ZenKimchi http://zenkimchi.com Exploring Korean food since 2004 Tue, 27 Jun 2017 04:22:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8 https://i2.wp.com/zenkimchi.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/cropped-ZK_Logo_app_512.png?fit=32%2C32 ZenKimchi http://zenkimchi.com 32 32 My favorite snack lately. Korean Smoked Eggs. http://zenkimchi.com/featured/my-favorite-snack-lately-korean-smoked-eggs/ http://zenkimchi.com/featured/my-favorite-snack-lately-korean-smoked-eggs/#respond Tue, 27 Jun 2017 04:22:40 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=91732 View on Instagram http://ift.tt/2tgGvdF

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Where To Eat in Korea? Download Our New App. http://zenkimchi.com/featured/eat-korea-download-new-app/ http://zenkimchi.com/featured/eat-korea-download-new-app/#respond Tue, 30 May 2017 03:33:02 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=91714 The post Where To Eat in Korea? Download Our New App. appeared first on ZenKimchi.


Is there a reliable map of restaurants in Seoul?

What bars have specials tonight?

I’m visiting Seoul. What should I do there? Are there any good tours?

How can I meet fellow Korean foodies in Korea?

I’ve been working hard for the past few months on this, and now it’s finally come out. The ZenKimchi Food & Tours App is now available in the Google Play Store.


The app includes the following features:

  • Restaurant MegaMap with spots curated from ZenKimchi, Restaurant Buzz Seoul, and even books like Graham Holliday’s new must-read tome Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance. It also includes popular markets and food neighborhoods.
  • Food Events Calendar. A convenient easy-to-use source for wing nights, trivia nights, ladies’ nights. bar specials, pop-up events, makgeolli making classes. You no longer have an excuse to stay home for the evening.
  • Easily bookable tours. The famous Dark Side of Seoul Ghost Walk and other tours are now easily bookable from within the app.
  • Social Feature. Find and chat with other foodies in Korea. It’s like KakaoTalk for Korean foodies (aka “Grumblees”). You can also turn off this feature for privacy.

More features will be on the way. Get in early and check it out.

UPDATE: iOS version is now available for iPhone and iPad.

Restaurant & Bar Owners

Add your weekly specials, events, and special menus to the app by filling out this form.


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Has Korea’s E-Mart Policy Hurt More Than Helped? http://zenkimchi.com/commentary/koreas-e-mart-supermarket-policy-hurt/ http://zenkimchi.com/commentary/koreas-e-mart-supermarket-policy-hurt/#respond Thu, 25 May 2017 01:23:46 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=91693 The post Has Korea’s E-Mart Policy Hurt More Than Helped? appeared first on ZenKimchi.


Is E-Mart Killing The Economy?

Korea’s traditional grocery stores are struggling. They have been struggling for decades, since the first E-Mart “super-supermarket” opened in 1993. According to a recent article by Korea Exposé, between 2000 and 2011, for every one store like E-Mart opening, 22 smaller mom-and-pops have gone out of business. Since people’s needs for groceries haven’t waned, it’s logical to suggest that these big box centers have sucked the market from the smaller guys.

E-Mart, Lotte Mart, and Homeplus are run by Korea’s humongous family run conglomerates, chaebols. They have the deep pockets to sell items at slim margins and even at a loss in order to unfairly secure their markets. I’ve heard stories on the inside how E-Mart is one of the most egregious practitioners of squeezing its suppliers to the point that they hardly make any profit off items they sell in its stores.

Last week at Seoul Food 2017, I was talking to a vendor who supplies mostly Costco. He said that E-Mart reps recently stopped by and wanted to set up distribution for some of his products in their stores at a much lower rate than Costco would have. The vendor politely refused, and the reps acted like the vendor was crazy for turning down this golden opportunity. I should note that they weren’t open for negotiation either.

The Solution…

One of the solutions some officials cooked up a few years ago was to close all big box supercenters two days a month. On paper, it made sense. If E-Mart was closed, then shoppers would have to get their vegetables at the local small market instead.

Yet that’s not really how it’s turned out.

Small mom-and-pops are still going out of business. I see it all the time. The big boxes have continued to expand.

I’ll throw in what I’ve witnessed myself. I know it’s anecdotal, but this is real.

Big Boxes Attract Customers More Through Variety Than Discounts

One of the early controversies of the store closing law was that it included Costco. Even though Costco is known as a discount supercenter, it doesn’t sell products that directly compete with small biz grocery stores. People don’t go to Costco for gochujang and garlic. They go there for exotic imported food, liquor, and vitamins that they can’t get anywhere else. If a consumer wants to buy a block of cheddar cheese, and Costco is closed, there isn’t an alternative. The mom-and-pops don’t sell blocks of cheddar. Or Italian meats. Or Omega-3 tablets.

If Costco is closed that day, then the consumer is just going to wait until it re-opens.

There are other items that are more common in Korean households that smaller grocery stores don’t supply. Things you don’t even think about, like cat litter. Thank goodness we had a Daiso selling cheap cat litter on a Homeplus-is-closed day when our daughter decided to be a cat and peed in the litter box.

The Law Hurts Other Small Businesses

In its efforts to protect small grocery stores, this law has hurt small businesses that rely on the larger retailers. Restaurants, in particular, rely on Costco and other larger retailers for some of their ingredients. When I started the BBQ pub last year, I had no contacts for suppliers, and it wasn’t as if they were banging on my door. (Well, an import beer distributor did.) A lot of the ingredients we needed for the type of food we served mostly existed at Costco, and it was closer to our restaurant than the other places. There was an E-Mart across the street as well.

There were times when I was prepping in the kitchen and discovered we were out of a crucial ingredient, or we needed some type of kitchen supply. I’d run across the street to E-Mart to get it, and it was closed. There were no other stores close by that sold what we needed to keep the restaurant running. We just had to take it off the menu that evening.

And lose sales.

Closing a source of unique crucial supplies for other small businesses is not only ham handed. It shows favoritism for one type of small business over another. More restaurants close each year in Korea than grocery stores, but there are no laws protecting them from unfair practices by large corporations.

And what of the suppliers for the big boxes? I know a few of them, and they’re not swimming in cash. They’re already stressed from the narrow margins E-Mart and Hyundai give. It compounds their struggles when they can’t sell their products because of mandatory store closings. I’m not just talking about boutique importers. This includes makgeolli brewers, mandu makers, and seafood suppliers. There is no efficient way for them to also get into the smaller grocery stores. The shelves are smaller, and the distribution network is highly inefficient. (Which is a whole other post.)

Large Supermarkets Aren’t Always Cheaper

At the pub, stores like E-Mart were last resorts. I preferred getting my vegetables and dry goods at my local farmers’ co-op and the small grocery stores near my house in Gimpo. The quality was better, and the prices were competitive, if not lower. If I’m out shopping, the mantra I hear from my wife is, “Don’t buy vegetables from Homeplus.”

That’s because their produce is awful and overpriced. Milk is the only common item we buy at Homeplus over the local stores because of price. But even that is changing. We only go to Homeplus for items not at the other stores, like oatmeal, wine, and imported goods. I personally avoid going to Homeplus because it’s more inconvenient. The parking at big boxes is hell. And then you have to go through a series of conveyor belt escalators to get to the food section. It takes too much time compared to the local markets.

It Hurts Small Communities

We currently live in a small neighborhood in Gimpo. We have lots of small grocery stores and one Homeplus. Yet, since we’re a small neighborhood, the building that houses the Homeplus also houses clothing stores, hair salons, a few restaurants, and the neighborhood’s only movie theater. When Homeplus is forced to close, all the other businesses have to shut their doors too.

Last December, my daughter and I got all ready to go see the new Star Wars movie. She was so excited. But the movie theater was closed when we got there because the adjoining supermarket was required to shut down. We eventually found a theater showing the movie in another neighborhood, but seriously. In small communities, closing down the local big box also closes down a lot of other small businesses that the community relies on.

One could also make the case that an E-Mart employs more people than all the small grocery stores in a community combined. But I wouldn’t lean too heavily on that argument. I’m not a big fan of how chaebols treat their employees.

Anti-Consumer, Not Anti-Chaebol

The law as it currently stands is more anti-consumer than it is anti-big-business. There have to be better ways to reign in chaebol power than to hurt other small businesses, consumers, and small communities. According to the Korea Exposé article, the new Moon Jae-in administration (whom I generally support) may actually INCREASE the number of days the big boxes close. This will only hurt the public more than it will help small grocery stores.

How about going in, investigating, and finding a solution to the chaebol choking their suppliers? How about making distribution networks more efficient and less corrupt?

That’s going deeper into the root of the problem. Closing E-Mart a few times a month is just treating the symptom.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (cc)

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Beware Korean Food TV Scams http://zenkimchi.com/featured/beware-korean-food-tv-scams/ http://zenkimchi.com/featured/beware-korean-food-tv-scams/#respond Tue, 23 May 2017 14:47:25 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=91684 The post Beware Korean Food TV Scams appeared first on ZenKimchi.


This was posted recently on Facebook:

Hello, everyone!
Namaste ^^;
Today, I received a call from a big cable broadcasting company in our country. There is a kind of food broadcasting.
They suggest to me that some famous entertainers come to our restaurant and take a broadcasting of eating the food.
But they asked me to sponsor some money. approximately 7,000,000 KRW (6,800 USD). I don’t have money. Ha Ha Ha….. lol
The unreasonable truth that can not go to the TV show, if there is no money.
Have a nice day all. ^^;

This was from Taj Mahal in Korea, an Indian restaurant in Daegu.

I’ll say firstly that not every production in Korea does sleazy tactics like this, but I’ve had enough experience with productions to not trust what you see. Don’t trust most of the blogs. Don’t trust the TV shows. Don’t even trust many of the newspaper articles. And NEVER, NEVER, NEVER trust a line outside a restaurant in Seoul. Restaurants have “plants” stand in line. They put out chairs and ticket number machines to make it look like they’re fake-ly popular.

I mentioned before that my old restaurant partner at the pub paid an agency to get bloggers to write trumped up reviews. This was one of the reasons I left the restaurant.

Almost every restaurant in Seoul has been featured on TV, so it’s nothing special when they have signs showcasing their thirty seconds of fame. Autographs on a restaurant’s wall don’t mean much. To paraphrase Graham Holliday’s Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance, they’re more like graveyards of fame than endorsements of the restaurant.

Don’t even trust the tourism organization, or even Michelin. They seem to have been corrupted as well.

Don’t even trust people like me appearing on TV. In many cases, we’re paid to be “interviewed,” which means they give us a script to go by. They frown on us giving our real opinions, and if you want to go home after 14 hours of filming some inane scene, you would say just about anything. That’s why you don’t see me much on TV these days.

Blogging and media culture in Korea just doesn’t have the ethical standards. In some cases, they are corrupt to the core. In most cases, they’re just unaware of ethical standards.

We need more restaurants and people on the inside exposing these practices. I’m jaded enough to believe that they won’t change a lot of the old unethical tactics. But I’m more interested in consumer awareness.

Spread this around.

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Seoul Food Festival 2017: Picnic on the Bridge http://zenkimchi.com/featured/seoul-food-festival-2017-picnic-bridge/ http://zenkimchi.com/featured/seoul-food-festival-2017-picnic-bridge/#respond Sat, 06 May 2017 07:03:19 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=91585 The Seoul Food Festival was a microcosm of the current state of the Seoul food scene, especially regarding food trucks--and gender politics?

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For Children’s Day, we went to the Picnic on the Bridge, part of the Seoul Food Festival, organized by Chosun TV. What they did was take over the lower deck of the double decker Banpo Bridge and made it into a boulevard of food demos, booths, and food trucks–along with the prerequisite awkward photo stunts and Hallyu promos.

I’m posting this because it encapsulated the current state of food in Seoul, Korean food marketing, and other cultural dynamics. I’m also, as always, talking out my rear, so take this all with a grain of 꽃소금.

General Notes

Foreign VIPs

Franco Pepe

The organizers imported some good VIPs for this one. The most notable was Franco Pepe, the legendary pizza artist from Italy. I did what I swore I would never do–stood in line for a slice of pizza. Thankfully, the line didn’t last that long, and the slice was worth it. The dough was like marshmallowy chapssal ddeok, crisped up, chewy, voluptuous. It was so sexy that I’m sure Red Tube has a channel for it.

Jeannie Cho Lee was there, and I didn’t get around to saying hi. We had done projects over media through the years but had never met in person. Oh well…

The Usual Weird Shit

Giant BibimbapZenKimchi | ZenKimchi

Just like making foreign VIPs wear hanbok and doing the Gangnam Style dance, it’s become standard practice to have a swimming pool of bibimbap stirred up by the obviously embarrassed chefs for the photo ops. Since it was the fastest line, we did get a bowl to share. And we were all surprised it was pretty good. Spicy too. Still, I am eager to retire the Giant Bibimbap™ at Korean food festivals.

Finishing the bibimbap at the Seoul Food FestivalZenKimchi | ZenKimchi

General Organization

This wasn’t slapdash. The organizers set up credit card machines for the food trucks and concessions. The venue had strategically placed rubbish bins. The tables and chairs lining the bridge were nice. The staff of volunteers were vigilant about making sure everything was clean and orderly.

The Entertainment

The girls waited in line for a balloon animal and then rushed off to…

Balloon animal clowns. K-Pop acts. That made this more of a festival and not just a bunch of food snobs milling about.

The Beverages

This was good and bad. There was a section with a Stella Artois tent, pouring W5,000 beers. There were also wine vendors offering tastings and selling bottles for decent prices.


That was the only place you could get a drink other than Sprite. Sprite was not only a sponsor, they were the one party dictatorship of this festival. Some people were smarter than I and brought their own beverages. I did bring home a nice nosey bottle of California chardonnay for W18,000. Looking forward to popping that open.

The Food Trucks

Jian's ice cream at the Seoul Food FestivalZenKimchi | ZenKimchi

Food trucks in Seoul have had a short odd history. The Seoul government officially legalized them half-assedly a few years ago. As in, it was legal to have one but not legal to park one. They can only operate in fake pre-planned events. It’s difficult for them to get a following, and it’s also difficult for them to get consistent feedback to improve their food. Because frankly, most of the food from them sucked.

Sucked hard.

Most of the food trucks spent more time on their looks and branding than on the actual food. They followed the long tradition of copying other concepts. Not only did most of them copy foreign concepts–badly, I must say–but they copied local concepts, like the Steak-in-a-Cup. That was bad, too.

This goes along with another of my consistent rants. If something works, don’t fuck with it. If there’s a standard dish you are trying to emulate, get the basics down first, and then do variations. Don’t start with the variations. With the Steak-in-a-Cup concept, just a well-seasoned steak with some fries will do. Instead, we got under seasoned steak with nasty onions in sweet gochujang and pumpkin mousse baby food. I didn’t find one truck just doing simple steak and potatoes.

A fish and chips truck just didn’t even try. Well, they tried with their cool British packaging and the overused “Keep Calm and _______” slogan that went stale a decade ago. The sad thing is, if they just did a simple traditional British fish and chips dipped in batter, not only would it have tasted better, they would have saved money. Instead, we got overly greasy cod and shrimp that weren’t fresh, covered in panko bread crumbs, skinny fries (not thick British pub chips, which are easily available–we had them at one of my restaurants), a wedge of lemon, and a choice of tartare, sweet chili, and some other sauce that shouldn’t go NEAR fish and chips.

The result was an inedible greasy mess that no one enjoyed. I keep hearing arguments that they’re catering to the local clientele, but there were NO LOCAL CLIENTELE! No one liked their food. Just some simple beer battered cod, thick cut chips, lemon, vinegar, and a tartare sauce that wasn’t just mayonnaise with a little pickle relish would have done much better.

The Pho truck charged just as much as a brick-and-mortar restaurant but gave much less. Just noodles, MSG-laden broth, and a few scraps of meat. Hardly any veggies. In a cardboard bowl. The point of a food truck is to make something either cheaper than bricks-and-mortars or better than other street food, or both. This is the typical case of Korean wanna-bes copying a concept without bothering to UNDERSTAND the concept.

(I hear that’s how the Oxford Dictionary defines “Cultural Appropriation,” but I guess Asian countries are exempt from that label.)

Jian's first CubanoZenKimchi | ZenKimchi

Jian’s first Cubano

Food Trucks and Gender Politics?

I observed this. The best food we had came from trucks run by women. I had a lovely Pork Banh Mi with good bread, lots of cilantro, full of meat. The Cubano had no honey mustard or sweet pickles. My daughter Jian took it and devoured the whole thing after her first bite.

I may be truly reaching on this, but this is just from observation and conversations with Koreans I’ve had for over 13 years inside Korea.

Women in Korea are way more open-minded than men. Korea has one of the largest gender gaps of any OECD member country. Women are not satisfied with traditional Korean social norms, so they have looked outward. This is why Sex and the City and Manhattan brunch culture took hold. This is why women drive the trends in Korea.

I’d say this is also why girls and women do better than their male counterparts in learning new languages. I remember reading Chomsky or some other linguistic scholar stating that when learning a new language, one must become more flexible with their self identity. Your native language is part of your identity. For a lot of Korean males, learning foreign languages makes them feel less Korean. I’ve had students blatantly say this. They don’t like learning English because they feel less Korean.

Because Korean women are more open-minded to non-Korean cultures, they take more interest in understanding the culture behind the food they’re appropriating. The men care more about looking cool and gaining social status. That’s why a food truck run by women made such a great Banh Mi while the food trucks run by men made the saddest fish and chips in the world and bland steak with pumpkin baby food–all while trying to pose as DJs in their spare time.

Yuk ChefZenKimchi | ZenKimchi

When the Korean and English each make sense

Besides–come on! At least give me a challenge when I’m writing the jokes.


I touched on this in the last section. In Korean language blogs talking about the festival, they also had a problem with this. The prices for a lot of the food trucks was jacked up. We wanted to sign Jian up for a kids cooking course, but they charged W50,000 per child, and to cook what? A hamburger? OMG!

Only a few people shelled out the money for that in the end. Hardly anyone participated.

This is the old thinking. It’s the notion that slapping a high price tag on something makes it automatically desirable (note: Cho Tae-kwon, Hwayo, and Gaon). In the past, noveau riche Koreans gladly lined up and paid premium prices for mediocre food because they wanted to show off their wealth. It was a status play. These days, younger Koreans are more concerned with value. So this festival with their premium-for-crap strategy, organized by the older establishment-thinking ajosshies, didn’t josh well with the mostly younger attendees.


My family met our friends, an Englishman of Korean decent, who is one of the largest Korean food importers in Europe, and a Korean lawyer. We all immediately commented on how sparse the attendance was. The lawyer–whose opinions on food and Korean culture I heed intensely–said that the marketing failed. No one knew about this event. *I* didn’t know about this event, and I get spammed all the time by these types of things. It was the Englishman who told me about it.

The festival’s website looked decent and modern. It was WordPress–likely the Divi theme, as we use on this blog. But the content was the same stolid old Korean corporate style. All talk of branding and corporate organization trees–as if they were marketing to shareholders and not consumers. The organizers consisted of Chosun TV execs, Korean government officials, and university professors. No one from the restaurant private sector. They even spelled one of the K-Pop group’s names wrong, the one they called “Korea’s Top Idol.”

I guess they weren’t top enough for anyone to know how to spell their name.


Sitting on the river at the Seoul Food Festival

That said, they did well. These events and the Seoul food scene is constantly getting better. It was well organized. Despite 80% of the food trucks we tried disappointing us, we loved having the variety to choose from while sitting on a nice table in the middle of the Han River on a gorgeous day. That pizza I will remember all the way to my dying breath.

The ajosshies-in-charge just need to get their marketing act together, they need to expand the beverage options, and the need to cut back on the silly cliche photo stunts that make respected chefs look like dancing monkeys. I wish something could be done about food truck laws so that these trucks can get some actual experience in the wild, thus improving their food and weeding out the poseurs.

I hope to go to next year’s festival. I’m optimistic that it will be even better.

Seoul Food FestivalZenKimchi | ZenKimchi

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Isaac Toast? Seriously? That Shite is AWFUL! http://zenkimchi.com/commentary/isaac-toast-awful/ http://zenkimchi.com/commentary/isaac-toast-awful/#comments Sat, 22 Apr 2017 03:38:48 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=91568 Why are rubes standing in line for Isaac Toast? It is one of the worst sandwiches one can get in Korea. It is only good if your drunk, stupid, or both.

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I seriously don’t get it.

Has the world gone MAD??

A line outside an Isaac Toast standCredit: Emilio Andreas ArayaA line outside an Isaac Toast stand

When I first came to Korea in 2004, I had some cultural adjustment to do (understatement). Breakfast was one of them. The closest I could get to a western breakfast at the time was Isaac Toast. But it was SO BAD that I just resorted to samgak kimbap from convenience stores instead.


Isaac Toast is only good if you’re drunk, stupid, or both.

It follows the Korean sandwich 80% rule: 80% is good. 20% is WHAT THE FUCK??

Ham, cheese, and STRAWBERRIES?

Bacon, lettuce, tomato, and TARTAR SAUCE?

Tuna salad and RAISINS?

Lovely buttered toast, egg, grilled ham, cheese, and WHY THE FUCK DID YOU JUST DUMP A LOAD OF SUGAR IN MY SANDWICH??

Isaac Toast has always done the same thing. They make sandwiches that seem good, and then they have to ruin it by throwing cheap shredded cabbage and some sweet sauce on them. I’m a grown-up. I don’t need my food to be turned into candy.

People line up for THIS?

Isaac Toast has been a running joke for as long as I can remember. It’s the poster child for how places in Korea ruin foreign food. Is it cultural appropriation in Asia? I don’t care. It’s taking something I grew up with and enjoyed, and taking one slow sugar-coated shit on it. This would have been fine if there were examples of foods from my home culture readily available that didn’t get the 80% rule treatment. But no, this was what we were stuck with when we got a little homesick and were so desperate for a taste of home.

What offends me by these lines is not that they’re doing well. It’s that disgusting fake food is taking business away from authentic non-corporate restaurants, and these great restaurants are closing down every month because of these trend zombies. Actually, they’re mostly tourists in Myeong-dong, which reinforces my rule that there’s hardly any good food in Myeong-dong.

Isaac Toast is an abomination to humanity. It is an evil mutation. Eating Isaac Toast without extreme inebriation and desperation is a criminal act. STANDING IN LINE to eat Isaac Toast puts you in the Venn Diagram between ISIS and Trump supporters.


(Man, and I thought the churro craze a few years ago was dumb.)

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Why I Don’t Buy Dongwon Tuna (and Starkist) , And Why You Shouldn’t Either http://zenkimchi.com/featured/dont-buy-dongwon-tuna/ http://zenkimchi.com/featured/dont-buy-dongwon-tuna/#respond Thu, 20 Apr 2017 02:41:54 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=91563 Greenpeace listed its ranking on cans of tuna. A Dongwon tuna brand was listed as "the worst."

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Here is why I don’t buy Dongwon tuna–well, an added reason.

Greenpeace has been ranking cans of tuna for years based on sustainability. They released their first list in 2015. Since then, they have noticed that U.S. retailers have worked to carry more responsibly-caught tuna. Julie R. Thomson writes about the list in a recent Huffington Post article.

Here is the worst out of 20 brands:



Here is what Greenpeace had to say (via HuffPo):

“StarKist is not transparent about the origins of its tuna and refused, yet again, to provide Greenpeace with meaningful information about its operations. StarKist — owned by global seafood giant, Dongwon — has the largest market share of any canned tuna brand in the U.S. Scraping the bottom of the tuna guide for a second time, StarKist’s failure to take sustainability seriously is devastating the oceans — all while it continues to sell cheap and dirty tuna nationwide. It is not only the lowest-ranked brand, but along with other failing brands, it’s dragging down the industry. StarKist must work to ensure healthy oceans, or the day may come when Charlie the Tuna is no more.”

To people inside Korea, Dongwon tuna may sound familiar.

Dongwon tuna

They are the dominant tuna company in Korea. I haven’t trusted them for years.


A few years ago, I found myself sharing dinner with a few bigwigs in the Korean food world. I sat next to one of the executives of Dongwon tuna. I don’t remember what the subject of conversation was about, but he brought up that they tried to follow trends by putting the label “Dolphin Safe” on their cans, but he didn’t notice a change in sales. He had this oblivious look like he didn’t understand why sustainability was important. It was more like he was playing a game of Simon Says and was just following what others were doing.

It became apparent that they were doing this all for show. Even if it did say “Dolphin Safe,” I got a feeling from my conversation with him that it would be in name only. The old standby of image before reality.

Even though U.S. retailers, and thus producers, have responded and upped their game, don’t expect stodgy Dongwon tuna to follow along until it’s long been left behind.

I don’t know about other Korean tuna producers. But I have had a good in-person reason to not trust any tuna from Dongwon.

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“If you’re gonna spew, spew into this.” http://zenkimchi.com/commentary/if-youre-gonna-spew-spew-into-this/ http://zenkimchi.com/commentary/if-youre-gonna-spew-spew-into-this/#respond Fri, 31 Mar 2017 02:10:51 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=50162 The post “If you’re gonna spew, spew into this.” appeared first on ZenKimchi.


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Promoting Korean Food, Chapter 5: Taste vs. Well-being http://zenkimchi.com/featured/promoting-korean-food-chapter-5-taste-vs-well-being/ http://zenkimchi.com/featured/promoting-korean-food-chapter-5-taste-vs-well-being/#respond Tue, 28 Mar 2017 03:03:02 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=50133 Just because it's healthy doesn't mean people will buy it. It's gotta taste good too.

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A few years ago I was asked to write a small book on promoting Korean food. I finished the manuscript, but it never got published. The publisher ended up going out of business. Here is the old manuscript for your enjoyment, posted in segments. Keep in mind that this was written in late 2011, but some parts are still relevant today.


Promoting Korean Food

Chapter 5

Taste vs. Well-being

One day an American event organizer called me, all upset. She is Korean-American and has put together food-related events and booths for Korean organizations and government agencies. Since I live in Korea, she wanted to know how people thought inside Korea. In her mind, their marketing minds didn’t make any sense. The example that made her want to pull her hair out was a Korean food exhibit at a Chicago food fair. It had a miniature version of the famous kimchi museum. One of the first signs at the exhibit read, “Kimchi is good for constipation.”

Regardless of whether or not kimchi is good for bowel regularity, associating your food product with poop is not a good way to start your marketing campaign. It may work for some forms of cereal, where you’re primarily marketing it to elderly people concerned with their intestinal health. But that marketing ploy is used when a product generally doesn’t taste good. People don’t buy high fiber cereal because it’s delicious. They do it for health reasons. If it didn’t have the high fiber, they wouldn’t buy it because it doesn’t taste that great.

That’s the problem with marketing an entire cuisine based on its health properties in America. Healthy food is something you need to eat—not something you want to eat. This perception was started a little over a hundred years ago with the Kellogg brothers.

A short history of healthy food in America

The Kellogg brothers were health fanatics, and they adopted and promoted a lot of trendy practices that we would consider strange today, all in the name of health. Amidst all this, they created Corn Flakes and other healthy cereals. Fast forward to the 1960s and 1970s with the hippie movement in California. The modern health food craze was born out of this movement. A branch of this Californian culture became obsessed with vegetarianism, fruitarianism, and eating granola and cereals. They adopted any trendy health practice they could, despite there being little or no scientific evidence to back up those health claims. The derogatory terms “flakes” and “granolas” were used for these new age self healers.

Sad salad

In the 1980s a lot of this started to become mainstream. Jogging and aerobics became parts of people’s lifestyles. Granola and wheat germ appeared on supermarket shelves. New studies on what would keep people healthy came out every day. Diet trends came and went. By the late 1990s people got weary of all this. One week a study would say one thing was healthy. The next week it would say it was unhealthy. Sugar and fat substitutes introduced to the market to make people healthier turned out to cause more harm than good. New studies showed that people who were eating tasty Mediterranean diets were living longer than people living bland lives eating tasteless health food. Health foods were getting even stranger, like a product called “Tofurkey”—turkey-flavored tofu in the shape of a roasted bird, specially made for vegetarians.

nasty burger

As a result, a backlash against the health movement started. People embraced using bacon and butter in cooking again. Some fast food restaurant chains introduced new products that went the other extreme—vastly unhealthy burgers that surprisingly became very popular. One restaurant introduced a chicken sandwich that used two chicken patties in place of the usual bun. Another made a grilled cheese sandwich with fried cheesesticks in between. The internet became a playground where people showed off their creations, trying to make the most disgusting unhealthy creations possible. Celebrity food personalities like Paula Deen became popular. Paula Deen is a woman whose dishes include a hamburger in between two Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, deep fried butter, and tons of creations loaded in mayonnaise. So much bad tasting health food had been forced onto the American public for so many years that the word “healthy” had become a bad word. That didn’t mean that Americans didn’t care about their health. The history has proven that in the end, taste will always win over health in America.

Does it taste good?

In Korea, it seems to work the other way around. The health aspects of a food are considered more important in marketing. Some truly bad tasting products are consumed in the name of “well-being.” Yet unhealthy yet tasty products are also gaining ground in the Korean public, especially with its youth. Children crowd around pojang macha in ironically named “Green Food Zones” consuming deep fried Pokemon-shaped pork, chicken balls in syrupy sweet sauce, and diabetes-inducing slushies. When I was a teacher, I never saw a student enter my classroom with a single healthy food.

Pokemon snacks

Taste wins.

That’s why it’s problematic to lead the charge for Korean food globalization with its health properties. In many ways Korean food is quite healthy. In fact, that will be why it will remain popular in America after the trendiness has faded. Yet it also tastes good. That’s an even greater strength.

I see many campaigns and reports taking the assumption that Americans have no healthy food. That’s a myth. Traditional American cuisine is quite healthy. Americans don’t eat hamburgers and pizza every day, just like Koreans don’t eat galbi and samgyeopsal every day. The traditional American diet includes many vegetables and salads. In recent years, though, cheaper unhealthy foods have become easier to get. Sugar was replaced with high fructose corn syrup in most products. High sodium fatty foods became more convenient than whole fresh foods. The same trend is happening in Korea. So Korea is not introducing Americans to healthy food. Americans have healthy food. They just choose not to eat it because it is less convenient, more expensive, and generally doesn’t taste as good.

As I mentioned, Korean food’s strength is its taste. I knew an American who lived in Japan. When she visited Korea and sat down for her first taste, she said, “Finally, food with flavor!”

My brother, who had just arrived in Korea after a week in Singapore, said the same thing as I treated him to a lunch of 보쌈. Korean food has bold flavors that are only matched in Asia by Thailand, Vietnam, and India.

The challenge with Korean food is to convince people to take their first bite. You do that with taste. You tell them that it tastes good. After they take that first bite, and they like it, mention that it’s also healthy. Then they will eat more.

Dangers of well-being

Not only is it not the best marketing idea to promote health over flavor, it can be dangerous. There are many health claims in Korea for foods that come from traditional medicine and from marketing. Those same claims don’t always translate well outside Korea.

Asia, in general, has a reputation for making larger-than-life claims about foods that can’t be backed scientifically. Think of all the foods that are supposed to act like Viagra on men. It has become a joke amongst travelers that every other food in Asia is supposed to “keep men strong.”

Claims that are based in traditional medicine without scientific proof will get in trouble with western government agencies. The American FDA will not allow some of the more fantastic health claims in Korean food to be put on labels or advertisements. Doing so will get the producers of the product fined or, even worse, get the product banned from the country.


The short-lived “Ricetard”

Who is actually fooled by this? And who would buy this as a health food?

Who is actually fooled by this? And who would buy this as a health food?

Even if there is a scientific study or two to back up a health claim, it’s not wise to depend on it too strongly. As I’ve mentioned before, Americans have grown weary of scientific studies that negate previous scientific studies. A study can come out one month saying a food is healthy. Then a new study could come out the next month that claims it causes cancer. Also, if the scientific studies only come from Korea, then people will question the studies’ motives.

Trying to package all of Korean food as “well-being” will do nothing but shoot the globalization campaign in the foot. For one thing, only a fool would believe that a culture’s entire cuisine is healthy, and Korean food is no exception. 삼겹살 is mostly saturated fat. 떡볶이 is mostly empty calories and carbohydrates with no nutritional value. 삼계탕 has 2.5 more calories per gram than a McDonald’s Big Mac. Korean cuisine may have lower fat content than American cuisine, but it also has high sodium content. Korea has one of the highest stomach cancer rates in the world. The American Cancer Society says that “smoked foods, salted fish and meat, and pickled vegetables” appear to increase the risk of stomach cancer. Those are all elements of Korean cuisine. So claiming that Korean cuisine is healthier than other countries’ cuisines is a shaky bridge to stand on.

As far as translations go, the word “well-being” itself is Konglish. It is used to describe someone’s physical or financial health, but it is not attached to foods. So if you insist on marketing Korean food as a health product, use a word other than “well-being.”

Some health claims work

Despite this backlash against healthy foods, some health claims are becoming more effective in America. A Dutch company, Innova Market Insights, studies worldwide food marketing trends. The health buzzwords that are working in America include heart healthy, vitamin/mineral fortified, anti-oxidants, organic, trans-fat free, probiotic, and gluten free.

Organic is greatly becoming more important. If you claim a food as organic, you have to be serious about it. A friend of mine visited a Han-oo cattle farmer who claimed his beef was purely organic. My friend asked him what he fed them. He said it was some corn-based feed from America. He asked if the corn was organic. The farmer didn’t know. If the feed is not organic, the beef is not organic.


Americans do care about health in their food. They don’t see food as medicine. Yet if a product gives certain certifiable benefits without sacrificing taste, consumers are more likely to choose it. It helps to say that kimchi not only tastes great, it is a probiotic food. That is much better than putting a sign in front of a consumer saying, “Eat this. It prevents constipation.”

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10 Best Korean Chicken Joints http://zenkimchi.com/announcements/10-best-korean-fried-chicken-joints/ http://zenkimchi.com/announcements/10-best-korean-fried-chicken-joints/#comments Wed, 22 Mar 2017 15:29:13 +0000 http://zenkimchi.com/?p=14510 My rule of thumb is this. To tell a good chicken place, look at the people inside. If it's full of beautiful young women taking selfies, likely isn't good chicken. If it's full of middle-aged men who look like life has kicked them in the teeth--GREAT CHICKEN!

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I’ve updated this post for the first time since 2011. Some of the places have fallen out of favor, but we have some new ones here.

Chicken and beer have become serious institutions in South Korea. Fried chicken started showing up around 1970, when cooking oil became more affordable. In the 1980s and 1990s, chicken “hofs” that served fried chicken and beer popped up everywhere. This was likely due to early forced retirement for mid-level managers in Korea Inc.’s chaebol conglomerates. Chicken hofs were sold as turnkey business solutions. Since so many opened on every corner, Koreans started going to them because they were there. These days, there are more chicken franchise locations in Korea than there are McDonald’s in the entire world.

The chicken hof has gone through phases. I’m a personal fan of the 1990s style. Small free range birds with papery breading and strong Asian aromatic flavors. Or as one chef I shared chicken with said, smelled like a cinnamon doughnut. The more modern style is closer to American fried chicken, dipped in a flour breading with all the nooks and crannies. There are a few franchises I like from this vein as well.

My rule of thumb is this. To tell a good chicken place, look at the people inside. If it’s full of beautiful young women taking selfies, likely isn’t good chicken. If it’s full of middle-aged men who look like life has kicked them in the teeth–GREAT CHICKEN!

Here are some consistently good chicken franchises and spots. Add your favorites in the comments.

Two-Two Fried Chicken 둘둘치킨

Style: Classic

Everyone knows my love for Two-Two. It’s one of the oldest franchises and the first taste I had of Korean fried chicken. The birds they use are bony, but that means they aren’t factory raised. They actually have flavor. The crust is thin, delicate, and has that Chinese five spice and cinnamon scent that I always associate with Korean chicken hofs. This chicken screams for beer.


Style: Modern

Big Hit Chicken. Actually, they keep changing what the acronym stands for. This is the old standby and the typical family-style chicken joint.

Acronym for a name?

K-pop group as spokespeople?

It’s reliable, predictable, but satisfying.


Style: Battered

This is the one most Americans think of when talking about Korean fried chicken. The thing is, Kyochon is the only franchise I know of that does it this way–batter dipped rather than rolled in flour or starch. The batter is garlicky with a slight sweetness. The crust shatters and stays crispy a long time. If you order it “yangnyeom” style, they meticulously paint the sauce on each piece individually. Caution–the breading really seals the contents inside. Expect a hot geyser of chicken juice to burst out in your first bite.

BBQ Chicken

Credit: Formalin81 on Flickr (cc)

Style: Modern

Pronounced Bee-bee-kyoo. It’s the king of chicken franchises in Korea. They follow the American style of frying, but their flavor is unique. Claiming to fry their chicken in olive oil, they obviously feel like they have to chase KFC. They boast over 20 herbs and spices. BBQ’s flavor is unique and hasn’t been copied. You can smell a BBQ a block away.

Chicken Baengi 치킨뱅이

Style: Classic

They specialize in classic style, but they also make a mean pa dalk, boneless fried chicken thighs served in a sweetish peanut sauce and shredded leeks. The other half of their name refers to golbaengi, sea snails. For some reason they think that chilled spicy sea snail noodle salad goes well with fried chicken. It sorta does, TBH. Reminds me of trips to the beach in my earlier times in Korea. It’s been going through a re-branding to appeal to a younger crowd (note the two logos). We go to one of these on the Chicken & Beer Pub Crawl. The location we go to violates my rules for clientele, but it’s still great chicken.

Kkanbu Chicken 깐부치킨


Style: Modern-ish

This is a new player. You can tell by the design of the restaurants with the bold lettering and well designed posters. The chicken here is excellent, especially the garlic chicken. They have a decent variety, and I say they’re the one to beat in the near future.

Hanchoo 한추

Style: Batter

Not really a franchise. It’s a popular spot in Gangnam. It’s popular for being popular, but it has its fans. They serve fried chili peppers with their chicken, which is their schtick. I’m putting it here because people I respect like it. I personally had bad ju-ju with the owners when we were arranging a TV show to shoot there. One of them said they didn’t want more foreigners in their restaurant. I know where I’m not welcome.

Goobne Chicken 굽네치킨

Style: Oven

Going into oven chicken territory, Goobne (GOOB-nay) has been getting popular lately. And it’s good. Even though Korea’s gone through many “well-being” food fads, for some reason chicken hasn’t registered. A Korean co-worker of a friend of mine said that since the fried chicken she was eating was Korean, it was healthy.

Goobne has promoted itself as a healthy alternative to fried. All I know lately is that when we order it, it’s stripped to the bone like those Winged Devourers did on “Beastmaster.”

Vons 본스

Style: Oven

Similar to Goobne, Vons chicken itself is roasted/baked. Its edge is that it comes with a variety of sauces for whatever fits your personality. Kind of like a K-Pop mega-group.

Hoo-La-La 훌랄라

Style: Barbecue

Hoo-La-La holds a special place in my heart. They were big around 2007 and then evaporated around 2010. They headed up the smoked barbecued chicken craze of that time. It’s hard to find this style of chicken anymore. A restaurant that serves this style is on our Chicken & Beer Pub Crawl. If you can find a Hoo-La-La, go for it. It’s dark. It’s cozy. And the chicken comes out sizzling on an iron plate, smothered in what we call “crack sauce.” Because it’s addictive.

Dishonorable Mentions

Just to shake up the anthill, there are a couple fried chicken chains I’m not too fond of.


Credit: Clockwork Boo on Flickr (cc)

Style: Classic

One of the early BBQ copycats that just didn’t get it. It’s just bland. They do nothing that makes them stand out. I’d put ToreOre in this column, too.

The Frypan

Credit: StudioEgo on Flickr (cc)

Style: Modern

Man, was I excited when one opened in my area. They look so good–boneless fried chicken with housemade potato chips! Hat Dave and I could barely finish our order from the grease overload. They offer salads to balance the grease, I guess. This was where I started developing my chicken hof rule of thumb. We noticed we were surrounded by pretty young co-eds eating salad.


Style: WTF

They actually thought chicken flavored with banana, strawberry, and melon was what the world needed.



What are your favorite and least favorite Korean chicken restaurants?

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