South Korea: Korean food goes global

Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images/NEWSCOM
A shopkeeper sells kimchi, the spicy side dish beloved by Koreans, at a market in Seoul, South Korea.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – First there were Korean cars, television sets, and semiconductors. Then came the “Korean wave” as a flood of K-pop, Korean films, and other manifestations of Korean culture lapped up on the shores of other Asian countries before drifting to the United States and Europe.

Now it’s time for Korean cuisine to get “globalized,” in the view of Korean government officials, restaurateurs, and chefs. In a world long accustomed to delicacies and their derivatives from China, Japan, India, Thailand, and Vietnam, why not Korean kimchi, beef bulgoki, and kalbi?

That’s a question that several hundred delegates tried to answer in a day-long series of seminars – and a multicourse luncheon – about popularizing Korean food in a world that tends to shrug it off as a specialty mainly for Koreans.

Edward Kwon, a Korean who specializes in French cooking, is head chef at the six-star Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and plans to open his own upscale restaurant in Seoul. He believes the historic success of the French and Italians in spreading their cuisines worldwide sets a precedent for Koreans to emulate.

“We have to find a way to mix the traditional with what is contemporary,” he says.

Mr. Kwon believes Korean food may have to adapt somewhat to foreign tastes. “We have to develop easy and simple dishes when we approach foreign markets,” he says. “We need to update our cookbooks. If we do it, we will succeed.”

Already Korean food has penetrated the palates of Japanese, who have the yen to shop and dine here in droves at favorable currency exchange rates.

With a large Korean minority in Japan long accustomed to its own dishes, spicy kimchi tops the list of Korean favorites. That’s a vegetable, predominantly cabbage, that’s spiced up with hot chili peppers and other more recondite stuff and preserved historically in large kimchi pots for the long, cold winters.

For the main course, says Kazu Katoh, president of the Japan Food Service Association, Japanese have come to salivate over bibimbap, a confection of vegetables, raw and cooked, one raw egg, a dollop of kimchi, another of chili sauce, and maybe some beef on rice, all served in a deep bowl, to be stirred vigorously before ingesting. Then there are the staples of beef bulgoki, a barbecue often cooked at the table, and kalbi, another form of meat, boiled on the bone, both favorites in Japan.

Foreign experts, here to help spread the word about Korean food, advise Korean restaurateurs not to focus excessively on profits.

“It’s frustrating to see franchised business owners just interested in increasing the numbers,” says Charles Cointreau, representative director of Le Cordon Bleu. “They’re not putting enough – if any – value on their regional food. They need to make it [a] cultural experience.”

Take kimchi, he pleads. “Try to have real kimchi outside Korea, and you have industrialized kimchi,” he says. “It’s too hot.”

Koreans, says Mr. Cointreau, should never forget the origins of their diets. “They’re trying to push the new identity,” he says. “There’s no mention of the historical culture. For me, that’s where the food takes place.”

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