Food Matters
South Korea has sought to protect and enshrine its national dishes — while also sharing its wonders with the world.
To accompany this story, the chef Andrew Choi of the New York restaurant Onjium at Genesis House created dishes representative of Korean royal cuisine, all served atop a custom-made traditional Korean hanbok. Here: saseuljeok — literally, “grilled chain skewers” — made with alternating pieces of American Wagyu beef and line-caught tilefish, with char-grilled zucchini and a salad of scallions, lettuce, anise hyssop and herbs.Credit…Photograph by David Chow. Prop styling by Leilin Lopez-Toledo. Costume design by Stephanie Kim
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“WE GOT STRAWBERRY, ginseng, love that kimchi,” the Wonder Girls, a now disbanded K-pop group, half-sing, half-cheer on their 2011 single “K-Food Party.” “Keep the skin so beautiful and full of energy.” This was hardly a spontaneous ode to the ingredients and dishes of their motherland; South Korea’s Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had recruited the young women as global ambassadors, part of a government-sponsored campaign announced three years before with the mission of elevating Korean food to the highest ranks of the world’s favorite cuisines. How exactly this would be measured was unclear. Proposed benchmarks — to be achieved by 2017 — included quadrupling the number of Korean restaurants overseas, with those already existing to be sent a recipe manual encouraging standardization of Korean food name spellings (e.g., “kimchi” versus “kimchee” versus “gimchi”), the easier for befuddled foreigners to remember.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the forthright English lyrics (“For me to stay fly, I gots to eat good”), the Wonder Girls’ song was not a hit. But the number of Korean restaurants overseas did increase exponentially, from 9,253 in 2009 to 33,499 — just slightly shy of the target — in 2017, with a clientele that was more than three-quarters non-Korean, as reported by the Korean Food Promotion Institute. In the United States alone, there are now anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000 Korean restaurants (the higher estimate comes from the marketing research firm IbisWorld) and, according to data analyzed by the New York University food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray, four times as many Korean restaurants merited inclusion in the Michelin Guide to New York in 2022 compared to 2006, with a median meal price of $63, just a dollar less than at French restaurants. This puts them at “the top of the hierarchy of taste,” Ray writes — although still far below Japanese sushi (median meal price: $235).
But what is the point of the South Korean government actively promoting Korean food to other countries, beyond the obvious: boosting agricultural exports and enticing tourists to come sample dishes in their place of origin? How does it profit the Korean nation — materially, psychologically, spiritually — if more non-Koreans learn to love kimchi?
SOUTH KOREA WAS not the first to deploy what has become known as gastrodiplomacy (although “gastrowarfare” might be a better term here, given the country’s apparent end goal of surpassing and eclipsing other cuisines). In the 1990s and early 2000s, Thailand started coaxing native chefs to open businesses outside the country with the help of loans from the state-owned Export-Import Bank and, since 2006, the Ministry of Commerce has issued Thai Select certificates to restaurants high and low around the world “to guarantee the authentic Thai taste,” with awardees ranging from the Orchid House mini-chain in Lagos, Nigeria, where diners may lounge on velvety sofas beneath hanging ferns, to the more utilitarian Krua Thai in Reykjavík, Iceland, which maintains a wall of neon Post-it reviews scrawled by customers. The vetting process includes a surprise visit by a representative of the Thai government to test the restaurant’s food.
This is all in service of advancing a “nation brand,” a concept formally developed by the British marketing consultant and independent policy adviser Simon Anholt in 1996 and now codified in the annual Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index, which measures reputation, judged in part by how a sampling of people around the world perceive the value of each country’s heritage and culture and how willing they are to buy its products. In 2021, Germany, Canada and Japan led the list, while South Korea was No. 23 out of 60, ahead of China and India — an improvement on its poor showing near the bottom of the inaugural index of 2005, which analysts attributed to people confusing it “with its northern neighbor.”
But a nation’s brand — which Anholt has argued cannot be cultivated through advertising, only genuinely earned through policies and actions — may matter more at home, which is to say, not to outsiders but to those who identify with that nation and whose identification and loyalty grow stronger the more established the brand is in the world. For a nation is an intrinsically unstable construct, ever a work in progress. How is it even to be defined: by territory, history, memory or the crumbs left on the dinner table? The very idea of a nation as a collective with a shared commitment to something recognizable as a way of life is quite modern, distinct from the long tradition of dynastic regimes in which the head of state was the state incarnate; whose rulers, the Dutch sociologist Godfried van Benthem van den Bergh has written, “were not interested in the nature and composition of the people they ruled” and viewed their subjects solely “as food producers, as taxpayers and as a reservoir of soldiers.” (The Berlin-based writer and historian Thomas Meaney, in his 2020 essay “The Idea of a Nation,” coolly notes, “Literacy was necessary so citizens could, among other things, read their orders for conscription.”)
Historically, nations have been conjured out of need, solidified often in opposition — to monarchies and colonial powers and to the encroachment of other nations, be they enemy or ally. The American sociologist Michaela DeSoucey has framed gastronationalism as a response to globalization and the erasure of difference, a “form of claims making,” enshrining dishes and ingredients as cultural patrimony akin to art or literature, the material turned symbolic, more fundamental than borders on a map to a people’s sense of who they are. At times this can be pragmatic, as with the European Union’s schema of protected designations of origin and geographical indications meant to ensure, for example, that only Champagne from France can be sold as Champagne (other iterations may take their own geographic name of origin, like prosecco from Italy, or settle for the generic title of “sparkling wine,” with the risk, it’s implied, that they might be closer to swill than elixir) and that the name “feta” belongs exclusively to Greece, despite its etymological derivation from the Italian fetta (“slice”) and complaints from Denmark, which has produced its own briny white cheese since the 1930s, and which this past July was determined by an E.U. court to have “failed to fulfill its obligations” as a member state by exporting that cheese under the label “feta.”
Essentially, these function as intellectual property protections and constitute a legal form of preventing what we might call (loaded phrase) cultural appropriation. Since food traditions are constantly evolving, some scoff at the notion that any culture could claim to own an ingredient or a culinary custom — and that outsiders co-opting and possibly misrepresenting such could be considered theft — yet here is a legal system that supports exactly this. In the case of feta, the impact goes beyond the symbolic: Exports of the cheese, which has been made in Greece for 6,000 years (take that, Denmark) from the milk of sheep grazing on wild mountain flora, were tallied at over $400 million in 2020 and accounted for around one-tenth of the country’s food exports. Which means Danish pseudo-feta isn’t just an annoyance; it could undermine sales of and trust in Greek feta and harm the Greek economy.
Still, the symbolic portent of declaring food a national treasure may be just as powerful. To return to the example of South Korea, as the Korean anthropologist Kwang Ok Kim has chronicled, rice shortages persisted in the shattering wake of the Korean War through the 1950s and ’60s, prompting the government to restrict rice consumption. Starting in 1962, food vendors could only serve rice diluted with other grains and, from 1969 to 1977, restaurants were banned from selling rice (and citizens discouraged from eating it) at lunchtime on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so-called bunsik — literally, “food made from flour” — days. (Today bunsik is a general term for affordable snacks, like battered, deep-fried hot dogs.) Nutritionists under the aegis of the government urged a more Western diet revolving around bread and meat, signaling an embrace of the West as a model for modernity and growth.
This prompted a backlash from intellectuals, who in the 1980s began to champion indigenous ingredients and traditional cooking techniques. The West did not know best, they insisted, proclaiming in defiant counterpoint the slogan “Ours Is Good.” Two decades later, with industrialization achieved and the economy aroar, the South Korean government was ready to take back the narrative from the West and assert Korea’s influence in the form of soft power, persuading via cultural infiltration. But was this mere jockeying for position in international trade or the next phase of nation building? Was the audience the world — or its own people?
“OURS IS GOOD,” but what is ours? How popular does a dish have to be, and for how long, to rise to the stature of national cuisine? (The word “baguette” did not enter French written records until the 1920s.) The American anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, in “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions Into Eating, Culture and the Past” (1996), resists the category as a “holistic artifice.” To him, “the foods of a country do not, by themselves, compose a cuisine”; if a national cuisine must be systematized, it will necessarily be shaped by the perspective of people “whose knowledge, taste and means transcend locality” — that is, the privileged, who, free of particular regional allegiances, are able to eat widely enough to perceive (and see the advantage of perceiving) a nation’s multiple food traditions as a singular cuisine. Consider tequila in Mexico and foie gras in France, both endowed with long histories but neither forced to bear the freight of cultural identity until industrialization transformed them — tequila in the late 19th century and foie gras more recently, in the 1960s and ’70s — from local, small-batch specialties made at family-run distilleries and farms into mass-produced commodities.
The idea of a national cuisine is superfluous if one doesn’t think of oneself as a member of a nation, with a vested interest in and even an obligation to know and declare solidarity with how our fellows across the land choose to live. Food can be a useful political tool to set a nation on a particular path, as witnessed in Thailand in 1939, when Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, prime minister in name but effectively the country’s dictator — with the once all-powerful monarchy demoted to constitutional (and largely ornamental) status — imposed on the populace a heretofore unknown, or at least unheralded, national dish: pad Thai, rice noodles wok-fried with fish sauce and tamarind paste gone caramelized, dried shrimp in tight whorls, squiggles of eggs, furnace-worthy chiles, chives and crushed peanuts. This abundance of ingredients was supposedly an attempt to increase domestic spending and bolster growth. The recipe was disseminated and street vendors were deputized to sell it. Now, less than a century into its existence, it is the Thai dish best known outside of Thailand.
According to South Korea’s 2007 Food Industry Promotion Act, “traditional Korean cuisine” is defined as food “produced, processed and cooked according to the Korean traditional recipes using Korean agricultural and fishery products as main raw materials or ingredients.” But which recipes? All of them? As the Polish-born East Asian Studies scholar Katarzyna J. Cwiertka has observed, at one point during the Korean food campaign, three different government-sponsored websites posted divergent lists of essential Korean dishes. And while the criteria of relying on Korean products would seem to disqualify Korean restaurants in countries where such items are not be easily available, even chefs and home cooks in South Korea could go astray by taking shortcuts or introducing innovations. How faithful to tradition must one be?
IMPORTANT INTANGIBLE CULTURAL Property No. 38, as defined in the Korean government’s archive of protected heritage, could be a bowl of juk, or porridge, creamy with rice plumped in chicken broth: a mild dish, easy on the palate and the digestive system, eminently practical and almost ostentatious in its humility. Or it could be kong-guksu, noodles curled in soy milk, tranquil and pale. Or tangpyeong chae, slippery strands of mung bean jelly and vegetables in Korea’s five cardinal colors: blue and white for east and west; black and red for north and south; and yellow for the center — a dish that King Yeongjo is said to have presented to squabbling factions in the 18th century as a vision of harmony (and a gentle warning to everyone to figure out how to get along). These foods are all part of the royal cuisine of the Joseon dynasty, a line that endured from 1392 to the death of the last, childless king in 1926, his reign already effectively ended 16 years before when the Korean Peninsula was annexed by Japan.
Royal cuisine was the first food-related item to come under South Korea’s Cultural Property Preservation Act of 1962, taking its place alongside such customs as bongsan talchum, a dance-drama with exaggerated masks and sometimes biting mockery of the ruling elite, and gannil, the art of making a broad-rimmed horsehair hat, a process so complex that it requires three master artisans per piece. The inclusion of food was the result of an almost single-handed effort by the culinary scholar Hwang Hye-seong, who in 1943, as recounted by the Korean anthropologist Okpyo Moon in her 2010 essay “Dining Elegance and Authenticity,” sought out the only surviving attendant to have worked in the royal kitchen and wrote down her memories of recipes and rituals that might otherwise have vanished from the Earth. And yet, some skeptics have asked, is Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 38 truly representative of the cuisine served to the Joseon court over the centuries? The attendant whom Hwang consulted was 13 when she entered service at the palace in 1901 and, by the time she worked her way up to the task of assisting in courtly meals — a career arc that typically took more than a decade — the Japanese had already invaded, leaving her witness only to the enervated gestures and final gasps of a toppled kingdom.
The American folklorist and cultural anthropologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett might wonder if such a question misses the point. Heritage, as she defines it in “Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums and Heritage” (1998), is “the transvaluation of the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded, the dead and the defunct.” Although heritage draws on the past, it is rooted in the present and is, almost counterintuitively, something new, created in conversation with what is old. “The past continues to speak to us,” the British Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall writes in his 1989 essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” “But it no longer addresses us as a simple, factual ‘past.’ … It is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth.”
At first, the revival of Korean royal cuisine was largely confined to the academic sphere. In the 1980s, only a few restaurants ventured to serve it, a number of them run by members of Hwang’s family. Then, in 2003, half the country tuned in to the historical TV drama “Jewel in the Palace,” about a 16th-century woman who becomes the king’s chef and personal physician (food, in Korean thinking, is also medicine). The past was remade, and suddenly royal cuisine was all the rage, not only in Korea but throughout Asia. Perhaps emboldened by this success, as well as buoyed by the global Korean food campaign, in 2009 the South Korean government nominated Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 38 for UNESCO’s own heritage list. The glory would belong not just to Koreans but to the world. Indeed, the next year, France would earn a spot for what UNESCO describes on its website as the quintessential French “gastronomic” meal, emphasizing “togetherness, the pleasure of taste and the balance between human beings and the products of nature”; but UNESCO ultimately declined to give the same honor to Korean royal cuisine, on the grounds that more information was needed to understand “how the practice is recreated by its bearers and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity today.”
Cho Eun Hee, a chef at Onjium, a fine-dining restaurant in Seoul with an outpost in Manhattan and part of a research institute focused on traditional Korean culture, studied under Hwang and is one of around only 30 devotees in Korea to be anointed by the government as a protector of royal cuisine. Her approach, however, is that of a scholar, not a guard patrolling the bounds of some exclusive, exclusionary domain. She suggests that the culinary relationship between the king at court and the peasant in the village was less a matter of difference than of degree. Sure, the king would receive the best ingredients, harvested at their peak and brought to the court from all the regions of Korea, where they would be cooked by chefs with decades of training and meticulous attention to detail, shucking the skins off little red beans or carefully carving the bumps off a yuja (more commonly known outside of Korea by its Japanese name, yuzu), packing the peel with julienne jujubes, pine nuts and chestnuts, sealing it in an earthen vessel with a pour of honey, leaving it to ferment for a couple of months, then tossing everything but the peel in order to prepare one of the eight ingredients to be mixed into a festive rice cake. But no foods were off limits to commoners (although they were less likely to eat beef, since they needed cows to till the fields). “Eating royal was not forbidden, just difficult to achieve,” says Seung Hee Lee, a Korean-born epidemiologist in Atlanta who, like Cho, trained in royal cuisine in Seoul and is the co-author, with Kim Sunée, of the cookbook “Everyday Korean” (2017). And everyone ate juk: “Back in the day, if you were to be an eligible bride, you had to know how to make hundreds of kinds of porridge.”
For the chef Jiyeon Lee, a former K-pop star who racked up four No. 1 albums, retired young to America and now runs Heirloom BBQ in Atlanta with fellow chef Cody Taylor, court cuisine is defined not by ancient techniques but by an animating spirit of “respect and sincerity.” This past spring, she collaborated on a royal cuisine-themed pop-up dinner with Seung Hee in which the rigor of detail was so great it took the two of them 10 days to prepare a menu of four courses, including juk; tangpyeong chae with pomegranate seeds and squid-ink and turmeric-stained mung bean jelly; and a whole duck leg glazed seven times with gochujang and soy sauce that had been aged for 10 years. “We wouldn’t really serve meat that way if it were truly royal,” Seung Hee says with a laugh. “The king could not be seen eating meat off the bone — too savage.”
Above all, royal cuisine is delicate. Jiyeon finds such restraint lovely: “You can taste the ingredients,” she says. Cho characterizes the flavors as “clean” and “pure,” belying “the stereotype of Korean food as spicy, salty and forward.” Seung Hee more bluntly scoffs at the ignorance of sommeliers in the West who “pigeonhole Asian cuisine as heavily seasoned” and recommend pairings only of Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Notably, UNESCO was more receptive to South Korea’s next culinary application, on behalf of the famously, triumphantly pungent kimchi, whose preparation method was, as of 2013, inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (Soon after, in one of the absurdities of geopolitics, North Korea petitioned for and was granted recognition of its own kimchi tradition.)
UNESCO WANTED CONTINUITY, but that’s a mirage. Cultural identity “is not once and for all,” as Hall writes. “It is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute return.” This is the problem with nation branding. It doesn’t much allow for nuance — for bubbly K-pop to emerge from the same context that gave the world pansori (Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 5), epic chants sung so gutturally, so deeply excavated from the throat, that performers in training sometimes spit blood; for Korean food to be brazen and discreet and all the shades in between, from Korean barbecue on a tabletop grill, smoke barreling through the room, descending, possessing, writing itself into the seams of your clothes, to the daintiest cup of barley tea that almost tastes like nothing, until you pay attention.
Nor is there room to acknowledge that food origins are often mythic and murky. Over the millenniums, culinary traditions have crossed borders and changed hands, been adapted and made new. Rice porridge is juk to both the Koreans and the Cantonese, and records of its consumption in China go back more than 2,000 years: Writings compiled by followers of the fourth-century B.C. Confucian philosopher Mengzi (known in the West by his Latinized name, Mencius) mention the eating of porridge as essential to mourning rites, “binding on all, from the sovereign to the mass of the people.” To the Tamils, it was kanji, “boilings,” the liquid left over from cooking rice, made into a drink or gruel (or both at once), as documented in the first century by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder; the 16th-century Sephardic Jewish physician Garcia de Orta, who studied Indian medicine in Goa, rendered the word as “canje,” which eventually evolved into “congee,” the term that now holds sway in the Western world, so much so that even in Hong Kong, Chinese restaurants that specialize in juk are called congee houses.
Such common roots do not prevent latter-day skirmishes over who owns what. Last year, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism requested that the Chinese call kimchi by a new name, xinqi (chosen more for sound than meaning; the syllables, independently, mean “pungent” and “peculiar”), rather than lumping it together with pao cai, Sichuan fermented vegetables. Certainly, the recipes are distinct — subsuming them into one category would be like classifying kimchi as a variation on sauerkraut — but the nomenclature appears to have simply sown confusion and become a proxy for tensions between the countries. Meanwhile, within China, pao cai itself is subject to questions of authenticity: As the British cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop writes in “The Food of Sichuan” (2019), some Sichuanese go so far as to mandate that the salt used for the brine be harvested from the wells of the town of Zigong, itself a UNESCO-recognized site of international geological significance.
Nations clamor to have their riches enter the pantheon of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity — what belongs, at least theoretically, to all of us. But the very existence of nations, of ever-shifting borders and the still starkly real threat of invasion and subjugation, be it by military or economic might, belies this utopian ideal. So we look to our defenses. We say, “Ours, not yours.”
Prop styling by Leilin Lopez-Toledo. Costume design by Stephanie Kim. Senior group manager, Genesis House: Joseph McHugh. Photo assistant: Alex Lopez. Costume assistant: Sunmi Yim
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