Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hanjeongsik: Formal & Traditional Meal of Korea

A couple of months ago, someone asked me what Hanjeongsik (한정식) was. Last week upon announcing the detail about our 2011 Korean Thanksgiving Dining-out, someone asked me about its price that's more than what people are used to.

Friends, it's time we talked about Korean food - but not the one you've known all this time!

I may not be a certified culinary expert, but my knowledge comes from my own experience, growing up in a family with one of the most old-school and traditional values, observing traditional occasions and courtesy at our best abilities in changing times. So here is a "real life" knowledge that I lived, not just an expert's explanation who had to learn and hear about it from some other source written by someone who had to research it. So pardon the subjectivity as this is not from a textbook. But it is as close to the truth as it can get.

I think the words and names I am about to introduce are fairly new (as in since about 50 years ago). I don't recall my family naming styles of our meals except for traditional names like O-cheop, Gu-cheop, Bansang, etc. which you don't have to know for now.

Korean Food That You Know.

Let's start with what you (or may not) know.

First, you know that all Korean meals come with a few complementary side dishes called Banchan (반찬) and a bowl of rice (Bab • 밥)

Second, most of you are familiar with three types of Korean meal:
  1. Rice and Banchan only, and;
  2. Tabletop Korean BBQ, and;
  3. One-dish meal (aka "A meal a la carte" • 일품요리). A few examples are Sollongtang (설렁탕), Soon-Tofu (순두부), Bibimbap (비빔밥), and noodle dishes such as Naengmyeon (냉면) and Guksu (국수).

In fact, these are the most popular styles of Korean meals/dishes served around the world.

But did you know that these one-dish meals are considered, and/or originated from, "quick meals"? In old days, they were served at a restaurant for commoners and at motels to travelers. They were for peasants and for less fortunate people who couldn't afford to have a "complete" meal. Low-class people had these "quick meals" as they were always on call to serve their superiors. Plus, many of them were meant to be consumed as a snack or a part of a meal, not a meal itself - well, at least amongst upper-class Koreans as I remember.

Then, what is a "complete" Korean meal?

You may have seen a sign like the following hanging on the door of Korean restaurants or on their menus (Charimpyo • 차림표):

A sign outside a Korean restaurant

Hansik (한식)

Let's start with a word "Hansik(한식)."

A syllable "Han" represents "Korea." You may have heard of an expression "Hanin Town (한인타운 - "Korean People's town")" to mean Koreatown.

"Sik" means to eat or food.

Hansik is a "traditional Korean meal," a generic term to include all types of Korean meals.

Now that you know this word, instead of saying "한국 음식 먹으러 가요," say "한식 먹으러 가요." Your Korean friends will be impressed. :)

Jeongsik (정식)

"Jeong" means formal. And you know what "Sik" means now.

Jeongsik is a complete meal.

Traditionally, each table has some kind of surf-and-turf, a few vegetables dishes (Namul • 나물. Namuru is an incorrect spelling.), some kind of pickles (Kimchi • 김치), a bowl of soup (Guk • 국), and a casserole (Jjigae • 찌개 or a Tang • 탕). Depending on the season, a "special dish" is added to this template. Before the meal comes an appetizer (which my family skipped frequently, risking to offend my grandparents); and at the end of the meal comes some kind of sweets, aka desserts, in a form of drinks, confectioneries, or fruits(which my family rarely skipped).

It seems to me, regardless where we live around the world, any meal considered "complete" has pretty much the same format: appetizers, entrees, and desserts, bringing in the best of the season to the table.

Surasang, Jeongsik for a king and a queen,
simplified and modified for an exhibition.
When you visit Korea, try Jeongsik at restaurants outside major cities.
You will be wow'ed by number of Banchans they bring to you.

"Wait! But I didn't get all those when I ordered Jeongsik!"

No, you probably didn't. Jeongsik sold at restaurants or hotels these days is a "complete meal," alright. But they're not exactly traditional as old-school Koreans know it, and its variation ranges as widely as Korean imaginations take it to.

So now, Jeongsik has another meaning: it's a modern version of complete meal of Korea, sold at a restaurant for a predetermined price. This new definition made to Korean dictionaries now.

Additionally, Jeongsik nowadays can also mean a meal with a featured dish. For example, if you order Bulgogi Jeongsik, you're getting rice, soup, Banchan and Bulgogi followed by desserts. Soon-Tofu Jeongsik comes with rice, Banchan and Soon-Tofu followed by desserts. You could even come up with your own Jeongsik: make a Alfredo Fettuccine Jeongsik: rice, soup, Banchan, a plate of Alfredo Fettuccine and a dessert. I know, I know. That's peculiar, but hey, by modern definition, it's a Jeongsik; Korean/Italian fusion, but still a Jeongsik, featuring Alfredo Fettuccine.

Bulgogi Jeongsik: rice, soup, Banchan, Bulgogi and desserts (not in the photo),
a "complete" Korean meal for modern people

Hanjeongsik (한정식)

So there you have it; Hanjeongsik is the complete meal (Jeongsik) of Korea (Han).

... or is it?

Baekban(백반): a simple meal with rice, soup and Banchan.
This table has more dishes than Bulgogi Jeongsik above. But this meal doesn't have a "featured" dish.
It's a basic meal with rice and Banchan only. So it's just Baekban.

Modern Hanjeongsik (요즈음 한정식)

Language changes. So does culinary culture.

Hanjeongsik today is not just a "complete meal of Korea." If it was, Hanjeongsik and Jeongsik should mean the same hence can replace each other.

Hanjeongsik was and is table o'hote, a course-meal designed by a team of chefs for the nobles, royalties and dignitaries. In addition to basic elements on your table (rice, soup and Banchans), each course of meal is served in a certain order and in a timely manner, with waitpersons always at your side preparing food for you and filling your tea cups.

Some of you asked if this is like a French course-meal. Well, similar but different. Western culture serves one dish at a time for each course while previous plates area taken away before the next course is served: a bowl of soup, clean the table, serve bread, serve salad, clean the table, fish dish, clean the table, beef dish, clean the table.... one thing at a time. Korean table has all the basic elements on the table. Then, "something special" is added when the time is right.

Going one step further, Hanjeongsik in 90's and 21st century observes western culture, serving one dish at a time.

Examples of Hanjeongsik

Check these out, and their prices... per person.

Hanjeongsik, Near Seoul, South Korea.
380,000 won (about $370 USD)

Hanjeongsik, South Korea.
Joseon Dynasty style, Royal 9-Banchan Table (궁중구첩).
Additional dishes not shown in this photo.
210,000 won (about $200 USD)

Now, take a look at a moderen Hanjeongsik, 18-course meal for $1,000 per person. (The number of course should have been an odd number, but that's a discussion for some other occasion.)

Appetizer/Hor d'oeuvre.
Liver of Anglerfish (아귀) and Spencer Loin (등심)
Phoenix Cold Dish
(봉황 삼선냉채)
Dumpling (만두) with
Sauteed Shark's Fin and in Korean Squash (단호박)

Rice with bamboo shoots (죽순밥)
steamed in a bamboo tube

Silky Chicken stuffed with dates and ginseng
(오골계 말이)
Consomme: Durian, Militaris and Lobster
(바다가재 꽁소메)

Pâté en Terrine:
Korean Seabass (Sebastes • 우럭) with Saffron Sauce

Salad: Lettuce, carrots, radish, Korean herbs
and Halfbeak fish (학꽁치 샐러드)
Smoked Salmon stuffed with
Spinach and Tuna Mousse
Surf and Turf: Tenderloin (안심) and Salmon (연어)
in Korean cornelian cherry oil (산수유)

Chicken Terrin with various nuts and beef
(육견과류 닭 테린)
Lucky Money Roll:
Chinese Black Moss wrapped in eggs
Korean Sea Bass Roll in Sesame Leaves
(아귀 말이)
Flower Pudding,
made out of petals of various flowers
Baked Veal and Hare Beef Roll
with Cactus Sauce
(백년초 소스 송아지 & 산토끼 말이)
Clam and Cod Insides with Herb and Flowers
(피조개살 & 대구고니)
Broiled Shrimp, clams,
and Salted Mackerel from Andong city
(안동 간고등어 & 새우 구이)

Dessert: Ginseng Jelly
It's just my speculation; but, if the sous-chef knew what s/he was doing,
s/he probably had one more dessert to this menu and made it a proper 19-course meal.

So what do you think? Great menu, aren't they? But were you also gaping at prices? They're not even per table or a group. They are per person!

Korean food is labour-intensive to begin with. Hanjeongsik is even more labor-intensive. Its ingredients are usually more expensive than other types of dishes. Plus a waitperson(s) need to be assigned to you or a group of you's (not just a table). Considering all the elements that go into to the making of Hanjeongsik, it is by nature more expensive than we all are accustomed to. After all, you can't compare Hanjeongsik to all-you-can-eat, do-it-yourself BBQs. It's a case of apple-and-orange.

Options for the Rest of Us

I don't know about you, but I cannot imagine myself paying for a thousand-dollar-per-person meal that will last me only half a day.

And businesses know it too.

So restaurants offer Hanjeongsik on the menu with significant modifications. These "Every-day Hanjeongsik" is usually extremely simplified, frequently bordering with regular course of meal, aka Jeongsik.

Here is a couple of Hanjeongsik menu I took a picture of:

13-course meal for $125 per person 13-course meal for $90 per person

15-course meal for $100 per person 13-course meal for $55 per person

How to enjoy Hanjeongsik without losing your shirts

Now that we know what Hanjeongsik is and how costly they can be, they sound out-of-reach, don't they! Well, here's how you can enjoy Hanjeongsik without losing your shirts:

There are many levels in Hanjeongsik.
Many restaurants these days serve Hanjeongsik at low(er) cost although they're just mimicking its format and have to cut the corners. Still, Hanjeongsik is slightly higher quality than Jeongsik and other types of Korean food. So instead of ordering Galbi, Seafood Pancakes, Fish Casserole and Dessert that will add up quickly, look for Hanjeongsik on the menu and compare. Every now and then, you will find Hanjeongsik that's worth paying what it's asking for. But expect to pay no less than $30 per person.

Power in Numbers
Join us when we have a dine-out event! The more people we have, the better leverage we have. We can ask for lower price when we have significant enough number of people. If we cannot go lower on price, we can ask them to throw in something. Or we can have both! Plus, your KLCX/KoreanLA staff does all the work looking for restaurants and deals. :)

One last note:
Price of Hanjeongsik does not include drinks. Expect to pay more if you order any kind of drinks.

Oh! One more note, this one is the last one:
In recent few months, restaurants begun to be aware that we (both Koreans and non-Koreans) are developing keen interests in Hanjeongsik. Naturally, they're trying to feature Hanjeongsik at very, very low price. My friends and I have tried many Hanjeongsik places, seeing the quality of their food and service, and their overall presentations. While we couldn't possibly list all the things that they were not doing to call their incompetent Hanjeongsik, we agreed on one simple quick tip we can share with you: if per-person cost of Hanjeongsik is less than $35/person, there is no way they can put together a decent Hanjeongsik... simply because of the market prices of ingredients. It probably can't make even to Wannabe-Hanjeongsik category. But then, we did find one restaurant that pushes its limit and make Hanjeongsik very affordable: $27/person. That's almost a free meal.

Examples of Simplified Hanjeongsik for Reasonable Prices,
featuring a number of Specialty Dishes
17-course Hanjeongsik at $46.95

15-course Hanjeongsik at $26.95

Now, let's get out and expand your Korean culinary horizon. Masitke Japsuseyo (맛있게 잡수세요 | "Bon Appetite")!


  1. WOW! Fabulous info! My Korean Ex-wife never told me about this! If you'd like to co-host a joint event with our group,, please let me know... Darrell, Organizer

  2. Darrell, I was a member of your group until a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed your events. Thank you. I will contact you about joint events. I've been wanting to host dine-out's featuring "genuine" Korean food, not "commercialized" one. Perhaps I can pick your brain about it too. :) Talk to you soon!

  3. Check out events as a result of this post and comments:

    REVIEW by Louis, Event Organizer
    This dinner was delicious and was presented in the most beautiful way. Special thanks for Zeanie Yoon for referring us to this amazing experience. We had a fun group, and I want to thank everyone for coming.

    REVIEW by Yumi Ro
    I've had a traditional, long, labor-intensive meal in Korea at 9am! It was on a traditional table (low on the floor). This is NOT that thought I could see some of the labor and love go into this abridged and more affordable version. Presentation was beautiful. Flavor was above average.

  4. Wow, found this page on Facebook too. Awesome pictures:


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