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Globalizing Korean food!
Wednesday, 08 April 2009 06:00

French historian Fernand Braudel once said "the mere smell of cooking can evoke a whole civilization".  Perhaps this is why the government of Korea, the land of kimchee, decided to launch a "Globalization Strategy of Korean Food" at a "food summit" last week.

The vision of this strategy is for Korean food to be ranked in the world's top 5 cuisines by the year 2017.  A 50 billion won ($38 million) "food industry investment fund" will finance among other things Korean cooking academies to rival France's Le Cordon Bleu.  They also plan to beef up Korea' food exports.  Currently at a puny level of $90 billion, they are slated to jump to $3.5 billion by 2012. 

An increase in the number of Korean restaurants overseas from 10,000 to 40,000 is targeted by 2017.  A key element of the strategy will be establishing a global kimchi research centre with a view to tailoring kimchi, spicy seafood side dishes, fermented foods and traditional alcoholic beverages to global tastes.

Korean First Lady KIM Yoon-ik has also taken up the cudgel.  She is preaching the importance of foreigners becoming aware of Korean food ("hansik").  According to Korean food minister, Tae-pyong Chang, who is the driving force behind the strategy, "Korean food has remained relatively unknown like a pearl hidden in its shell".

What hope is there of realising this ambitious strategy?  In fact, Korean cuisine has a very long tradition and history.  It was well established by the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century. 

Also, there are many aficionados, who insist that there is a lot more to Korean cuisine than kimchi and barbeque.  They rave over dishes like tarakjuk (rice and milk porridge), oiseon (cucumber stuffed with beef, mushroom and egg), daehajjim (king prawns, meat and cucumber salad drizzled with crushed pinenut sauce), haemul pajeon (seafood pancake), gamja tang (pork stew with potatoes) and dweji galbi (marinated pork barbeque).  There is also bibimbap which is a deep bowl of various vegetables and nuts, like mushrooms, yellow mung-bean jelly, raw beef and egg, plus seasonings, arranged on top of cooked rice.

More fundamentally, five tastes are present in Korean cuisine -- sweet, salty, bitter, hot and sour.  And the taste of Korean food is enhanced by five colours: green, yellow, red, black-blue and white.

Some even say that Korean cuisine is one of the world's best kept secrets, especially in our increasingly health conscious society.  Kimchi is very nutritious.  The various cabbages used to make kimchi are full of fibre.  And kimchi contains a high level of lactic bacterium, more than cheese or yoghurt, it can help to prevent diseases like arteriosclerosis.

But is Korean food truly on the brink of becoming the next Asian food fad?  Many people have their doubts.  Most Korean restaurants are unimaginative, concentrating on a few basic dishes like kimchi and barbeque.  Even in Korea, it is difficult to find high quality Korean cuisine.  

Americans often find Korean food too spicy, pungent and smelly, with mysterious ingredients.  And restaurants with Korean barbeque are often smoky!    

Korean cuisine also developed a bad reputation because Korea is one of the few countries that still eat dogs.  In the West, eating anonymous livestock and widlife are fair game, but pets are a different matter -- and the dog is taboo.  At the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Korea was attacked on this score by animal rights activist, the former French actress Brigette Bardot.  Dog meat is now technically illegal in Korea, but it is not sure that Koreans have lost their canine taste.

Why did the Korean government choose this moment to launch their strategy for the globalization of Korean food?  Is it a ploy to take their citizens' mind off the global financial crisis?  Or is part of the government's fiscal stimulus package as they try to engineer a kimchi-led recovery?

While we chew over the factors behind this initiative, Korea is suffering from a kimchi trade deficit.  Domestic demand for cheap Chinese made fermented cabbage led to an almost 400% surge in imported kimchi between 2004 and 2007 resulting in a kimchi trade deficit of $77 million.

Kimchi is a cultural icon and national treasure.  In Seoul, there is even a kimchi museum.  Kimchi has been called the "palpable expression of the country's feisty spirit" (even though the chile was brought into Korea from the New World via Japan a few centuries ago).  It is intolerable for nation pride that China now be a major source for Korean's consumption of their national symbol!

Reference:

Korean Cuisine to the World 2009 -- www.cuisinekorea.co.kr 

 


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