Korean Food IV
Note: Yes I am not as fast on this as I hoped. I need to donate more time to this thing.
One of the constant carps by many in Korea is the lack of imports. The response to this by many Koreans is “Things are changing fast!” The reality however is mixed. Many consider it a bad sign for a city’s restaurant culture if the best restaurants are in hotels. Korea, however can boast an even more dubious phrase, the some of the best restaurants in Korea are ran by the US Army.
This is no joke. Personally I think one of the best restaurants in Korea considering balance of quality, price, atmosphere, staff etc. is the canteen operated by the USO. Part of the reasons for this oddity is obvious. The Army is not bound by the higher costs of operation due to Korea’s high commercial rents, high food prices, or byzantine supply chains for foreign goods. Some are not so obvious; such as its consumers are mainly foreigners who have different tastes than Koreans. Frankly I think this paradox is an insightful to feature foreign food in Korea.
“American Cuisine” is an interesting paradox by itself. It is probably the only cuisine that somebody from outside the culture more readily identifies than somebody within. An American would likely looked befuddled if asked to describe his cuisine. Mainly this is due to the massive variety of foods in America. As I mentioned before (perhaps in the comments section) salsa was once the preferred condiment over ketchup. Does this make salsa “American Cuisine” now? Is eating Italian food not an ethnic dining experience when every corner has a pizza and pasta place?
Koreans however have a definite idea of what is “Korean Cuisine”, and are fiercely loyal to it. They also have very strong feelings about what is and what is not Korean food. Sometimes this rather violates logic; again look at the introduction of chili peppers. Even more interesting what Koreans call “Western Food”. If one were to walk down the major thoroughfares of Seoul during the World Cup in 2002, one can see many restaurants be spotted with different signs from tourism associations or the city listing what kind of place they are. You will obviously see “Korean Restaurants”, you will also pass by “Chinese” and “Japanese” restaurants.
After that however anything became a “Western Restaurant”. One of my favorite Vietnamese places in Seoul has a huge sticker on its door identifying it as a “Western Restaurant”. One could claim that the term “Western” simply serves as a catchall for all other restaurants. Which would be fine, however when you look at most “Chinese” and “Japanese” restaurants you will find them nothing like dinning experiences in either of the two countries (albeit not so much in the Japanese case). I have heard many Koreans return from China shocked that Korean Jjajang-myeon (noodles with black bean sauce) was not on the menu in Beijing, or if it was it was entirely different dish. Decidedly Koreans consider all foreign food very differently than others.
Part of this has to do with history. No doubt the Japanese occupation is one reason a Japanese experience in Seoul is close to authentic. This history not only gave Koreans a taste for Japanese food, but also created the “capital” necessary for its production (Cooking skills and traditions, preparation techniques, trading contacts, etc.). The Chinese experience is much different, probably because Korea reluctantly made China an off-and-on trading partner. This lead to the importation of goods, but no skills or traditions, accordingly the goods adapted to something local, but called “Chinese” because of the origin of the components. Both of these are notable not simply for the impact, but the fact that they are Korea’s most immediate neighbors.
The western at large world came in rather odd way, they literally invaded. In the end of it all in 1952 South Korea was noted for two things, extreme poverty and host to a huge post WWII American Army. This was a catalyst to something I think is unrivaled culinary history, the importation of not fine foreign cuisine and traditions, but inexpensive ready-made ones.
In short, Korea’s use of foreign cuisine is largely dominate by both the ease and expense of US Army rations, as well as the cooking methods employed by. If one were to look at foods most consumed, and considered “foreign”, one is struck by the preponderance of ready made shelf stable items. It was not until very recently that “good coffee” implied “instant”. Even today if you say “Cheese”, a Korean gets the image of flat yellowish squares wrapped in cellophane (“singles” to use the terms of the States). The infamous Spam is cared to Python-esque proportions in Korea, where it is used as a critical ingredient is some “traditional” Korean food, as well as offered as a gift in spiffy gift boxes during holidays.
Again, one could say “Things are changing fast!”, which could be true. However, one can see the legacy of all this perpetuating in many ways, even with the above mentioned. Yes, Koreans now go to Starbucks, but note that you do not put milk or cream in the coffee, but non-dairy creamer. Spam may be considered a “guilty pleasure” these days (as I read one Korean news article describe it). However, you can see the idea of Spam live on in pressed pork products euphemistically referred to in Korea as “Ham”.
Upon introduction of such examples of Western cuisine, Korea took a decidedly different tract than would be expected. It is at this point I need to mention what some of you have been waiting for, Korea’s penchant for cultural chauvinism. It was partly this that drove the isolation of the country for some time, and thusly shaped is cuisine. It also plays a large role in how Koreans incorporate foreign foods.
Of all things Koreans are proud and protective us, cuisine I feel is at the top of the list. A large reason for this is due to some circular logic. One must remember my earlier thesis that all Korean food is consumed for “health” not “fuel” or “to fill you up”. This combined with the fact that Korea has been isolated for thousands of years, and yet survived, leads to the argument that all food in Korea is healthy (or else Korea would have disappeared). Accordingly any non-native food that wishes to dominate is not only a threat to that specific good, and not only a threat to the nations health, foreign foods are a direct threat to national survival. This mind set makes it even more ironic that the vanguard of foreign imported food came literally from an army.
The “threat to the nation” may seem a rather cartoonish, however I think its illustrative when you consider foreign foods and cuisine in Korea. As already noted, look at those foreign foods that have a longstanding presence in Korea. Chinese food is much different. Japanese food is similar in some ways, in others it differs significantly. Also throughout Korean, despite a meal’s theme being different, it must have the Korean precepts of a meal. Accordingly in any restaurant in Korea kimchi, or some kind of pickle, is always readily available, and your “breakfast set” will be juxtaposed with soup and salad.
As you may recall, I discussed above a Vietnamese restaurant as a “Western Restaurant”. Another thing this illustrates is how deep this fear is. Not only are products from “the west” considered to be imports, but any thing outside of the peninsula. This label is also used seeming indiscriminately to most foreigners. The nationalism goes as far as to label “fusion food” that uses Korean ingredients and recipes as exclusively “Western Food”. More on “fusion” later.
This culinary chauvinism gets expressed in other ways that could strike a foreigner as offensive. McDonalds and Pizza Hut is routinely lambasted as promoting unhealthy eating among children, however little is said about Korean owned Lotteria and Mr. Pizza. There is soda company in Korea that owns the brand “815”, the date of Korea’s independence from Japan, and makes a point the fact they pay no royalties to Coke or Pepsi (read those foreigners). The other day I saw a public service announcement encouraging temperance featuring a wine bottle, an alcoholic drink which is almost exclusively imported and associated foreign luxury not consumption to excess.
Accordingly it took Korea a while to adapt to what foreign products they used. Korean use of foreign foods, in my view, fall into roughly three chronological categories. First are Korean foods using foreign foods as a substitute or an accent. Second are the foreign foods localized to Korean tastes. The third needs to be taken with a grain of salt when you consider the other two. The third is the emergence today of “fusion cuisine”.
There are a number of dishes that came about in the past 50 years that share a similar cooking philosophy with Korean “Chinese” food. This being, “We have this strange food we don’t know how to prepare. But since we are hungry, lets eat it someway”. These dishes have as an important component of containing ultra processed and preserved foods that most likely originated from surplus US Army rations (what counted then as humanitarian relief). The most obvious of these is the eponymous Army Camp Stew (Budechigae), a very Korean soup with red pepper paste with a potpourri of vegetables, tofu, or mushrooms all topped of with pieces of Spam, hot dogs, and instant noodles. Another less obvious example is Korean “Hot Dogs”. A piece of ultra processed/preserved sausage shaped meat on a stick (think corn dog without the corn). Note the absence of a bun, which could not at that time be preserved effectively (nor was it possible to bake appropriately). A more widespread example are the multitude of things you can by at a Korean restaurant that contain canned Tuna.
As these habits are projected into today, as I mentioned above, you see some curious things. Somewhat as an aside, I wonder why the preference remains. Part of the obvious answer is adults ate it as kids, and as they grew they passed off the culinary taste to their children and so on. However, given the preponderance of “traditional” Korean foods being preserved, I wonder if the preserved nature of these foods lends a familiarity to the Korean palate. Also with the aforementioned nationalism, one could wonder if since a majority of the processed foods are made locally if the consumption has to do with nationalism.
On that thought it will be very interesting to see the fate of Maeil Dairy. A few months ago I read that the chairman of Maeil forced a plan to begin producing a locally made camembert cheese. Alone it will be interesting to see how it is presented, and how it compares. More interesting to me though will be how the product would effect Camembert sales generally. The statistics (and the qualitative comparisons) could tell a lot about Korean consumption of foreign products and the future.
The second type of foreign food use in Korea is ironically mundane and familiar, localized products. Perhaps it would come to no surprise in this day and age that McDonalds offers special things for Korean consumers (bulgogi burgers, sweet bean and fruit Sundaes, etc.). Nor to most of us does it come as a surprise that potato pizza is sold at Pizza Huts. What perhaps is surprising is that most Koreans regularly identify these things as “foreign foods”. To be fair however, the erstwhile Mexican food of Taco Bell is to Americans what the erstwhile Italian food of the Korean Sorrento is to Koreans.
The past few years in Korea has seen an explosion of “fusion food”. This is due perhaps to a multitude of reasons. First, and most obviously, that style has been the trend of the late ‘90’s till the early 00’s. Secondly this has taken off big in Korea out of culinary pride. One of the implications of so much adaptation of forgien foods and ingredients to Korean taste means Korean chefs are adept at fusion dishes (Korean soup with vegetables magically becomes “Army Camp Stew” with the addition of Spam!).
Unfortunately this is trend I really hate to see. Most obviously, “fusion food” in Korea means something entirely different. It usually means taking a Korean dish and putting a twist on it (“ta-da”! curry chicken Korean BBQ!), or taking a foreign dish and making it Korean (“ta-da”! Pad Thai made with entirely Korean ingredients!). What is notable of both is that culinary traditions of Korea are the only thing being fused.
To be fair, “fusion food” has been much derided over the years as a fad. In fact the items that have made it to he popular lexicon worldwide through the trend have largely been items, which are simple twists on normal recopies (Ham and Cheese “Wrap” instead of a sandwich!). It is the general nature of this trend, coupled with end product of Korean “fusion dishes”, that just make me roll my eyes when I hear the term.
The biggest hurdle for foreign foods to be adapted in my opinion is my earlier observation of Korean’s equating health with food. This leads to quite a few habits that are at odds with the culinary traditions of others. For example I mentioned previously that Koreans do not eat rare meat. This is somewhat understandable in light of the thought that pork and chicken cannot be eaten rare, and if Beef was available it was probably historically a habit to over cook it just incase it was old. However, I took great pain once to take a perfectly cooked Duck breast (which is naturally red when cooked properly) and over cook it into a gray hockey puck of meat. The same could be said of cheese, I have known few Koreans declare an affinity to Bleu cheeses. Anther example is cilantro. For some reason Koreans have a notion they do not like this herb (perhaps its sharp taste imparts a “spoiled” feeling). Yet when I have cooked with it, and not disclosing its presence, most Koreans are fine with it.
Appropriately, I feel, any food must pass a “Health Test” in order to be widely accepted. However it is worth noting that this health test must encompass not the food itself, but also the preparation of such. This brings me to the conflict of ultra-processed foods and the need for health. In my view Koreans do not consider these as unhealthy since for the most part they are prepared and cooked in the healthy (read Korean) way. This perhaps supports my idle wonder if Koreans have a predilection towards preserved foods.
All this brings me back to the observation that the US Army has some of the best restaurants in Korea. “Best” is a subjective term, so perhaps I should amend it to be “Most authentic”. This may sound somewhat sweeping, however it is not too much of a reach if you have lived here for a while. The “Health Test” is quite stringent, and usually ends-up meaning that some part of the meal is Korean in some way. The change could be as blatant as a change, or addition, of ingredients. It could also be subtle, for example my expensive “French” meal at the Intercontinental Hotel that was concluded with instant coffee (sacra bleu!). However the fact that the US Army has a uninterruptible source of authentic ingredients, and qualified chefs, makes for a good meal.