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[Opinion] Korean Restaurants Missing from Korean Hotels

Posted September. 13, 2005 07:33,   


What cuisine did the kings of old Korean dynasties enjoy at Chuseok, the Korean version of Thanksgiving? According to the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine, a king used to have a feast similar to a Thanksgiving dinner of the families of his nobles. Song-pyeon (sweet stuffed rice dough cake) and wine, both made from the year’s newly-harvested rice, would be served to his ancestors in morning memorial rites, and his table would be filled with traditional Chuseok cuisine including song-pyeon, taro soup, steamed chicken, pear sujeonggwa (a traditional Korean sweet drink made from ginger, cinnamon, and honey), newly-picked chestnuts, cooked mushrooms, song-i sanjeok, (skewed pine mushrooms and beef), and hwayangjeok (skewed beef and vegetables).

Korean royal Chuseok cuisine is gaining popularity among Americans. At 32nd St. in Manhattan, the restaurant Hangawi (another name for Chuseok) that serves Korean royal cuisine is always filled with American customers who are willing to pay $100 for a meal. This restaurant is a favorite place of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Gere, and Calvin Klein. Bibimbap, a bowl of rice topped with cooked vegetables, minced meat, and an egg, a dish for ordinary people, has become the most popular Korean food in the world. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton enjoyed a bowl of Bibimbap mixed with spring herbs and spicy red chili paste last February during his visit to Korea.

Korean dishes are still much less fashionable than Japanese dishes, however. The global popularity of Japanese cuisine is indebted to the efforts of Japanese chefs, who have been known to “go the extra mile” to promote Japanese cuisine, such as sprinkling olive oil on sashimi to dispel American repulsion to raw fish. “If we can remove the strong smells from Korean food, it could achieve world-wide popularity,” said Lee Jae-hun, a member of the Society of Korean Cuisine Chefs. Fermented bean paste is notorious for its strong smell, but when stir-fried, it retains its flavor while losing the odor. Cooked with pine needle oil, pan-fried food is scented with the subtle aroma of pine trees. Scent can be another attraction for the healthy diet of Korean cuisine.

The Korean Wave, which refers to the increase in popularity of Korean culture in Asian countries, has attracted a lot of international visitors to Korean restaurants. However, out of 17 five-star hotels in Seoul, only five contain Korean restaurants, and those that do are barely making ends meet. Their downfall is attributable to the fact that specialized Korean restaurants elsewhere threaten their position, and that many have failed to develop the management skills adequate for presenting Korean-style meals.

To regain the status of hotel-based Korean restaurants, 24 chefs at the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul are developing new menus. The TV drama Daejanggeum, a story about a royal chef in old Korea, was a big hit in many Asian countries. If the chefs in the Lotte Hotel learn lessons from Daejanggeum, Korean hotels will be able to take pride in themselves for making great contributions to the globalization of Korean cuisine.

Lim Kyu-jin, Editorial Writer, mhjh22@donga.com