Riding the Hallyu, the impressive K-pop culture wave, Korean food has won the hearts and bellies of the food world. For Etihad in-flight magazine, August 2016.
Korean fried chicken (or cauliflower, in some circles) is widely hyped as the new KFC. While Colonel Sanders may need to spill the 11 secret herbs and spices to win back some favour, it’s going to be a tough contest. Korean food, on the wings of the Hallyu – the Korean pop culture wave that took root back in the late Nineties, has dominated the global food scene from London to Ljubljana. Like Psy’s satirical K-pop hit Gangnam Style, kimchi (spicy fermented vegetables, mainly cabbage), bibimbap (a mixed rice bowl) and galbi (grilled meat or KBBQ) have become universally popular.
Hyejoon Kim, a food content developer in Seoul says that Koreans’ fondness for gathering, celebrating and eating, stemming from ancient times, has made the movement a natural one. Instagram is awash with colourful top shots of banchan – the myriad side dishes served in Korean eateries. Alex Paik, a Seoul-based Korean tourism-marketing expert says Korean food is fun, communal and very hands-on. “We share a set of side dishes, we might be grilling or boiling a stew together. Chopsticks and spoons reach across the table back-and-forth, people take turns pouring each other drinks and grilling meat,” he explains.
It’s been a hard road since the aftermath of the Korean War in 1953, but the focussed investment from the government and a series of long and short-term marketing plans has resulted in the world embracing Korean culture. In many ways it’s a rags to riches story. Consider the popularity of Samsung as a reliable brand (it wasn’t always), the infiltration of sheet masks and Korean beauty products and the swell of teenage crushes on pretty K-pop boy bands. This is Hallyu P.R in action. Korea has come to represent what Korean-American writer Euny Hong, author of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture (2014, Simon & Schuster), alludes to as “the future. And Korean food, or hansik, the more traditional sort, will surely appear on that menu of the future.
Daniel Gray, a food guide who founded Seoul Eats blog left his adopted home in the U.S to return to his roots in Seoul 11 years ago. He has famously led the likes of Anthony Bourdain around the city to experience what he calls “real Korean food”. Kimchi, he says, not only contains probiotics essential to gut health, but adds a flavour contrast to plain rice, the basic staple of the Korean diet. “We eat contrasting elements to create balance such as grilled meat wrapped with sesame leaf, a dab of fermented bean paste sauce, a sliver of raw garlic and some salad,” he explains. Korean food provides what Gray calls “high-value eating”, because of the presence of fermented foods, protein and leafy vegetables
While Gray’s most popular requests from guests are for street food, galbi, beef joints, and live octopus at the Noryangjin Fish Market, there’s been an unsurprising upsurge toward more elegant Korean fine dining. Chefs like Mingo Kang (Mingles restaurant) who studies ancient temple cuisine, Jungsik Yim who runs Jungsik in Seoul and Jungsik in New York that holds two Michelin stars and Korean-American chefs like Hooni Kim (Danji in New York), Corey Lee (with three-star Michelin Benu in San Francisco), David Chang of the Momofuku empire and Judy Joo (Jinjuu in London) have all elevated the image. Roy Choi did his bit too, though decidedly unfussy in comparison, with a famous food truck Koji, that helped push the food truck revolution in the States.
Hybrids, the Next Gen
Fusion is the next frontier. Korean-British Joo Lee is the founder of Korrito, which sells Korean barbeque burritos, rice and salad bowls at markets across London. “Korrito was born in the summer of 2013, against the backdrop of Korean wave beginning to hit the U.K shores,” Lee says. Growing up, Korean food was a pivotal connection to her country of birth. “One of the ways we greet each other literally translates to ‘Have you eaten?’ as opposed to simply ‘Hello’,” Lee explains. “While there has been a push from the government to publicise Korean food globally, locally it started with a few chefs looking for something different. Their use of kimchi in burgers and gochujang [fermented soya bean and red chilli paste] in sauces started to get noticed.” Second generation Koreans, like herself, she says, have had more courage to develop food businesses aimed at global tastes.
Korean American chefs like Esther Choi (mokbar at the Chelsea market) and Deuki Hong (Manhattan’s Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong) tell touching tales of school friends mocking them for bringing “smelly” traditional fermented foods for lunch. In a twist of fate, fermentation has become the food world’s darling. Paik says that Korean food is enduring an “ideological battle” in which different camps are attempting to define, analyse and dissect it. “For example, there are over 300 varieties of kimchi, yet most only ever think about eating a few kinds. The full Korean frontier of foods is still relatively uncharted territory for the international community, so I’m not surprised that people are compelled by it.”
Come Dine With Me, Meokbang Style
“Oh, they’re so sweet,” Munchies journalist Charlet Duboc says of the audience posting comments when she joins BJ (broadcast jockey) Sof in his cramped apartment in South Korea. Munchies is filming as the two cook and eat to a live broadcast to viewers who stream in from around the country. Some even donate money through a system of star balloons, a video-streaming currency. This is meokbang (spellings vary), the strange, bizarre and much-loved Korean phenomenon of eating enormous quantities of food to a live audience. Meokbang fuses the Korean words for “eat” and “broadcast”. After meeting and interviewing a series of meokbang BJs, some of whom do this full time, Duboc says she feels conflicted about what she perceives to be a disconnection from reality and the inability of many to live without a mobile phone screen in day-to-day settings. Euny Hong, in a piece for Quartz, calls meokbang: “utterly banal but strangely….not unwatchable.”
The BJ’s slurping, smacking and chewing sounds are enhanced by high quality sound equipment and the food, unlike BJ Sof’s, is often delivered, not home-cooked. For years, Koreans have enjoyed app-based delivery services that eliminate the need for awkward conversations on the phone. “Delivery food is the king of guilty pleasure comfort food; it’s the food most heavily featured in meokbang broadcasts,” Alex Paik says. Viewers watch while on the subway (where internet streams efficiently), waiting in queues or alone at home. Extremely efficient WiFi connections make the possibility of being connected 24/7 the norm in South Korea. AfreecaTV, which broadcasts these meokbang videos, caters to a large number of young men under 20, says Paik. “When they are stuck in an apartment in a rural town on the outskirts of the nation, having direct access to people embodying the hippest of trends, the tastiest of foods, and access to charismatic personalities, who even begin to learn your name… well, you can see how it can be a fun way to pass the time,” he says.