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
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
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
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
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 Yet the old associations of Koreans and dog meat are so outdated that it’s starting to sound racist, like associating African-Americans with eating watermelon.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
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”
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
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
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
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 [cilantro, coconut, lime]
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
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 [miracle health property]
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.