12 Myths About Korean Food

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As Korean food has gotten more popular, I read articles and recipes from international and even Korean outlets that perpetuate myths that need to be punched out of existence. Here are a few.

Koreans eat a lot of meat

Meat
(cc) Beau Lebens

I’ve seen this a lot in Korean restaurant reviews in America. This is because American Korean restaurants have a lot of meat, or rather, Americans order the dishes that are heavy on meat. In most Korean households, it’s a meat-lite lifestyle. Meat’s not the center of the meal, rice is.

Koreans eat a lot of beef

Moo cow
(cc) Lars Pistasj

Again, this comes from American reviews of Korean restaurants. American Korean restaurants have a lot of beef because beef is cheap in America. It’s considered a special occasion food here. We have some of the highest beef prices in the world. Or we used to, at least. So, eating beef is not something we do every day. More like once a month in our household.

Korean food is too spicy

Guy eating fire
(cc) Dukas Ju

There are some spicy dishes, but compared to other cuisines, it ain’t all that spicy. Kimchi can be hot when it’s young, but it mellows with age. I’ve had Thai, Indian, Mexican, and even American dishes that were spicier than most Korean foods I’ve eaten. The chilies used in Korean dishes, though, have a delayed heat. Do be careful. It may be fine now, but a few bites later all that heat will catch up with you. Nonetheless, American introductions that talk about the “spicy cabbage” and Korean assumptions that non-Koreans can’t eat their food because it’s too spicy–let’s put those to rest.

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Koreans eat dog meat

Dachshund in a hanbok
(cc) Emily Orpin

Correction–dog meat does exist here, but other cultures eat far more dog than Korea does. You’re more likely to see it for sale in Chinese markets than Korean markets around Seoul. It’s considered a medicinal dish consumed by horny old men with flaccid members in the summer. I myself have had it three times, and I’m done with it. It’s not that special. It’s becoming less and less eaten in Korea. There are definitely some issues with the dog meat industry itself. Yet the old associations of Koreans and dog meat are so outdated that it’s starting to sound racist, like associating African-Americans with eating watermelon. It’s a means to look down on a culture. And that’s rotten.

Kimchi is rotten cabbage

Kimchi
Credit: Elaine Tin Yo

Speaking of rotten, this one has been around for a while. There is a fine line but a significant line between rot and fermentation. Fermented foods, like kimchi, actually help us digest them better. Many have beneficial bacteria. And guess what? You likely already eat foods that have been fermented–cheese, wine, beer, sauerkraut, breads with actual flavor, yogurt. To newcomers, the smell is off putting, but so is cheese to cheese virgins. It’s one of those tastes that go from repulsive to addictive after a few tries.

Korean food is healthy/”well-being”

Budae Jjigae

Hmmm… double edged sword there. I think Andrew Salmon recently put it best. More foreigners should eat Korean food, and more Koreans should eat less of it. It’s a low-meat, low-fat (mostly) diet. But it’s also high in sodium. Korea also has one of the highest stomach cancer rates in the world. My guess is that stomach cancer has something to do with what gets put in the stomach. Korean food promoters love this trope to the point of smugness. It’s a means for them to look down on western diets as inferior. What a douchey way to promote your cuisine!

Don’t stick your chopsticks in rice

Chopsticks in rice
(cc) Paul Hocksenar

Sort of true, but not really. Travel guides say that you shouldn’t do this, but in my ten years here, no one has gotten upset when someone’s done it. I’ve seen Koreans do it. I’ve been told that the older generations are uptight about it, but it’s pretty relaxed here.

Don’t eat rice with your chopsticks

Baby eating rice
(cc) Sarah Gilbert

There are a lot of table manners that are either myths or just hyped up. In Korea, the spoon is not just for soup and toddlers. It’s also used to eat rice. Yet there is no big problem with eating your food with chopsticks.

Bo Ssam is roasted pork

Bossam
(cc) KOREA.NET

Thank David Chang for that one. At his Momofuku Ssam Bar, he made Bo Ssam popular by serving it as a roasted pork dish with fresh oysters and lettuce wraps. Sounds delicious, actually! Sam Sifton then published Chang’s recipe for this roasted Bo Ssam in The New York Times. This had us in Korea scratching our heads. Bo Ssam is boiled pork. Ovens aren’t part of the Korean food toolbox. So, all those New York hipsters are in for a big surprise when they go to Weon Halmeoni Bossam.

Korean food has

Pho (not Korean)
Food Network’s interpretation of Korean food

Regularly, I see “Korean” recipes in American newspapers and on the Food Network that likely were written by people who had maybe stopped for gas in Koreatown. I remember on Top Chef contestants were challenged to make Korean dishes, and one chef made a coconut panna cotta. Other recipes have cilantro in them–something that still invokes repulsion in all but the most adventurous Korean eaters. Westerners still have this tendency to lump all Asian cultures together. Korea is in northeast Asia. There aren’t any coconut trees, pineapple bushes, or lychee plantations. We have lemons, but for some reason limes are scarce. Stop confusing Korea with your muddled orientalist fantasies of southeast Asian cuisines. Believe me, the opposite is true in Korea–lumping western cuisines into one mass. But that’s for another post.

Korean food increases sperm count

Spermy lights
(cc) Martino’s doodles

Um… I have no more to say about that. Other than–that must suck if you’re a woman. But it looks like the Korean Food Foundation has since removed that claim from their website.

This Korean food can

From the old Ricetard box

Unless there are peer-reviewed blind studies that prove anything, I’ll withhold my beliefs. Kimchi has been claimed to cure SARS, bird flu, cancer… You can’t have a Korean food promoter talk about a dish or ingredient without tossing around some unproven health properties. It’s like those health aids they advertise on late night TV. Unless the scientific process has been applied, I’ll take those health claims as seriously as Jogging in a Jug.

So, what myths have you heard? What are you not sure about?

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19 thoughts on “12 Myths About Korean Food”

  1. Here’s your Number 13:

    One claim by non-Koreans that truly chaps my ass is that “all Korean food is red-colored.” So dismissive of an entire food culture. Let’s see… bulgogi, galbi, haemul-pajeon, galmaegi-sal, samgyeop-sal, gamja-jeon, gom-tang, gun-mandu, chap-chae, jjajang-myeon, yak-gwa, chap-ssal ddeok, mujigae-ddeok, song-pyeon, yachae jjin-bbang, sun-sal gan-jang dak-gogi, dwaenjang-jjigae, muk, yuk-hwae, saengseon-hwae, cho-bap, bindae-ddeok, ho-ddeok, kal-guksu, ddeok-guk, mandu-guk, miyeok-guk, sujaebi… have I hit anything red yet? I could keep going.

    Reply
    • True. However, any Korean could quadruple your list with red-colored dishes. It’s red and I love it! Also, dumplings, kimbap and pancakes are dipped in the a variation of the same sauce all the red dishes are made of. Let’s not forget the meat is slathered with delicious sammjjang and kimchi and liberal amounts of roasted garlic. YUM! Red food FTW! 🙂 (Dwaenjang-chigae isn’t red but it is delicious, too!)

      Reply
  2. A Korean friend came to me the other day and told me another foreigner told him that “All Korean Food tastes the same”.
    I gasped in SHOCK and he was a little upset by the over-generalization of his country’s food.

    Reply
    • Yes, that was an insensitive thing to say. However, a lot of Korean foods use a very similar spice matrix. Take most any of the red colored dishes, which are a majority in Korea. They have very much the same taste profile of red pepper, garlic, salty soy, sesame. I live in Korea and I love the taste personally, but I’m not usually surprised when I try something new.

      Reply
  3. I can ask any adult Korean anywhere in Korea where I can find a dog meat restaurant and every single one of them can tell me where I can find one. Even if they don’t indulge in it themselves. Eating dog is pervasive in Korea.

    Reply
    • Not true. Being a Korean adult myself, I can’t tell you right off the bad where a dog meat restaurant is. BUT, I may able to search one for you via the internet. You obviously haven’t talked to every Korean adult.

      Reply
  4. I’ve lived in Korea over ten years and I can say most Korean I know eat a lot of meat. Ten years ago this might have been different, but nowadays you can’t walk down the street without seeing many, many bbq restaurants selling plenty of meat dishes like fried chicken, roasted chicken, pork bbq, beef bbq, and even lamb has been popping up recently. I find it increasingly difficult to find a normal Korean restaurant selling standard fares of bibimbap, chigae and hanshik in the more developed areas.

    Reply
  5. Koreans most certainly do eat a lot of meat, daily for most Koreans I’ve known for my nearly two decades living here. It’s just that they also eat a lot of vegetables. Also, mentioning beef without mentioning pork and poultry is a bit disingenuous. I would wager that Koreans consume animal products just as often as Americans do, but the portions are smaller.

    Reply
  6. Id like to eat Korean food, it sure looks tasty but with no meat in it , I dont eat red meat. The problem being I need to eat pure authentic Korean food n not some foreign cook trying to make up a korean looking dish.

    Reply
  7. Just found ur blog, I love Korean food, cooked it at home and change it a bit to suit my taste and as for Korean Chillie is hot, try to compare :birds eye chillie in Malaysia. I have made comparison on beef price and Korea tops it all, very expensive followed by Japan. That is one of the reason a Korean friend of mine feast on beef everyday when she is in Kuala Lumpur

    Reply
  8. I grew up partly in Hawaii where there are a lot of Koreans

    and authentic Korean and other east Asian food, so I already knew most of these myths were false. Though it’s also true that it’s not as meaty as people think, I’ve found that actually being vegetarian or God forbid vegan is impossible. There is some kind of animal product in everything.

    Reply
    • While it is indead hard being vegetarian and vegan due to the influence of American and western culture, (by this I mean fried chicken, burgers, hot dogs, cheese n crap) you can still find vegan and vegetarian restaurants that are geared more towards the die hard buhdists. There were a few in itaewon, a few in dongdaemun, a lot in insaewon, then some in samsedong and samchedong.

      While they don’t have New fusion or the new York or LA style of hipster veg food. It was still super yummy… And FULL of old people.

      But I mean being vegan in London was about the same amount of hardship as trying to be vegan in Texas and Korea… u just gotta do a lot of leg work.

      Reply
  9. Korean people consumes a lot of sodium because they enjoy soup a lot. (Korean people almost always eats soup with rice and other dishes for every meal.) Except soup, Korean food in general doesn’t contain much sodium, compared to Western food or other cuisine. Korean people even find Japanese food very salty. So, if you want to enjoy “healthy” Korean food, just avoid soup and jeotgal (fermented seafood). Then you’re fine.

    Reply

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