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.
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.”
“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.”