Volume Four, Issue 2

Korean Food? It’s Not For You

Jiwon Choi

You ever notice how some food writers talk about Korean food as a fetish? Like they’re in a strip club where they can point to the lap dancer of their choice and have them fish him/her out of the tank. They are excited by the exotic experience of it all, but Korean food is nobody’s poisson du jour.

These food writers write about having a spell cast upon them like there’s some hoodoo voodoo going on. I picked up on this phenomenon when I re-read an old Saveur article (because apparently I am a hoarder of old mags!) about L.A.’s Koreatown restaurants, which I hadn’t the first time around. Here the writer was professing his love for all things Korean, exclaiming how much Korea had become a “part of him.” And that’s when I, a displaced Korean in the diaspora had to step in and say, “Hold up a minute.” Sure, I have my own infatuation with Korean cuisine, but that is due to my slightly complicated relationship with Korea. I was taken away from the homeland when I was three years old, so my infatuation is symptomatic of being a displaced person. What’s this guy’s excuse?

Certainly, this is comparable to a Francophile’s coming under the spell of stinky cheese and Armagnac. And I like to stuff my face with croissant as much as the next person, but I don’t profess any particular love for France. I wonder at this writer’s glomming on as I would a stranger who would come up to my mother, trying to elicit some response from her. It’s weird.

If I were accepted here in the U.S. as fully American I might scoff less at these non-Koreans taking to Korean culture as if it were the next new yoga. But it’s not a trend so stop treating it that way.

Some might parse that these writers are not fetishizing Korean food, but merely offering it a place in the sun, as it hasn’t had a chance to receive accolades and mainstream esteem. To which I respond, Korean food does not need to be given this consideration, it does not ask you to give it a place in the sun or have you gush over it like a creepy fan boy. Korean food is an intrinsic aspect of a culture that is thousands of years old and reflective of its citizens’ survival in the face of repeated invasions, colonization, and expatriate assholes. No don’t behead missionaries, but perhaps missionaries shouldn’t assume a country does not already have an established way to worship and express spirituality. As if Catholicism is so great.

And just because you like kimchi does not make you an honorary Korean. Have you eaten the real traditional foods of Koreans? Do you like pig intestines or admire fern bracken and minari? Or did your culinary appreciation stop at Korean barbecue? The mainstream culture dumbs down food from other countries because they are scared of ingredients they cannot pronounce. It is due to this tendency to pasteurize, mute, and dull the crap out of people’s food that non-Koreans have this idea that grilled beef wrapped in lettuce is the national food of Korea. The national food of Korea is han, but that’s another story for another day.

Jiwon Choi: "I am poet, teacher and urban gardener. I teach preschool at the Educational Alliance, a multi-generational non-profit located on the Lower East Side of New York City. I am also a long-time urban gardener and coordinator for the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden located near Downtown Brooklyn.

“I am the author of the poetry collection, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, published by Hanging Loose Press. I am also a poetry editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine. I live in Brooklyn, New York."

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