Usually I talk about how a year was good for Korean food overseas. This year has been no exception. Matt Rodbard has a good piece about the year of Korean food in America over at Food Republic (“2014 In Review: Korean Food Had A Ridiculously Big Year In America”). We’re in the steady adoption phase, where kimchi and jang are used in non-Korean kitchens, and not as novelties. Just as normal ingredients. It still needs to be adopted by home kitchens, but that comes with time.
Seoul has been where the stories were this year. There’s been an awakening amongst the general public of the world of foods to try. Each year, Seoul is becoming more varied in its cuisine, more cosmopolitan, and more creative. It’s still not near the level of equivalent Asian metropolises, but it’s veering away from its long moniker as “the world’s largest small town.”
Although many of us who watch these trends want to poke them in the eye with a red hot poker, these have been positive moves in Seoul’s culinary evolution. There is a heavy herd mentality in rushing towards restaurants featured on big food blogs and on “Tasty Road.” There are a lot of patrons standing in velcro lines just to take selfies with a prize food in their hands. Yes, I know that people in other countries do this as well. Korea just tends to pump it up to eleven. Despite ruining some eateries by ignoring them in favor of the mediocre place next door and ruining others by creating permalines out the doors, I’m happy that food–new foods, trendy foods–are getting so much attention.
Here are a few things that were big this year. (Feel free to see how wrong I was about 2014 predictions.)
This little expat neighborhood got seriously overrrun by selfie-taking hipsters from around Seoul. Little eateries popped up (see Churros) that created roped off lines of trend zombies. As a result, rents in the area are going up, and landlords are starting to convert residential space into commercial space, clearing out the foreign residents in one of Seoul’s scant foreigner districts.
I called it. Just had a hunch at the end of 2013 that churros would possibly be a trend. And they took off. Anyone remember the Schneeballs that you hit with a mallet to break? Yeah, that disappeared quickly. Churros may not fade away as quickly, but the lines will reduce for fried sticks of dough.
Organic Soft Serve
Another great selfie-taking location were the string of organic soft serve ice cream shops that had the gimmick of putting a bit of honeycomb right there in the ice cream. It fascinated the easily impressed of the selca-rati. And it seems to be dying down a bit from fast oversaturation of the market. But now it’s spreading to the Philippines.
Honestly, I like this show. The two ladies who go around and eat at “cool” restaurants are entertaining without resorting to the childish camera mugging other Korean restaurant shows do. It also has a deadly effect on restaurants. Almost every place they feature turns to gold. Featured restaurants proudly display that they were featured on the show, which is unnecessary because the lines out the doors already show that. There are some places they feature that are definitely headscratchers, like western restaurants in Itaewon that serve mimicked western cuisine rather than authentic cuisine, without a single foreign diner inside. And when they pick one that the general foodie community already likes, it becomes overrun, making it impossible to get a seat.
October Media Circus
This was the year that foreign media really paid attention to Korean food. We at ZenKimchi were involved with a lot of these projects, starting with a piece in Conde Nast Traveler, which appeared in April, but we were guiding the writer and photographer around in January. This summer Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise International” came. Then a UK series starring Gizzi Erskine, an Australian series with Gary Mehigan, Judy Joo’s show continued filming, Joo Lee’s documentary came out, I coulda sworn I saw Edward Lee while walking in Hongdae and found out that he was indeed shooting something for NBC, Eric Ripert shot some stuff here, and the big daddy himself, Anthony Bourdain, returned to Korea. Most of these shows shot between September and October, so it was cray-cray! Also, most of these shows are still in the editing stage.
Honey Butter Chips
WTF on this one! I still haven’t tried these hard-to-get chips. Dan has. And the word I hear is that they are sickly artificial tasting.
I plead to Lee Hyori, in the future, please tweet how you keep your figure with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so that those too will become popular in Korea.
Cheese on everything
The big hit was Cheese Deung Galbi, which is spicy ribs smothered in mozzarella. Go to Hongdae, and you’ll find cheese on everything–gobchang (intestines), dalk bal (chicken feet). And there’s the infamous spoon pizza, which I say is pizza for people who are too incompetent to make a proper crust. The cheese craze has gotten so big that Korea is affecting U.S. dairy prices!
Craft beer and craft beer wanna-bes had another stellar year. More breweries are being built and will start operation in 2015. The big guys are getting into the market a bit. One disappointment is that Lotte’s relatively bland Kloud came in and overtook Hite’s much more interesting Queen’s Ale. More craft beer makers have popped up. But this was still the big year for imports. E-Mart reported for the first time ever that import beer sales overtook soju–thought that’s price, not quantity.
Linus really started something. Copycats popped up immediately serving BBQ that takes too many shortcuts. That’s the thing about Southern BBQ. One has to have experience and patience, and a lot of Korean restaurateurs have neither. I’ve heard that the copycat thing has gone so far that there a Minus BBQ exists in Sinsa. Have not confirmed that yet. But BBQ places have appeared around Itaewon, Gyungridan, and Hongdae.
I think the concept of the tiny bar that serves craft beer and has a small menu is plateauing a bit. Some branches of the one that has made this a popular concept are now regularly empty.
I run a lot of Food Lovers groups on Facebook. When Sandwich Lovers Seoul started taking over and greatly surpassing Mexican Food Lovers Seoul in membership, I figured something was going on there. Rye Post and Casablanca should take credit for this. They charmed the Korean language and English language blogs. Quality sandwiches. No sweet pickles. No random ingredients. It used to be that Korea was where sandwichcraft went to die. But that is changing.
I wonder if suddenly people started reading our old post on how to make cheese in Korea. Every single restaurant that served salads suddenly had this Ricotta Salad on their menu. Maybe there was some new legal requirement I didn’t know about.
French Fries and Beer
Another foolproof easy concept. Open a bar that serves nothing but fries and beer. Easy to do. McDonald’s employees get more thorough training.
Tex-Mex and Ko-Mex started sharing restaurant space with Mex-Mex.
Even though Seoul food trends tend to involve foreign food, some Korean food got some love. The idea of putting something interesting in kimbap other than the same usual Kimbap Cheonguk ingredients caught on. Part of this buzzword masstige–prestige products for the masses. Or rather, something a little gourmet but affordable. The average kimbap is between W1,000 and W2,000. These rolls, filled with fried shrimp, tuna and wasabi, organic spicy chicken, were going for around W5,000. Sticker shock for some–but after calming down, people really went for it, especially young mothers.
Cane Ice Cream
This started in Insa-dong a couple years ago. A puffed corn tube in the shape of a J is filled with white soft serve ice cream. I don’t recommend eating this. It’s a novelty, and it really tastes like corn styrofoam with cheap soft serve. But after observing people eating these for two years, I’ve concluded that there is not a non-pornographic way to suck on these.
As I predicted, bubble tea came back with the aggressive expansion of Taiwan-based Gongcha tea cafes. Things have come full circle because bubble tea was fading from the scene when I arrived in 2004.
These were but a few trends we noticed in 2014. What do you think we missed? And what predictions do you have for 2015?
Featured image credit That Food Cray