Michael Pettid’s fascinating study is maybe not for a general reader. But for those who take more than a passing interest in Korean food and culture, this is an informative read.
Importantly, the book’s title is Korean Cuisine, not Cookery. Pettid defines Cuisine as “the manner in which cultures manipulate and transform potential foodstuffs into what these cultures consider proper human foods”. It is not simply the food that is Pettid’s theme, but how that food is part of daily life and culture.
We therefore hear of the communal kimchi-making sessions; the way that at 100-day, first birthday and other celebrations the food is shared with neighbours as a way of sharing in the good fortune of the event itself. We hear of how food marks certain rites of passage; and how red food scares off evil spirits.
On a more technical level, we are told of the different ways that soy beans are prepared in order to produce three staples of Korean food: soy sauce (간장), gochujang (고추장) and doenjang (된장); and of the food typical in the different regions of Korea.The rich folks in the early Joseon dynasty certainly knew how to party. A cook-book prepared by Lady Chang of Andong (1598-1680) has as many as 54 different types of alcoholic drink. And of course, fans of Dae Jang Geum will know of the opulence of some of the court dinners. But it seems that even the homely meals taken in private by just the king and queen were generous in scale: Pettid gives us a diagram of a typical place setting: three tables, 37 dishes and three serving staff per diner, including a “palace woman in charge of the casserole dish”. People must have had healthy appetites.
One thinks of the Joseon dynasty nobles as being terribly refined, but there was clearly some riff-raff among them. Elementary Etiquette for Scholar Families by Yi Tongmu (1741-1743) contains the following handy tips on table manners:
When you are having a meal with others, do not speak of smelly or dirty things, such as boils or diarrhea … Even when the food is bad, do not compare it to urine, pus or body dirt.
Maybe the advice was designed for nouveaux riches who had bought their way into the aristocracy.
At the other end of the scale, Pettid tells of the different grains which peasants ate when rice was not readily available. And, moving into more contemporary times, of the changes to Korean cuisine in the 20th century, including the stew produced from US Army camp produce, budae jjigae (부대찌개), which includes spam among its ingredients.
For those who wish to try their hand at some Korean cuisine, there are more than 20 recipes at the back of the book, and plenty of appealing colour photos to whet the appetite. One minor complaint is that all the Korean dishes are mentioned only in their McCune Reischauer transliteration: an editorial decision has been made to eliminate any Hangeul script from the text; nor is there any glossary in an appendix. So if you want to try some of the dishes mentioned next time you go to a Korean restaurant, you’re going to have to do some extra work to figure out the Korean spelling for all these dishes.