SEOUL | Celebrity chefs, internet influencers and even Hollywood A-listers can’t get enough of it.
The menu for President Biden’s state dinner with visiting South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol next week hasn’t been set, but if the two leaders are looking to feature a rising star on the world culinary scene, a South Korean main course would be a highly suitable choice.
“I’ve been intrigued with Korean cuisine for the last 15 to 20 years,” said British superchef Gordon Ramsay. “I have, for some time, believed that the chefs doing the most interesting work in America — chefs who are in fact redefining what ‘American food’ means — are Korean,” said the late New York chef, television host and writer Anthony Bourdain.
And actress and lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow, describing her diet to overcome COVID-19, gave a shout-out to “sugar-free kimchi.”
It’s a big change from the days when international hotel staffers dreaded the arrival of South Korean tour groups, notorious for carrying the spicy — but piquant — condiment that graces every Korean meal into their dining rooms.
South Korean food is the latest Asian cuisine to infiltrate U.S. parlors, kitchens and restaurants. Chinese and Mexican restaurants may still have pride of place, but a foodfirefriends.com survey last fall listed Korean food as the fifth most popular in the U.S. based on Google searches, behind Chinese, Mexican, Thai and Indian cuisine.
As postwar Americans began to sample more adventurous dishes than their meat-and-potatoes parents; as overseas servicemen were exposed to foreign food offerings outside their bases in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. As global tourism and globalization advanced, so did appreciation for the variety of Asian cuisines.
The popularity of South Korean cuisine in the U.S. benefited from two macro trends, foodies say.
One was the dining habits of the approximately 2 million-strong Korean-American communities, and the restaurants they set up in ethnic enclaves across the country.
The other was the victorious march of Korean pop culture in the last decade: K-pop, K-drama, K-film. The cultural impact spilled over on to the nation’s dining room tables.
“Traditionally, whenever there is a drama, there is a dining scene,” said Yang Sun-mook, a former South Korean government adviser and restaurateur. “It’s almost a rule for any Korean TV drama — food has been an indispensable prop.”
Korean cuisine’s roots lie in the austere vegetarianism of the Buddhist temples, the hearty offerings of the rural peasantry and the sophisticated palates of aristocracy and royalty.
Rice-based, Korean meals can feature fresh seafood from the waters surrounding the peninsula on three sides, but also offer some of Asia’s finest meat-cooking methods.
A specialty is fermented ingredients, such as kimchi, the pickled vegetable that supplies critical vitamins during the harsh winters, and jang — thick, piquant, fermented sauces.
For a quick primer on the essentials of Korean cooking, here are 10 popular offerings to consider for your next meal:
• Galbi: Pork ribs, cooked by diners on the griddle set into their tabletops and carved with scissors, will delight carnivores.
• Samgyeopsal: Slices of pork belly, dipped in salt and sesame — again, cooked at the table —are cheaper than galbi, and are the traditional salaryman’s solace.
• Bibimbap: A bowl of rice mixed with vegetables and meat, often topped by an egg and flavored with spicy sauce, is a simple favorite, popular on international flight menus.
• Pajeon: This meal of savory pancakes, dipped in soy sauce, is an essential part of the recovery from a hike in South Korea’s ubiquitous mountains.
• Budae Jjigae: This “regimental stew” of kimchi, spam and/or frankfurters dates back to the 1950-53 Korean War and has been served to visiting U.S. presidents.
• Doenjang Jjigae: This thick stew of fermented soybeans is a more muscular, punchier version of the Japanese dish miso.
• Hanjongshik: Not a dish per se, but a table groaning under the weight of a constantly arriving series of dishes. It’s how Korean royalty of yore dined.
• Tteokbokki: These cylinders of rice pasta in spicy gravy are a street-food staple, available nationwide.
• Makkoli: A milky-looking, white rice brew, this traditional sweet and/or sour concoction — unique to Korea — has undergone a renaissance in recent years.
• Soju: No Korean meal is complete without a bottle or two of this cheap but cheerful, vodka-like grain spirit.