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Art&CultureHistory
Koreans, coffee and the king’s courtHistorian Robert Neff recounts an episode of political intrigue regarding the beverage
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승인 2010.09.18  19:16:24
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▲ Sontag Hotel, Circa 1910. Photo courtesy Robert Neff

It is not clear when coffee first arrived in Korea though Antoinette Sontag, the sister-in-law of Karl Waeber, the first Russian consul general to Korea, is often attributed — mistakenly — as being the first to introduce the aromatic drink.

We know little about Sontag except she was a highly-skilled cook, had excellent management skills, was an avid stamp collector and had a penchant for being in the midst of political intrigue. Sontag, who never married, arrived sometime in the mid-1880s and managed the household affairs in the Russian legation. While there she often sent cookies, cakes, and other Western delicacies to the Korean palace and earned the trust and respect of the royal family.

On Oct. 8, 1895, Queen Min was savagely murdered by members of the Japanese legation and Korean malcontents. King Gojong and his son, the crown prince, became virtual prisoners within their own palace. However, on Feb.11, 1896, the king and crown prince, disguised as court women, were carried out of the palace in enclosed chairs and made their escape to the Russian legation.

According to many historians, it was during King Gojong’s 13-month stay at the Russian legation that Sontag introduced him, and by extension Korea, to the rich taste of coffee. Gojong is said to have enjoyed his coffee black, sweetened with only a single cube of sugar. Some have speculated that the strong taste reminded him of the Chinese herbal medicine that was popular at the time.

While it is difficult to say with any certainty when Gojong sampled coffee for the first time, it is abundantly clear by various personal accounts that coffee was brewed in the Korean palace well before 1896.

One of the earliest accounts of Koreans drinking coffee takes place at Chemulpo (modern Incheon) in December 1882. A group of Korean officials returning from China were forced to stay aboard their steamship for an extra couple of days due to adverse weather. A Westerner aboard the ship noted that the Koreans were in no hurry to leave the ship and “in fact they enjoyed heartily our fare, and disposed beefsteaks, mutton-chops, plum pudding, beer, claret, champagne and coffee with as much relish as any foreigner.”

The wife of American minister to Korea, Lucius H. Foote — Rose Foote —often exchanged foods and beverages with the royal palace. In February 1884, “on the occasion of a recent family festival, she sent to the Queen a large loaf of fruit-cake, and a larger one of pound-cake, both elaborately frosted and decorated with the national motto, also a boiled ham, jellied and fixed up in a fanciful way, some home-made bread, and preserves, some California bonbons, and a large quantity of Pacific canned fruits.” When Rose visited the palace in April she was treated to “chocolates and Galian vermouth, French bon-bons and English biscuits.” Although there is no mention of coffee, it is reasonable to assume that coffee at one time or another was served.

In September 1886, Dr. Horace N. Allen and several visiting American naval officers were invited to a picnic just outside of Seoul on Bukhan Mountain. According to the Horace Allen archives in New York, after a strenuous climb they arrived at “a great Buddhist temple and many surrounding buildings, one of which had been fitted up as a banquet hall for naval guests. Here a foreign meal was served by cooks trained in foreign service (sent from the king’s palace), and washed down with the beverage brewed at Milwaukee and the sparkling ‘Extra Dry,’ while foreign cakes, nuts and cigars, with strong black coffee, wound up the feast, which then gave place to a quaint concert by a band of performers on stringed instruments. The wild, weird strains of the music, fitting in so aptly with the untamed surroundings, made our own presence and the modern nature of the feast we had just enjoyed contrast very strangely with all of us.”

In the fall of 1894, Sallie Sill, the wife of the American minister to Korea John M.B. Sill, and her sister were invited to the palace. Prior to and after their audience with the royal family, they were treated to fruit, crackers, wine and coffee.

It was while Gojong and the crown prince were at the Russian legation that coffee became a normal part of the royal family’s breakfast. However, not only was it an exotic treat – it also became a tool for assassination.

On Sept. 11, 1898 (Gojong’s birthday), a disgruntled court official who had been punished for improprieties, took advantage of the King’s penchant for the drink. He bribed Kim Chong-hwa, the royal butler, to poison the coffee.

Fortunately, Gojong, suspicious about the taste and smell, did not drink his coffee but the crown prince and the chief eunuch were not as lucky. Within minutes both were prostrate on the floor writhing in pain. While they eventually recovered, the crown prince was left impotent. As for the would-be-assassins, they were strangled in prison and their corpses thrown into the streets of Seoul where they were horribly mutilated.

Coffee continued to grow in popularity throughout the early 20th century. Sontag opened a hotel and restaurant in Seoul, naturally named Sontag Hotel, where matters of politics and intrigue were discussed while drinking coffee. One Japanese official in Seoul accused the owner of the hotel of possessing a secret room which served as a “consultation centre for diplomatic conspiracies” unfavorable towards Japan.

In the 1920s, Japanese coffee shops, known as kikdajeom, also began to appear throughout Seoul. Koreans also opened their own kikdajeom which, despite the high cost of the drink, were popular venues for officials, literati, and the wealthy.

Following the Korean War, coffee shops, known as dabang, became popular throughout the country. Most were modest affairs serving a sweet, Korean-style instant coffee. Some had DJs who played the latest music, which catered to the younger generation while others were more discreet and offered services of a baser kind to older gentlemen.

Coffee shops continue to play an important part in Korean society’s daily life. Koreans consume nearly 1.8 kilograms of coffee per person annually. Coffee shops such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean have pretty much eliminated dabang but for those who still crave the sweet Korean-style instant coffee, rest assured, there remain some 300,000 vending machines scattered throughout the country still serving it.





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