Asian Food Styles Gain Favor With Kimchi-LoversPopular restaurants in Korea used to be dingy little eateries where, around the clock, everyone ate the very same thing: spicy Korean food served with kimchi. With a menu as homogeneous as its people, Koreans rarely ventured to train their palates to exotic delicacies.
To ordinary Koreans, bread and hamburgers did not make decent meals ? a wife who fed such snacks to her family was found guilty, and even Chinese noodle dishes delivered from the corner eateries, which had been long modified to suit Korean tastes, could not possibly replace wholesome Korean-style food.
So Korea was hardly a playground for international food franchises to launch their best-selling recipes and interior design concepts. Anyone who dared challenge the exclusive Korean palate would face a game of survival in the wilderness.
Few ethnic restaurants were visible, and their meager income depended solely upon small expatriate communities. Then came Korea's economic collapse in 1997. Foreigners left the country as shutters went down everywhere, and the dining scene was forlorn. But the starvation did not seem to last long at all. Rising from the aftermath of the national shock was the revival of Korean appetite. After factories and banks closed, restaurants sprang up like mushrooms in the shade.
One of the most visible changes that took place in the late '90s was the attitude toward Korea's ubiquitous Chinese restaurants. Chinese food, to most Koreans, meant takeout from corner eateries. The pleasure of eating Chinese food in this kind of eatery was limited to filling a hungry stomach, and fine dining which offered ambience and style was only available in five-star hotels and super-expensive restaurants.
But suddenly dirty old Chinese eateries got cleaned up. Greasy wallpaper and tables were replaced with bright modern interiors; the must-have red signboard bearing Chinese characters became a sleek English name. They called these places "Chinese restaurant" in English ? not junggukjip in Korean. And suddenly going to a Chinese restaurant became a fashionable pursuit.
When the restaurateur Kim Jung-suk opened his elegantly decorated Chinese restaurant Yi Ning in the posh district of Cheongdam-dong, he knew he was in sync with the trend. He told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition that more people wanted to dine outside the overpriced luxury hotel restaurants. His restaurant attracted diners who wanted to enjoy Chinese cuisine at a reasonable price without compromising on taste or style.
Patrons who appreciated this new elegance began name-dropping different regions of China and sought specific flavors. Koreans who used to eat Chinese dishes with kkatdugi (radish kimchi) and danmuji (pickled radish) as side dishes instead ordered Szechuan vegetables and indulged in the aroma of jasmine tea.
Italian dishes, too, caught up on introducing the country's various menus. Americanized take-out pizza and overcooked meatball spaghetti suddenly weren't Italian enough. While the Japanese franchise Pietro tested the Korean market with various pasta dishes, an Italian restaurant called Gia Pasta, owned by a Korean-American businessman, Jang Hyo-soo, located behind the main street of Apgujeong-dong, became phenomenally successful among the taste bud pioneers in town. The restaurant, which had only five tables when it first opened in 1996, prepared steaming hot al dente pasta with a choice of tomato, cream and white wine sauce.
First frequented by a handful of trendsetters, through word of mouth Gia Pasta became one of most popular Italian restaurants in Seoul, opening another branch named Gia Gia nearby two years later. Boasting best-selling seafood pasta, Gia Pasta has expanded the interior space, and Gia Gia receives more than 300 customers on a weekend day. Later, more up-scale Italian restaurants followed to satisfy discerning palates with Italian cuisine. The menus at relatively new restaurants Buon Posto, La Volpaia and Anna Binni, all located in Cheongdam-dong, include aromatic rucola, fresh home-made pasta and bread, and Italian wine to complement the dishes. Dining there means experiencing a beautiful presentation of both culinary and ambience.
As if the variation of menus weren't enough, chefs at big kitchens began inventing something new to add to the expanding market. Along with the change in presentation and increasing sophistication of Chinese and Italian foods was the introduction of fusion food in Korea. Cultural magazines helped set the mood for creative East-meets-West recipes such as the cheap and popular Japanese dish okonomiyaki served like a French-style steak. Fusion food culture embraced artistic presentation, culinary imagination and experimentation, an upmarket atmosphere ? and a steep bill. Koreans with an adventurous attitude or extensive traveling experience went for the creativity but not the taste nor the price. As soon as the media hype died down, the outlets lost appeal.
The next food craze in Korea was Vietnamese. Although a few Vietnamese restaurants had existed for some time here, it was not until the summer of 1998 that the international franchise Pho Hoa opened its first outlet in southern Seoul and the trend really caught on. Compared to existing restaurants, the new restaurant was a model of cleanliness and modernity. The interior was bright, with table settings reminiscent of a European cafe. There Koreans ate pho, Vietnamese-style noodle dishes served with hot chili sauce and coriander leaves. The taste for this spicy pho soup spread like an epidemic.
But why all of sudden this penchant for pho among Koreans? Conversations frequently overheard at Vietnamese restaurants revealed that Korean customers would eat pho while living or traveling abroad and wanted to "come back" to taste it again.
Those who craved spicy foods while abroad often had to settle for the closest Korean food substitute, and spicy pho often became a replacement for haejangguk (a Korean dish often touted as a hangover remedy). The owner of one Pho Hoa franchise located in Daehak-ro, Choi Jae-hyeok, says he too tried pho in Washington D.C. a few years ago while traveling in the United States and liked it. He thought that the taste of pho suited Koreans, who like spicy soup, and decided to join in the chain. There are now 15 Pho Hoa franchises in Korea.
Food culture in Korea has a close correlation to tourism trends here. In fact, tourism among Koreans began to rise steadily shortly after the 1988 Olympic Games. According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, only 1.56 million Koreans traveled overseas in 1990. Almost a million travelers have been added every year except for the bust years of 1997 and 1998, and last year the number reached more than 5.5 million. The increase is due to economic growth and the lifting of the law banning Koreans from traveling overseas at the beginning of 1989. Although it took some years, when both Korean students and business people returned home, they brought with them newly acquired tastes ? and their newly whetted appetite for new tastes became insatiable.
While this Vietnamese food frenzy was going on, Koreans also went crazy for Indian food. As was the case for Vietnamese restaurants, new-generation Koreans opted for a cleaner environment.
The Indian restaurant Ganga, located in Sinsa-dong, became one of the most popular spots in Seoul. Keeping up with the trend and demand, more upscale Indian restaurants such as Dal and Bukharaa opened. And it looks like Koreans are going for diverse spices with more of a Southern flair as more and more people want to try other Asian cuisines. Experienced restaurateurs predict that the next up and coming fad will be Thai, food also known for pungent spices.
Thai Orchid and Thai Suki, located in Itaewon, have attracted a growing number of Koreans since last year, and the manager of the oriental restaurant Silk Spice inside the LG Arts Center, Yim Duck-soon, said that his restaurant these days receives about 300 visitors a day, of which two-thirds are Korean.
Moreover, the advertising mogul Kang Byung-jin, a gourmet himself, has plans to open up the Korea's largest pan-Asian restaurant in Seoul. He added enthusiastically, "It's about time we included every flavor and spice in one place."
Interestingly enough, among these Asian varieties springing up now here and there like fresh sprouts are the modernized hansikdang (inexpensive Korean restaurants) or new upscale restaurants serving Korean food.
Some may argue that Korean food taste best at humble places, but others are pleased with the change. It is a rediscovery of age-old Korean culture but more refined to suit contemporary tastes. Traditional Korean dishes are served in beautiful surroundings replete with authentic Korean motifs and artwork. Restaurant owners had always stuck fast to the conviction that Korean diners craved to eat galbi, bulgogi and pork barbecue in "authentic," old-style shabby surroundings. Now these well-loved dishes can be eaten in style.
Eating out for well-traveled cosmopolitans will be all the more exciting, as the adventure of the pan-Asian appetite has just begun in Korea.
by Ines Cho