Junk Food is Key to Korean Food Globalization

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Gamja fries topped with chopped galbi. (from SF Weekly)

I’ve hinted it many times, and we just keep getting confirmation after confirmation. The Korean government and corporations dream of conquering the world with their prissy pretentious overpriced “well-being” concept of Korean food–you know the postulations like “Americans pay $300 for Japanese food, why not Korean” and “Americans only eat hamburgers, so they’ll like Korean food because it’s well-being.”

But reality blows their sanitized fabrications out of the gukmul.

SF Weekly reports that Korean food is entering the American consciousness, or at least the San Fanciscan consciousness, as stoner junk eats. It started with the Kogi tacos in L.A. Now street vendors and strip malls sell bulgogi topped hot dogs (you can actually get those at New York Hot Dog & Coffee in Korea), marinated beef and kimchi-stuffed sandwiches with creamy gochujang mayo, and fries topped with chopped galbi.

Accomplished Seattle food writer Matthew Amster-Burto (Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater) ponders why Korean food hasn’t taken off in Seattle even though the stars are aligned that way. He blames the insular tendencies of Korean restaurateurs, as in their neglect to advertise in English papers, and the baffled cluelessness Americans feel in Korean restaurants, to which I can relate. Talking to Joule’s Rachel Yang, he works on some ideas for establishing Korean food in Seattle, which could be a blueprint for the rest of the States.

1. Inexpensive restaurants with streamlined menus catering to Americans’ favorites (bulgogi, japchae, galbi), similar to Seattle’s teriyaki restaurants, should populate the area.

2. Promote gochujang. The culinary oracles are already predicting that gochujang is about to become the next sriracha sauce.

3. Korean tacos are already getting Americans used to Korean flavors, like kimchi.

Face it, folks. Royal court cuisine isn’t going to lead the charge. Neither is topoki. Americans aren’t going to latch onto yangnyeom dolsot bap because it’s boring but healthy. Rule #1 is taste. And even though my cholesterol count rises just reading those descriptions, the Korean junk food invasion looks mighty tasty.

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14 thoughts on “Junk Food is Key to Korean Food Globalization”

  1. The only way that Korean food can ever become as popular as Chinese food in America is if Koreans are willing to relinquish some control of the image of Korean food.

    Seoul on Wheels here in the SF Bay Area and Kogi down in LA are NOT serving royal cuisine, they are serving Korean fusion cooking.

    However, I think one valuable tool that the Korean government has brought to the globalization table is the efforts at standardizing the English explanations of Korean foods (excluding the topoki/tteokbokki thing). If those guides end up in the hands of every Korean restaurateur on both sides of the Pacific, that might help Korean restaurateurs in the USA present their menus in a way that non-Korean clientele can understand.

    Korean restaurants in the US can’t depend on returning ex-pats (like me) to explain their food to non-Koreans.

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  2. Koreans have masterfully created whole streets of junk food in Korea. I mean who doesn’t marvel at the french fry covered corn dog and go “brilliant!” I think this is a great idea.

    More to Tammy’s point, giving up control means the possibility another culture will do it better and more successfully. What if in 50 years California style kimchi because the world standard?

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  3. I agree that junk food is going to be the gateway food. KFC and gets a lot of buzz.

    Fusion is going to be big. Kevin a food blogger at Closet Cooking does some great things like a kimchi egg salad sandwich.

    The Korean Presidential Council for Nation Branding is ad a video contest going (I have entered two). I expect to see lots of topoki and other simple everyday type things.

    I expect Temple Cuisine to do better than Royal Cusine.

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  4. Sure, it’s cheap, addictive, and easy to make – what’s not to like? It might not be the reputation that Korea wants to have for itself – and probably one reason they’re still promoting the palace food setup. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not, it gives us a good reputation…

    Koreans would probably not accept the ‘world standard’ of California kimchi – it wouldn’t surprise me to see a nationalistic food campaign – Real Korean Food, The Real Thing – or some awkwardly worded English slogan. With that said, I hope a California kimchi becomes the world standard 🙂

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  5. About the spelling of food terms – wouldn’t “topoki” be better than “tteokbokki”? It’s just my two cents, but “topoki” looks better and would roll off the tongue better than “tteokbokki.”

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    • For those just tuning in, “topoki” is the rebranding of tteokbokki by the government because they thought that it wasn’t popular with foreigners because they couldn’t pronounce it.

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  6. Yeah Teokboki isn’t going anywhere. (Don’t really care how I spell it.) It is one of the hardest Korean foods to enjoy because of it’s heat. Ddeok as a heat conducting material stays hot too long and requires and excessive amount of blowing before it can be eaten, then there is the spice factor. If an inexperienced Teoboki eater scalds their esophagus with their initial bites, they later realize that what they are eating is moderately to very spicy and may request water. All in all Teoboki is probably one of the most painful Korean foods around, and only tastes kind of good. I agree with the article:

    Korean food is indeed healthy, but eating Korean food Korean style isn’t going to make anyone loose weight when the portions are so huge. The way for Korean food to win American’s hearts is through their barbecues and the stuff that tastes great with beer. (Seriously Samgyupsal, charcoal grilled bacon, you don’t really have to advertise that, just put a restaurant on a busy street and let the smell bring the customers in.) Oh yeah, and Korean restaurants in America might do well to promote pork galbi more than beef galbi. Beef ribs are naturally tough, every time I have had galbi in an American-Korean restaurant they have always been beef, always precooked, and always too tough. A nice and tender pork rib done right will bring the customers back.

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