Seoul Food

While his award-winning restaurants in New York and Seoul have been credited with bringing a new wave of Korean cuisine to the fore, Chef Jung Sik Yim remains a man of simple tastes.
In the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace in the centre of old Seoul, nobles pick various side dishes from rows of small plates, sipping refined soju and holding conversations to the tune of gracefully plucked gayageum. Just outside the palace walls, the raucous sounds of diners at packed drinking holes can be heard as they inhale hot bowls of soup with rice to the sounds of cymbals and drums while across the mountains in Gangwon-do, farmers sit around a small table eating simple dishes made from potatoes and corn. Korea’s diverse culinary history is a direct result of its varied cultural heritage and diverse terrain.

Over the course of its long history, Korea has been divided into three separate warring nations, suffered multiple invasions at the hands of its larger neighbors, and risen from the ashes of the Korean War, which ravaged the peninsula between 1950 and 1953. It went from being one of the poorest nations in the world to its current position as the eleventh biggest economy. Through all of this, its food has continuously changed to suit the needs and means of the people.

“Korean food cannot be described in one word,” maintains Chef Jung Sik Yim, founder of what has become known as Korea’s best restaurant, Jungsik. “When you go to a Korean restaurant, there will be a bowl of rice, some soup, and a lot of banchan (side dishes).
You need to know each of the flavors, then you can mix them well.” He continues by comparing this to other cuisines, where you’re not expected to understand each of the dishes and mix them to your own taste. This concept is at the core of Korean cuisine. 

88-92-4‘Okdom’— steamed and fried snapper fish with mixed, seasoned vegetables
Rather than specific recipes, Korean cuisine focuses on the individual’s expression of the food. this is called ‘sonmat’ or ‘hand flavor’.
Jungsik’s own concept is “New Korean Fine Dining”, beginning each of his dishes with the idea of improving the existing texture, flavor or presentation. Yim’s creations are remarkably unpretentious for the fine-dining world. They carry the same understated sophistication that he exudes as he speaks, and the same simplicity and force of traditional Korean dishes. “For me,” he says, “some rice, a little pork belly and some Cheongyang Gochu (spicy Korean chili) is enough.” This is evident in each of his dishes.

Unlike many of the world’s cuisines, Korean food doesn’t focus on recipes and specific quantities, but more on the individual’s expression of the food. This is called sonmat, or ‘hand flavor’, and describes the individual’s seasoning of the dish. Yim’s expression of Korean food, as with a great many things in Korean culture, comes from the land and its people. He travels frequently and draws inspiration from local dishes and ingredients. His ever-evolving menu now features Okdom, a variety of tilefish that lives only off the coast of Jeju Island. This was prepared for him in a small restaurant during his visit to the island, and he knew immediately that he wanted to bring it to his own customers.

Another dish focused on Jeju Island, Yim’s Dol Hareubang ice cream, brings Korean ingredients and inspiration to the Western concept of dessert. The volcanic island’s fertility symbol was taken and recreated as an ice cream dish using three of Jeju’s local products: green tea, peanuts and milk. The dish’s subtlety delights the diner. Its mouthfeel and gentle flavors allow the ingredients to shine through, yet not one overpowers another. Where Korean food is typically filled with strong, heady flavors, Yim’s dishes are subtler. “I want people to feel like Korean food can be this fine,” explains Yim. “My concept is simple.”

With the rising popularity of Korean culture, known as Hallyu (the Korean wave), Korean food has also made its way around the world. Yim credits K-pop stars with paving the way for him to be able to open his New York City branch. “If I think about 10 years ago, there was a very small Koreatown in Manhattan. You would see Koreans drinking a little soju there,” Yim recalls. “Now, it’s packed every single night at every single restaurant. That’s a huge change.” Yim serves basically the same menu in both his Seoul and NYC branches, but says his Western customers are looking for something uniquely Korean, whereas his Korean customers are looking for something more westernized.

“I try not to change the flavor of the dish,” says Yim. His food maintains all the flavors of typical Korean dishes, and the ingredients remain locally sourced. As with each and every local dish in Korea, Yim is trying to match his creations to the tastes of the customer, while also giving them something new to experience. “I’m just refining what is already there.”

The rising popularity of Korean culture, known as Hallyu (The Korean Wave), [means] Korean food has also made its way around the world.


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