[VIEWPOINT]Following the food trail to Rome

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[VIEWPOINT]Following the food trail to Rome

You might think that when a nation has a wining and dining tradition that encompasses pizza and pasta, parmesan cheese and parma ham, Frascati and Chianti wines - the promotion thereof would take care of itself.

If you did - you would be wrong.

This writer was recently privileged to be chosen as the Korean representative at the 21st annual BAVI (Banco d'Assagio dei Vini d'Italia), a competition to choose Italy's finest wines. Attending this event were 50 judges, among whom were 16 non-Italian wine critics or others who work in the wine business. These foreign judges hailed from Asia, Europe, North and South America, Africa and Australasia ?but none traveled at their own expense. Members of the international contingent were identified and contacted by the Italian Trade Commission and traveled to Italy at the commission's expense. They were accommodated in a 16th-century, five-star hotel at the commission's expense. They were wined and dined on some of Italy's finest cuisine, also at the expense of the Italian Trade Commission.

It was an impressive event. Here, obviously, is a nation that promotes its wine very seriously. Not coincidentally, wine is a major Italian export; a promotion of Italian wines will be held Monday at the Seoul Hilton. All this despite the fact that Italy is already a major tourist destination.

Sadly, we can't say the same for Korea. I wonder how many foreign judges we would invite to, say, a nationwide kimchi competition, or an event to discover the finest traditional spirits of Korea? And how many of those would be invited specifically from abroad? I wonder.

Of course, one may say, "Ridiculous conceit! Foreigners are not equipped to judge our cuisine!" Why not? "Well, simply because very few foreigners in the international catering field are familiar with Korean cuisine. And anyway, everyone knows Italian food."

Maybe. But if we Koreans are to promote Korea's culture we need to get the message out. And that means bringing foreigners in. If we want to find out what foreigners like, who better to ask than foreigners? There is little point asking diplomats - their job is to be diplomatic, so they are only going to say nice things. In fact, there may be little point asking long-term foreign residents, period.

Why? Take my husband, an Englishman. When he first arrived in Korea, he had difficulties adjusting to the food ?he didn't like kimchi, for example. But over time, his tastes changed. Now he won't consider a Korean meal without it; he has acclimatized. If a foreigner abroad with a virgin palate is invited to eat, say, kimchi jjigae(kimchi stew), boiled rice and a bottle of soju and doesn't like them, it is unlikely he or she will eat Korean again. If on the other hand, he or she were presented with something that I think foreigners tend to like at first taste - say kalbi(ribs), twaenjangjjigae (fermented bean paste stew) or pajeon (savory pancakes) we could win a friend for life. So we need to find out what suits the foreign palate, then we need to promote it.

Do Korea's tourism czars have a program to fly in foreign food journalists to expose them to and educate them about Korean food? Do Korea's tourism authorities even know who these people are and how to contact them? Are we providing seminars, literature and road shows abroad?

The Ministry of Culture said it has no programs to introduce Korean food to foreign media. I am also reminded of the ASEM 2000 summit, when a foreign journalist asked a senior official of "Visit Korea Year 2001" what plans she had to promote Korean cuisine. "Why are you interested in food?" she answered.

Maybe we should stick to promoting mask dances, Mount Seorak and Gyeongbok Palace. Maybe. But look at Italy. Having lovers of spaghetti, pizza and Chianti in every country in the world has done Italy's national image no harm. My point is this: Italy is years ahead of Korea in broad acceptance of its culinary culture, and yet still Italians take its promotion seriously. We have a long way to go to get Korean cuisine international exposure, but the raw material, the food, is there; our culinary tradition is rich, varied and has great character. Good international-standard PR is lacking.

There is a saying: "All roads lead to Rome." I would suggest that if we are ever to promote Korea's cuisine internationally, going down the Roman road may be a good start.


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The writer is a food and wine critic and lecturer.

by Kang Ji-young

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