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L.A.’s Idea of Korean Food vs. What Koreans Really Eat

Our continuing series of Venn Food Diagrams has explored American regional and a smattering of international cuisines in no particular order or with any sense of geographic or cultural continuity. We’re taking another random trip from the land of tater tot hot dishto the land of kimchi hot dish to study how accurately Angelenos view Korean food.

 

Moral of the story: L.A. knows Korean bbq and kimchi. Trader Joe’s sells two kinds of Korean bbq: “Bool Kogi” and Korean style beef short ribs. Kimchi is available at national chains such as Whole Foods, Ralph’s, Costco and Walmart. Whole Foods carries snacked sized packets of roasted laver for kids’ lunches. Fashionistas who’ve never set foot in a Korean restaurant enjoy bimbimbap at spas. Dave’s Korean banchan does brisk business at Burbank farmers’ market with white kimchis catering to vegetarians and vegans. Finally, those Korean tacos: when soccer moms and the New York Times are talking to you (we provided backstory for this article) about them, California Pizza Kitchen’s Korean tacosand frozen Korean tacos at Costco seem inevitable. No, we’ve never tried North Korean tacos.

Methodology: A highly unscientific collection of armchair cultural anthropology, polls on social media sites, and anecdotes from years of being pegged a native informant about everything Korean including the virtues and horrors of Korean food (and women). Plus, we enjoyed a 100 or so trips to South Korea since 1975, including several culinary tours from Seoul to the port city of Pusan. And we remember when L.A. Didn’t even have a Koreatown.

Conclusion: Most Angelenos know at least a few Korean dishes. Beyond that, appreciation of the range and depth appreciation of Korean cuisine varies quite a bit. We’re never surprised about the wide swath of positive or negative things anyone has to say about Korean food. It really seems to depend on how someone was introduced to them and which aspects of the cuisine they chose to like or hate. Centrally located Koreatown is bustling with hundreds of restaurants. More adventurous eaters enjoy a number of specialty restaurants for dishes such as bibimbap, soon dubu, nengmyun, raw sea cucumber, blood sausage, clay pot duck, and even goat soup. Besides restaurants, on any given day we see a diverse cross-section of Angelenos shopping for ingredients at Korean supermarkets including entire Russian families buying ingredients for serious pickling and Armenian seniors trying to decipher packages of dried fish at HK market in Glendale. In aggregate terms, we’re pretty impressed with the range of Korean dishes Angelenos have tried.

Notes: Perhaps not everyone has a Korean friend, but there sure are a lot of us in Los Angeles represented in a broad cross-section of industries. So, if you live in Los Angeles, you’ve probably met a Korean in one context or another. Maybe you had a college roommate or co-worker who kept a stash of kimchi in a shared refrigerator. Susan Fenniger was introduced to kimchi by her dry cleaner (was that too obvious?). Chef Ludo Lefevre was introduced to Korean food by a Chinese friend who is married to, you guessed it, a Korean.

L.A.’s Koreatown may seem a bit like a “Third Korea”, however, an ethnic enclave in the diaspora, no matter how big and economically connected to the mother land, can’t possibly reflect the foods and eating habits of an entire country. Neither do Korean-Americans, who are afterall American, and tend to eat larger portions of proteins and bigger portions overall. Around 1998, there were probably more all-you-can-eat bbq joints in L.A.’s Koreatown than the entire country of South Korea. And yes, Korean-Americans are a wee bit heavier than Koreans who still live on the peninsula.

Eating at restaurants and shopping at Korean supermarkets are only two windows into Korean cuisine. If you’re invited to a Korean home for dinner, don’t expect bottomless pits of ten different banchans. Banchan are side dishes to be eaten with rice. The idea of banchan served as appetizers before bbq, with rice served last, is purely a restaurant convention. Sure, you”ve seen plenty of Koreans gorging at restaurants. But home meals tend to be much simpler and smaller. If there is one small plate of bbq and kimchi for five people, it’s shared by everyone. If there is rice in a Korean home, there is food. Even the leftover sauces will be spooned on rice and eaten. Eating at a Korean table is an inherently social affair, please pace your consumption and quantities of it with your fellow diners.

If you’re Korean or have a Korean friend who disagrees with this Korean, well, that’s expected. As much as many Koreans want to believe we are culturally and socially homegenous, we’re not. Currently, there are 7,000,000 Koreans in the diaspora and quite a few immigrated a second time to Los Angeles. Here, you’ll find Koreanexicans, Korean-Brazilians, Korean-Argentines and Korean-Russians. And depending on when a family immigrated to Los Angeles, their perception of the cuisine might be stalled in a certain place and time. Native informants, not surprisingly, speak from their own experiences and observations.

Susan Park is a food historian and the Program Director of Ecole de Cuisine, follow her on Twitter or join her on Facebook.

 

Written by:

Susan Ji Young Park

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