In 1960, Korean language scholar Kim Sa-yeop(김사엽) discovered an old book on the bookshelf of a descendant of Yi Hwi-il(이휘일), a Neo-Confucian scholar of the later Joseon period.
The thin, 30-page book was written in the court style on good-quality paper. The title ‘Eumsikdimibang(음식디미방)’ was written on the first page of the B5-size book. The word means ‘the ways to know the taste of food.’ Dr. Kim recognized the book as something extraordinary. He started exploring the book right away and later released a research paper. It turned out to be the first cookbook written in the Korean alphabet of Hangeul. The book contains various kinds of recipes used by noble families throughout Gyeongsang Province in the 1600s as well as fermented dishes and food-storing methods. This valuable cookbook has finally reappeared in public.
Young Girl Good at Writing Poems and Calligraphy
is also the first cook book in East Asia written by a woman. The author, Jang Gye-hyang, wrote it in 1670 when she was over 70 years old. Jang is cited as one of the representing wise mothers and good wives in the Joseon era, along with Shin Saimdang(신사임당).
Jang was born in 1598 in Andong as the only daughter of Jang Heung-hyo(장흥효). Her mother came from the Kwon clan based in Andong. Her father was a great scholar of the mid-Joseon period. But he refused to enter the government, and instead taught hundreds of students throughout his life. When Jang was little, she learned , which is the children’s manners book, from her scholar father. She wrote poems, such as and when she was 13.
Jang was also good at calligraphy. Even renowned calligrapher Jeong Yun-mok(정윤목) said that her calligraphic style was so imposing that it seemed different from that of other ordinary Korean artists. The intelligent girl married a man named Yi Si-myeong(이시명) when she was 19 years old.
Gentle, Principled Mother
Yi was a favorite disciple of Jang’s father. He already had a son and a daughter from his previous marriage, but when he lost his wife, Jang’s father married her to Yi.
To educate Yi’s first son, named Sang-il(상일), the 19-year-old bride would carry the six-year-old child on her back every day to visit his teacher’s house, which was about two kilometers away from their home. She raised seven sons and three daughters, including her own children. Her seven sons were later called the Seven Sages, becoming prominent scholars who left their names in history.
Her third son, Hyeon-il(현일), became a leader of the Youngnam(영남) School that inherited the philosophy of Yi Hwang, who was also known as “Toegye,” the master of Neo-Confucianism. As her son rose to the post of Minister of Personnel, Jang was also given the title of Honorable Lady.
The gentle and principled mother was also benevolent to poor people. Although her family was not very well off, she placed a big cauldron outside the house and cooked acorn porridge to feed as many as 300 beggars. She would also send food to houses where there was no smoke at meal times.
Thanks to her virtue and generosity, she was praised as a ‘great mother’ and a ‘woman of noble character.’ In her later years, Jang wrote a cookbook that included the wisdom she had learned throughout her life.
First Hangeul Cookbook
As the daughter of a scholar who carried on the Neo-Confucian philosophy of the Toegye School, Jang left the academic tradition to her sons. For her daughters, she handed down the traditional recipes. Her book introduces 146 recipes for noodles, dumplings, rice cakes, fish and meat dishes, vegetables, alcoholic beverages, and more.
It was far from easy for women to write a book during the Joseon era. Even famous female figures such as Shin Saimdang and Heo Nanseolheon(허난설헌) did not go as far as to write a book themselves, only leaving some literary pieces. Moreover, it wasn’t common to see a cookbook around 1670. Earlier cookbooks or food guides include (수운잡방), meaning ‘making food for a man of refined taste,’ which was written by Kim Yu in 1540. There was also (도문대작), a book of food criticism, written by Heo Gyun(허균) in 1611. In this book, Heo described the coarse food he experienced in a seaside place of exile, and mentioned missing the delicious food he ate before.
But these books were written in Chinese characters and only introduced food briefly. In contrast, explains in detail the whole processes of making 146 kinds of food. Even today, it is possible to cook food through these practical recipe guides.
The book was written with accurate grammar and spelling and diversified expressions, so it is also of immense linguistic value. Surrounded by her children, Jang quietly passed away in 1680. She was 83.
About 340 years have passed since Jang wrote this cookbook, but the efforts to bring to light her life and legacy still continue today. Renowned novelist Lee Mun-yeol(이문열) wrote a novel entitled describing the life story of Jang Gye-hyang. Also, Youngyang(영양) County in North Gyeongsang Province launched the ‘Preservation Group’ in 2006, and has since been restoring the food featured in this old cookbook. Efforts are also underway to add the book to the UNESCO World Heritage list. One day, Jang’s life might reach a wider audience the world over.