Thanks to digitization of Korean annals and the creative mind of Lee Byung-hoon, the blockbuster television series Jewel in the Palace was produced. Amazing how a single line in the annals of Joseon Dynasty uttered by the king— “No one knows about my ailments as Jang-geum does” can inspire a commercially successful historical fiction drama, and served as a proponent of the Korean wave. The film was exported to 91 countries and translated into many languages including Tagalog. As of this writing, it is aired over GMA 7.
At a time when royal doctors were men, it was extraordinary that a woman who should be just a nurse would be more informed about the king’s medical condition. Because Jang-geum’s origins were unknown, the fictional account made her a royal kitchen apprentice who rose to prominence because of her scholarly mind, culinary skills, and integrity. In the drama, she has been consistently portrayed as researcher of the healing properties of fruits, vegetables, seafoods, fowls and animals that comprise the ingredients of recipes served in the palace.
Dae Jang-geum, which means “The Great Jang-geum” is the first and only lady physician in the royal court of 16th century Joseon Dynasty in Korea performed by Lee Young-ae in the blockbuster television series Jewel in the Palace, directed by Lee Byung-hoon, aired over Japan in 2003 and exported to 91 countries, earning over US$100 million worldwide.
First Lady Surgeon
Jang-geum’s career progressed as she continued to be interested on food that can alleviate if not completely heal the ailments of the royal family, particularly the king. There was a time she prevented the spread of an epidemic. She sewed together the wrecked abdomen of an animal that jumped over a barbed wire fence. In the ultimate attempt to save the king’s life at a time when the use of anesthesia was already known, Jang-geum proposed to perform surgery of the dying king’s intestine, but was opposed vehemently specially by the mother queen, despite the king’s willingness and trust in Jang-geum’s competence. The king’s body was considered sacred. Towards the end of the novel, Jang-geum delivered a woman’s infant by caesarian section, thus saving lives of both mother and child.
Nuggets of Wisdom
Nuggets of wisdom about food preparations abound throughout the film like precious jewels. This tele novela elevates culinary art into respectable, even glamorous endeavor, worthy of the passion and skills of charming, intelligent professionals.
Fish gills, considered wastes even by poorest of the poor, are in fact, very rich source of protein at no cost at all, as these are ready to be thrown away. These can be turned into irresistible appetizer by the hands of a master chef. Spoiled, rotten fishes can also be made into tempting side dish.
Extremely sour or bitter fruits considered useless and fit for garbage bins can be made into delicious desserts by cooking in soy sauce and sugar.
The lowly patola can be used as flour substitute. It is easier to digest and perfect for people with sensitive stomachs and weak digestive systems.
Much as the film is about skills, dedication and integrity— Jang-geum cooked from the heart and desired to gladden the hearts of those who would partake of her meals; even when she temporarily lost her sense of taste, she was able to continue creating excellent menus as she “retrieved” flavors from her mind, being unable to taste her coking; it is also about unscrupulous, power-hungry individuals who use culinary skills for evil purposes, to the extent of poisoning the queen, causing abortion, giving death concoctions to a rival colleague to hasten a protegee’s ascendancy to coveted position.
Essentially about love of fellowmen
The royal kitchen is a metaphor for the concrete jungle of our generation : the corporate world and boardroom: even government offices and every kind of workplaces from factories to assembly lines— all replete with cunning, scheming, intrigues, strategizing and politicking to reach the top of corporate ladder the shortest time possible, to satisfy personal ambitions at all costs no matter who gets hurt or demolished.
One of the royal kitchen’s officials, Madame Jeong eloquently puts it, “ I fell in love with the palace the moment I first saw it. Little did I knew that it was inhabited by people obsessed with power and wealth despite the evanescence and emptiness of these things.” She admonished Lady Han, Jang-geum’s mentor, to lead with integrity.
The film is about pursuing one’s passion with a pure heart and not giving up the journey no matter how numerous and tough are the obstacles. It is very Biblical. We struggle not for victory, but because we know the righteous are already victorious. We are more than conquerors. This is what the film is telling us as it dramatizes how, despite the enemy’s dirty tricks and maneuvers, Lady Han won the cooking duel, after which she was proclaimed chief administrator of the royal kitchen.
In the ultimate cooking battle when the only dish to be cooked was steamed rice, wherein the two combatants had to use the same rice , water, fuel, stove, utensils and serving dishes— the one who emerged winner was not the one who knew the trick to cook soft rice to please the royal taste, in the pursuit of power and control; but the one who loved purely her people from royalty to commoner, who through long years of study on how to please various palates, was able to cook a 3-in-1 steamed rice— soft at the top, medium soft in the middle, and “hard” at the bottom with crispy crust (tutong). The royal men prefer soft rice while queens and concubines like medium soft, while the commoners who are a majority of Lady Han’s colleagues were used to eating “hard” rice and crust. Love is the highest form of wisdom, and this is all we need to know.
Published in Health & Lifestyle, August 2014