Gastronomic gaffe goes unchecked
Food scientist voices worry on culinary misinformation
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