A few years ago, Korean cuisine remained an underground, exotic and rarely-touched corner of the wolrdwide foodie world, tucked away in Korea towns and niche restaurants while its Chinese and Japanese cousins rocked the global big city mainstream. But a recent boost in foodie social media mixed with some Hallyu craze and just a pinch of fusion-fever has proved to be the perfect recipe for making bibimbap as fashionable as Girl’s Generation in New York, London, Tokyo and beyond…
So how did Korean food gain its street cred? Inevitably, the Korean Wave played a huge role in that. With music, film, dramas and celebrities having reached global popularity and acclaim, food was the natural place to go in the ever-growing fascination with all things ‘Korea’. Fun, informative and well-run K-food websites like Maangchi and Zen Kimchi meant that no self-respecting Koreaboo would have to miss out on the hype, no matter where they were in the world.
And the foodie-fied internet world has introduced Korean food to newbies too. Nowadays, we all use the net to get recommendations, ideas and recipes from friends, top chefs, respected writers and even our favourite celebrities. Likewise, we’re just as eager to share our experiences with food with just about anyone who will listen (you only have to look at the recent trend of uploading food pics on Facebook to realise what a phenomenon that is). As a result, we are more open to trying new things, depending on kudos of course. Which is just as well for Korean cuisine, which has found itself on Food Trend lists for 2011 and 2012 alike.
Offline, the emergence of Korean-fusion food has continued to spice things up (just as western-fusion has in Korea and other Asian countries). New York’s KimchiTacoTruck led the way in 2010 with its pop-up fast-food model, closely followed by London’s Kimchi Cult sliders stall. With street food’s equal appeal to busy professionals and trend-loving hipsters, it wasn’t long before the word spread and both businesses became cult favourites.
Well-established eateries soon got the taste for K-fusion too. Here in London, foodies’ favourite The Hawksmoor released a kimchi burger, popular frozen yoghurt chain Snog added red bean paste as a topping and convenience Japanese takeaway Obento added bibimbap to the menu. Although these dishes divided critical opinion, they placed the establishments at the cutting edge of taste.
When top UK chef and TV personality Nigella Lawson used kochujang in two recipes in her best-selling 2010 book, it became apparent that Korean ingredients were no longer reserved for those who frequented London’s Korean Cultural Centre or Kpop nights. In fact, anyone could now try their hand at cooking a Korean-style dish, regardless of whether they thought Rain was a talented Korean heartthrob or merely an inconvenience of British weather.
This new and widespread familiarity, acceptance and appreciation for Korean food cooked up a new brand of city K-restaurant. Nowadays in London, no matter your style, you can eat Korean food fashionably. There is Asadal restaurant for the classy and sophisticated, Kimchi for the stylish and relaxed, and Bibimbap for young, quirky types (the latter two having both opened last year).
Although less trendy and lower profile Korean restaurants have existed in London and other cities for decades before, many of these have been almost undiscovered and unvisited by non-Korean city inhabitants. Now, mile-long queues of locals form outside the new funky-style fusion eateries. With well-thought-out lighting, hip interiors and snazzy websites, they are more akin to chain restaurants like YO! Sushi and Wagamama than the simple-yet-effective Korean café/restaurant that preceded them.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains contentious. Purists may argue that these places are too commercial, that they miss out on authenticity and lack charm. On the other hand, Korean food has never been this on-trend, and people in cities across the world are buzzing around it. For many, this is their first taste of Korean culture- while Hallyu fans have come across K-food as an extension of their interests, foodies who have fallen in love with the Korean flavours soon want to learn more about the country itself.
Whatever your view, one thing’s for sure: K-food outside of Korea is no longer underground. The sale of limited edition Korean BBQ burgers in Japanese McDonald’s stores and the fact that kimchi can be bought in USA Wal-marts confirm its ultimate mainstream status.
London isn’t quite there yet. We still have to go to a specialised Asian supermarket to find Korean ingredients, although won’t have to go far to find some quality Korean food in a trendy setting. And it’s becoming commoner by the day to see a Korean or K-fusion dish on any kind of menu. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before Tesco cottons on.
Where will the trend go next? Will non-Korean supermarkets start manufacturing own-brand kimchi? Does bulgogi bolognaise sound inspired or sacrilegious? Would tinned sundubu chiggae be a convenience or a shame?
Undoubtedly, regardless of location, everyone will have an opinion, and the debates will continue. People care about Korean food, and it evokes a great deal of passion. That’s why this trend is so much more than a passing fad.