Tag Archives: Korea

You know kimchi but how about kimjang?

Sangyoub Park and Sunyoung Cheong

At the beginning of the new year, a variety of news outlets and food-related venues usually predict upcoming food trends. USA Today, for example, predicts that “Kimchi will be in” in 2020. As a matter of fact, however, kimchi has been it-food at least over the past 10 years. I became aware that kimchi was next big America’s food when the New York Times stopped using an additional explanation for kimchi about 10 years ago. Before that, whenever the Times talked about kimchi, it followed with an additional explanation like “Korean spicy fermented cabbage.” Kimchi is the most common banchan, side dish, in Korea. When the Times stopped providing “what kimchi is to readers,” it signaled that everyone knows what kimchi is. In other words, there was no reason to describe kimchi as Korean spicy fermented cabbage any longer.

Fresh kimchi

The rising popularity of kimchi coincides with another trend in the culinary world – fermentation. As Americans are obsessed with well-being, they begin to pay extra attention to fermented foods. Fermenting food is not new, of course but it is one of the oldest ways of preserving food. The reason behind the latest trend is that many fermented foods are thought to entail health benefits. The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz was published around the time this trend was taking off. Kimchi is a probiotic lactic acid bacteria (i.e., good bacteria) fermented food. Many people believe that kimchi has a wide range of health benefits including improving digestion, increasing the body’s immunity, preventing aging, and preventing cancer.

Furthermore, as sociologists highlight how social class affects food preference, food can be a marker of social status. People create cultural distinction through food and eating. In the United States, the upper and middle classes are ready to embrace more “exotic” foods like tofu or sushi to distinguish their cultural identity. From this perspective, kimchi is very exotic. With exoticness and health benefits, it is evident that kimchi will enjoy longevity in the landscape of American food. This is exactly why I describe kimchi as an “Eww” food that has become a “Wow” food in terms of American taste trends.

Sunyoung Cheong, Preparing for kimjang in her home in Topeka, KS. She also pre-prepared for kimjang by washing about 25 heads of cabbage and salting them for 12 hours the previous day and making a huge batch of seasoning.

So, it is hip that you eat kimchi now. However, do you know anything about kimjang? Kimjang refers to making and sharing kimchi with others (click here for a short video about kimjang). Making kimchi requires collective effort because the process of making kimchi is very labor intensive. It is not unusual that kimjang is performed with large quantities like a couple of hundred heads of cabbage. Kimjang is usually done during November or December to last through the long cold winter. This explains why kimjang can be a communal activity. It is a way of communication, a way of creating memory, and a way of bonding together. The ritual of kimjang, in fact, was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

Kimchi-makers putting the kimchi paste between the layers of cabbage. This is a very important step to make good kimchi.

Over the past few years, we have invited community members, neighbors, and friends to our kimjang to experience firsthand how kimchi is made in a traditional way. We open our home to guests because we can help people broaden their understanding about “others.” We can be making kimchi together instead of “breaking bread together.” This year we invited friends (Akiko, Mary Anne and Luke) to make kimchi. In particular, this time kimjang was better organized thanks to kimjang mats, which we bought in Korea to test out for a potential kimchi festival – I am always dreaming of organizing a kimchi festival in Topeka, Kansas (Click here for the Kimchi Festival in Korea). Imagine making kimchi with strangers. And this might be exactly what we need in the Divided States of America today. During our kimjang, we conversed about children, marriage, changing food culture, and simply gossiped about everyday life. It is a way of bringing people together and creating a community. It can be a way of healing us. It can be a first step to unite a fractured community again. As an immigrant couple, after kimjang, we feel like our community has been extended by sharing our culture.

Making kimchi together.

Yes, it is good that more people are eating kimchi now but I hope that people appreciate kimchi simply beyond numerous health benefits. If kimchi can be used as a diplomatic tool, gastrodiplomacy, to enhance cultural understanding among countries (click here for a NPR story), it certainly can play a role in bringing us together.

Finishing up kimjang.

Let’s roll our sleeves and make more kimchi!


Usually after kimjang, Koreans eat steamed pork with fresh kimchi to celebrate the end of kimjang.

Sangyoub Park is an associate professor of sociology at Washburn University. He teaches Food and Culture and filmed the documentary “A little bit more Korean.” Sunyoung Cheong is a visiting assistant professor of the department of visual art at the University of Kansas. She teaches Casting for Jewelry and CAD/CAM.  She also creates interactive art performance like Wearable Play.

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Shake Shack Burger Fever in Korea

Sangyoub Park
Washburn University

The popular American burger chain Shake Shack just opened its first Korean store on July 22, in the Gangnam District of Seoul, which is known as the Beverly Hills of Seoul. Koreans are hurriedly flocking to the store to taste the famous burger and fries.

The Korea Herald, a local newspaper, describes the grand opening day:

When the store opened on July 22, the online fervor was proven real. Even before the opening of the store at 10 a.m., people were reported to have lined up hours in advance, some having been there all night, to be the first to try the burgers. Around 1,500 people were reported to have lined up for two to three hours on that day (7.24. 2016).

shake shack opening korea

July 25, 2016, Shake Shack (around 9:00 am, people are waiting outside before the opening hour). Photo by Sangyoub Park.

It has been over a month after its opening but the fever has not faded away. It is reported that the Shake Shack store averages 3,000 customers every day. Due to recent sizzling weather in Seoul, the store dispatched a nurse from 11:00am to 6:00pm to prevent heat-related illness while waiting in line. The store is planning to keep a nurse until next month. The store also provides free bottled water and sun-umbrellas (used to block sun in East Asia) to those waiting in line as a cautionary step.

What accounts for this Shake Shack fever?  Why are Koreans obsessed with Shake Shack? First, it is because Shake Shack is the latest novelty from America. Korea has been brimming with American tastes from Burger King to McDonalds’, Pizza Hut, TGIF, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin Donuts, and Krispy Kreme. Koreans love the taste of novelty. Some of these American foods have lost novelty since they are successfully localized. For example, it has been 28 years since McDonalds’ opened the first store in Seoul. Or Baskin Robbins is no longer especially exotic to Koreans since its first shop opened over three decades ago. More interestingly, one of my students informed me that having Western people in the kitchen appears to create a more authentic sense of Americanness.

shake shack burger and fries

Famous Shake Shack burgers with fries and shake, courtesy of Seung-Whan Lee.

Second, it can be attributed to the social media effect known as “eat and tweet” or “foodstagramming” (in Korea, it is called “meok-stagram,” which is a combination of eat, meok-da, and Instagram). Like the U.S., the food photo sharing phenomenon is prevalent in Korea. Posting food photos online is a way of showing off or bragging about one’s hipness or coolness. Sharing food photos is a way of boosting social status, that is, more “likes” means more popularity. These food photos bring recognition. In particular, trending foods like Shake Shack burger could help creating extra coolness. These photos can be used to elicit an image of life is good. They project an image of the good life.

Third, going to popular eating places like Shake Shack has become entertainment and sort of a leisure activity. It is a cool thing to do. Especially for young people, hanging out at such places has become popular entertainment. They are like “special events,” not for filling their stomach. This explains why waiting in line for a long time is not cumbersome to them. Opportunity cost seems not to apply to these queuers in that the end benefits are supposed to outweigh the cost of standing in long lines.

It is too soon to tell when the fever of Shake Shack will cool. But the excitement of this new taste does not seem to be dissipating  any time soon because the second Shake Shack store is slated to open at another place in which is not far from the first store in November.

For more photos, please visit: http://www.eater.com/2016/7/22/12258334/shake-shack-seoul-south-korea-photos.

For the grand opening of Shake Shack, please visit: http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/07/22/2016072202608.html.

Sangyoub Park is professor of Sociology at Washburn University. He can be contacted at sangyoub.park@washburn.edu

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Out With The Old: Gentrifying Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market

 

By Markus Bell and Jieun Kim

In 1998 an article in Seoul’s Kyeonghyang newspaper described a visit to Seoul’s Noryanggin Fish Market as follows:

“Arriving in the Noryanggin Fish Market your timid heart will flutter like an excited fish in water. Whether you buy or not, simply strolling around the market will wash the sweaty odor from your body” (Sept. 5, 1998).

Noryangjin fish market is a cultural institution, and that’s why news of its relocation and ‘modernization’, following directives from the government cooperative, the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives (NFFC), has caused such a stir.

A fish market was established in 1927, during the Japanese colonial period, near Seoul central station. It moved to Noryangjin in 1971.

The recent relocation plans include replacing the market with a resort complex that includes hotels, entertainment facilities, and chain restaurants. But the NFFC and a determined group of market vendors are at odds over the move.

The vendors’ union insists that the government has ignored the voices of the merchants. They claim that the new building is unsuitable for trade, with less space and higher rent. As of late July this year, 321 of the 1,334 merchants – some 24% – were refusing to relocate.

Bell Protest banners at market

Banners protesting the relocation hang from the ceiling, photo by Markus Bell.

The state argues that the rent is reasonable, and claims that vendors are “illegally using private property.” Recently, violent clashes between vendors and the NFFC resulted in several injuries.

The market place relocation denotes a ‘qualia’ shift in Korea’s dining culture toward “cleanness.”

Nicholas Harkness (2013) noted a shift in contemporary soju drinking practices in Korea. Analyzing soju advertisements, he stressed that “softness” is analogically linked to other dimensions, such as femininity in soju consumption and representation. The qualia of the dining experience means a greater emphasis placed on “cleanness” – hygienically, visually, and in the relationship between the buyers and sellers.

During our visit to Noryangjin market, in the middle of an August heat wave, banners protesting the relocation hang from the ceiling and windows are boarded up. Listless middle-aged Korean women fan themselves atop up-turned beer crates, barely finding the energy to tout their wares.

Record heat or not, it’s business as usual. Huge containers are filled to the brim with everything from lobster to sea cucumber. The catch of the day is sea bass. We enter into negotiations with a fast-talking vendor.

Tossing a plump fish onto the concrete the fishmonger exacts a fatal blow on our chosen victim. Without hesitation, she guts it and strips the scales.

Bell Ocean to Chopping Board

From the ocean to the chopping board. Photo by Markus Bell.

Clutching polystyrene dishes of finely sliced raw fish, we dance our way around puddles of stagnant water to the doors of the on-site restaurant.

“Oe-seo-o-seyo!” the staff welcome, ushering us to our table. Several groups of Chinese tourists have set up camp at tables strewn with beer bottles and an afternoon’s worth of shelled crustacean. A red-faced man is slumped in the corner; chin on chest he defies the efforts of his party to wake him.

We peel off slice after slice of sashimi with metal chopsticks, coat it in soy sauce and wasabi, and wrap it in sesame leaves. It has a bite that can only be chased by Korea’s green-eyed monster – soju.

As the afternoon bleeds into the evening the table groans under the weight of empty bottles.

Bell Post afternoon consumption table

The table groans under an afternoon’s consumption. Photo by Markus Bell.

The man in the corner suddenly awakes and the waitress scuttles over to help carry him out.

Noryangjin fish market has a visceral feel that’s disappearing from Seoul’s street scene. It’s a piece of history that, once gone, all the Starbucks in the world won’t bring back.

It’s the odor, frenetic energy, auditory, visual, and somatic sensuality of the market that can’t be replicated. This is the life energy of Seoul’s working class, which transverses the history of modernizing Korea.

Bell Boarded up Market windows

Windows boarded up around the market. Photo by Markus Bell.

It won’t be long until the relocation is complete. Most vendors will move, displaced by regulated hours, American chain stores, and serious men in serious suits. The Noryangjin controversy will be forgotten.

The market will be mourned by people who remember what it was like to haggle for a mackerel, or to have their fingers clamped between the claws of a dissenting crab.

 

Markus Bell is a lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell

Jieun Kim is a PhD candidate at Seoul National University. She can be contacted at: jminor@snu.ac.kr

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, fish, Food Studies, markets

Eating Alone? Friends Are One Click Away

Sangyoub Park
Sociologist
Washburn University

Are you getting tired of “eating alone”? Now you have a solution. Just click away. While you’re eating, you can watch someone eat online. And this is exactly what’s happening in Korea. And this has become lucrative business.

chef king biryong

Pictured above is Ji-hwan Choi, known as Chef King Biryong on his Meok-bang show. He is one of the more well-known meok-bang show hosts. He is in military uniform to connect viewers and to bring back nostalgic memories because most males in Korea have to serve in the military. The Diva is another popular host.

This growing new trend of “watching someone eat” (meok-bang: eating on air or eating broadcasts in Korean) can be attributed to a number of factors. Among them, I will highlight four factors behind the soaring popularity of meok-bang.

First, this trend is strongly related to a growing number of one-person households. The proportion of single-person households drastically increased to 35.9 percent in 2013 from about 9 percent in 1990, according to Korean Statistics. Watching someone eat online can be one way of dealing with single-person’s loneliness. They do not want to eat alone. They want to alleviate a sense of “alienation.” While they are watching these shows, they feel connected.

Second, watching someone eat is also an efficient way to relieve stress from a fast-paced and hyper-competitive life style. Korean society has been dictated by a culture of “success at any cost,” which places enormous pressure to many Koreans. Students, for example, are stressed from demanding school life and young Koreans are pressured from hectic work life. By watching someone eat, it can be argued that Koreans are experiencing a vicarious pleasure.

Third, the popularity of meok-bang is attributed to advanced technology, especially super-fast internet connections in Korea. Korea is known as the most wired place on the globe. Hyper-fast internet speed make it possible for viewers to interact with the shows. Meok-bang shows are streamed live, so these shows are not one-way, but rather mutual. Meok-bang hosts and viewers are “emotionally” connected to each other. This explains why the hosts tell stories while they are eating (and cooking). Many stories can be shared with viewers as well. This emotional connection might be made possible due to the high number of smartphone users. Korea has the highest smartphone use with a penetration rate of over 70 percent in 2014. This similar trend of watching someone eat occurred in the 2000’s in Japan, but made use of VCR and DVD, which are one-way technologies.

Fourth, this trend is also associated with a culture of consumption. In affluent Korean society today, food is not simply meant to fill the stomach. In the past, Koreans ate because they were hungry. But today they are able to consume food based on taste and aesthetic. Meok-bang reflects this changing food culture in Korea as well.

I think that these surging meok-bang shows are producing a new way of “commensality without actually sharing the same table.” These shows may transform eating as an individual act in modern society to social eating by providing a platform of bonding and sharing with strangers.

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Filed under culture, foodways, internet, korea, public eating