GOING WITH THE GRAIN

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GOING WITH THE GRAIN

It is definitely a different taste," said Kim Mi-young, 14, unwrapping a Kimchi Burger at a Lotteria restaurant in Hongje-dong, Seoul, on a recent weekday afternoon. Miss Kim had stopped by the local fast-food chain with three other classmates after school, before heading for a hagwon, or after-school study institute.

Why not a regular hamburger instead of a piece of beef between buns made of fried rice with kimchi? "Well, burgers are not new anymore," said Miss. Kim. According to Lotteria, which launched the Kimchi Burger last August, their new and novel fusion of Korean ingredients to Western food is a great success. The company sold about 1.8 million Kimchi Burgers in the first month and projects that average monthly sales will be 1.25 million.

The popularity of the reasonably priced Kimchi Burger is just one example of rice being cooked and used in creative new ways. This should be welcome news for Korean farmers who have faced dwindling rice consumption for more than two decades as Korean palates increasingly Westernize and people seek meals that are both speedier to prepare and to eat.

The annual per capita rice consumption, which reached a peak in 1979 at 135.6 kilograms per person, has been spiraling steadily downward, falling to 119.6 kilograms in 1990 and 93.6 kilograms last year. Based on the rice consumption so far this year, the Korea National Statistical Office recently estimated that rice consumption will hit the lowest level ever this year at 89.8 kilograms per person. Compared to 1979, this would be a 34 percent drop.

The decreased demand for rice, combined with the record-breaking harvest expected this year, has the government and rice farmers alike seeking novel ways to get people to eat more rice, the staple of the traditional Korean diet.

On Oct. 16, the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation took to the streets to encourage people to eat rice in the morning. Based on the idea that people favor toast and breakfast cereal in the morning because they can be eaten in a hurry, unlike rice, which can take more than 30 minutes to cook, the group distributed 400 breakfast packs containing jumeokbap, or rice balls, and rice sandwiches to morning commuters near City Hall. "The purpose was to introduce new and quick ways of preparing breakfast using rice," said Kim Young-joo, a federation official who apparently never heard of Rice Krispies. The one-day event also featured rice omelets, pancakes made with rice powder, and tteok made with regular rice powder instead of glutinous rice powder. "Young people were surprised by the taste of the rice pancakes and the rice sandwiches which had ham and sesame leaves between rice molded into the shape of bread slices," said Mr. Kim.

In fact, rice can assume many guises because the grains can be pressurized and molded into different shapes. Mr. Pizza, a local pizza chain, developed rice-dough pizza last year to attract older customers who did not like the taste of flour dough. There is no significant different in price.

"This is a lot less greasy and I can digest the rice better," said Cho Chung-ja, 58, ordering Rice Pizza with bulgogi topping. Unlike regular pizza, which she thinks is not a proper dinner, Ms. Cho and her husband do not mind having rice pizza for dinner. "There must be several bowls of rice in this," she reasoned.

Each 14-inch rice pizza, in fact, contains 540 grams of rice that is cooked, kneaded into the rounded shape and quick-frozen. What makes the pizza have a less "greasy" taste, as pointed out by Ms. Cho, is a bit of red chili paste that is added to the sauce, according to the company.

Another unexpected place rice can turn up is in cakes. Tteok is already popular as a kind of gooey rice candy, but it can be made fluffier and lighter in texture to make something similar to a pound cake. Instead of heavy cream icings, tteok cake made by Jihwaja, a shop specializing in traditional Korean confectionaries, uses powders of beans and berries to achieve the desired colors and decorations.

It does take a bit of imagination to transform an ordinary bowl of rice into a hit product. When Cheil Jedang developed Hetbahn, microwaveable instant rice, skeptics wondered if plain rice would sell. However, since its introduction in 1996, Hetbahn has enjoyed 30-percent growth in sales each year, with sales for this year expected to reach 20 billion won ($15 million).

Although the market for processed rice products such as Hetbahn and rice burgers is still small, the potential for increased rice consumption is there, according to industry officials. Each Kimchi Burger contains 110 grams of rice in its buns, made from a mix of white rice and glutinous rice. If Lotteria can sell 15 million Kimchi Burgers per year, that translates to 1,650 metric tons of rice - about 0.04 percent of annual domestic rice consumption. That may be just a drop in the bucket (or, if you prefer, a grain in the rice bowl), but when you add up all the products that could have rice incorporated into them, that's a lot of rice.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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