If you had to make a list of Korean food, bulgogi, kimchi, and bibimbap will probably be on that list. Sure, KBBQ and Ddukbokki are great options when you are craving some Korean cuisine, but what if you want to be a little fancy? What if you want to treat yourself to a more scrumptious and sophisticated Korean meal? What if you want to eat like how royalties did in the past? In that case, surasang is the meal for you.

History of Korean Royal Court Cuisine

Before we dive into what exactly surasang is and what the meal consists of, we should take a quick look at the history of Korean royal court cuisine. Just how did the kings in the past eat?

Dating all the way back to Silla period (57BCE – 935CE), the food of the royal court was called gungjung eumsik (궁중음식 – lit. translate to court food). It wasn’t until the Joseon period when Korean royal court cuisine became a perfected craft. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897), food held a significant role in society. Due to its importance, there were even official positions within the ministries, who dealt with all matters relating to the food and drinks of the royal court.

Only the best cooks and the highest quality ingredients collected from around the country, including local specialties and seasonal dishes, were used for the meals served for the king. Information on the royal court cuisine, such as recipes and customs, are passed down by oral traditions as well as in written records. According to the records, meals were served five times a day. Typically, only three meals were full course meals, with the other two meals often being a light meal or a snack. Nutritional and medicinal food like rice porridge would be served in the early morning. The Koreans believed that this meal would revitalize and give the king the energy to go through the day. Then, a full course breakfast would be served later in the morning, followed by lunch and a royal dinner. A simple and light meal would often be served late at night.

Designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property No.38 in 1971, the Korean royal culinary art, which features strict customs, is preserved through the efforts of Han Hui Sun and her successors. Han Hui Sun was the last kitchen court maid who prepared meals for the last two kings of the Joseon Dynasty, King Gojong and King Sunjong. Titled as the first master of royal culinary art, she played a huge role in revitalizing and modernizing the royal culinary art. Her disciple, Hwang Hae Sung, succeeded her as the second master of Korean royal culinary art and promoted the royal cuisine until her death in 2006. Today, her oldest daughter, Han Bok Ryeo, continues the work as the third master of Korean royal culinary art; she also serves as the director of the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine.

Surasang

So what exactly is surasang? Today, we refer to surasang as the Korean royal cuisine. Traditionally, surasang, or the royal table, is divided into three parts or tables: daewonban (a large round table; the main table), gyeotban (a small round table), and chaeksangban (a square table). Accompanying the three tables is a hot pot or some type of stew. In the image below, daewonban is labeled as table A; gyeotban is labeled as table B; chaeksangban is labeled as table C. The numbers represent the different types of dishes usually served as a part of surasang.

Image of a surasang setup by Xiaolongimnida
Teemeah, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Xialongimnida

At the daewonban, the table is typically set with the following: white rice, miyeok guk (seaweed soup), togu (plate to put bones), soy sauce, soy sauce with vinegar, red chili paste with vinegar, pickled vegetables, raw seasoned vegetables, boiled and seasoned vegetables, songsongi (cubed radish kimchi), dongchimi (white kimchi), poached egg, jeonyuhwa (pan-fried delicacies made with meat, fish or vegetables), jeotgal (salted seafood), jaban (salted fish), raw fish, jorigae (braised dish made with meat, fish or vegetables), pyeonyuk (thinly-slices boiled pork), jeotgukji (kimchi from Korean cabbage seasoned with preserved salted seafood), jjim (steamed dish made with meat, fish or vegetables), changui (grilled or brochette dish made with dried seaweed, deodeok or vegetables), deoungui (grilled or brochette dish made with meat or fish), tojangjochi (soybean soup), and jeotgukjochi (fish soup).

At the gyeotban, the table is typically set with the following: red bean rice, gomtang (beef bone soup), empty bowls, empty plates, a tray, and a tea pot.

At the chaeksangban, the table is typically set with the following: sesame oil, meat, egg, vegetable, jangguk (rice porridge).

Image of Surasang by The Korea Post
Photo Credit: The Korea Post

Modern Restaurants

Talking about food is fun, but eating the food is even better. If you would like to give surasang a try, here are some restaurants in Korea you should visit!

Korea House

If this is the first time you are ever trying out Korean royal cuisine and would like to get the full experience, Korea House is a must-visit spot. In additional to the royal cuisine, the restaurant offers traditional art performances, cultural experiences, and other exciting activities for tourists to enjoy. The restaurant also offers language assistance for foreigners in English, Japanese, and Chinese.
Fun fact: the food of Korea House is supervised by Han Bok Ryeo!

Image of Korea House by Korea Tourism Organization
Photo Credit: Korea Tourism Organization

Bongraeheon

If you want to eat at a traditional Korean building, Bongraeheon serves royal cuisine in a traditional Korean house built by Lee Il Gu, a master carpenter and a Human Cultural Property. Located as a part of the Mayfield Hotel next to Gimpo International Airport, there are traditional five-course meals and seasonal menus prepared with finest quality ingredients from all over the country. They also have a recommended meal called the “surasang” and is a recreation of the meal seen in the popular Korean drama “Jewel in the Palace”.

Image of bongraeheon by Korea Tourism Organization
Photo Credit: Korea Tourism Organization

Daejanggeum

Located in the Lotte World Mall, Daejanggeum is another must-try spot for royal cuisine. The restaurant serves the traditional Korean meals with a modern twist, reinterpreting the royal cuisine in the 21st century. Using only the best local ingredients for their food, including even the soybeans used for soy sauce, Daejanggeum is the place to go to when you’re looking for a casual yet delicious traditional meal.

Image of Daejanggeum by Korea Tourism Organization
Photo Credit: Korea Tourism Organization

What is the address of Korea House?

10, Toegye-ro 36-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 중구 퇴계로36길 10

What is the address of Bongraeheon?

It is located at the Hotel Annex Hanok 1F
94, Banghwa-daero, Gangseo-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강서구 방화대로 94

What is the address of Daejanggeum?

It is located on the 5F of Lotte World Mall
300, Olympic-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 송파구 올림픽로 300

What time is Korea House open?

Korea House opens for lunch (12:00-14:00) and dinner (17:00-18:30 / 19:00-21:30). Korea House is also closed on the 3rd Monday of each month, the day of Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day) & Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day).

What time is Bongraeheon open?

Bongraeheon opens from12:00-21:30 (Break time 15:00-18:00). It is closed every Monday.

What time is Daejanggeum open?

Daejanggeum opens from 12:00-21:30 (Break time 15:00-18:00). It remains open year round.

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