A friend of mine once mentioned that the first thing she would do after winning a lottery is to hire a personal chef. I nodded in agreement whole-heartedly. Forget the Barenaked Ladies and their ode to Kraft dinner. I want the most exquisite flavours known to man made with the finest ingredients. I want to dine like a king.
Life in a Medieval Castle by Frances and Joseph Gies explains that the kings of medieval England “vied with one another in preparing costly meals. Such feast included boars heads, venison, peacocks, swans, suckling pigs, cranes, plovers, and larks.” Across the Channel, Louis XIV’s outrageously lavish meals have been well-documented as well.
The past kings of Korea also enjoyed opulence in the culinary department. In fact, the foods of the royal palace even had its own special name: kungjiung ǔmsik (Royal Court cuisine).
Keeping up with the royal excess, in the royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, five meals a day were served. The main meals were the ones eaten at 10am and 5pm and these main meals taken by the king was specially called surasang. Each surasang consisted of two types of rice, two types of soup, two types of jjigae (stew), one dish of jjim (meat stew), one dish of jeongol (a casserole of meat and vegetables), three types of kimchi, three types of jang (sauce) and twelve side dishes of various sorts.*
While I have no royal blood in me, there was a distant relative by marriage in my great-grandmother’s generation who used to be a chef at the royal palace. Some know-how was passed down – sadly – no farther than my grandmother whose natural talent made good use of them. My mother remembers a couple of tips here and there but would be the first to admit that cooking is not her forté.
Nevertheless, armed with no more than just a remembrance of the taste, my mother and I recently decided to try making one of these royal court treats that my grandmother used to make: a type of a tteok or rice cake (떡) called “dutop tteok” (두텁떡). Apparently they were a staple on the king’s birthday celebration table. Even now they are not commonly spotted treats.
- Form a tteok “bowl” using the glutinous rice powder and water mixture.
- Add the filling (red bean grinds mixed with cinnamon and sugar) into each tteok.
- Steam each tteok, cool, then coat it with the bean powder.
Based on the look of these alone, we knew we weren’t qualified to work as royal chefs. They tasted alright though. You could call our version “simplified”. They are supposed to be decorated with a date, chestnut, walnut or pine nuts on the top.
By the way, “tteok” is a tricky word to pronounce for non-Korean speakers.
My three-year-old pointed at the plate and asked: What is that, mommy?
Me: They are called tteok, dear.
Kid: They are not duck! They don’t quack quack.