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Korean interpretations of Western food

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OK... I am trying to get ahold of my friend, the teacher, he who spread the gumball, Cool-Whip and maraschino cherry tales and, through my post, ignitied quite a discussion here. If all goes well, he should be posting a reply as to where he witnessed such culinary offenses.

I, for one, have never been to Korea, though my father was there years ago and raised me with a passion for traditional Korean food.

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  • 4 weeks later...

This is an interesting topic, and though it started by highlighting weird and exotic Korean 'interpretations' (sic) of Western food, it has developed into a consideration of hybrid and fusion foods, and indeed the question of how traditional foods evolve.

I'd argue that Western interpretations of Asian foods are probably just as weird or weirder than the original they are supposedly based on (take the popular but totally bogus chicken tikka masala).

As far as Korean interpretations of Western food, it's interesting for me to consider, as a third-generation Korean-haole, looking back on how such foods evolved in our household. My grandmother came to Hawaii from Korea in the 1920s and for a time owned and ran a restaurant and saloon in Honolulu that was popular with the navy and other GIs (this was at the time of Pearl Harbor, the bombing of which my mother always remembered clearly).

Halmoni served haole food in her restaurant, but apparently it always had a most distinct Korean accent. She was a great cook and apparently the haoles loved her food. For example, she made Scotch meat pies flavoured with garlic and soy sauce; chop steak, a vegetable and meat medley that was based on Korean chap chai; and even 'Irish stew' which was actually based on changjorim, soy-braised meat with chillies and (I guess this was her Irish touch) lots of whole carrots. As kids, my mother would make this same dish for us and call it Korean pot roast.

On Sunday mornings, we'd always eat Korean pancakes. I always wondered what made these pancakes particularly Korean, since we enjoyed them American style with butter and maple syrup. But I later discovered that these big, chewy pancakes were actually a variation of the basic Korean jon batter, as used to make another delicious home favorite, pa'jon (the famous green onion pancake, which again, everybody made - and makes - in their own way).

When I was researching my grandmother's cooking, I discovered that while in some cases, her foods had evolved to take account of the produce and foods available to her in America, in other instances, she cooked in an old style that no longer exists in Korea today. Similarly, though she lived in the US (Hawaii and the mainland) for nearly 60 years, she never really got the hang of speaking English, and a Korean scholar and friend told us that her Korean was itself quite antiquated compared to modern spoken Korean.

Fusion may be all the rage these days, but food has always evolved, changed, adapted (witness the use of the tomato in Italian cuisine). What is more authentic? A dish the way my grandmother made it (for example, sinsollo as she learned from a former Yi dynasty palace cook) or the way such a dish might be prepared in modern Korea today? Both may claim to be equally authentic, equally traditional. And personally, I have no qualms at all in adapting and integrating foods from my past, from my cultural roots, into the new home and family and circumstances in which we live, a continent or more away. I'm sure too, as also suggested in this thread, that as modern life evolves in Korea itself, as Koreans travel more and experience new foods, as lifestyles perforce have to adapt to changing roles as more and more women work, food in Korea will continue to adapt and evolve.

But what is certain is that Koreans will continue to see eating well and amply and generously as part and parcel of living well: this is something that is deeply part of the Korean soul.


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  • 3 weeks later...

Marco, thanks for sharing your post which really got me to thinking about some things. I know with the Chinese language a sort of similar situation developed where those that were further away from the linguistic center actually kept the more traditional pronounciations of words. Though in your grandmother's situation she was far away from Korea, that distance can actually help to guarantee that her cooking can be more "true" to the "traditional" ways of cooking. As with anything, a cuisine will evolve over the years and new methods will replace old ones, being farther away from the place where that evolution is taking place can often help to secure what is traditional. It seems strange at first, but it does really make sense. Anyways, thanks for sharing that great post with us!

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Thanks, Marco, for adding such rich detail to this thread with recollections of your halmoni's cooking. It would be great if all adaptations of foreign foods could provide such wonderful flavors.

I'd also like to add that the percieved "weirdness" of certain interpretations, at least in some cases, wears off and is followed not only by tolerance, but repatriation back to the home country. For instance, California Roll or the Spam Musubi must initially have seemed bizarre misunderstandings of Japanese food to those Japanese who came across them, but nowadays are finding their way onto menus within Japan itself. Likewise, tempura, tonkatsu, and teppanyaki were originally "weird" versions of Western foods, but are now accepted by many Westerners as

delicious Japanese food.

Sun-Ki Chai

Former Hawaii Forum Host

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One of my fave 'comfort foods' in Korea whenever I had gone one kimchee chigae too far was fried chicken. Never been a KFC fan or fried chicken come to that bere, but the Koreans know how to fry their chickens, necks an' all and it all tasted good to me.

Unfortunately the lovely proprietors should have sought advice on the naming of their restaurant. Donkey Chicken doesn't work for me... still I dared to enter and went back (repeatedly). A few blocks down the road was Pelican Chicken. This was in '99.


noodle pie

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  • 4 years later...


I am Korean, but I really got to get a word in here.

Koreans do not do the whole globalization thing very well... not in terms of food anyway.

The Pho that is served around places is foul. It tastes nothing like real Pho. Then there is chinese. What is chinese without duck and char siu? But the "chinese" in korea do not serve duck nor char siu. So don't go around spreading the word that there are a lot of vietnamese places around. I've been to em, and they are just foul.

The amount of localization that is applied to food before becoming accepted as mainstream, and thus financially and economically viable, bastardizes food beyond the point that it is still recognizable for what it was originally intended. Thus all food undergoes a "re-invention" process upon becoming commercialized in Korea.

Paying 1man won for a bowl of disgusting "pho" that really isn't... vs going downstairs and paying 5 chun won for a bowl of really delicious seol long tang and kot jjo ri kim chi... not much of a choice.

Beer is another thing I have major major problems with. It's very expensive for a beer enthusiast to get a decent drop. It costs me from 8chun won to man 2 chun won for a bottle of a decent drop, where as the local water would cost only 3 - 4 chun won. But then the local stuff tastes almost as bad as the American watered down stuff...

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whipped cream on subs.

What the hell?

Have you been to Korea, woman? There's whipped cream on subs at every single bakery I been to for the last 6+ years. It's actually really delicious, as the sub really isn't a sub but a sugar bun (i.e. similar to baked donut dough... but softer). But yes, foreigners think this is weird stuff when it's actually really nice. I like our korean bakeries, even though it has stuff that people (before they taste it) find to be "weird".

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  • 7 months later...

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