If you follow my posts on here, in which case hi Mom, then you may remember I recently went back to Canada for the first time since 2008. One thing I was looking forward to during that trip was trying the Korean food that was available in my hometown. I was curious to see how Canadians were preparing, serving, and eating Korean food, how it’s been localised, and what they get wrong.
Korean food has grown significantly in Edmonton since I moved away, not phenomenally but noticeably. There is much more awareness of it, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know what kimchi is or can’t use chopsticks. This contrasts to the time around my first visit to Korea, when there were no Korean restaurants available in Edmonton so we just went to a Vietnamese restaurant instead to celebrate. Nowadays there are a number of Korean restaurants, too many for me to visit in one two-week stay without also missing out on a lot of local foods I was craving.
I asked around for recommendations, which was a bit troubling. My parents, who have visited Korea many times, were pretty unenthusiastic of Canadian Korean food and couldn’t recommend anything. Meanwhile, every Korean-Canadian I asked had the same answer when I asked what was their favourite Korean restaurant in Edmonton: Steel Wheels, a late-night Korean-owned pizzeria.
In the end I visited three Edmonton Korean restaurants (not counting Steel Wheels): Ga Ya Korean Restaurant, Bul Go Gi House, and the generically named Korean Food Restaurant.
Ga Ya, located on the edge of the University of Alberta campus, was not unlike a Korean 분식집 (flour-based) restaurant, ie Kimbap Heaven or Kimganae where you can get single-portion meals like kimbap, bibimbap, bulgogi and rice, ramyeon, or soups. Good for lunch or a small meal between lectures. Quality-wise it was a small step up, though lacking in authenticity. I ordered Gaya bulgogi which was basically regular bulgogi and rice with a slightly redder sauce that resembled jaeyuk. It must be a family recipe because it tasted unlike anything I’ve ever had in Korea. Which I appreciated, but I could understand someone unfamiliar with Korean food being disappointed by its lack of authenticity. Certainly the Gaya Confederacy had no access to these ingredients and spices, so the name was just some clever branding.
Bul Go Gi House was one of the top recommendations I kept hearing, so I went there with a group of friends. The exterior of the restaurant was underwhelming, but I’ve learned not to judge a Korean restaurant by its exterior. Eating here was much more confusing for me because they didn’t quite do things the Korean way and didn’t quite match Western customs. We ordered a number of different things, but the main course was galbi, which we ordered multiple times; I don’t think we ever had bulgogi, which I kind of feel is not as big a deal back in Korea.
Korean Food Restaurant is located in HUB Mall on the U of A campus, a long skinny building that hosts many fast food restaurants as well as international housing. I didn’t have the time or appetite to eat here, but studied the menu and got pictures I neglected to take at the other two. This place has been a Korean restaurant since I was a student, and it’s always had a reputation for its low quality and high price.
Rather than review these restaurants individually, I sought to highlight how they differ from Korean restaurants in Korea, either through localisation or lack of authenticity or the habits of non-Koreans. This process can lead down the wrong path, but it’s equally capable of introducing new innovations or perspectives on Korean food.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way first, because it’s already getting tiring writing “Ga Ya” and “Bul Go Gi.” There are no romanisation rules for Korean in Canada, which has led to a lot of ugly words. It’s common to see multisyllabic words separated into individual words — all capitalised — or hyphenated.
So you wind up with the unwieldy “Bul Go Gi” as I wrote above, but also “Bul-Go-Gi,” which looks terrible. And the same dish would be spelled many different ways not only from restaurant to restaurant but also sometimes on the same menu. Bibimbap was the worst offender, showing up in variations such as “Be Bim Bab,” “B-Bim Baap,” “Bi Beem Bap,” and so on. Even kimchi, which I’d thought was pretty standardised by now, would often appear as gimchi or kimchee. A Canadian unfamiliar with Korean food couldn’t be faulted for assuming that gimchi and kimchee are two different foods, any more than they could for assuming that Busan and Pusan are two different places.
But these food names must be romanised, otherwise you won’t know what you’re getting. Take a look at this menu image below. Are these Korean foods? What are they specifically?
So obviously, what needs to be done is to romanise the Korean names, and then also have an accurate description of what the foods are. It’s not hard, even if mistakes are frequent.
If you’ve been to a barbecue meat restaurant in Korea, you’re familiar with the open grill, the sizzling meat, and picking food directly off the grill and eating it once it’s been cooked. I’ve even been to a Korean restaurant in Edmonton (on a previous visit) that offered this method of cooking. And this cook-it-yourself (CIY? You’re welcome) method of preparing Korean food was a circus: nobody else knew what they were doing, and they ended up trying to grill seafood alongside samgyeopsal, leading to a hideous mess on the grill which nobody thought to replace.
This time, however, my one experience with this kind of food involved it being brought to our table pre-cooked, which means we missed out on one of the most entertaining aspects of communal Korean food. But: I get it. You’d be hard-pressed to find Westerners who would find it appetising to have a plate full of raw meat plunked down in front of them, and they wouldn’t know how to cook it properly.
Which is probably why half the time when I go to a Korean barbecue restaurant, the server comes over periodically to check on the cooking and handle tasks like cutting and flipping. And she’s not even working for tips. I guess it’s probably too much to expect that kind of hospitality for every non-Korean customer in Korean restaurants overseas.
Yes, when the waitress at Bul Go Gi House brought us our galbi already cooked, I was a little dismayed. What’s more, it hadn’t been sliced up yet, and there were fairly large-size bones we’d have to cut around. And to top it all off, the plate of galbi arrived with four knives. How in the world are you supposed to cut meat with four knives, especially on a concave plate? I asked the waitress for scissors and tongs, and she was able to provide these.
I can still remember how shocking it was the first time I saw Korean food being cut up by scissors–scissors are for paper, not food–but it didn’t take me that long to adapt and realise it’s quite brilliant. I feel like customers at restaurants like this should be brought scissors by default, and if they insist on Western uses for inventions, they should have to ask for knives and then spend the next five minutes butchering their galbi wishing there was an easier way.
By the time I was done slicing up the galbi, I noticed that the lettuce hadn’t arrived yet. When I asked the waitress, she told me that it wasn’t an option and it was unavailable.
This was the biggest letdown for me, even more crushing than seeing how much a 255mL bottle of Korean beer cost. Barbecue Korean meat without lettuce is like a hamburger without a bun, or a taco without a shell. I’d say using lettuce to eat galbi or samgyeopsal is the one biggest pleasing surprise for people newly discovering Korean food, the thing that makes it distinct and memorable. Without lettuce to wrap food in, you might as well be eating slices of sandwich meats.
I could see how this might develop: if you put all this food in front of a bunch of people unfamiliar with Korean food, they certainly wouldn’t figure out on their own how to use the lettuce leaves as a wrap to hold other things. And even when doing this for the first time, I’ve remarked on how a lot of non-Koreans get it completely wrong in, frankly, inventive ways. But judging by the reactions of foreigners trying it in Korea, this is an attraction of eating Korean food and should be actively introduced in overseas Korean restaurants. Customers will be more motivated to come back not just for the taste, but for the unique method of eating, just like how Canadians have already embraced chopsticks, or tacos, or fondue, or “Mongolian” barbecue which is apparently a thing, or whatever else you can find now.
At Ga Ya, my dining companion ordered bibimbap. She stirred it up with her spoon, then reached for her chopsticks to begin eating in portions of whatever she could lift at a time. Typically, a Korean would mix a bowl of bibimbap up with chopsticks, then actually eat it with a spoon. Because lifting enough rice for a mouthful with two metal sticks is about as easy as unloading a truck full of bowling balls with a pitchfork.
To the average white person, Asian food should all be eaten with chopsticks, no matter what. Offer a spoon, and they’ll respond with “No thanks, I know how to use chopsticks.” Explain that even an Asian person wouldn’t be using chopsticks to eat bibimbap, and they still will probably stick with the chopsticks. Switch to a Western utensil, and you might as well be eating Western food, I guess.
I would say something if I saw a Korean person trying to eat tenderloin steak with a salad fork and butterknife, so we should all do our part to make sure everyone knows the right utensils to use with Korean food.
Banchan and Bean Sprouts
The way you get a dozen little side dishes with your food is a distinctly Korean thing. In a normal Korean restaurant, it’s all free, it’s often plentiful, and it admittedly can seem wasteful. But it can transform an ordinary meal into a feast.
In many Canadian restaurants, it wasn’t surprising that banchan often cost extra. Why should it be free, especially when not everyone will eat it? At a typical meal, I’ll go after certain types of banchan and keep getting free refills, while completely neglecting others.
What surprised me the most actually was that at every meal, there were two standard types of complimentary banchan: kimchi (which tasted a bit different from what I’m used to, likely due to local ingredients) and bean sprouts. Edmontonians go nuts for bean sprouts, which are in this case always parboiled and seasoned with salt and sesame. So, in other words, bean sprouts that taste kind of like potato chips. They were present at every meal, despite not being nearly as ubiquitous here in Korea. On the way to one restaurant there was discussion about whether there would be bean sprouts there, because everyone else was excited for them. My guess is that Korean restauranteurs have discovered that bean sprouts are popular among Westerners, so they come with literally every Korean meal.
Let’s look at how Western food is served. Several dishes are brought to the table, and everyone uses serving utensils to collect each of the foods they want on their own plate. Everything stops off at this plate on the way to your mouth. Or in a restaurant, you order one plate of food for yourself, and the server brings you a pre-apportioned meal. Either way, that plate is your command center, your headquarters, your warehouse.
Korean food, in contrast, moves around the table much differently. There will be communal dishes that you use your own chopsticks to pick up, the food might be dipped in a communal sauce, and in some meals it might make a stop on a bowl of rice or greens or a piece of lettuce before being eaten. You usually don’t have more than one mouthful of food in your possession at any one time, and when you find yourself stockpiling food it’s probably because it’s starting to burn on the grill.
The obvious reason why Westerners wouldn’t eat like this is concern over hygiene (or at least cooties), but we should also see this in the context of personal property and culture-specific techniques. Taking away that main plate can really bring Western diners out of their comfort zone.
One thing that I have found disheartening is how so many Korean-owned Japanese restaurants there are, or Korean-Japanese restaurants (also always owned by Koreans). I get the impression that the owners don’t have enough confidence in Korean food’s marketability, so they try hitching it to the always-popular Japan. I’d known about this trend for a long time, and I suspect as these businesses flourish and Korean food becomes more familiar, they introduce more and more Korean menu items. There’s definitely been a trend of Korean cuisine beginning to stand on its own now, though a lot of the older Korean-Japanese restaurants are still around using the same formula.
Now, to me, they’re two very different foods and a restaurant that serves both doesn’t instill confidence in me, and I’d rather skip it for restaurants that specialise in one country’s cuisine. Likewise, I wouldn’t be interested in a Nepalese-Mexican restaurant (unless it was some out-of-this-world fusion of the two), and I wouldn’t expect someone who can cook both Nepalese and Mexican food to be particularly outstanding at either. When deciding which Edmonton restaurants to visit, I ruled out several options that weren’t Korean-specific.
I was more surprised by the number of foods I would consider “Chinese” making their way onto the menus. It wasn’t rare to see jjam-ppong, kkanpunggi, and jjajangmyeon on menus, three foods that Koreans would consider Chinese food. Fortunately I never had to talk anyone down from ordering either of them, because I think I would have insisted we have “pure” Korean food on this occasion. Granted, it would probably be too confusing trying to explain Korean-Chinese food to an average Canadian, especially when you get down to the fact that most Korean-Chinese food is considered far more Korean than Chinese. So, Koreans consider these things Chinese, and Chinese would likely consider them Korean…and I feel like I wasted your valuable time by trying to explain that to you.
Also, one restaurant tried to sneak “Don Gass” onto the menu, a Korean specialty by way of Japan by way of Europe, better known by the standardised English spelling tonkatsu. So we’ve gone full circle from Korean cuisine sneaking into Korean-owned Japanese restaurants, to Japanese food sneaking into Korean restaurant menus.
My experiences in Korean restaurants were much different from other Canadian customers, even different from the people at the same table as me. Personally, I’m a little relieved I didn’t drive them all crazy talking about this. But my point is, these are observations I got from eating at two very different Korean restaurants, as well as observing another one from afar and my distant memories of one other way back in 2004.
The popularity of Korean food is increasing all over North America right now, but I’m not confident that the restaurants know how to cater to their customers’ tastes, or that the customers can set aside their preconceptions and learn to embrace Korean food. In combing through online reviews I saw a lot of complaints directed at various restaurants that they didn’t know what they were getting. The menus would be unhelpful, as would the Korean employees, unable to understand the confusion their customers experience.
In order for Korean food to go forward, Canadian people need to become more familiar with it. I think the most successful restaurants will be the ones that have the best menus: complete, accurate descriptions of each of the foods, pictures of the foods themselves, and even recommendations for how to eat them. That would turn the Korean dining experience from a confusing selection of random foreign words into a satisfying exploration of new great foods.