Battle brews over what Korean foods qualify as hansik

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Battle brews over what Korean foods qualify as hansik

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Budae jjigae and Jjajangmyeon

Tilli Sanna, who recently returned to Korea two years after her previous visit, said that the Korean food she missed the most was budae jjigae, a spicy soup with hotdogs and instant noodles.

“It’s fun to pick out the ingredients in the soup,” said Sanna, noting that there are many different recipes for making the dish. Some restaurants use different types of sausages or add tteok, sticky rice cakes, along with either ramen or udon noodles or both. Even The New York Times described the dish in January, calling it one of the most popular Korean dishes.

But despite its popularity in Korea and its clear origins here, some think that budae jjigae does not deserve to be labelled as hansik, or Korean cuisine. The soup became popular right after the 1950-53 Korean War when locals rarely could afford any meat. People who lived near U.S. army bases in Korea had access to leftover hotdogs and meat, so they would use those leftovers, boiling them together with kimchi, to create the soup.

Some think that the dish is too young to be “really” Korean, while others think the spiciness and kimchi confirm its identity.

“The major ingredients may be exotic, but because budae jjigae is made with kimchi, it can be considered hansik,” said Chung Hae-kyung, a food and nutrition professor at Hoseo University.

But the seemingly simple question - “What’s hansik?” - can be surprisingly difficult to answer. Generally speaking, hansik includes traditional Korean dishes that have been developed over the long history of Korean culture. Local food regulations define hansik as food whose main ingredients are grown in Korea and that are distinctly Korean in taste, aroma and color.

When applying those criteria, budae jjigae may measure up, as it uses Korean pork. However, it is controversial whether the taste, aroma and color of the soup are characteristically Korean.

But by that way of thinking, even red-colored kimchi might not qualify as a hansik dish. Back in the times of King Sejong (1397-1450), people usually ate dongchimi, a kind of colorless kimchi made with fermented radish, or cucumber kimchi. Only toward the end of the Joseon era (1392-1910) did people finally start using cabbage from the Shandong region in China and began to mix it with red peppers to make what’s known nowadays as kimchi.

Another controversy can be found at Kyochon Chicken, a well-known fried chicken franchise that has branches outside of Korea. Although it uses chicken raised in Brazil, it received financial support from the Korean government as part of efforts to promote Korean cuisine internationally. One may question whether a chicken dish made with a major ingredient not produced within Korea was worth receiving government funding, another dish unlikely to qualify as hansik.

But these days, the trend is toward a looser definition of hansik.

“Both a dish made with ingredients grown in Korea and a dish widely enjoyed by Koreans can be called hansik,” said food columnist Jeong Dong-hyeon.

Some even suggest that hansik should be split into two categories, the traditional and the modern. Joo Young-ha, a professor at the Academy of Korean Studies, argued that jjajangmyeon, noodles in a black sauce, and gimbap, rolled rice with vegetables, should also be considered as hansik.

BY YIM JI-SOO [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]


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