Korean food has quietly and steadily been rising in popularity outside its own country, but is often in the shadow of other Asian mainstays: Japanese sushi, Indian curries, Vietnamese pho, Thailand pad Thai. The integration of Korean favourites into the Western culinary scene does not, however, mean that the tastes of a country won’t evolve; Graham Holliday testifies to this in his book Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance (HarperCollins, 2017, $33.50). As a Brit returning to South Korea after working as an English teacher twenty years prior, Holliday expected Koreans to be stalwart in their food traditions. He was shocked to find that fusion experimentation was cropping up in Korean restaurants, even though he personally did not want to see this type of transformation, and nor could he believe that older Koreans would allow it. He had to dig deeper than expected for the authentic dishes he had returned for, to get beyond the nouveau Korean food that was surfacing.
His culinary tour takes in all the different regions of South Korea, each with its own variations and specialties, like Gangneung (dried squid), Gochang (eel), the island of Jeju (pheasant noodle soup), and Andong (the capital of soju, the Korean spirit distilled from potatoes). His travels take him up to, but not past, the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea; he is not allowed to enter the north but does learn from a North Korean escapee that the food is similar, with slight variations. The cold noodle soup called naengmyeon was a speciality from North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, but the best he can do is get it from a restaurant in Seoul that replicates how its Communist neighbours prepared the dish.
Holliday pined for the soul of the old ways of cooking. He wanted aged soy sauce from master chefs, tea leaves from countryside plantations, and bean sprout soup that claimed to cure hangovers after drinking too much soju. Some of these Korean foods can be acquired tastes, and none is more acquired than kimchi. But once a taste is developed for it, the flavours of a smelly, spicy, fermented cabbage become unexpectedly intoxicating. Holliday feels the same way and knows that going back is the only way to satisfy his craving for kimchi. During the time he spent teaching in 1996, it was common for all Koreans to say that a meal is incomplete without kimchi at the table, but the tide on that belief seems to have turned and he has a hard time fathoming the possibility of a Korean refusing kimchi.
He also uncovers the absurd notion that Korean production of kimchi cannot keep up to the demand and is being imported from China. He finds this idea preposterous, knowing that Koreans take pride in the kimchi preparation process passed down through generations of kitchens. It is abhorrent to him to hear that “replicant Chinese kimchi is spreading like an invasive plant throughout Korea’s restaurants.”
One restaurant that would never resort to the imported, inferior versions was one that Holliday stumbled upon that specialized in kimchi as the main course. This was unusual since it tends to be a side dish — albeit an omnipresent side dish served at every single meal of every single day, including breakfast. When Holliday eats the larger portion as a meal he writes, “It was unlike any kimchi I’d ever tasted. It died on my tongue, like a melting spirit. It disappeared in a merry-go-round of garlic, vinegar, and chile. It whirled around and around; it tasted of the past, and I didn’t want the ride to end.”
With the good, comes some bad, and hongeo is a dish that shows Holliday that even though he feels that the traditional ways of cooking are still the best, they do not always produce edible results to outsiders. If kimchi is an acquired taste by foreigners, then hongeo is a Korean delicacy that only Koreans can tolerate. After being repulsed by this sashimi-style skate fish fermented in its own urine, I am sure Holliday was struck by the dilemma of whether bad traditional dishes are better than unusual new ones.
The number of restaurants in the country kept Holliday busy, but it was not only him dining out in a nation of restaurant-goers. He writes, “In a 2015 survey looking at how the world cooks across twenty-two countries, the Koreans were at the bottom when it came to amount of time spent in the kitchen … Korean food was good, cheap, and easily available, and much of it was very hard, and in many cases too stinky, to cook at home. Buying out was practical.” The more forward-thinking of these restaurants were introducing experimental dishes, like fruit cake pizza, that would not have been possible when he first lived there. This could be worrisome to foreigners who come to Korea for what they have come to know as Korean food.
In the end, Holliday concludes that Korea is a culture that will be forever changing, with new ways of cooking the same ingredients, and new combinations of standard dishes. The traditions in the kitchen may lessen, but will hopefully be carried on to some extent by every generation even as they explore new flavours, and remember that the stinkiness, the spiciness, and, most of all the kimchi, are all part of what it means to be Korean.