What is Korean Food?

The Korean is very serious and totally irrational about Korean food. He does not want any of the so-called "globalization" of Korean food that Korean government is pushing nowadays, because it will inevitably lead to vile bastardization of the food. (Like bibimbap with guacamole, for example.)

The objection to this view is consistent, and actually makes a lot of sense. It goes: "What can be defined as 'Korean food'? Kimchi is such a big deal in Korean food, but the current form of kimchi did not happen in Korea until the 16th century. What about kalguksu, which did not exist in Korea until the Americans brought in flour after World War II? Is that Korean food? If there can be no meaningful cutoff point as to what counts as Korean food, how can you say anything about 'bastardization'?"

To address this point, it is important to figure out the answer to the first question: Just what counts as "Korean food"? The Korean's favorite Korean food blog is 악식가의 미식일기, and Mr. Hwang Gyo-Ik who writes the blog has the best answer that the Korean has seen so far. It is a bit long, but Mr. Hwang's insight is hugely valuable if you consider yourself a food person. Below is the translation.

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To Globalize Korean Food

Globalization of Korean food is the topic du jour in the restaurant business. The government is also actively developing policies for the globalization of Korean food. The first lady reportedly is taking an advisory role to this project. The government also established the "tteokbokki lab" to "improve" tteokbokki, which apparently is the prime candidate for globalization among Korean food. Surely it is expecting that Korean food would play a role in improving the value of Korea's national brand.

Any Korean would welcome the government's effort to enhance the national image by inviting the world to enjoy our food culture. As for myself who had been making a living around Korea's food culture for 20 years,  I am feeling thankful that the government is actively promoting policies in an area that was considered lower compared to other culture.

But there is a need to account for the definition and scope of just what is the Korean food that the government plans to globalize, and clarify the objects for globalization. This is because after having attended a number of events related to Korean food's globalization, I am experiencing a great deal of confusion -- the kind of confusion that is caused when shinseonro, the symbol of Joseon Dynasty's royal cuisine, and tteokbokki, the people's food developed in the 1960s, were placed side by side.

Shinseonro. The Korean has never once eaten this.
(The OP does not have any pictures; all pictures are the Korean's additions.)

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Is all food consumed by Koreans Korean food?

Korea Advanced Food Research Institute and Yonsei University, which had been commissioned by the government to issue a research report titled "Visions and strategies of Korean food's globalization and Korean food's marketing model," define "Korean food" as following:

"The food that: (1) is created by utilizing the food ingredients that had been traditionally used in Korea and similar ingredients, (2) is created by cooking with Korea's own methods or similar methods; (3) has Korean people's historical and cultural characteristics, and; (4) is invented, developed and inherited in accordance with Korean people's living environment."

This may be an excellent scholarly definition. But the problem is that if one applied this definition to each dish that today's Korean people eat, there is no food that is not Korean food. "Food ingredient" means the meat and plants that can be obtained in nature that do not cause death or illness after consuming. In other words, "the food ingredients that had been traditionally used in Korea and similar ingredients" might as well mean "all food ingredients." If one points out that caviar is not a Korean food ingredient, for example, we could retort that Koreans have traditionally used similar ingredients, i.e. fish roe.

The same goes for "created by cooking with Korea's own methods or similar methods." Cooking methods include cutting, pickling, boiling, blanching, roasting, steaming, reducing, simmering, fermenting, etc. Looking at the world's food cultures, these cooking methods are globally similar. It would be fair to say that for thousands of years since humans discovered the use of tools and fire, people of the world have been cooking in approximately similar manners.

The last requirements, "has Korean people's historical and cultural characteristics" and "is invented, developed and inherited in accordance with Korean people's living environment," show that Korean food has a spiritual/cultural component to it. In fact, this spiritual/cultural element may play the most important role in defining Korean food. An example of the historical/cultural characteristic could be the "clash of flavors" exemplified by the mixture of rice and several side dishes or a wrap involving meat and vegetables. It could be the "manners" in which the meal begins only after the elders pick up their spoon; it could also be "table culture" in which a group of people sit around and enjoy the food together. But the limit of this approach is that Korean people's historical/cultural characteristics are varied, dualistic and often clashing in a confusing manner.

Then, just what is Korean food? Is Korean food something that can feature the whole world's ingredient, the whole world's cooking methods, and at once the genteel table setting of a Joseon Dynasty nobleman and a rowdy festival of roasted pork grilled on the table? In fact, this confusion is not confined to myself. For the last year, I had been asking everyone who is involved in Korea's food culture -- "What is Korean food?" A hundred people gave a hundred different answers. Actually, a hundred people gave forty different answers -- about 60 percent of the people thought out loud for a bit, then could not settle on an answer. Among the answers, the most common was "fermented food." Other answers included: "food with rice and side dishes"; "food with rituals"; "food with merriment"; "instantly cooked food" (addressing table top barbecue); "healthy food", etc.

What do you think Korean food is? We all eat Korean food three times a day, but defining the idea is tremendously difficult. Three times a day -- this is actually the precise reason why the defining the scope of Korean food is so difficult. The spectrum of Korean food is just that broad. It is an undefinable chaos.

This confusion arises from treating Korean food as some type of cooked dish. The researchers for traditional Korean food usually consider Joseon Dynasty's dishes as Korean food; they re-create the dishes and study the variation and improvement of such dishes. So they give a show of shinseonro [TK: hot pot], gujeolpan [TK: special plate setting with various vegetables], domijjim [TK: steamed red snapper] and tell the people, "This is Korean food." But they are the kinds of food that are rarely eaten by Koreans, either at home or at a restaurant. All Koreans do with such dishes is to look at (not eat!) them at an event like "traditional food exhibition," and think to themselves, "So this is what traditional Korean food looks like."

Gujeolpan. Never tried this either.

Such confusion is the same for foreign tourists. I often hear from foreign visitors that they discovered there were very few places where they could try the dishes featured in Daejanggeum [TK: Korean drama about the royal cook during the Joseon Dynasty] only after actually visiting Korea. On the other hand, doubt may arise as to the common Korean food of today that did not exist in the Joseon era, such as samgyeopsal [TK: roasted pork belly], gimbap [TK: rice/seaweed roll], gamjatang [TK: spicy pork and potato soup], budaejjigae [TK: spicy stew with kimchi and spam].

The only unchanging axiom is: "Everything changes." Food is not an exception. As new ingredients get introduced, as cooking tools change, as lifestyles change, as appetites change, as the climate changes, food changes also. It is incorrect to think that today's French cuisine, or Japanese sushi, or Thai rice noodles were the same form and flavor hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago. It is silly to think that Korean food of the 21st century must be the same as Joseon's food.

So let us revert to the first question: what is Korean food? In fact, humans -- Korean or not -- are generally satisfied as long as the food is tasty, nutritious and not dangerous. In other words, there is no reason why the food consumed by Korean people has to be "Korean" food, nor is there any reason for foreigners to eat such food while telling themselves, "This is Korean food." If Italian olive oil is healthier than Korean pea oil, Koreans will choose the olive oil. If American dry-aged steak is tastier than Korean bulgogi, Koreans will cook the steak even if they are given Korean beef. The choice, cooking and consumption of food ingredients is more often determined by human instincts rather than Korean people's national identity.

How to secure the identity of Korean food

Then why bother with defining Korean food and set the scope? Why not eat and enjoy any ingredient, any cooking method, with any historical/cultural characteristic, as long as the food is delicious, nutritious and not dangerous?

Usually to define and set a scope for something is in order to utilize that something for a purpose. That is, it is to utilize Korean food beyond the purposes of eating and enjoying; it is about creating a cultural product to export. It is a type of branding strategy -- establish the dishes that have a Korean identity, have such dished to be consumed by non-Koreans, and in the process lead them to understand and like Korea such that they will further consume Korean products, not simply Korean food.

Therefore, the first order of business to globalize Korean food is to establish the dishes that hold Korean identity. But we already noted that this is a confusing process, and that the confusion arises from the mistaken idea that food does not change. Then just what is the dish that holds Korean identity?

For globalization of Korean food, we often examine other cuisines that we consider globalized, such as French, Italian or Japanese. We usually encounter these "globalized" food in a restaurant. In a space in which we could feel the national image of each country, we eat their food and ponder about how to present Korean food. So we think about the restaurant's interior, the presentation style of the food and the flavor. Of course, this level of thought is necessary. But this method of research clouds us from the core question. The rightful beginning of this inquiry should be figuring out the identity of each country's food -- why is French cuisine French? Why is Italian food Italian? Why is Japanese food Japanese? Answering these questions would naturally bring the answer to the question about Korean food's identity.

Then let us try to reason how the identity of such cuisines are established. Take French food, for example. Where does the French food's identity --  recognized to be French food by not only the French people but also everyone in the world -- originate? Cooking methods? Presentation style? Eating methods? Restaurant interior? These are but the supplementary factors that aid the identity establishment. The most important core that forms the identity is the food ingredient of France which constitutes the food. We call something French food because the food is made with the wheat that grew in France, the cow that fed on the wheat, the cheese and butter made with the cow's milk, the olive oil and wine made by olives and grapes grown in Southern France, various herbs commonly grown in France, etc. Even if a France-produced ingredient is not used, we would at least require the ingredients that taste similar to French ingredients -- the "French-style ingredients" -- in order to consider something French cuisine. To explain how French cuisine tastes, a French chef would begin with the foodstuff produced out of France. The same applies to Italian food, Japanese food, etc.

This is how Korean food identity issue should be resolved as well. In other words, the core of the identity that makes a food a Korean food is the food ingredient that is only available in Korea or tastes the best when produced in Korea.

But I cannot shake the feeling that our efforts to globalize Korean food is quite far removed the identity of Korean food. We consider a chef who used to cook Western food in a foreign hotel chain could globalize Korean food, and we try to re-create Joseon's food and publicize the recipe to foreigners. We even consider a fried chicken franchise to be a pioneer of the globalization of Korean food. All these things are the runs into dead ends while searching for the identity of Korean food.

Collecting the information about and the value of Korea's food ingredient comes first

As a food columnist, I have been covering Korea's farming and fishing products, the local cuisine, restaurant food, etc. It has been many more than a few times when I felt disappointed -- nay, despaired -- that the people in the food business are totally ignorant about the farming and fishing products of Korea. The young chefs study abroad the learn about the Western ingredients and cooking methods, but not even Korean restaurant chefs care much about what foodstuff our land produces, how different they are depending on the locale, how different they taste depending on the season.

It is a huge mistake to think that they can simply go to the market and pick out something fresh and delicious. The foodstuff readily available at markets frequented by most chefs carry less than one-tenth of the food ingredients available in Korea, because the ingredients that do not attract mass consumption do not reach the markets of the cities. Among the plants that grow in Korea, more than 1,000 types are edible. Their flavor and nutritional values frequently exceeds the herbs used in Western cuisine. How many of them are we using in Korean food?

In this kind of environment, in some cases a foreign country would figure out the value of Korea's food ingredients before Koreans do, and sweep away the best kinds or transplant them and make their own. The best, in-season stocks of ark clam [피조개], pike eel [갯장어], razor clam [키조개], hiziki [톳] produced from the South Sea are exported entirely to Japan, because Korea does not actively use them as ingredients. The Japanese long have known the value of the chopi tree fruit, which Koreans barely use as spices for freshwater eel soup [추어탕] -- they have imported the fruits, processed them and sold them to the world, as well as taking the saplings to grow the trees in a larger scale. [TK: 초피 is already starting to be known in English as "Japanese pepper tree," although no chopi ever grew in Japan before they were transplanted.]

Razor clam [키조개] from Boryeong [보령]

As Korean food is becoming more popular in Japan, Japan's food businesspeople are sweeping the production centers of Korea's food ingredients. I have advised such a Japanese company. To give an example, the company already had detailed knowledge of the characteristics of red pepper grown in different regions, the difference in aroma and flavor depending on the crushing method and the granular size, and even the way to make fake sun-dried peppers [태양초] and how to tell them apart. I have heard reports that a Japanese supermarket company is in the process of creating a website with the complete set of information about every Korean food ingredient, which does not yet exist in Korea.

The value of Korea's foodstuff clearly reveals itself when compared against other similar foodstuff produced in different countries. For example, the whole world loves crabs. If we could understand the precise flavor of Korean blue crab [꽃게] and how it compares to other crabs, its value could be greater than Hong Kong's mud crab which is being marketed to gastronomes worldwide. Korean blue crab has a unique sweet flavor and strong aroma that sets it apart from mud crab, king crab, snow crab, etc. -- it can very well be a world-class crab. Same with Korean beef [한우], which develops great umami after aging without the need for excessive marbling unlike the Japanese wagyu. With improvements in butchering, aging and cooking methods, it can also be world-class. Same with the red pepper that beautifully combines sweetness and spiciness; wild herbs like wild garlic shoots [산마늘] that complements the meat with its aromatic and tangy flavor; Korean citron [유자] with a unique blend of sweetness and intense sourness; sand lance fish sauce [까나리 액젓] with deeper savoriness than Southeast Asian fish sauces; the "single-day" sun-dried salt [당일 천일염] of the Shinan region that could rival the Guerande salt. There are countless "the food ingredients that are only available in Korea or taste the best when produced in Korea."

The information about such food ingredients do exist in the files of the central government, local government, producers' association, university, research institutes, etc. But they are not systematically organized in a way that can be utilized by the food industry. Even if an aspiring chef wanted to buy the chopi fruit and utilize it in Korean food, there is no place that gives the information about the characteristics of the fruit, difference between chopi and the similar fruit from sancho tree, the seasons for chopi fruit depending on the region and the difference in quality depending on the season, processing methods and the difference in flavor based such methods, sample cuisines, keeping methods, the producers' contact information, pricing and location, etc. The chef would surf the Internet countless hours, make a number of phone calls, and then give up.

To emphasize once more: food changes. Korean food eaten by Korean people today is very different from the food of Joseon a century ago. The major crops grown in Korean Peninsula changed, and so did the fish caught in her coasts. The heating and cooking devices in the kitchen changed, and so did the plates and dishes that present the food. More than anything else, our life style changed as we progressed from agricultural society to an industrial one, and our appetite changed as we were introduced to foreign cuisine. Looking at our food from Joseon's perspective only causes confusion in finding our tradition and identity. Joseon had Joseon cuisine; in the 21st century Korea, there is Korean cuisine. In order to find the identity amid the changing Korean cuisine, we have no choice but to focus on "the food ingredients that are only available in Korea or taste the best when produced in Korea." Everything else, such as style development or standardization of recipes, must come after figuring out the value of Korea's foodstuff, and making that information available.

뜻하지 않은 한식 세계화 논란 [악식가의 미식일기]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.