The little things we love about Korean food that make it Asia’s hottest food trend
THERE’S NO DENYING IT – KOREAN FOOD ISN’T JUST A PASSING FAD. FROM BANCHAN AND SOJU TO THE FINE DINING FARE OF MICHELINSTARRED KOREAN RESTAURANTS, WE EXAMINE THE ROOTS OF THIS EAST ASIAN CUISINE AND ITS RISE IN THE GLOBAL CULINARY SCENE. BY EUNICE LEW AND VICTORIA LIM
You’ve seen it on television, in the news, and on the streets – South Korean food is the hottest Asian cuisine now. In 2016, a dinner series organised by Koreanyc Dinners and Seoul-based gourmet magazine La Main
in New York City saw five top Korean chefs partner with two U.s.-based toques. On the small screen, the worldwide popularity of K-dramas and K-pop music videos has also introduced food-focused programmes to an international audience, such as Please Take Care of My Refrigerator (where chefs have to whip up a meal using ingredients from celebrities’ refrigerators) and Three Meals a Day (during which a star-studded cast is sent to rural or secluded locations and forced to cook three meals a day from scratch). Koreatowns all over the world – even in far-flung locales such as Brazil (yes, Brazil) – are flourishing, whether you’re there to stock up on kimchi, gochujang
(fermented red chilli paste) or preserved seafood from groceries, sink your teeth into marinated meats cooked over charcoal grills, or get your hands dirty with sticky and spicy fried drumlets with a jug of beer (a style of eating called chimaek).
To make sense of the rise of this Korean cultural phenomenon known as hanryu (han means Korea and ryu means wave), romanised as hallyu, one has to look back to the 1990s. Then, the economic crisis hit South Korea and forced the country’s ministries to rethink their economic strategy. Fearing that the constant import of foreign cultural products would direct their finances out of the country and dilute their identity, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture rolled out initiatives to boost and promote locally made entertainment worldwide. The peninsula’s closest neighbours – China and Japan – eagerly lapped up K-dramas and K-pop, sparking the demand for Korean culture and eventually its food in Asia, and soon enough, the rest of the world followed.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF A CUISINE
With 5,000 years of storied history, Korean cuisine has been exposed to countless cross-cultural influences (such as the introduction of sweet potatoes by the Japanese in the 18th century) and is thus incredibly nuanced. Yet, it remains distinct, due to the nation’s seasons, proximity to the seas, undulating terrain, and the fertility of its lands. But Korea wasn’t always an agricultural haven. After the wars of the 20th century, poverty and the scarcity of food and crops heightened the importance of food to the people.
As a peninsula surrounded by seas on three sides, and encompassing a landscape that includes plains and peaks, the country
has the ideal climate to cultivate rice, and the grain thus became a lynchpin of the cuisine. “Home meals usually comprise of bap (rice), at least two types of banchan, soup such as beansprouts or beef bone, and larger dishes such as bossam (sliced pork belly that has been marinated in spices),” says South Korea-born chef Sun Kim of one Michelin-starred Meta in Singapore.
Like many Asian cuisines, a typical Korean meal is communal and not separated into courses. Mains, banchan (side dishes) and rice or noodles are served at the same time. The selection of dishes that go into a meal isn’t hodgepodge – careful consideration ensures that the dining experience is harmonious, with varying preparation techniques, textures and tastes. The cuisine’s flavour profile is a balance of salty, bitter, hot, sweet and sour, and emphasises the use of preserved and fermented foods along with fresh ingredients. The result is a meal brimming with dimensions of flavour – and pungency!
In particular, the country’s distinct seasons gave rise to the need to preserve or ferment dry food after the fall harvest to get through winter, keeping perishables fresh. And as it was later discovered, these preservation methods also increase the nutritional value of the foods by introducing gut-healthy bacteria to your stomach, reduce cholesterol level and even help to prevent cancer. Of the myriad components in Korean food, kimchi (a modern version of the word chimchae, which means soaked vegetables) is the first fermented food that comes to mind as it epitomises the cuisine’s flavour profile. On top of the vegetablesbased dish (of which there are countless varieties), Koreans also ferment seafood such as shrimps, anchovies, cuttlefish, oysters, crabs and shellfish to make jeotgal. Cured in salt and then stored, the protein in the seafood breaks down and develops unique flavours and aromas, while the calcium-rich bones also become tender and edible.
The Korean kitchen is never without these ingredients: jang (sauces) such as gochujang, doenjang (fermented soy bean paste) and ganjang (soy sauce); bap such as short-grain white rice, glutinous rice, boribap (barley rice) and japgokbap (multigrain rice); vegetables such as napa cabbage, radishes, seaweeds and mushrooms; and the seasonings of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil and rice vinegar.
Perhaps the most iconic of Korea’s complex flavours is spiciness. It is nothing like the numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorns or the rich and aromatic piquancy of Indian curry powders – the Korean’s preferred spice relies instead on the deeply flavourful and strong-smelling funk of fermented soy bean powder mingled with red chillies. This variety of chilli is widespread in Korean cuisine – whether as gochujang or gochugaru (red pepper flakes or powder) – and was brought to the nation by Catholic priests from Portugal, who had travelled with Japanese troops during the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 16th century. Such was the Koreans’ love for the chilli’s intense flavour back then that its fiery yet addictive kick is now ubiquitous in the cuisine, appearing in bulgogi (sliced, marinated and grilled beef) and bibimbap (a mixed bowl of rice, meat, seasoned vegetables and egg) to tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) and stews.
REFINING AND REDEFINING FLAVOURS
Despite the significance of vegetables and health benefits to its cuisine, the country’s most in-demand culinary exports can be said to be gogigui (barbecue) and chikin (fried chicken). Case in point: just along the Tanjong Pagar Road in Singapore, you can
find copious outlets peddling succulent grilled and jang-marinated meats and the numerous tongue-tingling flavours of sticky drumlets and wings. The latter is particularly popular because of its shatteringly crispy skin, the result of being fried twice.
Before the turn of the 21st century, the concept of fine dining by western standards was foreign to Koreans. What they were familiar with was hanjeongsik. Traditionally served to royals or aristocrats, this multi-course meal is still considered a luxury and novelty. In stark contrast to daily meals, hanjeongsik emphasises variety (to provide the upper class more sampling options) and involves several tables filled to the brim with health-focused dishes. Such was the excesses of hanjeongsik that even the rice was mixed with up to 12 different types of grains. “Traditionally, these meals are seldom finished – there’s a lot of wastage,” says Kim.
It took another decade from the birth of hallyu for modern Korean fine dining to come into its own, as the concept was foreign even to those living in South Korea. Jungsik Yim of his eponymous restaurants Jungsik (one Michelinstarred in Seoul and two Michelin-starred in New York) is widely credited as a pioneer of this dining style. After training at top tables in New York and San Sebastián such as Aquavit and Akelarre, the Culinary Institute of America graduate struck out on his own in Seoul in 2009 and New York in 2011. At that time, ‘fine dining’
and ‘Korean cuisine’ were mostly alien concepts to South Koreans and U.S.A. citizens respectively, so Yim fused the two, presenting European style refined fare with smidges of Korean flavours, to prevent a culture shock and make his dishes more palatable for diners unused to Korean cuisine’s powerful tastes.
Similarly, simpler Korean fare such as spice-laden stews, soups and meats as well as fermented vegetables and seafood had to be toned down when outside of its homeland in order to cater for uninitiated palates. But now that the food culture has infiltrated much of modern society, the cuisine’s bold flavours are embraced and can even be said to be as authentic to those in Korea, when the right ingredients are used. Fast-forward 10 years later, Korean flavours have become much more pervasive, and Yim has in turn become more confident with serving unreservedly Korean-style fine dining fare. Now, there’s a whole generation of Korean chefs striving to do the same, such as Mingoo
Kang of one Michelin-starred Mingles and Kim Sung Il of three Michelin-starred La Yeon. Says Kim: “Korean food is heading in a new, broader direction as more people are becoming keener to understand it.”
TAKING IT GLOBAL
Of course, hallyu can’t take full credit for the Korean food boom around the world. “As the economy recovered in the early 2000s and South Korea welcomed globalisation, diners started looking for better ways of eating. During the 1980s and 1990s, we also somewhat considered western cuisine ‘better’, although of course, neither cuisine is ‘better’. We simply learnt to embrace our culinary roots,” says pastry chef Je-wook Ko of Mille Gâteaux in Seoul. “There are many reasons for the Korean food explosion – South Korea’s rise as an international destination, Koreans travelling and moving abroad and opening businesses in other countries, plus individuals such as David Chang of Momofuku restaurant group and Roy Choi of the famed Kogi Korean BBQ fusion food trucks in Los Angeles zealously pushing Korean food into the mainstream,” explains Koreanamerican chef Corey Lee of three Michelin-starred Benu in San Francisco, where he doles out refined, Asian-influenced plates through tasting menus that cost a pretty penny.
As Koreans crossed borders and oceans – whether to Hawaii as sugarcane plantation labourers in the early 20th century, to Latin America from the 1950s as small-time textiles businessmen, or to the U.S.A. to escape the horrors of war in the 1950s and seek greener pastures as white-collar workers from the 1970s – they brought their beloved cuisine with them. The educated and skilled professionals from the latter spawned what is now U.S.A.’S second generation of Koreanamericans, many of whom, like chefs Lee, Chang, and Peter Cho of Han Oak, are eager to reconnect with their ethnic roots.
The launch of the Michelin Guide in Seoul in 2016 and featurette on monk-chef Jeong Kwan on Chef’s Table’s third season in 2017 also gave further prominence to Korean food by putting South Korea-based Korean chefs on the international stage and opening the international audience’s eyes to the world of temple cuisine. If the globalisation of other Asian cuisines are any indication, the world will soon be seeing more Korean chefs and regional cuisines come into spotlight. We can’t wait.
Chef-owner Jungsik Yim of Jungsik in Seoul and New York There are 187 different types of kimchi
Head chef Louis Han of Kimme and chefowner Sun Kim of Kimme and Meta
Benu A nine-course dinner at three Michelinstarred Gaon costs 290,000 won (S$355)
Chef-owner Corey Lee of Benu Char-grilled Beef Sirloin at La Yeon Executive chef Kim Sung Il of La Yeon
Mingles La Yeon’s Royal Hot Pot
Dolhareubang at Jungsik