Outside the Banqueting House, two Choson dynasty guards in colourful robes stood to attention to welcome the hundreds of guests. Inside, Han Style and Korean hospitality was waiting. It was in this prestigious venue that the Embassy and Cultural Centre had chosen to launch the Korean food offensive in the UK, in an evening entitled A celebration of Korea’s finest cuisine.
“There are thousands of Indian, Chinese and Thai restaurants throughout the country” thundered the ambassador to the assembled throng, “but hardly any Korean ones.” He warmed to his theme: “It is a national disgrace, and I am determined remedy that.” But this evangelical fervour was not a Park Chung-hee style export-oriented sales drive. Rather, the ambassador took pity on this poor land, languishing without the health-giving properties of Korean Food. “It is well-known that fermented food, such as kimchi, is a mark of the highest sophistication in cuisine.” The Ambassador’s mission was to help us poor Brits move up the culinary food chain.
But before the banquet, a feast for the ears and eyes was in store. In an unbilled addition to the programme, Kim Mi-kyung performed Hwang Byung-ki’s Chimhyangmoo on kayageum. The Banqueting House is more used to resonating to the fanfares of Purcellian trumpets, but the meditative strains of the plucked silk strings, more familiar in an intimate space rather than the baroque splendours of an English palace, filled the hall with sound and felt remarkably appropriate.
Next, a special treat. Oh Jeong-hae, pansori singer and star of Im Kwon-taek’s Seopyeonje and Cheonnyeonhak, gave us two plaintive folk-songs. Genuine pansori singing would probably have been too much for an uninitiated audience to bear, so it was a wise choice to present songs with a pleasant fusion accompaniment – Tan Dun meets Adiemus – but with an unmistakable Korean flavour thanks to Oh’s remarkable voice. This was Han Style with added han.
A hanbok fashion show came next. Models showed off a stunning collection of costumes, ranging from royal and court wear, to hanbok suited to each of Korea’s four distinctive seasons, wedding attire and some whimsical dresses such as might have been worn by the kisaeng Hwangjini. Fifteen models from Korea had been supplemented with some local talent, including Mrs Choi, the wife of the KCC’s director. They had been rehearsing all the previous day in the Cultural Centre, and the timing and choreography went like clockwork.
The rich variety of primary and pastel colours and decoration both extravagant and delicate, set off against the opulent surroundings of the banqueting hall made for a richly satisfying visual experience, while the acoustic swam with appropriate backing music. There was no flouncing down the catwalk by size zero models. This was a stately and royal procession by models who knew how to convey the dignity of what they were wearing – although, in the case of the Hwangjini costumes, there was an appropriate amount of coquettishness.
Hanbok designer Kim Hye Soon came forward for a well-deserved bow, before we moved on to the main event – the cookery demonstration. Again, the session was well-planned, with a video camera displaying close-ups of the food on a screen as it was being prepared. Professor Yoon Eun-sook demonstrated a Royal Bibimbap, while a Korean translator well-versed in British culture provided a running commentary – “here’s one I prepared earlier”. Stomachs were soon rumbling, and we were then left to enjoy the various delights on offer laid out on tables around the room. Ginseng featured prominently – in the beef, and in the liberal quantities insamju and baekseju. Of course, there was plenty of kimchi and royal bibimbap.
The whole evening was a logistical triumph. A few statistics: 11 master chefs flown in from Korea, 3 whole days preparation in restaurant kitchens in New Malden and a couple of dozen helpers on the night. 500 guests attended in a hall designed to accommodate 450 without the catwalk, but nevertheless everyone was soon fed and watered, and able to talk with the chefs and performers.
Han Style has six components: Food, music, dress, script, paper and domestic architecture. We had received three of them (A fourth – the hangeul script – features in an exhibition next week). The evening represented a huge investment by the Korean authorities, and a conscious effort had been made to invite guests who had not encountered Korean culture before. A Korean cultural event is the last place I expect to find colleagues from my small world of bank regulation, but there, unexpectedly, were some friends from the British Bankers Association enthusiastically tucking into the chapchae. And if that unrepresentative sample is any guide, Korean food will have gained itself a few hundred more devotees as a result of this event.
A celebration of Korea’s finest cuisine took place at the Banqueting House in Whitehall on Wednesday 8 July at 6:30pm. Below is a video of the event compiled by KCC staff: