Popularity of K-pop spills over into interest in Korean food
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)
Simjang’s fried poppers stuffed with tofu and “nooch” — nutritional yeast that is both cheesy and vegan.
Simjang’s pork ribs are served with kitchen scissors, as is traditional in many Korean homes.