Learning About South Korea’s History Through Food

In the past two decades, there has been a growing popularity of Korean cuisines worldwide. What used to be just traditional meals like bibimbap or bulgogi are now considered gourmet dishes in some international restaurants. You can now get the famous Korean fried chicken or the sumptuous Korean barbeque without having to travel to Seoul. There’s even a rise of fast-food chains exclusively offering South Korean snacks.

But Korean cuisine is more than just food; it’s history.

The Hallyu Craze

The popularity of South Korea’s culture is greatly attributed to the successful efforts of its government to export pop culture and entertainment since the late 1990s. Korean Wave has been a major contributor to South Korea’s GDP since the mid-90s when it started exporting dramas and pop music (later known as K-Pop) to China. After seeing the success of the exportation of entertainment products, South Korea continued to make international releases of selected dramas overseas including Japan. The overseas success of Korean dramas in China and Japan boosted the Hallyu craze in Asia and later on worldwide.

Aside from Korean dramas and music, the status of South Korean movies has grown over the years as more viewers and filmmakers took interest in more diverse stories and unique production outside of Hollywood in the past decade. From producing critically-acclaimed moves that are widely recognised in film festivals, South Korean films have entered the mainstream market especially with the international success of ‘Train to Busan’ and the Academy Award-winning film ‘Parasite’.

The Hallyu craze wasn’t only limited to dramas, movies, and music; it also expanded to South Korea’s traditional culture and food. Hallyu fans who were fascinated by the country’s culture started visiting the country to explore the sites that were seen in dramas, which helped boost the country’s tourism sector and local business.

For example, the popularity of Dae Jang Geum (MBC) in the early 2000s allowed viewers from around the world to learn more about Korean cuisine, fashion, and medicine. Enthusiastic fans have also visited famous film locations like Nami Island (Winter Sonata) and Jeju Island (Dae Jang Geum) and even in broadcasting studios where some programs are filmed live. Recently, Jjapaguri, a combination of Korean instant noodle brands Jjapaghetti and Neoguri, also became popular among ‘Parasite’ fans.

From Staple Food to Gourmet Meal

The Korean food sector has benefitted massively from the Hallyu craze and the booming tourism industry. While Korean dishes are now considered to be hip and cool, there is also so much history and culture embedded in every ingredient.

Bibimbap, for example, was one of the greatest food inventions of the Joseon Dynasty. It is made by mixing various dishes in one bowl. Depending on what literature you refer to, it is believed that bibimbap was a king’s meal, a ceremonial food, or a meal for farmers.

Fried chicken might have been popular in the United States for a long time and it has its own history, but the concept of fried chicken was only introduced to Koreans by the U.S. troops after the Korean War. Back then, chicken stew was more popular albeit expensive. But in the 1970s, Koreans began to indulge in fried chicken as cheap cooking oil became widely available and domestic chicken production increased. As Korean fried chicken slowly gained popularity in the 1980s, American-style fried chicken entered the South Korean market.

With the increasing competition, restaurant owners experimented with different frying styles and sauce ingredients. From being a luxurious snack item post-Korean War, fried chicken is now eaten as a casual meal usually served with beer and side dishes.

History in South Korea’s Oldest Restaurants

korean food

Amid the industrialisation and the influx of travelers from all over the world, history remains alive in South Korea’s oldest family-owned restaurants. While more business owners have established Korean restaurants overseas, traditional Korean restaurants continue to serve their loyal patrons in South Korea despite the increasing competition from international brands and fast-food chains, especially in Seoul.

Here are some practical tips if you want to go on an unconventional food trip to South Korea:

  1. Research. With the rise of food vloggers nowadays, travel and food information are easily accessible online.
  2. Learn basic conversations in Korean that will be essential for your travel. Some vendors or restaurant owners may not be able to speak excellent English. You don’t even need to learn complete sentences if you just know what to order.
  3. Travel and tourism sites would most likely recommend you must-visit restaurants in South Korea so why not try something different by asking the locals.
  4. Visit traditional markets for a taste of local life.
  5. Try less popular but equally tasty meals.

If you’re a Hallyu fan traveling to explore South Korea’s culture, don’t forget to check out its traditional food and dining scene.

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