Koreans, from both the South and the North, care a great deal about food. Yes, that sounds simplistic, and arguably is true of all cultures—but consider for a moment the attention to detail given to the menu for the meeting between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un, which will take place on April 27.
It’s an intricate meal, imbued with layers of meaning, that alludes to Kim’s education in Switzerland (with the potato fritters rösti, as well as chocolate and macaroons); past summits (with rice and sea cucumber dumplings from the hometowns of former Korean peace brokers); and even a territorial disagreement with Japan (with a map decorating dessert that includes a disputed island). The bright vibrancy of a mango mousse symbolizes the auspicious energy of spring, and also serves as a metaphor for the reawakened relationship between the North and South.
And all this subtext isn’t a novel form of diplomacy; it’s part of a centuries-long tradition. The painstaking symbology, careful seasonality, and obsession with color has a celebrated place in Korea’s culinary heritage, one that predates the peninsula’s split along the 38th parallel. During the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from 1392 until Japanese colonial rule in 1910, Korean royal court cuisine was considered the highest form of dining.
Royals at this time could expect to eat five times each day, with early morning and late evening snacks bookending three carefully planned, elaborate meals. Court cuisine was built around the idea of seasonality and balance, and full meals consisted of two kinds of rice, white and sweet; two soups; jeongol or sinseollo—two different types of hot pot; 12 side dishes; kimchi; dipping sauces; and often more, depending on the occasion and season. The table was covered in dishes by the time all the courses had been presented—served with the special metal chopsticks that suspicious royals believed would turn black to indicate any poison in the food.
To represent balance and harmony in the universe, each meal should highlight five different cooking techniques, from finely sliced raw fish, to braised meats, to fried pancakes, and incorporate five different colors in the vegetables, fruits, meat, and seafood, sometimes all within the same dish.
Restaurants specializing in royal court cuisine exist in both countries. There’s no way of knowing whether a typical North Korean fetishizes pre-division culture and food, but it is important enough to the North Korean government to feature as one of the stops on the tightly controlled tours that are available to Western tourists.
In the South, palace food, as it is also known, was declared an “important intangible cultural property” by the government in the 1970s, along with Korean bow-and-arrow-making and the cheoyong shaman dance. More recently, Jewel in the Palace a Korean telenovela about the life of Jang-Geum, a woman who became a royal cook and then first female royal physician, inspired renewed interest in royal cuisine.
Young South Koreans feel less urgency about reunification than their elders, new studies have shown, perhaps in part because they don’t have a sense of a shared culture. Food is an obvious place to emphasize connections—whether it’s naengmyeon (the cold buckwheat noodles that are a North Korean specialty), bibimbap rice bowls, or a silken mango mousse.