Gas­tro­nomic gaffe goes unchecked

Food sci­en­tist voices worry on culi­nary mis­in­for­ma­tion

The Korea Times - - CULTURE - By Kang Hyun-kyung [email protected]­re­

Gas­tron­omy is an emerg­ing field that lends it­self to mas­sive mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of history.

Driven by the pop­u­lar­ity of TV food shows and the pop­ping up of “un­qual­i­fied” food columnists, culi­nary mis­in­for­ma­tion has be­come wide­spread, from coun­try of ori­gin in in­gre­di­ents to culi­nary cul­ture.

The prob­lem it poses is so grave that much of what we know to­day or what is be­lieved to be true is in­ac­cu­rate at best.

Sadly, the wrong­do­ers are among us. Ex­perts, news agen­cies, schol­ars and even state-spon­sored in­sti­tutes are cre­at­ing and spread­ing fake news about Korean food.

In his new book “Hu­man­i­ties of Hanksik: Prais­ing the Diver­sity of Korean Food Based on Sci­ence” pub­lished by Health Let­ter, food sci­en­tist Kwon Dae-young raises sus­pi­cion about the ex­per­tise of some lo­cal food ex­perts, call­ing them “ir­re­spon­si­ble.”

“There are so many sci­en­tific er­rors and un­con­vinc­ing sto­ries in the gas­tron­omy of Korean food,” he says in the book. “As a sci­en­tist, I felt the urge to right the wrong. The glob­al­iza­tion of Korean food has cre­ated a buzz. But what if we keep go­ing for it with­out pre­par­ing our­selves with suf­fi­cient sci­en­tific and aca­demic knowl­edge? The an­swer is clear: We’ll face the con­se­quences.”

Kwon, a re­search fel­low at the Korea Food Re­search In­sti­tute and ed­i­tor-in-chief of the Journal of Eth­nic Foods, men­tioned the long-held view about the coun­try of ori­gin of Korean chilies as one of strik­ing ex­am­ples show­ing Kore­ans’ clum­si­ness.

The pop­u­lar be­lief is that Ja­panese traders brought chilies to Korea af­ter the Imjin War (159298). Ac­cord­ing to this, Ital­ian ex­plorer Christo­pher Colum­bus took the chili to Por­tu­gal, from where Por­tuguese traders took it to In­dia and later In­di­ans took it again to Ja­pan.

This view was first pre­sented in Korea in 1984 in an aca­demic pa­per writ­ten by then Hanyang Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Lee Sung­woo. In the pa­per, ti­tled “A Study of Korean Chili History and Qual­ity As­sess­ment,” Lee claimed Kore­ans had en­joyed chilies prob­a­bly af­ter the 1592 Ja­panese in­va­sion of Korea. “It took al­most a cen­tury for the chili to even­tu­ally be brought to Korea from Ja­pan by way of Por­tu­gal and South­east Asian coun­tries,” the pa­per read.

Kwon, how­ever, de­bunks Lee’s find­ing. Ac­cord­ing to him, Colum­bus took the Mex­i­can chili — a dif­fer­ent species from what Kore­ans have con­sumed for cen­turies — to Por­tu­gal. “The chili that Colum­bus took to Por­tu­gal is cap­sicum bac­ca­tum, whereas the chili that we Kore­ans are con­sum­ing is cap­sicum an­nuum and they are two very dif­fer­ent species,” he said.

Kwon says chilies are rarely used in Ja­panese food and thus the the­ory about the role of Ja­panese traders in trans­fer­ring the in­gre­di­ent to Korea is un­con­vinc­ing.

He claims Kore­ans had en­joyed chilies even be­fore the out­break of the Imjin War as this is con­firmed in sev­eral his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments cre­ated far be­fore the Ja­panese in­va­sion of the Joseon King­dom in the 16th cen­tury.

The term “go-cho,” sim­i­lar to “go-chu” (chili), first ap­peared in the 1527 book “Hoon-mong-ja­hoe,” a vo­cab­u­lary book for chil­dren. Based on this, Korean lan­guage ex­pert Hong Yoon-pyo claimed Kore­ans used chili even be­fore the 1592 Ja­panese in­va­sion.

Joseon scholar Lee Kyu-kyung’s book, ti­tled “O-ju-yeon-mun­jang-jeon-san-go” (scat­tered sto­ries about five con­ti­nents and six oceans), writes that there were three dif­fer­ent species of chili here in his time (1788-1863), with one homegrown chili called “a-cho.”

The de­bate over when Kore­ans first con­sumed chilies mat­ters, be­cause there are sev­eral other dishes, such as chili paste and “tteok-bok-ki” which use chili as a main in­gre­di­ent.

Be­fore 1984 when Pro­fes­sor Lee pre­sented the 1592 Ja­panese in­va­sion as a mile­stone year for the sta­ple in­gre­di­ent, Kore­ans thought chili paste was a cen­turies-old in­gre­di­ent. The history of chili paste was short­ened into a fer­mented side dish that came af­ter the in­va­sion.

The way Kwon de­bunks the culi­nary gaffe is very sci­en­tific. He presents culi­nary mis­in­for­ma­tion, coun­ters it based on aca­demic or sci­en­tific ev­i­dence, and looks into the root causes of the mis­in­for­ma­tion. By do­ing so, he en­ables his read­ers to have a com­par­a­tive view of his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Korean gas­tron­omy and how it is dif­fer­ent from long-held views.

Kwon blamed some ex­perts for wrong­fully at­tribut­ing “dak-dori-tang” (braised spicy chicken) to a lo­cal­ized Ja­panese dish. “Peo­ple thought braised spicy chicken was a Ja­panese dish be­cause of the mid­dle part of the name, “do-ri.” It means bird in Ja­panese,” he said. “With­out check­ing the facts in his­tor­i­cal records, such a view was ac­cepted by many Kore­ans and they took it for granted that the dish was from Ja­pan.”

The base­less, sweep­ing be­lief has led the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Korean Lan­guage to re­name the dish “dak-bok-eum-tang.” The in­sti­tute en­cour­aged the Korean pub­lic to use the “Korean name” they sug­gested, in­stead of “dak-do-ri-tang.”

“The in­sti­tute didn’t even check or val­i­date whether the pop­u­lar be­lief was true or not be­fore up­dat­ing the guide­lines. Their re­vi­sion of the dish ti­tle is not based on any sci­en­tific or gas­tro­nomic ev­i­dence, caus­ing con­fu­sion,” said Kwon.

He said “do-ri” used in the dish name is ac­tu­ally a Korean verb mean­ing “chop­ping meats or other ob­jects into chunks with a knife or stick.”

“Our an­ces­tors made the names of dishes based on cer­tain rules. The main in­gre­di­ents come first fol­lowed by how they are cooked. The last part of dish names means what kinds of food they are, for ex­am­ple, stew, broth or fried, things like that.”


The ori­gin of Korean chilies has been a topic of de­bate re­cently af­ter food sci­en­tist Kwon Dae-young de­bunked the long-held view that Ja­panese traders brought the chilies dur­ing the in­va­sion of the Joseon King­dom in 1592.

“Hu­man­i­ties of Hanksik: Prais­ing the Diver­sity of Korean Food Based on Sci­ence” by Kwon Dae-young

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