Friday, July 25, 2008

Respecting Peasant Food

I have a long-standing love of Korean food from my year living there in the mid 90s. I have been delighted to see Korean food become increasingly accepted in the United States. It's a difficult cuisine frankly and not for everyone's taste. It hasn't caught on like Thai food has, but then again it has also stayed truer to its roots than Thai food, which increasingly only vaguely resembles the food you actually eat in Thailand. Korean food on the other hand is quite like what you eat there. The selection is more limited of course, but it is true Korean food.

So when I saw Matt Gross' article about eating his way across Seoul, I was excited. But mostly jealous. It's a pretty good article about the weirdness of Korean food and how it is slowly spreading across the U.S.

But one thing bothered me.

This kitchen was traditionalist at heart, and such conservatism was common
throughout Seoul, despite the city’s self-styled sophistication. Restaurants
advertised fusion cuisine, but simply served two different kinds of food on a
single plate. The phrase “well-being” had caught on as a trend, but it simply
meant adding green-tea powder to everything. Where were the kalbi hash and the
kimchi huevos rancheros? (Note to David Chang: Seoul needs Momofuku.)

Although kimchi huevos rancheros doesn't sound like a bad idea, I have a question for Gross. Why? Why does Korea need fusion food? Korea is a conservative country and Korean food is a conservative cuisine. There is nothing wrong with that. The glory of Korean food is its peasant earthiness. The use of cabbage, chile, onions, turnips, chicken's feet, and other peasant ingredients made Korean food what it is. There's certainly nothing wrong with improvising on Korean food. But respecting peasant food for what it is has great value as well. Do we have to globalize all food? Do we need to throw all cuisines together to come up with a one-world cuisine? I'm not trying to sound like a food protectionist here, but I fully support nationalism within food and the protection of local culinary traditions against their combination with the rest of the world.