Pop­u­lar­ity of K-pop spills over into in­ter­est in Korean food

The Korea Times - - FEATURE -

The “Korean wave,” also known as “hal­lyu,” is a ma­jor driver for Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture in 2019.

This writer reg­u­larly catches the teens in my or­bit por­ing over trans­la­tions of Korean lyrics while they’re meant to be do­ing their school­work. They linger in the hall­ways, at­tempt­ing to master the so­phis­ti­cated chore­og­ra­phy of K-pop idols and cap­ture their moves on video.

They rel­ish the color­ful cos­tumes, tan­ta­liz­ing melodies, and de­fined roles that make K-pop prime for Amer­i­can fan­dom.

For ref­er­ence, only 3 per­cent of the youth I work with iden­tify as Asian, though it feels like all of them are com­pelled by el­e­ments of South Korean cul­ture.

They are es­pe­cially smit­ten with K-pop, an army of sen­sa­tional genre-bend­ing per­for­mance groups noted for their au­dio­vi­sual ap­peal. Nearly ev­ery news seg­ment I watched on the sub­ject of K-pop be­gins with a clip of The Bea­tles step­ping off the plane in New York on Feb. 7, 1964, to mark the start of the Bri­tish In­va­sion. The Korean wave has crested.

In early Oc­to­ber, a new K-pop su­per­group called Su­perM chose to stage its de­but per­for­mance in Hol­ly­wood. Fans saw this de­ci­sion as a sig­nif­i­cant step for the fu­ture of K-pop in Amer­ica.

Sure enough, Su­perM de­buted at No. 1 on the Bill­board 200 chart.

The suc­cess of Su­perM was by de­sign, thanks in large part to the South Korean govern­ment. The govern­ment has in­vested crit­i­cal re­sources into its Cul­ture Min­istry, dat­ing back to the 1990s. Since then, Korea has built up so­phis­ti­cated na­tional strate­gies around mu­sic and video con­tent and ac­cu­mu­lated its fair share of cul­tural in­flu­ence across the globe. Amer­i­can tastemak­ers are hooked.

Last week, a mid­dle-schooler asked me if I had ever made a “meok­bang” video and I found my­self ner­vously googling. Turns out, a meok­bang (pro­nounced “meok-bong”) is a live broad­cast of some­one feast­ing on an ex­ten­sive or oth­er­wise in­tri­cate ar­ray of dishes. Meok­bang is just one more pop cul­ture phe­nom­e­non to orig­i­nate out of South Korea. Along with K-dra­mas and K-beauty, Korean cui­sine is hot­ter than ever.

More than 6,700 miles from Seoul, the frol­ic­some sin­cer­ity of a Korean boy band re­ver­ber­ates in Worces­ter, Mas­sachusetts. To walk through the door of sim­jang on Shrews­bury Street here is to emerge in an elab­o­rate K-pop video. (“DNA” by BTS comes to mind, if you’re look­ing for a solid en­try point.)

Young peo­ple once smit­ten with fast food now clamor to cap­ture them­selves bit­ing into pork buns and dumplings on camera. Sim­jang is a meok­banger’s dream.

Chef-owner Jared For­man opened sim­jang a year and a half ago, and has since man­aged to con­sol­i­date the menu to an ex­e­cutable cat­a­log of Korean fried chicken, rice bowls, and ra­men. He and his sous chefs, Storm Eas­ton and Nick Bre­yare, also cu­rate a ro­tat­ing ros­ter of spe­cials de­signed to en­gage cus­tomers with the ad­dic­tive con­sti­tu­tion of a K-pop smash hit.

On a re­cent Satur­day, I asked For­man to hi­jack my meal. He sent out fried pop­pers stuffed with tofu and “nooch” — nu­tri­tional yeast that is both cheesy and ve­gan. We pulled at a pile of krab na­chos cov­ered in crab sticks, scal­lions, cilantro, sesame and pun­gent gochu­jang.

An uniden­ti­fied man walked past our ta­ble and de­clared, “That’s a stoner’s paradise!”

Then came a whole red fish, fried and gar­nished with sweet sliv­ers of Asian pear and a punchy vinai­grette. We ate greens too — ama­ranth and chrysanthe­mum leaves lay­ered into a deep bowl. We dunked seared prawns in a bath of miso co­conut broth and then crunched through their heads, de­vour­ing them whole. I snipped at my pork ribs with a pair of red kitchen scis­sors and then ate with my hands.

At the end of our meal, a ly­chee mai tai ap­peared at our ta­ble, sprin­kled with a fine layer of pur­ple yam pow­der. I could have sworn it jumped straight out of Loona’s “Love Cherry Mo­tion” video in which hues of mauve, amethyst, laven­der and vi­o­let wash over five dancers in per­fect syn­chronic­ity. I took one sip and I felt cer­tain that Amer­ica’s em­brace of South Korean cul­ture was less like a “wave” and more like a chang­ing tide.

(Tele­gram & Gazette, Worces­ter, Mass./ Tri­bune News)

Sarah Con­nell San­ders-Tri­bune News

Sim­jang’s fried pop­pers stuffed with tofu and “nooch” — nu­tri­tional yeast that is both cheesy and ve­gan.

Sarah Con­nell San­ders-Tri­bune News

Sim­jang’s pork ribs are served with kitchen scis­sors, as is tra­di­tional in many Korean homes.

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