Serious about globalizing Korean food? Then stop watering it down

Serious about globalizing Korean food? Then stop watering it down

Pushing the same boring and bland dishes will hardly win people’s hearts -- or bellies

“Globalization of Korean food” is a phrase the government has bandied about for years.

The mission to promote Korean cuisine around the world has been taken on with enthusiasm by everyone from First Lady Kim Yoon-ok to the goofy cast of the TV show “Infinite Challenge.”

The problem? Seriously backward tactics. 

Take, for example, a recent survey by the Seoul city government that asked non-Koreans their favorite local dish.

Included among the choices were undoubted actual favorites like grilled samgyeopsal pork or galbi beef. Also listed were head-scratchers like songpyeon, chewy rice cakes that are only really popular around Korean thanksgiving, and bossam, a dish of boiled pork that I’d deem just OK.

In a tweet, one friend astutely noted, “Of the foods this survey prompts you with, only two are spicy. Hardly representative. Bad list.”

Other options were: kimchi (a side dish), samgyetang (tasty, but tricky and often too subtle for many palates), tteokbokki (love it, but a lot of friends hate the texture), bibimbap (cliche!), naengmyeon and tteokguk (both tasty, but not exactly inspiring).

Where were succulent bulgogi and crispy pajeon? Or dakgalbi, the fiery chicken stir-fry that my friend named as a “glaring omission”? And hello, it was a crime to leave off all of those famously spicy Korean stews.

More on CNNGo: Chef Edward Kwon: On a mission to globalize Korean cuisine

The good stuff

While everyone has his or her own preferences, the Korean food I know and love is exciting.

It arrives at your table burbling hot, in the case of mouthwatering, pungent jjigae, or hisses on the grill, dripping delicious fatty goodness, like the aforementioned samgyeopsal.

It is not, ahem, the staid, pretty-but-overwrought dishes you see in this commercial by the Korea Tourism Organization. And honestly, has anyone ever eaten a Korean meal in such prissy little bites?

Everyone knows you’re supposed to shovel the good stuff into your mouth in Korea!

If the Korean government is serious about piquing interest in Korean cuisine around the world, they should take a page from the people who have done it right. 

I have listed some below that are wonderful ambassadors.

More on CNNGo: The new Bibimbap: A modern take on a Korean food favorite

Korean food all-stars

Sensory overload: Chef Yim Jung-sik's "five senses satisfaction pork belly." Chef Yim Jung-sik, who has tickled Seoul palates with his inventive, molecular twist on traditional tastes, has gleaned breathless coverage in New York City over the recent opening of his upscale TriBeCa outpost, Jung Sik.

Meanwhile, also in New York, Seoul-born chef Hooni Kim’s mid-priced eatery Danji has become the first Korean restaurant to earn a Michelin star, and that’s after earning accolades from the Village Voice, Bloomberg and the The New York Times

Through her TV series and cookbook, both called "The Kimchi Chronicles," Marja Vongerichten has made Korean food more non-Korean user-friendly. For the home cook, Marja Vongerichten (Korean-born wife of acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten) has made traditional recipes accessible to the average American in her new cookbook, “The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen.”

Recipes and guidance extend to kitchens all around the world, not just the USA.

While ingredients like gochujang pepper paste and chamgireum sesame oil might make some balk, Vongerichten, as quoted in Women’s Health magazine, says, “Don’t be intimidated! Fear comes from the unknown. Once you see and understand Korean cooking, it will be just as easy as any mainstream American casserole.”

In her accompanying PBS TV series, also called “The Kimchi Chronicles,” Vongerichten, in her winsome way, helps audiences to that end. She’s utterly charming and real as she spotlights the colorful deliciousness that can be found in the humblest jjigae shack or Seoul street market, a far cry from those fakey actors in the snooze-worthy commercial linked above.

So get a clue.

Don’t strip Korean food of its flavor and fun, like the first lady did when serving a bland, watered-down lunch to G-20 spouses.

Korean food will only win hearts -- and bellies -- when you keep it real with those powerful, unique flavors that make it so special in the first place.

More on CNNGo: Best Seoul bindaetteok: Flipping good Korean 'pancakes'

The opinions of this piece are solely those of Hannah Bae.


Hannah Bae left the monuments of D.C. for Seoul’s newsrooms in 2007 armed with a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship and a whole lot of enthusiasm. In addition to her day job of editing breaking news, she spends her free time freelancing for such organizations as the AP, GlobalPost, the German Press Agency dpa, Wallpaper*, Nanoomi.net, TBS eFM radio and now CNNGo. 

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