Bibimbap for the King…and Michael Jackson

Food has always been an extremely important piece of Korean culture.  For the kings of the Joseon dynasty beginning in the 1300’s, food was as precious as gold.  The royal dishes, called “sura”, were made by the most skillful cooks using only the best seasonal ingredients selected from every available source in the country.  Kings usually dined on three square meals a day, each with 9-12 side dishes!  Here is a replica of how a typical table appeared at mealtime in the palace.  It’s good to be the king, eh?
Replicas of a king’s table during the Joseon dynasty; he even got dessert!

I was fortunate enough to attend a cooking class in the beautiful Gyeongbokgung Palace.  On the menu was “goldongban” more commonly known as “bibimbap”, which means “mixed rice.”  There are many variations of this dish, but we concentrated on the more traditional one (and randomly enough, Michael Jackson’s favorite according to the class’s head chef), involving minced beef and shiitake mushrooms.  Here are some pictures of our personal “suragan”, meaning “royal kitchen.”

Clockwise from top left: the instructional station with a closeup view of the action on the TV; our group cooking station; the lovely recipe; Korean women frying up fish fillets.

Behold the magical foods!

The most interesting thing about Korean dishes is the significance of all its components.  Koreans have a strong belief in the holistic power of food.  Good food is the best medicine.   Ancient Koreans actually believed that certain food had healing powers and could cure even the worst diseases.  While not as extreme today, there are many foods that hold a distinct purpose.  Some of our ingredients in the cooking class including shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, and Chinese bell flowers held the secrets to warding off cancer, relieving a hangover, and soothing a sore throat, respectively.  

My universally balanced bibimbap.

Another integral part of any Korean dish is the color.  The importance of colors spawns from the belief that a person’s body is only healthy when its yin and yang are in balance with the five elements that make up the universe.  Not only visually appealing, the food’s colors are these five elements’ representation: red, green, black, white and yellow.  You can see in the bibimbap that we made in the class, each color is made prominent by the cucumbers (green), fern brackens (black), Chinese bell flowers (white), fried fish fillets (yellow), and red pepper paste (red).  

Professionally-made bibimbap



In most traditional bibimbap, the color yellow is represented with a raw egg.  Cooked and served in a scorching iron bowl, the hot rice cooks the egg as you mix all the ingredients together.  The presentation is almost too beautiful to eat! 

The cooking class was a great success.  Not only did I eat some delicious food, but I learned the care and love that goes into making Korean food.  Several Korean women were frying the fish fillets as we entered and the fern brackens had been soaking in salt water for days.  There are very specific techniques in cooking and preparing each ingredient, and they made sure we were doing it just so.  It was quite a delicious learning experience!  

Here I am with my group at our cooking station.

One Comment on “Bibimbap for the King…and Michael Jackson

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