[OUTLOOK]Korean cuisine is matter of prideIt is now time to discuss how our culture is intertwined with what we eat. Now that fast food, whose popularity rose with industrialization, is being dismissed as a lower form of cuisine, countries are fighting to fill the gap with their traditional dishes.
Italy has declared a war on the “fast pizza” powers to protect their traditional pizza, and France has already trademarked the name “champagne.” Hungary has strategically managed to get UNESCO to declare an entire wine-producing region as a world heritage site. One can also feel the heat of this international food fight in the battle between Korea and Japan over whether “kimchi” or “kimuchi” is the proper name for the spicy cabbage dish. In this fight, the cultural strategy and the economic strategy converge into one.
It is said that one eats Chinese cuisine with one’s tongue and Japanese cuisine with one’s eyes. Chinese dishes are celebrated for their creative tastes while Japanese cuisine is praised for its aesthetic perfection. Each has established its particular identity. This identity becomes a cultural language when directed internally, affirming the homogeneity of the community. When directed toward the outside, it becomes the brand image of the country and helps form its competitiveness.
How is Korean food known in the world? It is difficult for those of us living in Korea to know. We hear from time to time through foreign correspondence that bibimbap, or mixed rice, has become popular in the United States or that the demand for kimchi has increased with the wave of “severe acute respiratory syndrome” cases in China because it was thought that kimchi helps prevent this syndrome.
However, that is not enough to give us certainty. If the reason that people like bibimbap is because it is cheap and plentiful, then bibimbap is probably only popular in the back alleys of New York. If people want kimchi because it supposedly works as a preventive measure against SARS, then it will only remain a medicine.
In order to go beyond that level, we must have a culture that supports the food. In bibimbap, there is a philosophy that seeks the harmony of yin and yang, or the negative and positive, and the five primary elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth in the combination of five colors and tastes. The cold and hot components complement one another in the aesthetics of harmony.
That is not all. The cool taste of dongchimi, or water kimchi covered with a thin coat of ice, is such that it settles down slowly with the flow of time, the taste of waiting and of benevolence that combines both heaven and earth as one.
The art of dongchimi that merges heaven, earth and human inside a milk-white bowl, the cultural significance of five elements in a bowl of bibimbap ― only when there is at least a minimum understanding and response to such points will Korean cuisine communicate culturally with the world.
Such hopes might be too grand. These days, we have a hard time communicating even with our own children in the cultural language called food. The younger generation prefers pizza to rice cakes and salad to gujeolpan, or nine different stuffings to be eaten rolled in wheat pancakes. They prefer chili sauce to red pepper sauce. Accustomed to fast food and chemical seasonings, young people don’t know the meaning of our traditional natural dressings and taste.
Knowledge and preference of our food fall sharply with declining age. Will the young generation know, enjoy and cook our food like their parents when they grow up? There is very little hope of that. With each generation, our traditional food might become a minority or peripheral part of our culture.
The generation gap in tastes ― that is, the generation gap between parents and children at the dinner table ― is not a natural phenomenon. It is not a natural consequence that we must accept as the price of our economic development. The ignorance and indifference found these days concerning our traditional food bring a vague adoration and yearning for foreign food, and this, in turn, leads to an inferiority complex when it comes to our food culture.
To recover our culinary tastes and to rediscover our love for traditional food, we need to have cultural pride. This pride comes from understanding the history, philosophy and art of our food. The harmony of the five elements and the five tastes, the philosophy that merges yin and yang and time together, the medicinal function of food taken at the appropriate time of the year to prevent sickness, the science and mechanism of fermentation soaked in kimchi, jeotkal, or pickled seafood, the breathing clay bowls, and rice cakes are all part of a royal culture.
The range and depth our culinary culture is such that we could lead the world in this 21st century, which is being called the age of food.
Coincidentally, a television mini-series about royal cuisine has become popular these days. Our royal cuisine was not so much different from that of the common people who lived outside the palaces.
The same materials and cooking recipes that were used by the commoners were finished by the best of the cooks at the palace kitchens, and this again was passed onto the people. Thus, royal cuisine became the essence of Korean food culture.
I hope this newly found interest in our traditional food blossoms pride in our hearts and leads to a cultural and economic strategy.
* The writer is the director of the Institute of the Korean Royal Cuisine. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Han Bok-ryeo