming endeavour), with one section reserved for meat, often beef.
The name Gujeolpan originally referred to the serving plate but has now come to represent the dish itself, one which is indeed reminiscent of a colourful flower. It is meant to present the colours of the sun and moon and the five elements or cardinal directions (obangsaek or오방색): red, yellow, blue (substituted by green in cooking), white and black. Soban’s Gujeolpan covers them all through their beef, yolk omelette, egg white omelette and chosen vegetables: mushrooms, pickled onions, cucumber, and seaweed. These can be combined at wish and rolled in a pancake, then dipped in a delicate yet flavourful mustard sauce.
With the embrace of diversity through the offering of eight different foods (with their different natural colours and flavours) and wheat crepes/flat cakes in the middle to roll all of the ingredients together, the dish is meant to symbolize unity and harmony, two qualities wished for at Lunar New Year. The number nine (the gu in Gujeolpan) in Asian philosophy is further associated with fullness and abundance. And aside from a symbolical meaning and a beautiful appearance (indeed, it often serves as a centrepiece), the light dish also provides a healthy balanced nutrition and, most of all, a delicious and addictive appetizer.
Another one such dish in the appetizer section, which in various forms appears in Korean royal palace food as one of many dishes as well, is japchae. Japchae is a dish composed of cellophane sweet potato starch noodles, shredded beef (which can be left out for the vegetarian version), and various (often julienned) vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, onions, and carrots, which are fried in sesame oil, flavoured in soy sauce and sweetened with sugar. While the early version of the dish was invented in the 17th century during the Joseon dynasty, first being served without noodles, over time the noodles and distinctive sauce have become essential ingredients of this perhaps most well-known variety of japchae which in Korea is served as a side dish amongst many others, whereas in Korean restaurants abroad it serves as a popular appetizer. You can read more about japchae and an excellent version of it at Hamgipak in London here.
And don’t forget the final step in your journey of discovery: your own Korean cultural food experience at Soban! Customers can collect stamps they receive after every visit and, starting from three stamps, there is some Korean memorabilia to choose from. Culture aside, if you love good food, you won’t be disappointed here. Let your taste buds be tickled by a royal Gujeolpan, and an addictive Dak gang jeong.
Area: Krefeld Stadtmitte, NRW, Germany
궁중음식 (gungjung eumsig) = royal palace food
구정 (gujeong) or설날 (seollal) = Lunar New Year
독일 (dogil) = Germany
맥주 (maegju) = beer
문화유산 (munhwa yusan) = national treasure/ cultural heritage
토속음식 (tosok eumsig) = regional food
제철음식 (jaecheol eumsig) = seasonal food
해 or태양 (hae or taeyang) = sun
달 (dal) = moon
겨자 (gyeoja) = mustard
발견하다 (balgyeon hada) = to discover
화합 (hwahab) = unity
수라 (sura) = a special word for ‘meal’ used only for the king and queen
Pettid, M.J. 2008. Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History. London: Reaktion Books.