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29 Oct 2010

The globalization of Korean cuisine – Some time ago, I edited a book on Korean cuisine that had been translated by some of my former students. I usually don’t take on outside jobs these days, thanks to my busy schedule, but both of these students were skilled translators and it sounded like an interesting project. As with all such things, of course, it ended up being more work than I expected, but I don’t regret doing it. It was very interesting, and I think it was worth my time. (I’ll provide info on the books at the end of the entry.)

“Globalization is not something that you push, it’s something that gets pulled by others.”

If you’ve read Liminality for any length of time, you’ll know that I have a great interest in food. Not only do I like to eat (quality over quantity, of course), but I enjoy cooking and baking as well. I would not describe myself as an expert on food or cooking, though. I’m just an enthusiastic amateur—a hobbyist, if you will. So I was not a little surprised (and amused) when, after the book was published, I received a phone call from a newspaper reporter asking me to comment on Korean cuisine and how it might be effectively introduced to the rest of the world. The surprising part was getting the call at all, but the amusing part was when the reporter said that he was aware of my “deep knowledge of Korean cuisine.” I decided to humor him, though, and plainly shared my thoughts on the subject.

Due to my utter lack of interest in any sort of publicity, I never read the article, but I must have not looked like a complete idiot, since not long after I got another call from a reporter from a different paper, asking me to share my thoughts on the subject once again. I obliged and answered her questions, which went beyond what I had said previously. Again, I did not read the resulting article—but again, it must not have been too bad, because a few weeks ago I got an email from another reporter for yet another paper asking me what I thought about the subject.

This last request was different from the first two in two ways: it was done via email and it was done in English. So not only do I have a record of what I wrote, but I wrote it all in English. And since my comments only made up a very small part of the article, I figured I would use my original replies as source material for an entry here. I’m finally getting to this now because I just got an email from this reporter today thanking me for my long-winded answers and offering to send me copies of the newspaper. I had mentioned in my previous email that I would probably write something on my website, so I figured I’d make good on that before replying. Besides, it’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything here, and I figured it was about time to break the silence.

The article (going by the description I got in the original email) is about how the names of Korean foods are expressed in English, so the questions this reporter had for me were all related to this concept. For instance, you’ll go into some restaurants and find “bibimbap” on one menu and “rice bowl with beef and vegetables” on another. They refer to the same dish (“bibimbap” literally means “mixed rice” or “rice mixed with something”), but you might never know that. Which is better, to introduce foreigners to the names of Korean dishes or to write a description that they can understand?

The answer to that question is fairly simple, I think, and you can see examples of it in just about any non-Korean restaurant in Seoul. Go into any Indian restaurant and you will probably find Palak Paneer on the menu. But you will also find a description of the dish right below the name (it is a spinach curry with a fresh cheese called “paneer”). Before I started eating in Indian restaurants, I had no idea what palak paneer was, but now I know what it is and I know that I like it.

When I first came to Korea, I lived in a boarding house near the front gate of Yonsei University. One of the great things about boarding houses in Korea is that you usually get two meals a day, breakfast and dinner (at least, this used to be the case, and I suspect it still is). The woman who ran the boarding house where I stayed was a good cook, and pretty much everything she made was tasty. Every time I was introduced to a new dish, I asked her in my rudimentary Korean what it was called. Each week I would usually latch onto one dish in particular, and then I would find a restaurant where I could order that dish and eat it for lunch just about every day of the week. At first my choices were limited, but the more dishes I added to my repertoire, the more variety I had at lunchtime. That was almost fifteen years ago, but I remember quite clearly that memorizing the names of Korean dishes was the most pressing practical issue for me in learning Korean.

I also remember when I discovered bibimbap. After learning the name of the dish, I went into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant somewhere and ordered it. It was a very small restaurant, and I was sitting at something like a bar with an older Korean man next to me. The dish came out as bibimbap always does: with the rice on the bottom and a collection of vegetables and greens on top. I began to eat it much like one would eat a Japanese dish (that is, just picking up the ingredients and eating them), but then I heard a commotion from beside me. At first I thought my neighbor was having a seizure, but then I realized that he was just distressed at how I was eating my bibimbap.

“No, no! That’s not how you eat it! Here.” And with this he grabbed my spoon and began frantically mixing the rice and vegetables. I was stunned, and just sat there as he mixed the food. When he was done, he put the spoon back down and went back to his food with a satisfied smile on his face. After a few moments I picked up the spoon and began to eat my violated bibimbap in silence. The man grunted, “Better, isn’t it?” I nodded dumbly but didn’t look at him, desperately hoping that he would go away.

Although I was probably too shocked to realize it at the time, bibimbap does in fact taste better when you mix it like you’re supposed to. On the last flight I took from Korea, I was amused to receive a little booklet instructing me on how to eat my bibimbap. I know I saved the booklet and must have it around here somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it at the moment. Anyway, it was a rather detailed booklet with step-by-step instructions on how to prepare and eat the dish. I don’t remember exactly what those instructions were, but they could have been summed up in three words: mix and eat.

That was a bit of a tangential trip down memory lane there, but it wasn’t entirely without purpose. I used the word “bibimbap” six times over the last three paragraphs, but I’m guessing that, even if you don’t speak Korean and weren’t familiar with the dish, the strange word didn’t bother you too much. Getting back to the issue of how the names of Korean foods should be presented on menus, why not do what every other type of restaurant in Seoul does and have the Korean name of the dish followed by a description of it? The truth is that people like using the native names for foreign dishes. For one, it’s convenient and efficient. Rather than having to explain a dish, you can just call it by name. Also, native names of dishes are an important part of the vocabulary of a particular cuisine—just as someone with an interest in building websites will use terms like “markup,” “server-side scripting,” and “style sheets,” so will someone with an interest in Korean food be familiar with terms like “bibimbap,” “kimchi,” and “bulgogi.” Such terms not only allow efficient communication, they also mark you as a member of a special group.

The final question I was asked was a tough one, but it’s something that has been on my mind for a while now. The reporter asked me what I thought the most pressing issue was in terms of the globalization of Korean cuisine. If you are familiar with Korea at all, you’ll know that the government is very keen on marketing Korean culture. The popularity of Korean television dramas in Asia has led to what is called “the Korean Wave,” and this wave is spreading out into other areas of Korean culture, such as Korean cuisine.

How does a country go about globalizing its cuisine, though? Creating an environment that allows foreigners visiting Korea to easily approach and become familiar with the food is one obvious way. But what about when those foreigners leave Korea and go back to their home countries? How do you ensure that they take their love of Korean food back with them? And how do you reach out to people who may never visit Korea?

The quick answer is easy: you don’t. This is something that I think gets lost sometimes in the effort to capitalize on the Korean Wave—globalization is not something that you push, it’s something that gets pulled by others. That is, you can market your culture and cuisine all you want, but unless people find something in there with which they can identify, all that marketing is going to fall on deaf ears. I’m not saying that marketing is necessarily bad (although there is always the danger that over-marketing can backfire and cause a backlash), but it can only take you so far. The market itself has to do the rest.

The so-called “sushi police” are a good example of the paradox of globalized cuisine. About four years ago, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Japan decided that they were tired of the poor quality of what passed for “Japanese cuisine” abroad. So they came up with the idea of sending inspectors to Japanese restaurants overseas to rate them on authenticity. The goal was partly to provide Japanese traveling abroad with a guide to food that would be more like what they find at home—but it was also an effort to spread the true culinary culture of Japan to the rest of the world.

Even if you’re not familiar with the story, you can probably imagine the reaction to the news. People don’t like being told that the food they enjoy is not “authentic.” Having someone come in and invalidate your tastes and preferences is not a pleasant thing. After all, if we enjoy the food, does it really matter if it is “authentic”? I mean, look at what the Japanese do to pizza. Mayonnaise? Corn? (In all fairness, Koreans do this as well, but I’m pretty sure it’s because of Japanese influence.) Yet you don’t see the Italian government sending out inspectors to declare Japanese pizza a crime against Italian cuisine.

Such was the reaction against the idea of “sushi police” that the Japanese government decided they would only send inspectors at the request of individual restaurants. If a particular restaurant wanted to prove itself “authentic,” inspectors would be dispatched to perform a series of tests. If the restaurant passed these tests, they would receive an official recommendation from the Japanese government. Those who were doing fine without such a recommendation had no reason to worry that they would be declared “inauthentic.”

The lesson here for the globalization of a national cuisine is obvious: either you accept true globalization and all the different interpretations that come with it, or you insist on “authenticity” and remove the possibility of interpretation by the Other—and thus eliminate the possibility of globalization. You can’t have it both ways. This is what I meant by “push” and “pull” above. The Korean government can market Korean cuisine all they want—and that’s great. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. As far as I’m concerned, the more information out there when it comes to Korean food, the better. That book that I copy edited? It looks fantastic, and I would recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about Korean cuisine. But, like I said above, marketing only gets you so far. At some point, the market has to take over, and that’s when it adopts Korean cuisine and adapts it to local tastes and preferences.

So what is the most pressing issue when it comes to the globalization of Korean cuisine? Honestly, I think the most pressing issue is to realize that marketing will only get you so far. You have to accept that others are going to take your precious ideas and change them, and that concepts like “authenticity” may end up meaning very little in the long run. Take pizza, for example. I didn’t mention it above simply because the Japanese put some really strange things on their pizza. In fact, pizza is a perfect example of a global food, and because of that it is a little different everywhere you find it—and sometimes very different. But it’s all still pizza.

I ended my email with a comment that may sound tongue-in-cheek, but I meant it in all seriousness: “The day that Korean food becomes truly global is the day you can drive through a small town in the heartland of the United States and stop in a Korean restaurant that serves ‘beebimbahp’ with spinach and other American-style greens, maybe with a side dish of western cabbage kimchi.” That’s what it means to be globalized. It’s not about pushing your ideas out into the rest of the world, it’s about the rest of the world finding something in your ideas that they want to be a part of. And when that happens, those ideas are no longer going to be “yours,” they will be “ours,” and by that I mean all of us.

I suppose I would be remiss if I ended this without telling you the title of the book I mentioned above. There are two books, actually: Korean Food, the Originality and Korean Food, the Impression. Both books are filled with incredible photos, very interesting content, and a good selection of recipes at the end. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that, while I would heartily recommend the books to any foodie or fan of Korean food, I only worked on the first of the pair, Korean Food, the Originality, so I cannot personally vouch for the copy in the second book.) Amazon has the pair of books for $95, but if you’re in Korea you can get them much cheaper at Seoul Selection. I was lucky enough to get a pair of books for the small part I played in the process.

Hopefully today’s entry will go a little way toward making up for my long absence. I’ll try not to let that much time pass before the next time I write.

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