How Korean Cuisine Can Compete in the World

Foreign food chains, armed with capital and massive distribution networks, are reportedly doing thriving business by selling Korean food in major cities around the world. Japanese restaurant chain Gyu-Kaku is expanding its network by opening 20 stores in four countries including the U.S. on top of the 900 it already operates in Japan. Pitching themselves as a Japanese-style barbecue restaurant, Gyu-Kaku is selling distinctly Korean dishes such as galbi (roast beef ribs), bibimbap (boiled rice with assorted mixtures), namul (seasoned greens), kimchi and Korean soup using names that sound Korean, but with Japanese-sounding pronunciations. At Gyu-Kaku, galbi is sold as "karubi," bibimbap as "bibimpa," kimchi as "kimuchi" and namul as "namuru." Employees of Gyu-Kaku in New York reportedly think those dishes are Japanese. Korean dishes are losing their original names as foreign food chains copy and market them.

Korean cuisine is largely vegetarian, which does not require deep frying. That attribute is what gives Korean cuisine great potential to become more popular around the world among health-conscious eaters. But the main obstacles are its strong tastes and pungent aromas. Another problem is the relatively small scale of Korean restaurants overseas, which generally operate by catering primarily to Korean residents there. While Korean restaurant owners are stuck in that mode of business, Japanese companies like Gyu-Kaku are outpacing them by introducing dishes that fit the palates of locals, serving them in sophisticated restaurants, and offering great service as well.

A country's cuisine boosts exports of its agricultural products and improves its national image. That's why different countries are competing to spread their cuisine around the world according to a strategic game plan. Japan has established a committee that oversees research into new variations of its cuisine, seeking to raise the number of global fans of Japanese food from 600 million now to 1.2 billion by 2010 by pursuing various globalization projects. Italy opened a culinary institute for foreigners and adopted a system of certifying and endorsing Italian restaurants around the world. Since the 1990s, Thailand has been pursuing a "Global Thai Restaurant" project that promotes adherence to preparation standards for Thai cuisine, trains foreigners as chefs and supports Thai restaurants abroad.

Only this year is the Korean government finally launching a program to invest W78 billion (US$1=W943) by 2011 in an effort to develop Korean cuisine so it can rank among the top-rated cuisines around the world. It's time for the government, civilians and businesses to pool their efforts to spread Korean cuisine globally. If this does not happen, then Korean cuisine may disappear overseas without ever having the chance to take root.
englishnews@chosun.com / 2 05, 2008 09:04 KST