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Heights of hansik

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By Kim Ji-soo

At a cozy neighborhood near Hongik University in western Seoul, the temperature is below zero and it's Sunday. Still, people are lining up outside a small eatery before the 11 a.m. opening. At Okdongsik, there are only about 10 seats so waiting seems inevitable yet it is still an impressive sight. The small restaurant's main offering,"dweji gomtang" (pork soup, and standard romanization would be "dwaeji"), was recently picked as one of the Top 8 New York City dishes for 2023 by the New York Times.

Dweji gomtang? Really? This is probably the second time for me to respond in such a way this year after I found that "tteokbokgi" and "stinky" version of kimchi or the well-fermented kind sold well in the United States. Korean food is reaching out globally. Since I could not fly to New York immediately, I tried the Okdongsik gomtang in Seoul, which offered a clear broth with finely sliced pork and chives over rice. Its broth is as lucid as a pho base or even a consomme soup, as the restaurant does not use bones for the soup. The usual dweji gomtang or the larger category of "gukbap" (rice and soup) tend to have a denser, rich soup. The clientele in Seoul were busy imbibing the hearty dish that Sunday, as employees seemed to be silently celebrating the news from the New York restaurant that Okdongsik's owner-chef has been running since for a year.

Dweji gomtang Okdongsik in Seoul / Courtesy of Okdongsik

Dweji gomtang Okdongsik in Seoul / Courtesy of Okdongsik

Another dish is the "mulhwe noodles" at Bansang, a fusion Korean restaurant in San Francisco, which was voted one of the 23 best American cuisines by the same U.S. paper. The cold version of thinly sliced squid tossed with spicy sweet and sour gochujang, and accompanied by shredded vegetables such as cabbage and cucumber? Surprising. Bansang's dish featured capellini in fermented chile broth topped by slices of seasonal fish, pickles, radish and cucumber, the New York Times wrote.

Both dishes come from specific regions. Gukbap originated from the southeastern cities of Busan, Milyang and Daegu. Mulhwe (standard romanization is "mulhoe") anchors along the coastal Korean regionalities of the Gyeongsang provinces, Gangwon Province and Jeju Island. Nowadays the dishes can be found anywhere, while the former is more commonplace, and the latter, the mulhoe, is more of a delicacy. So it is a surprise to find these dishes in a U.S. newspaper's best cuisine or dishes list.

Korean food is hot. It's a whopping contrast to when I used to live in New York, actually Queens in the late 1970s. Back then, 0ne was careful to eat kimchi mostly in the evening so that the fermented garlic smell might not offend. Even in the early 1990s, I had to steal furtive glances over my shoulder to make sure my dorm mates were not around before opening my kimchi jar.

It is not only the United States — palates in Asia and other regions are salivating over Korean dishes. In Singapore, a Korean restaurant offering grilled pork and pork-and-rice soup is one of the most popular right now. A pork grill restaurant reigns in the Philippines.

Umyongbaek or pork and rice soup restaurant in Singapore / Courtesy of Jessine Teo

Umyongbaek or pork and rice soup restaurant in Singapore / Courtesy of Jessine Teo

Three Korean food-related words — "chimaek" or chicken and beer, "galbi" or marinated grilled pork or beef and "samgyeopsal" or grilled pork belly — are now registered in the Oxford English dictionary.

The popularity of Korean food is gratifying for those who take pride in the soul-warming cuisine and also satisfying the hunkering for recognition of Korea's soft power. It is no doubt boosted by the outreach of Korean dramas and films, but also creating a virtuous cycle of food exports. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in November announced that foodstuffs and related industrial products gained 2.1 percent year-on-year through November this year, at a figure of $10.9 billion.

Yet there is a certain wariness if this is the peak of Korean food's popularity, and the way forward is downward. The changing lifestyles of Koreans, the high prices of eating out and the challenges of running a restaurant in Korea, especially during COVID-19, have changed what appears on our dining tables. But where one sees crisis another sees opportunity. Michelin Guide New York announced in October showed that out of the 71 restaurants awarded stars, 11 were Korean.

It's a long way from the early 2010s when the government including the first lady promoted Korean food, but did not pan out. The landscape has changed so let's see how far Korean cuisine — hansik — can progress.

The writer is a member of the Editorial Board at The Korea Times.

Kim Ji-soo


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