Shortly before leaving Korea in late June, I met some people who wanted to hear my ideas about globalizing kimchi. I enjoyed the talk, but, as always, argued that cultural transmission is more complex than policymakers assume.
I thought about the meeting and, more importantly, Korean food on the long plane ride home. Korean food and I go back a long time. I first ate bibimbap at a counter-top restaurant called Steve’s Lunch in Ann Arbor in the early 1980s. A Korean friend showed me how to stir it and told me that Koreans eat it with a spoon instead of chopsticks. I liked it, but told myself to go easy on the red pepper paste next time.
My next important encounter with Korean food was in the summer of 1982 during my first visit to Korea. I took a ferry from Shimonoseki, Japan, to Busan and then a train to Seoul. On the train, I met a student who spoke some English. We hit it off well during the journey, and shortly before arriving, he invited me to stay with his family. I had planned on going to the Lonely Planet-recommended Inn Daewon near Gwanghwamun, so I was thrilled by the chance to stay with a Korean family.
The student and I got to his house after a long bus ride from Seoul Station and his mother fed us soon after. I remember being surprised at the number of side dishes that were placed in the center of the table. The red ones looked spicy, but there were many others to choose from. I remember falling in love with the bean sprout soup and the dried kelp sprinkled lightly with sugar. The cucumber kimchi was good, too, but a little spicy for me at the time.
I stayed with the family for eight days and then took the train back to Busan to get a boat to Japan. I had Korean food every day except for one Chinese lunch in Myeong-dong. By the end of my stay, I learned that home cooking was rice, soup and a variety of vegetable side dishes, some spicy and some not. Protein was fish or tofu. Being summer, dessert was watermelon.
In the middle of my stay, I asked my host if the food we were eating was normal for the family, and he said yes. Every meal seemed like a feast with side dishes filling the center of the table. I worried that his mother might be making a special effort on my behalf.
I returned to Korea in the fall of 1983 to study Korean for a year at Seoul National University. A Korean friend in Ann Arbor kindly arranged a homestay with his family, so I had a full year of Korean food. The family was better off than the family I stayed with in 1982, so there was more meat and more fruit. After about six months, I got used to kimchi and the spicy side dishes.
During my year as a student, I ate lunch at the university and occasionally dinner out. By today’s standards the university cafeteria was basic, but I liked the soup and most of the side dishes. Food in restaurants also came with side dishes, often filling a large round aluminum tray.
In the early 1990s, side dishes began to change. Inflation caused vegetables to become more expensive and the number of vegetable side dishes began to decrease in favor of processed food such as fish cake. Instead of making side dishes on site, restaurants began to buy them at a lower cost from factories. Much of kimchi served in restaurants nowadays comes from factories in China.
The problem is money. Good vegetables side dishes are not cheap and instead of passing the cost on to customers, restaurants prefer to cheapen side dishes to remain competitive in price. Most customers seem to prefer a cheaper main dish with bad side dishes to an expensive main dish and good side dishes.
The decline of side dishes in restaurants means that an essential component of Korean cuisine is under threat. They are still common at home, but busy schedules mean that many families end up buying a narrow range of prepared side dishes from supermarkets. Children growing up in these families, of course, will no longer appreciate the wonders of a table full of a variety of fresh side dishes. Arresting the decline of side dishes, not the “globalization” of kimchi, is the greatest challenge facing Korean food policy today.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.