The story is set in Korea during the reigns of King Seongjong (1457–1494), King Yeonsan (1494–1506) and King Jungjong (1506–1544). The epilogue also spans through the reigns of King Injong (1544-1545) and King Myeongjong (1545-1567), with the last scene from March, 1550.
At the outset, King Seongjong has ordered the execution by poisoning of his wife Deposed Queen Lady Yun, the mother of the crown prince (the future Prince Yeonsan). After carrying out the execution, one of the royal guards, Seo Cheon-soo, is haunted by it. On his way home, he suffers an accident and is rescued by a mysterious hermit with a cryptic message – that his life will revolve around three women: the first he has already met, but he killed her; another he will save, but will die because of him; and the third will kill him, but will go on to save many lives. It doesn’t become clear until later in the story that the three women are the poisoned deposed queen, Park Myeong-yi (Seo’s eventual wife) and Jang-geum (Seo’s daughter). Haunted by the curse of the executed deposed queen and his prophesied fate at the hands of the third woman, he abandons his post and also becomes a hermit, refusing to take a wife. After many years, the former king dies and the Crown Prince ascends the throne. Park Myeong-yi is a palace girl and apprentice cook of the royal kitchen. She witnesses a fellow apprentice, a girl from the powerful Choi clan named Choi Seong-geum, slip poison into the Great Royal Dowager Queen’s food. Unaware that the senior kitchen officers are part of a conspiracy against the said Queen, Myeong-yi informs them. The officers, fearful that Myeong-yi might reveal their conspiracy, attempt to murder her by framing her committing adultery with a royal guard, then executing her with poison. Myeong-yi’s best friend, Han Baek-young, manages to save her by secretly diluting the poison with an antidote and leaves the unconscious Myeong-yi a letter explaining what had happened. As Seo Cheon-soo wanders through the forest, he stumbles upon the half-conscious Myeong-yi, rescues her, and the two fall in love and marry. They end up living peacefully in a remote village as lower caste commoners and raise a clever daughter named Seo Jang-geum.
When Jang-geum is eight years old, king Yeongsangun learns about the murder of his mother and vows revenge, seeking and killing people who were previously involved. Among them is Jang-geum’s father, who so far managed to hide his identity. However, following an incidence, Jang-geum accidentally causes him to be arrested. Her mother, rushing on the way to Hanyang to visit her husband, is spotted by Choi’s family and eventually killed by an arrow. Jang-geum, now an orphan, is adopted by Kang Duk-gu and Na Joo-daek, a family making a living through selling wine. Two years later, Jang-geum enters the palace after king Jungjong ascends to the throne. She is committed to be able to enter the middle kitchen (where her mother used to cook) to uncover her mother’s letter written for her. During this time, she meets Lady Han and they form a mother-daughter bond. The Right Minister Oh Gyeom-ho (the Choi clan’s ally within the Royal Cabinet) frame Lady Han and Jang-geum as traitors in league with Jo Gwang-jo, the famous Joseon reformer. In an effort to save Jang-geum, Lady Han declares that she alone is guilty of treason. Nonetheless, both are judged guilty and sent to Jeju Island to work as government slaves. On the way to Jeju, Lady Han dies from her injuries. Lady Choi replaces her as the head court lady of the royal kitchen, while Jang-geum vows revenge. Official Min Jeong-ho, who’s in love with Jang-geum, follows her to Jeju Island and offers to help her escape, but she refuses since doing so would mean never being able to return to the palace to not only clear Lady Han’s name, but obtain justice for her mother’s death. Min Jeong-ho declares he will wait for her and help her out throughout her stay in Jeju.