Shin has performed an amazing feat in translating this ENTIRE ARTICLE that came out a couple of weeks ago, highlighting Jen, Dan and me. I must say, it’s a good ‘un. It’s a bit ballsy in pushing our critiques–and really, the critiques of a lot of expats–regarding the government’s promotion of Korean food.

Give it a read–and give Shin a pat on the back for doing this for us.


(2103rd Edition) 2010.05.03


[PEOPLE] Foreign Powerbloggers as Korean Food Missionaries

Gobchang, Pork Skin, Fermented Skate …Wonderful!

There is a fever for the ‘globalization of Korean food.’  Not only government organizations such as The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MIFAFF) and the Korea Tourism Organization, but also major companies in the food industry are taking action for the globalization of Korean food.  The first lady Yoon-ok Kim appeared on the American news channel CNN and gave cooking demonstration of Korean food last October.  The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) plans to accelerate the effort on the globalization of Korean food through the International Food Industry Exhibition in Seoul from May 12th through May 15th.  Among the efforts for the globalization of Korean food, there are 3 foreign bloggers who draw thousands of daily visitors to their blogs focused on just that.  Joe McPherson (36) of ZenKimchi (www.zenkimchi.com), Daniel Gray (31) of Seoul Eats (www.seouleats.com), and Jennifer Flinn (30) of Fatman Seoul (www.fatmanseoul.com).  Self-claimed as ‘The Three Musketeers of Korean food blogging,’ they review restaurants, introduce Korean food culture, and share high quality critiques on culture through their stand-out blogs.

If you type in the words ‘Seoul Korean food’ on the English search engine Google, these sites will appear on the first page.  It’s not an overstatement to say that these three blogs are the easiest to reach for information on Korean food in English.  I met with the three powerbloggers and heard about their lives in Korea, love for Korean food, and harsh criticisms on the globalization of Korean food.

Site Visitors from the U.S., Australia and Africa

The influence of the three bloggers should not be overlooked.  ZenKimchi among the ‘Three Musketeers’ logs in the most visitors, one time reading as much as 18,000 pageviews in a day.  Seoul Eats is also proud of over 2000 average pageviews.  People visit the 3 sites not only from the English-speaking countries such as the U.S., Australia, the Philippines, but also from France, Germany, Israel, Indonesia and Africa.

When a reporter from the daily newspaper The New York Times came to Seoul for a taste of Seoul, the ones who took him to a Korean fine-dining restaurant in Shinsa-dong, pojang macha, a restaurant specializing in galbi grilled over charcoal in front of Hongik University, and Noryangjin Seafood Market were Gray and McPherson.  The article in The New York Times on July 20th, 2008, described the taste of Seoul as “Weird, Wild and, Ultimately, Sublime.”

[I don’t think] it’s necessary to worry about ‘what foreigners would know about Korean food.’  All three people have lived in Korea for a minimum of 5 to 11 years.  When asked about any plans to leave Korea, they all went, ‘Well…’ as if to say no thoughts of leaving.  In the case of Gray, who grew up in Korea until the age of 5 then was adopted by [a family] in the U.S., “I came to Korea to learn about my roots.”  McPherson, who got married to Korean wife last October, is expecting the birth of his first child.  “There are many foreigners who stay in Korea for the short-term.  At one point I realized it’s not easy to get to know people who would be leaving soon.  So I like hanging out with Korean people or foreigners who will settle in Korea.”

Flinn, who came to Korea as an exchange student in 1999, also said, “Perspectives of foreigners who are visiting and settling [in Korea] are very different.  First-time visitors find charcoal grilled meat and kimchi interesting, but for people like me who have been living [in Korea] for a while, obviously, that’s not the case.

McPherson says it’s natural for the three Americans to become close.  “We were on our own with very little exchange, but after 2007, a community of foreign bloggers formed, and we help and support one another by contributing articles and leaving comments.”  For example, Gray’s food consulting company O’ngo Food Communications is an advertiser on ZenKimchi, and when Fatman Seoul’s site shut down from bugs, ZenKimchi helped by offering to lend out server space.

Three People Three Colors…More professional Assessment than Koreans

They also share a reason for starting their blogs.  In the beginning, they started writing to update on their lives to families back home, but realized that it became mostly about eating and changed the focus to food.  The current format of ZenKimchi formed in 2004, and Seoul Eats and Fatman Seoul in 2008.  Although they manage blogs with the Korean food theme, their focus areas differ based on their specialization and experience.  Gray, who is in food marketing, gears the site for foreigners residing in Korea by focusing on restaurant reviews in Seoul and promoting his Korean food tours.  On the other hand, long posts with clear view points parallel to newspaper editorial articles stand out in the blog by McPherson, who majored in Communications.  Flinn, who majored in Anthropology, said, “I always keep in mind the cultural differences and write each post as part of documentary.”  She adds, “I plan to go for a doctorate degree with a theme on Korean food.”  “[I find it] interesting how there is a divide in sexes in Korean food culture.  Have you wondered why it’s hard to see guys going to Outback by themselves or women going to eat gobchang by themselves?”

These three are more concerned about reviews on food and cultural observations whereas Korean blogs focus on pictures with short restaurant introductions.  McPherson, who is also working as food editor for 10 Magazine, an English magazine for Koreans, said, “I try to keep a consistent perspective with more focus on writing than pictures, as I consider all blog posts as magazine articles.”  McPherson also mentioned that food pictures that arouse the appetite just by looking at them are called “food porn,” and, “When I want to show my friends ‘food porn,’ I post Korean blog links on my twitter.”

An Extraordinary Love for Korean Food…Makgeolli and Pajeon at Get-togethers

For these three, love for Korean food is distinctive.  It amazes me to look at Flinn, who loves GulBap and SamHap, and McPherson, whose favorite food is gobchang and pork skin (usually stir-fried or grilled).  Gray even developed ‘Korean food tours’ and is introducing Seoul food himself to tourists and foreigners living in Korea.  Snacks in pojang macha, pork skirt meat for the 2nd round, then to round out the night, makgeolli and pajeon are enjoyed at the 3rd round.

I asked about their favorite Korean food.  Gray recommends spicy Galbi Jjim at Dong In Dong in Shinsa-dong, Samgyetang at To Sok Chon next to Gyeongbok Palace and Korean fine-dining at Sandang in Yang-pyung, Gyeonggi Province.  “I have a peculiar taste,” says McPherson.  He laughs and says, “When I say I like gobchang, jogae gui, budae jjigae, and pork skin dishes, my foreign friends ask me if I am listing the weirdest foods.”  Flinn counts GulBap at Cheong Su Jeong in Samcheong-dong, creative reinterpretations of Korean food at Star Chef in Dogok-dong, buckwheat noodles at Memil Kot Pil Muryeop in Hyoja-dong.  “I have my own criteria for picking good Korean restaurants, which is the shorter the menu, the better.  I like places that ask, ‘How many,’ without [having me need to] choose what to eat.”  She also has an unusual praise for hong-eo [fermented skate].  “The reason people don’t like fermented skate is usually because their first experiences were bad, but my first was so delicious.  I believe fermented skates sold at restaurants are usually aged for 2-3 months, but the restaurant I went to in Anyang aged it for 2-3 years.”

Flinn and Gray usually seek out Seoul area restaurants, and McPherson, who lives in Anyang, looks for restaurants in Seoul and the surrounding areas.  Flinn fell for Andong Jjim Dalk (braised Andong-style chicken) and salt-cured mackerel after tasting them at the Andong Maskdance Festival in 2008.  She also likes Suwon Wang Galbi (large beef ribs) that she had at Yeon Po Gal Bi in Suwon.  McPherson enjoys food from different countries and has recommended Uzbek restaurant Samarkand Kafe and Vietnamese restaurant Quan Viet Nam through his blog.

‘Globalization of Korean food’ can succeed

Since the effort for the globalization of Korean food surged last year, bloggers of ‘Three Musketeers’ are also very much interested in [the direction of] Korean food overseas, especially the possibility of success in the motherland of the U.S.  However, they point out weaknesses in Korean food globalization currently spearheaded by the government.  At the basis of the issues is the lack of market research, which [leads to] the lack of understanding of the culture of consumers.  McPherson says with a smile that the current effort in the globalization of Korean food “feels like it’s forcefully telling foreigners ‘this is what you have to like’ without asking them.  The only person in the world who can do that is Steve Jobs.”  Mr. Gray also said food and culture have to be promoted together.  “For example, foreigners are not familiar with the concept ‘son-mat’ [‘hand flavor’].  Especially, Americans who are particularly sensitive about cleanliness could refuse the concept of making food with [bare] hands.  Therefore, in explaining ‘son-mat,’ the fact that hands are the most delicate and functional ‘tools’ should be emphasized instead of directly relating to ‘taste.’  Flinn is critical on tteokbokkii as one of the representative dishes of Korean food sponsored by MIFAFF.  “[Do you think] changing the Romanization from tteokbokkii to topokki to make it easier to read will make people like the food more?  The most important thing is not the name, it is the taste and texture.  Americans are not comfortable with sticky-chewy textures, so they do not like tteok [rice cakes in general] as much as Koreans think.  It goes with the example that sashimi in the chewy Korean style is not as popular as Japanese-style sashimi.”

Forget Dae Jang Geum!

They also point out the limits of marketing Korean fine dining and royal court cuisine.  Flinn advises to “forget Dae Jang Geum now.”  McPherson says royal court cuisine tends to be expensive and focuses more on the appearance rather than the taste.  “If you keep focusing on appearance, it feels like Korean food is copying Japanese food.  The reason Japanese food comes out beautifully is that it doesn’t have any particular ‘flavor.’  On the other hand, the appeal of Korean food is its complicated flavors and abundance.  So giving up flavors and focusing on appearance might even make Korean cuisine boring.”  Mr. Gray also said, “Celebrity chefs and high-end royal court cuisine are good, but the daily lives of common people are far from them.  Fine dining cuisine is very concerned about techniques and ingredients, but most people want food that’s easy to make, comforting to eat and cheap.”

They recommend grassroots marketing rather than high-end marketing, and agree on “inviting young foreign chefs to Korea and educating them” in particular.  McPherson shared his own experience.  “My younger brother came to Korea to attend my wedding last October.  He is a chef specializing in Mediterranean food around Italy and Spain and American southern food.  He wanted to learn more about Korean food, so I introduced him to a Korean chef for a crash course.  My brother became a fanatic fan of Korean food.  He made turkey with kimchi for Thanksgiving in November.”  Flinn says to invite foreign chefs and food experts and ‘let them loose’ on the street rather than taking them to hotels and Korean fine-dining restaurants.

Don’t get stuck on Pure-bred Korean food!

They also criticize the emphasis on ‘pure-bred’ Korean food.  Mr. McPherson says, “Korean food is getting attention as street food in the U.S.”  Street food was sweeping the west in L.A. in 2009.  ‘Kimchi Tacos,’ developed by Roy Choi (40), a Korean American, is the center of attention.  ‘Kimchi Tacos’ is putting kimchi and bulgogi in Mexican tacos, which is a thin flour wrap with meat and vegetable stuffing.  Choi’s ‘Kogi BBQ’ truck is so popular that people line up everywhere the truck goes.  Choi was also chosen as one of the best new chefs in 2010 by the American food magazine Food and Wine.  David Chang, a Korean American, has a fusion Korean restaurant Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York.  I also tasted their raw oysters lightly sprinkled with kimchi sauce and buns with pork, scallions, cucumber and hoisin sauce at this place last February.  The ingredients were certainly Korean, but the flavors were different from Korean food.  McPherson said, “Americans did not like kimchi until it was put on their beloved tacos.  Kimchi is hard to eat by itself, but it adds a great flavor when eaten with other foods. [If you] find American food that goes well with Korean food and combine them well, the next ‘Kogi BBQ’ and ‘Momofuku’ will come out.”

Flinn also recommends better adaptation of Korean food with local cuisines.  “In the existing effort of ‘the globalization of Korean food,’ there seems to be a fear of losing ‘originality’ and disappearing into somewhere as the food goes [overseas].  However, I think it’s unnecessary to be concerned about losing originality unless the government leads with the ‘pure-bred’ Korean food.  Korean cuisine has to change and, in fact, it is as it goes outside of Korea.  Look at Chinese cuisine and Japanese cuisine.  There was less friction because these cuisines were localized and familiarized first, followed by the introduction of traditional styles.”

SsamJang, Salt … Introduce Ingredients First!

Which food, if not royal court cuisine or tteokbokki, has the potential to be the leader of Korean food globalization?  Gray said, “Promoting ingredients rather than complete dishes could be a strategy.”  Momofuku of New York is a good example.  Gray said, “Every time I go to the states, I fill half of my suitcase with SsamJang for a gift for my friends.  Korean sea salt is also popular among American chefs.  They say there is a unique, sharp flavor to it.  There is a chef in Seattle who always asks me to send him Korean salt.”  Interestingly, McPherson counts Jogae Gui.  “Grilling clams on the beach with a sea breeze could be the best vacation Americans could imagine.  But [you will] probably have to put up a warning sign that says, ‘We are not responsible for any burns.’” They also agree on the possibility of chicken dishes such as Andong Jjim Dalk and Dalk Galbi [spicy chicken stew flavored with gochujang, Chun-cheon version is most well known].

Wouldn’t they miss the taste of home even when they like Korean food so much?  I asked where they go when they miss American food.  McPherson mentioned a hole in the wall that’s now closed, in front of the American army base in Samgakji**.  “They had $2 burgers and $12 steaks of FDA quality.  It was a really famous place among foreigners although it wasn’t advertised.  Gray counts Suji’s in Itaewon for American brunch, Chef Meili in Itaewon for Austrian food, Gina & Franco nearby the Seoul National University Station for Italian food.  Flinn enjoys American burgers and mussels at Public in Hyoja-dong.  Flinn says, “I don’t expect the same American taste in Korea.  But there is a place that produces 100% the same taste anywhere in the world – McDonalds.  I don’t go near it in the States but I eat [there] once in a while in Korea.”

Original article written by Shim Hye Gi

Translated for ZenKimchi Food Journal by Shin Kim (www.shinshine.com)

**They’re talking about the USO Canteen

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