Friday, February 11, 2005

Korean Food, Seconds

While I have not completed my “Korean Food” postings
in full (I have a grab bag of comments still to be written out), occasionally
news happens worthy of note. Among the comments I made about the current state
of Korean Cuisine and the use of the word “fusion” to describe food in Korea.

In relation to these comments was this story published
a couple weeks ago:

the Chef' winner promotes Korean fusion food

February 03, 2005 - Recalling
the effort he put into preparing for the final round of "Challenging the
Chef" over the past 13 weeks, Ju Yeon-woo burst into tears after taking
first place. The competition was shown on the Food Channel on Friday...

Mr. Ju developed two dishes to
win the competition: bibimbap mandu ― a dumpling shaped like a bowl and stuffed
with bibimbap (mixed meat, vegetables and rice) and garnished with spinach and
eggs; and black rice nureungji (scorched rice), made by scorching rice and then
adding water and spices to produce a porridge.

First, in no way do I wish to disparage Mr. Ju or his dishes. I am
sure he is a good chef, and the dishes likely to be delicious. I am also sure
that he could create other dishes that would be even better then the two
winners. My bone of contention is really with the judges, and perhaps even the
“fusion food” contest itself.

Fusion food is the combination of disparate cooking ingredients,
styles, or techniques to create new dishes. As I may have noted before, I am
somewhat dismissive of the trend. In short most “fusion” food I have seen
amount to no more than marketing puffery (fish carrpacio rather than sushi) or
gastronomic masturbation (green tea flavored crème brulee). However the
former definition is an interesting goal, and more over what Mr. Ju’s dishes
were tested against.

With this definition, Mr. Ju’s dishes cannot be considered fusion
in the least. There is nothing new in the ingredients deemed notable for
article. Both of the dishes mentioned have nothing new to offer in cooking
styles or techniques. “Bimbimbap Mandu” is two dishes, the components of which
Korea has internalized for a long time as its own. The “nureungji” porridge,
sounds like every other rice porridge I have eaten in Korea, other than the
fact it was kept on the fire a little longer. One could argue that the serving
method is new, however I fail to see what is so original about these dishes.
The dishes mentioned have been around for so long, I sincerely doubt that
somebody has not come up with the same ideas for the 500 years or so the
ingredients, styles, or techniques have existed in Korea.

The truth with the use of such puffery as “fusion” goes back to
what I said before about the sanctity of Korean cuisine. The idea is Korean
cuisine is perfect as is, and any change to it amounts to revolutionary, if not
heresy. In this vein, it is notable that the winner of this fusion food contest
offered dishes that barely pierced the envelope of “Korean Cuisine”. Perhaps
the judges could not even fathom, let alone stomach, some of the more
innovative offerings.

All of this gets back to something I am rearranging mental
furniture on, what do Koreans mean when they say “Fusion Food” in the
fashionable way they do since their really is not much fusion to it? Is the
usage limited to the fact that any change to Korean cuisine is revolutionary,
and even if the change is entirely indigenous it is considered “foreign”.
“Fusion” is simply the current buzzword to describe such? Or, in somewhat the
same way, is use of the word “fusion” akin to words like “western bar”, “world
class”, “cyber”, “TOEIC”, or “Hub”, a ruse Koreans use to fool themselves into
thinking they are open and welcoming to the world at large?