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Korean food widening appeal among Chinese people

A small cooking room in central Beijing is filled with the clatter of dishes and chatter of 15 young Chinese people wearing green aprons and plastic transparent gloves, the smell of spicy red pepper and garlic in the air.

In front of the chamber, a female captain dressed in hanbok, or Korean traditional attire, rolled up her sleeve to give directions on how to make kimchi, a Korean side dish made with fermented cabbage and a variety of seasonings.

"When you go to the market and look for the right cabbage for kimchi, you have to choose a chubby, plump one, just like me!" said Cho Soo-jin, a Korean food expert, with the audience bursting into laughter. "Slim, slender cabbages like you guys don't taste good when you make kimchi."

With her directions, the students started to mix pickled cabbages with a variety of seasonings and vegetable toppings.

"I like Korean food very much. I cook at home and share it with my family," said Mark Liang, a sophomore at an engineering college in Beijing, who was busy mixing vegetables with cabbage. "I want to learn well and make kimchi at home."

The free cooking class at the Korean Culture Center in China takes place every weekend to teach how to make Korean food like gimbap, bulgogi and japchae. It is so popular that an applicant has to wait more than a month to attend.

"I love Korean culture and food, everything!," Zhang Xiao Lin, a 23-year-old graduate student, said in stammering Korean. "I enjoy Korean food like bulgogi and kimchi after watching 'Daejanggeum' on TV."

"Daejanggeum," also known as "Jewel in the Palace," was a mega-hit soap opera in 2003, which tells the tale of an orphaned cook who goes on to become the king's first female physician. It is regarded as the beginning of the Korean wave, or hallyu, in China.

"I want to taste them and make them on my own at home. So I love this cooking class at the Korean Culture Center," said Zhang.

She visited Seoul a few years ago to taste Korea dishes that she has seen in Korean dramas like chicken and beer, so-called "chimaek."

"Chimaek" has been a craze among young Chinese people after "My Love from the Star" aired in 2014, as many Korean restaurants are frequented by a number of Chinese drama-lovers who want to eat like Cheon Song-yi, played by Korean top celebrity Jun Ji-hyun.

With the chimaek boom in China, a group of some 6,000 Chinese tourists came to South Korea to enjoy an outdoor chicken-and-beer party organized by a local government last month.

"Bibimbap," a bowl of rice that is mixed with various vegetables, and "samgyetang," a chicken soup with ginseng, were also her favorites as the dishes were presented at the on-going smash-hit drama, "Descendants of the Sun," that depicts a romance between a soldier and a doctor in a fictional war-torn country in the Mediterranean.

As the drama is driving Chinese viewers into frenzy, samgyetang is also getting more popular.

Three samgyetang restaurants in the Koreatown in northeastern Beijing have a constant stream of family visitors and couples to taste a energy-boosting chicken soup, stuffed with ginseng, sticky rice and garlic, that Korean people eat to get through the hot summer in Korea.

Even Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said during his South Korean visit last year that he loved samgyetang and would recommend the dish to his people.

Against this backdrop, ready-to-eat samgyetang made by South Korean food companies will go on sale in Chinese supermarkets as early as next month following a recent Seoul-China ministerial-level agreement to ease food quarantine procedures.

Along with the rising popularity of Korean food buoyed by popular dramas, the Korean wave, which has been long driven by K-Pop singers and movie stars, is now apparently spilling over into culinary culture and cuisines.

Exports of South Korean agricultural products to the world's second-largest economy have been on a steady rise in recent years.

Some $1 billion won worth of South Korean food was sold in China last year, with the figure projected to rise to $1.4 billion this year.

Korean rice is spearheading the move as it hit Chinese shelves in April for the first time in history, targeting upper class customers who seek what they perceive as more delicious and safer foodstuffs. Some 100 tons of Korean rice were shipped to China this year and the volume is expected to reach 2,000 tons at the end of the year.

Korean formulas are also making a foray into the neighboring country's dairy market, which is expected to balloon in the coming years as Beijing lifted the one child-only restriction last year.

Exports of baby formula jumped 28.8 percent on-year to $87.3 million last year, with the figure expected to surpass $100 million in 2016.

"Rich Chinese customers want clean and safe baby foods no matter how expensive they are," said Jun Ki-chan, head of the export promotion department at the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp. "Korean formula is one of their best choices as it is fresh and clean thanks to the geographical proximity between the countries."

Instant noodles, the most beloved snack among Koreans, is also catching the eyes of the Chinese as sales of Korean noodles have grown an annual 36.9 percent over the past five years to hit $21.8 million last year.

"Hallyu is getting broader, from movies and dramas to food and tourism. And then, Chinese people, familiar with Korean culture, will buy Korean goods. It's a virtuous circle," said Han Jae-heuk, director of the Korean Culture Center in China.

"In particular, Korean food is regarded as healthy, clean and safe in China. Clean and delicious Korean food will contribute to further strengthening this circle of hallyu," said Han.

Experts noted that the Korean food and agricultural industry has to try to meet such Chinese customer demand and do their best to improve the quality further.

"Chinese people came to try our food and goods, after they were touched by Korean dramas, movies or K-pop," said Lee Pil-hyung, the director of the China headquarters of the Korean agro-fisheries corporation.

"Now it's our turn to satisfy them with more quality and tasty food. We have to do our best to sustain the product quality and even upgrade it." (Yonhap)

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