Monday, May 1, 2017

The Problem With Korean Food And Food Culture, Globally Speaking

With the South Korean Winter Olympics less than a year away, lots of problems are popping up.  In particular, local restaurants aren't sure how to bring in business from foreigner visitors:
"The opening and closing ceremonies for the Pyeongchang Olympics will take place at Hoenggye. Forty-one out of 102 Olympic events will take place there for bobsledding, ski jumping and alpine skiing events. However, the restaurants in the area are ill-prepared for the more than 100,000 visitors expected. 
Restaurants near the Hoenggye Intercity Bus Terminal had a noticeable dearth of English-language menus, except for the larger 50-seat establishments. Even when smaller restaurants offered English language menus, their items were translated inconsistently. 
One restaurant wrote 'pork belly' for samgyeopsal and another wrote 'pork loin.' Another was satisfied using Korean romanization for beef short ribs soup, using galbitang.
Not a single restaurant provided an explanation of their menus in English. Restaurant placards in English were nowhere to be seen. A tiny 'Korean Restaurant' in English, affixed to some Korean language restaurant signs, was all."
It's kind of amazing how many of my pet peeves regarding South Korea are nailed in this seemingly innocuous article.

Where to begin?  In increasing orders of subjective opinion:

1)  I've traveled throughout Asia (with the notable exception of mainland China) and I've never had a problem eating delicious, exotic food despite obvious language barriers.  Why?  For starters, pointing at a plastic model of a dish or a simple picture of one using mere body language suffices in every country except Korea for some reason.  Koreans will simply freeze up in the presence of a foreigner and possibly even refuse to serve them to spare themselves the embarrassment of having to deal with one of them.  And no doubt, foreigners in South Korea don't always act like angels.  But hey, if I can order shark curry on a beach in Goa, or Pho in Hanoi, or dim sum in Hong Kong, places where I speak literally none of the local language, it's amazing that body language isn't enough for many restaurants in South Korea.  But why?

2)  Well, it's complicated, but before we even deal with English translation let's get to Korean food and restaurant culture.  Moreso than other countries, there are very specific rules for Korean food and if you break any of them Koreans will visibly cringe.  Dip your slice of pork belly into pepper sauce rather than salty shrimp paste?  You have basically insulted somebody's ancestor.  Leave the country and never come back.  (I'm not kidding here -- I've had good Korean friends physically grab me and stop me from dipping into an inappropriate sauce.  And if you asked them, they thought they were being polite.)  Because?

3)  Korean food and food culture are awesome, but paradoxically if Korean food wants to make more progress in the global food scene it needs to (ahem) get the fuck over itself.  Yes, kimchi and doenjang and gochujang are unique and delicious.  Yes, certain dishes really are unique in the truest sense of the word.  But for all of the goodness that is Korean cuisine, there's basically an annoying attitude of control that goes along with all of it.  (Cf. number 2).  Why?

4)  South Korea remains, despite many appearances, a deeply (scarily?) authoritarian culture, and to have a "genuine" Korean cultural experience (food-related or otherwise) without the watchful gaze of a Korean person renders the whole experience inauthentic.  I'm getting more out on a limb here, but I think this is really the problem in a nutshell -- Koreans don't trust foreigners to fully appreciate what Korean food (and culture generally) has to offer on its own terms.  But guess what -- at the end of the day, it's just food.  You can find the most gregarious and talented Korean grandma to cook up a dish of, say, stewed chicken, but as delicious as it is it's still stewed chicken.  It's a great, unique Korean dish, but chances are a foreigner has probably had some variation of chicken, veggies, and a starch before.  That's what I mean by "get over itself" -- food is more universal than Korean cuisine will ever be profoundly unique.  Variations of meat, veg, salt, and starch exist in every country and have for thousands of years.

5)  tl,dr -- the perfect is the enemy of the good.  Until Korean food culture realizes this and tries to cater to foreigners rather than beat them over the head with the snowflake-y "authenticty" of Hanshik (Korean food) it won't go far, globally speaking.  There's no reason it has to be the next big thing, and maybe at the end of the day it lacks the basic adaptability of national cuisines that aren't nearly as anxious about changing as they go global.

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