Korea. Sampling an ancient culture via food, dance

`DON'T eat much, but try everything,'' advised Zohng-Chill Kim. He was my host for the evening at Korea House, an elegant government-sponsored banquet hall whose aim is to preserve the best of Korean culture and cuisine. At my right, delivered with deferential bow by a dimpled server in traditional garb, were spongy rectangles of abalone in colored shells, fried lotus leaf, dried seaweed, persimmon, and liver in soy sauce. From my left side, dispensed beneath lowered eyes, came white strips of raw ginseng dipped in honey.

Seized by the lapels with the spirit of fraternity, solidarity, and sheer abundance, what foreigner can resist the ``try everything'' admonition? Better to concentrate, quickly, on your pine-nut porridge, for here come the spinach and octopus gelatin.

Those visitors to the Summer Olympiad in September who are patient enough to outlast long queues may be surprised at the depth and quality of both history and hospitality here at this preserve of things Korean, in the middle of Seoul. Recent international newsclips have shown only a steady diet of street riots and political unrest.

Actually, the 15-course meal, with each course divided into subsets of up to nine, is only a buildup to the evening's real event - a trip through Korea's 5,000-year history via traditional music and dance.

``Koreans are not fat, because Korean meals are well balanced,'' said Mr. Zohng-Chill, in a theme that was to repeat itself several times. ``Our ancestors were so wise at giving nutrition to their generation,'' he added, as the preamble to a full-out sermon on the advantages of 200 kinds of kimchi as ``energy food.''

If you were to forget everything else about Korea, you would remember kimchi - lettuce, radish, eggplant, peppers, garlic, fermented and stored for who knows how long in pickled brine.

For about 90 minutes, beautiful attendants in multicolored, flowing gowns spirited course after course before my eyes while I sat on embroidered pillows at a low table beneath a high ceiling.

At the entrance of one of many rooms furnished with long, low-lying tables, all things modern are symbolically left at the door with each visitor's shoes, removed before entering.

While my host graciously explained each new set of dishes, I alternated my legs Indian-style, then straight out, trying to keep my Size 12 foot from spilling the chatchuk, or pine-nut porridge.

In 10 days of eating Korean style, I had gotten used to low tables and normal Korean food like kimchi, bulgogi (ginger-seasoned beef), and kalbi (beef ribs). But now on the eve of leaving, I was being shown the full cornucopia of historic Korean cuisine.

Variety and quantity leave a blur in the eye of the diner. But that's part of the point, my hosts would say, Korea being blessed with every kind of fowl, plant, and fish (sea on three sides) and dividing them into 12 monthly cuisines over four distinct seasons.

While I was still trying to sort out how many kinds of meats and vegetables I had eaten, I was whisked by the arm to a dark performance hall. There, in black, wide-brimmed stovepipe hats and white robes sat a traditional sinawi - an ensemble of eight musical instruments. Various zithers, stringed and bowed instruments, flutes, fiddles, drums, and gongs were uniting in something which - in the opinion of this Westerner - can only be referred to as an ode to 30 dying cats. But that is only on first hearing.

In Korea today there are two distinctive streams of dance and culture, Western and traditional. This was obviously the latter.

During the performance, steady streams of dancers appeared in various fan, drum, flower, or mask motifs. The aesthetic concept of Korean court dance, my guide told me, is movement in silence, reflected in the elegant line of long sleeves and gentle curves of palace roofs. Thus the central theme of court dance movement is to reveal extremely controlled passion and physical non-expression.

There are no straight lines in Korean dance and architecture, as one guide pointed out, so the melodic lines of Korean court music are characterized by gentle curves and controlled grace notes.

The various dancers - as if to mimic the meal we had just eaten - added swords, cymbals, and all types of flowing garments to everything from shaman and Buddhist rituals to monk folk dances.

Finishing up an exhausting program was a Buddhist ritual dance, blending religious elements with entertainment techniques. Female dancers in white hoods and over-long sleeves concealing drumsticks began slowly to an accelerating drum, whose beats represented the inner evolution from mental conflict to the attainment of nirvana.

Symbolically, perhaps, it was the perfect ending to a one-evening trek into Korean history, beginning with the stomach and ending with the mind.

If there's a lasting legacy to such a journey for an American, it is the appreciation of a history far more complex than his own. It is the journey beneath the iceberg that lends clarity to what shows above the surface.

If you go

Korea House is operated by the Foundation for the Preservation of Korean Cultural Properties and situated at 80-2 Pil Dong 2-Ga, Chung Gu, Seoul, Korea (tel.: 266-9101). For information in the United States, contact the Korean National Tourist Office at 460 Park Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10022; (212) 688-7543.

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