Monday, March 23, 2009

Is America ready for Korean food?

Some pictures available at:

Flip open The Korean Table: From Barbecue to Bibimbap 100 Easy-to-Prepare Recipes (Tuttle Publishing, $27.95) and read: "Move over, Thai and Japanese. Korean food is poised to become America's next favorite Asian cuisine." Without a doubt, Korean cuisine has been garnering a following in the United States, especially in Los Angeles and New York, where Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go (a fusion Korean taco truck) and Korean-American chef David Chang of the Momofuku enterprise (an innovative quartet of restaurants that serve up dishes incorporating global culinary flavors and techniques, including that of Korea) are giving bulgogi and kimchi a drastic makeover. But is Korean food truly on the brink of becoming American`s next favorite Asian grub? The Korea Herald interviewed the authors of two recently published Korean cookbooks, The Korean Table and Kye Kim's Modern Korean Cooking (Bookhouse Publishers, 22,000 won), to find out.

"There are food trends in America," said Kye Kim in a phone interview. "There was a Mexican trend, then Chinese, then Japanese sushi. And then, from some point in time, interest in Korean cuisine started to form ... Korean food is practically a trend."

Last October, Kim held a cooking class in Michigan, where she currently resides, for 20 students. Only three were Korean.

Food columnist Kim's second cookbook targets young professionals, second-generation Korean-Americans and non-Koreans. The colorful tome presents recipes in both Korean and English and also has an entire section devoted to kimchi.

"Kimchi is a very popular side dish," wrote Kim, 56, via e-mail.

Debra Samuels, co-author of "The Korean Table," seems to be a fan of the spicy, fermented vegetables herself.

"I just had kimchi jjigae for dinner," said Samuels, 57, over the phone, a dish she recommends American beginners to try their hand at when they pick up "The Korean Table."

Samuels, a food writer and food stylist for "The Boston Globe," collaborated with Tokyo-based Korean expat Taekyung Chung to produce a cookbook for American cooks.

"The Korean Table" provides recipes for the hit trinity of Korean dishes - kimchi, bulgogi and bibimbap. It also brings in popular newcomers: tofu and wraps.

"Americans like wraps - sandwich wraps, burritos and so we thought about this almost like a Korean taco," said Samuels of the traditional dish, gujeolpan, also included in "The Korean Table."

Korean-American chef Roy Choi's Korean barbecue tacos serve as proof of the popularity of the wrap. According to news reports, the taco vendor - founded by Mark Manguera - has been luring crowds of up to 800 at a time with its combination of spiced pork, chicken, tofu, blood sausage and kimchi sauerkraut.

"The lines can be 100 deep; quite an amazing phenomenon," said Samuels.

Samuels also believes that Korean tofu dishes have a future in America: "Tofu is very popular. I would love to see tofu houses come to the east coast ... Once people get to know about making tofu Korean style, it will get popular."

"I think sundubu is very popular," said Kim, who provides a set of tofu recipes in her book.

Yet, when it comes to cooking Korean in the States, finding the ingredients can pose a challenge. To address the problem, Kim, Samuels and Chung went to great lengths to create recipes where most of the ingredients could be purchased from American supermarkets.

Chung, a Tokyo-based Korean food teacher and restaurant consultant, developed modified dishes like potato and basil pancakes and asparagus fritters for "The Korean Table."

"Korean food needs to become globalized," said Chung, 56, over the phone. "But it cannot be done with our ingredients."

Chung spent three weeks in Boston with Samuels, who she first met in a cooking class in Tokyo, visiting supermarkets and finding ways to maintain the flavor and essence of Korean cuisine with produce and ingredients that could be easily found in the States.

Having spent approximately 17 years living in Japan, Chung is experienced at finding substitutes for traditional Korean ingredients: "When I lived in Japan, starting 1975, there were not a lot of ingredients."

Chung has a point. For Korean cuisine to become global, it needs to be adaptable, malleable. Judging from the likes of innovators like David Chang, Korean cuisine is not only flexible, it is compatible with other cuisines.

Another key player in the current and future globalization of Korean food lies in what Samuels calls "soft power."

"I fell in love with 'Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace),'" said Samuels, who thinks it would do well on channels like PBS or the Food Network. "I think it would do quite a bit for the popularity of Korean cuisine ... Plain old garden variety Americans have 'Daejanggeum' clubs. They love this program ... I'm now watching 'Le Grand Chef (Sikgaek),' the movie and the series."
Chung agrees with Samuels.

"It used to be that the Japanese thought that all Korean food was barbecue or spicy. But there has been a big change in the Japanese attitude toward Korean food and culture after 'Daejanggeum' was shown in Japan," Chung wrote in an e-mail interview.

"Now they see it as healthy and good for the skin," she said over the phone.

So, is the American palate ready to embrace Korean cuisine?

"I think we've gone beyond the hamburger," answered Samuels. ◦

No comments: