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Why isn't Korean food popular in the US?


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I may be way off base here, but it seems to me that Korean food gets very little publicity in the US, and what attention is paid to it seems to focus mainly on BBQ.

Do you agree? What's the reason for this? Is there something that makes Korean food less accessible to some people?

I would say at least 50% of my friends (not to mention family) have never tried Korean food, and probably wouldn't know where to get it even if they were interested. Other Asian cuisines are experiencing such popularity - two Thai restaurants have recently opened up in my (relatively) small hometown, along with at least three new Japanese places, a few Indian restaurants - but Korean seems to get no love. Even here in New York, with its billions of restaurants, there seems to be a decided lack of Korean restaurants outside of K-town.

I love Korean food - possibly my favorite all around thing to eat - and I don't understand why others don't.

Do you agree?

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The problem is that all the Koreans live in pockets and in closed tight-knit communities near the large cities. Most of them are in certain suburbs of NYC (Flushing, Queens and certain towns in Northern New Jersey) and certain parts of Los Angeles. In those particular places there are TONS of korean restaurants.

Koreatown in manhattan is tiny compared to Flushing and Palisades Park and Fort Lee NJ. You need to get out in the burbs to find all the food.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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There are at least 3 or 4 Korean places in Ann Arbor, MI. And that doesn't include the diners and delis that are run by Koreans and have bi-bim-bop or other items on the menu. We're a veritable hotbed for Korean dining, it would seem!

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We have three Korean restaurants in Des Moines, but one has become mostly a Sushi joint, another seems almost embarrassed by its Korean menu and pushes mostly Chinese, and the other is just plain bad. Even the owners don't eat there.

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The Korean restaurants in Manhattan do a good business, and I have the impression that Korean food is becoming increasingly popular among non-Koreans in New York. But one thing about Korean restaurants in this area - as opposed to many of the Chinese, Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese ones - is that they seldom water down their food or adulterate it with excessive sugar in an attempt to appeal to the tastes of non-Koreans who like things milder and sweeter. And if you ask me, bravi to them! I know that when I go to a Korean restaurant in Flushing or around 32-35 Sts. in Manhattan, chances are, I'm getting the real stuff. I don't think kimchi or kimchi-flavored things will ever become a mass-marketed snack in the U.S. on the order of potato chips or popcorn, and I think that's fine.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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i've found some of the best korean restaurants are located around army and air force bases in the u.s. yes, some are set up as sushi bars or "mongolian bbq" restaurants but there's some pretty authentic food out there. i was stationed in korea for a year and have never lost my taste for kimchi or bulgogi- sometimes i really crave kimchi! there's a pretty sizeable korean population in annandale, virginia- hee been is consistently given excellent reviews for the food. but my all time fave is in san antonio near ft sam- woo lae oak. i wonder if it' still there.

"Ham isn't heroin..." Morgan Spurlock from "Supersize Me"

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The problem is that all the Koreans live in pockets and in closed tight-knit communities near the large cities. Most of them are in certain suburbs of NYC (Flushing, Queens and certain towns in Northern New Jersey) and certain parts of Los Angeles. In those particular places there are TONS of korean restaurants.

I think Jason has it right. Korean food is popular in areas of the United States where there are large numbers of Koreans. However, other than major metro areas, these are few and far between.

But one thing about Korean restaurants in this area - as opposed to many of the Chinese, Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese ones - is that they seldom water down their food or adulterate it with excessive sugar in an attempt to appeal to the tastes of non-Koreans who like things milder and sweeter.

Pan has it right, too! Since Korean restaurant food has a relatively short history in the states and is still aimed primarily at the immigrant rather than the native population, there isn't yet that much adaptation to American palates. One exception is Hawai`i, where we have a lot of Korean-Hawaiian type plate lunch places that are extremely popular with the local community - Korean cuisine has become hyphenated here. The other exceptions are those few restaurants in places where people are not familiar with Korean food, which often have to double as Japanese or Chinese restaurants in order to attract customers, as jwagnerdsm and tryska have pointed out. In Tucson, where I lived for a while, Koreans owned not only sushi bars but also a lot of teppan-yaki places where they could serve quasi-Korean grilled stuff as Japanese food.

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I know about Flushing and New Jersey, and of course I understand that Korean food is popular there - lots of Korean people live there.

What I'm wondering about is why cuisines like Thai, or Indian, or Japanese have managed to become so popular even in areas that don't have large populations of Thai, or Indian, or Japanese people, and why the same hasn't happened for Korean.

Although from reading the responses, it looks like I'm wrong about this. Wouldn't be the first time.

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For the most part it has to do with the fact that Koreans have not really integrated themselves into american society like the Chinese, the Vietnamese and Thai have. They succeed here in the US as a parallel culture independent of other communities they reside in. They little interest in popularizing their food or culture. This is not a bad thing, this is is simply the way they are.

While they have no problem serving americans at their restaurants, and I've been welcomed into these restaurants and gotten great service at them, they could for the most part care less if americans eat at them. This has only changed a bit recently because of the shitty economy and they want ANY customer now to come into their restaurant. They are also usually amazed when I order right from the menu without spending 20 minutes looking at it, and that a white person could be familiar with their cuisine or appreciate it at all. As I said earlier, Koreans in the US have been traditionally insular and have their own communities with shopping centers, businesses, schools, medical offices, churches and restaurants.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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some interesting insights by Mike Colameco. Mike has a food show on PBS (Colameco's Food Show)and he is married to a Korean lady, so he is part of an extended Korean family and sees it from the outsider perspective:

****

Jason

I think you all have parts of the answer...

- Yes Korean immigrants in America are insular, as are many other ethnic groups.

- there are language issues not helped by being a closed community

- as a traditional historically Confucian culture ( though recently Christian ) they are not at all big on self promotion.

- nearly surrounded by water, and wedged between China and Japan for all her history, the Koreans have been the victims of multiple invasions, attrocities, and occupations from both sides, and as such tend to stay to themselves and aren't big on pandering to strangers.

While I agree that Sushi / Sashimi, and various manifestations of Chinese cuisines are very popular here, I'm not so sure that "Indian" cuisine is all that popular in the USA either. Outside of "Curry Hill" on Lexington in midtown, there is a scarcity of good Indian restaurants in Manhattan.. ditto the burbs.

Korean cuisine, like many regional Indian cuisines tend to be heavily seasoned, "hot" as in pepper, assertive, and not for the faint of heart. The generous use of dried and fresh peppers, salt and raw garlic, of uncooked, or fermenting ingredients, unusual cuts of meat, offal, odd ( to many folks ) varieties of fish, dried roots, ferns, and mushrooms, does not play well in this country.

I've actually avoided eating Korean food and Kim Chee if I'd known that I had a meeting afterword, and whomever I'm addressing would have been scared away by post Korean breath syndrome. If you've ever worked in an office with Koreans typically right after lunch they all head to the bathroom for well brushed teeth, mouth wash, and then chewing gum for good measure before venturing out into the non-Korean world. It's really funny, they know the drill.

What makes it so great for those of us that love Korean food is it's sheer bowl you over assertiveness, it's bold, straightforward non compromising character, it's lack, for the most part, of subtlety. Although there is also a lesser known strong Buddhist vegetarian strain that is very subtle and nuanced.

Yes, Japanese cuisine food is more refined, as are their traditional arts, pottery, swordmaking, caligraphy, rituals, and language. And the Chinese more varied, pliable and userfriendly, aided by the Chinese wonderlust for travel, they have been in America for 150 years, as well as opening businesses everywhere on the planet, and blending cultures Look no further than the Chinese Cuban cuisines on the west sidevia Cuba pre Castro, or Chinese Korean which is great, and Chinese is S . America, Chinese Indo cooking, CHinese Hawaiian etc....

Culture informs cuisine, and Koreans are much like their food. Direct, proud, generous, straightforward, blunt, passionate.

As long as Americans are skittish about flavors, textures, odd vegetables, unfamiliar cuts of meat and fish with bones, forget it. Ands that's fine with me too, there are loads of great Korean restaurants in mid town, Queens. Fort Lee, etc....

And you're right Jason, when they see you ( a westerner ) dig into the food, and order insider's dishes off a Korean menu without hesitation, big smiles all around. Everybody is happy.

OK this "cojangee" knows his Korean food !!

mike

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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It has not been my experience that there is any dearth of Korean restaurants in any of the myriad cities where I have lived.

In Austin there are at least three or four Korean restaurants. Previous to that, I lived in Redlands, CA, where there also were several. And before that, Fairbanks, Alaska - where there was a wonderful little Korean restaurant right next door to the Korean Grocery and across the street from the Korean gift store.

So who knows. I guess everyone's experience is different.

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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While I agree that Sushi / Sashimi, and various manifestations of Chinese cuisines are very popular here, I'm not so sure that  "Indian" cuisine is all that popular in the USA either. Outside of  "Curry Hill" on Lexington in midtown, there is a scarcity of good Indian restaurants in Manhattan.. ditto the burbs.

Excellent reply, but I think it's just a bit off track on this minor point. The issue isn't how many good Indian restaurants there are, but how much Indian restaurants popularize their food to people without roots in the Subcontinent. And in that respect, most Indian restaurants outside of Jackson Heights, the Edison area, and other areas with large concentrations of Indians (Pakistanis, Bangladeshis et al.) popularize, just as I suggested they do: By watering down the level of hot and black pepper and adding more or less large amounts of sugar. Note though that I said most of them, not all of them. I had a terrific Indian meal in the restaurant of the Quality Inn in Harrisburg. The hotel is owned by an Indian man and when I asked for my food to be very hot, they made it like the owner likes it.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I work pretty close to K-town in Manhattan. I've never tried Korean food and probably never will and here's why:

There are 2 Korean restaurants I pass while walking between the subway and my office. Every morning, there are heaps of garbage out front and trails of rotting garbage between the front door of the restaurant and the bags. The odor is noxious. There's nothing worse than a rotting fish smell to ruin your opinion of a place (and you're morning). And that's (so far) the one and only association I have with Korean restaurants.

I know it's horrible and completely unfair of me to apply this association to Korean restaurants in general, but I can't help it. I hear someone mention a Korean restaurant and all I can think of is what I see on the sidewalk every morning. Completely puts me off. It might be different if I has some sort of history with the cuisine, but I don't.

I'm a pretty adventurous eater (there's not much I won't at least try), but doubt I'm going to be able to get past my little mental block when it comes to Korean food.

:sad:

Sherri A. Jackson
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Korean food is very popular where I am. We here in Los Angeles/Orange County are lucky enough to have thousands of Korean restaurants. So we don't have to go to ones with garbage piled in the front, although I have never seen that here. Ever. We have so many Korean people here that the restaurants are popping up all over the place. A bad Korean restaurant here will die fast.

In Irvine, CA, where I live, Korean food seems to be very popular with...Chinese people. There's a soondubu restaurant (Gaju Soon Tofu) in the Chinese strip mall here that is totally packed, mostly with Chinese. There are a lot of Koreans too, but the Chinese are there in droves. The one time my Chinese boss took us to lunch, we went to a Korean soondubu place.

My current fave is the Kaisong style restaurant Yongsusan. I like the starter soup they have there; it is somewhat expensive for a casual lunch/dinner though. It's light and more like the food actually served me in Korea. However, it probably wouldn't satisfy a big eater.

When I was in Korean 2 years ago, I was astounded at the many types of Korean restaurants my extended family took me to. I went to vegetarian restaurants, Buddhist temple restaurant, this fabulous restaurant that had a multigrain rice that was light as a feather, with little round grains of black wild rice. I went to small family joints, several sushi restaurants (not very good, as they insist on using fresh out of the water fish that has not had a chance to experience rigor mortis so the flesh is still chewy). I wanted to go to the street vendors, but we always drove past them. So I never tried toekkbokkie in its natural setting. :biggrin: There's even a buffet restaurant in Apkujongdong area where you can eat and drink all you want (even booze!) for the equivalent of $6. It was amazing. My uncle, 6'2", 72 years old and still a very big eater, goes there at least 3 times a week, even though he can easily afford pricier joints.

I think some of the new style Korean food will trickle down to L.A. and then to the rest of the U.S., and perhaps more non-Koreans will find that Korean food is not all about barbecue, bibimbop and soft tofu.

I love cold Dinty Moore beef stew. It is like dog food! And I am like a dog.

--NeroW

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Interesting stuff.

I wonder how many people really are put off by the spice and the smell. And the unknown ingredients and different types and cuts of meat.

If garbage is the main factor, though, it'd be a miracle if anyone could eat Chinese food after walking through New York's Chinatown after dark. Blood and fish guts and rotting things.

When did sushi and Japanese food become popular in the US? Anyone know any history on that?

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I'm fond of Korean food but I was devastated to discover that a local Korean run restaurant didn't offer any Korean entrees. In fact, though the owners are Korean, they serve Chinese food instead.

I live in Durham, NC and it looks like I'll have to go to Raleigh to experience "bibimbap".

Another odd thing I noticed in NY (at least) is that there are quite a number of Japanese/Korean restaurants serving food from both countries. That's really odd to me. I've never seen such a combination in the UK nor heard of Koreans running a Japanese restaurant (or vice versa).

I love kimchee and found passable homemade kimchee from a Japanese grocery store (the only one in the area) in Cary.

Foodie_Penguin

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I'm fond of Korean food but I was devastated to discover that a local Korean run restaurant didn't offer any Korean entrees. In fact, though the owners are Korean, they serve Chinese food instead.

...

Another odd thing I noticed in NY (at least) is that there are quite a number of Japanese/Korean restaurants serving food from both countries. That's really odd to me. I've never seen such a combination in the UK nor heard of Koreans running a Japanese restaurant (or vice versa).

...

Here in CA, I've seen burrito stands run by Koreans (it was actually pretty damn good!) Also, the sushi buffets are ruled by Koreans (Onami, Todai). I wonder if it's because it's easier to do Chinese or Japanese than to do Korean properly.

Korean food itself seems to defy bastardization. How do you Americanize soondubu? Bibimbap?

On the other hand, I found out there is a Korean sandwich place, in the Bay Area, somewhere near Fremont. You can allegedly get Korean barbequed beef on a bun there. *shudder* One of these days I'll have to go there and check out this senseless atrocity.

I love cold Dinty Moore beef stew. It is like dog food! And I am like a dog.

--NeroW

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I may be way off base here, but it seems to me that Korean food gets very little publicity in the US, and what attention is paid to it seems to focus mainly on BBQ.

Do you agree? What's the reason for this? Is there something that makes Korean food less accessible to some people?

I would say at least 50% of my friends (not to mention family) have never tried Korean food, and probably wouldn't know where to get it even if they were interested. Other Asian cuisines are experiencing such popularity - two Thai restaurants have recently opened up in my (relatively) small hometown, along with at least three new Japanese places, a few Indian restaurants - but Korean seems to get no love. Even here in New York, with its billions of restaurants, there seems to be a decided lack of Korean restaurants outside of K-town.

I love Korean food - possibly my favorite all around thing to eat - and I don't understand why others don't.

Do you agree?

The US population in general knows little about Korea, especially its food and people. Part of the reason is that a Korean influence has not permeated to the mainstream such as in fashion, music, TV and films.

Also, some of the main ingredients of Korean food (the chilli peppers, the garlic) may put off Americans trying the food. Hence, Korean food is really only found in areas where there are communities of Korean Americans and/or Koreans.

Chinese and Japanese food have become more mainstream in the US because those groups have had a presence in the US longer than Koreans (my guess).

As with most ethnic foods in the US, in order to make it more appealing, the cuisine has undergone a transformation (call it bastardization if you prefer).

Foodie_Penguin

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In Irvine, CA, where I live, Korean food seems to be very popular with...Chinese people.

Chinese people eat at Korean places in Flushing, NY, too.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I'd second many of Jason's observations. I'd add that the food press here in NYC, which I generally think is world class, seems to do a better job explaining all the Chinese places in Queens than laying out the highlights of Korean food.

I skipped Korean food for a number of years, except for an occaisional BBQ meal, after eating at Woo Lae Oak at several locations 20 years ago. Some Korean friends took me to Woo Lae Oak in Soho perhaps 5 years ago, and I was amazed the refinement they had brought to the same basic concept. The crab and leek appetizer is just one instantly persuasive example. And now it has turned into my son's favorite place - grilling at the table should be a world beating concept.

I've since been turned on to the oxtail soup at Ga Mee Ok (both Fort Lee and NYC - it's my fave meal before Knicks games), and other treats. There is no reason this soup should be less popular than the soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai (except, perhaps, the oxtail concept).

Evangelists needed.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The comments from Jason & Mike Colameco shed a lot of light to this topic. I've found that most Korean restaurants are just not as accessible to most non-Koreans & makes it more difficult for the cuisine to become popular. The menus are long with often unclear descriptions & waitstaff who can't clearly articulate them.

I believe though that there is a trend happening now where Korean cuisine is being made accessible to non-Koreans without compromising the tradition of the cuisine. In Chicago, there are a couple of restaurants that have opened recently that exhibit this...a Western style menu, broken up into appetizer/salad/soup/main, etc., contemporary decor, an well-trained English-speaking staff, and even fancy Soju-tini drinks. There's Soju, Koryo, and Jin Ju, which is the only one that I've been to. I think they do a great job of bringing Korean cuisine to the masses and have been pretty successful thus far.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I would say Korean people in general are not as accessible as Chinese and Japanese people. Especially the old style people who feared anyone and anything that wasn't Korean. Korean people tend to be suspicious of anything new or different. They remind me of hobbits. At least Japanese people politely hide their disdain, and Chinese people don't really care who you are, as long as they get paid.

I think this is changing. But it never fails to amaze me how cold and rude Korean people can be to non-Koreans, and then they turn around to be friendly and helpful to other Koreans. My uncle is like this. They live in Los Angeles for years, without bothering to learn any English, yet they are cold to anyone who can't speak Korean. I never understand it.

One aspect of the "inaccessibility" of Korean people is the contempt Koreans still have for half-borns, as in half Korean, half something else (usually Caucasian).

Example: my brother has a friend who was born and raised in Korea, but has a Caucasian father. In a fast food restaurant in Seoul, some teenagers took it upon themselves to make fun of her. They would look at her and made caustic remarks She stared at them as they were doing it and they started becoming alarmed, saying to each other "Hey, she's looking at us like she understands what we're saying."

Edited by jschyun (log)

I love cold Dinty Moore beef stew. It is like dog food! And I am like a dog.

--NeroW

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