Manhattan's 32nd Street offers a fairly accurate picture of the current place Korean food occupies in international consciousness. Known as the "Korean Way," 32nd Street boasts an impressive number of bulgogi, naengmyeon, and seolleongtang restaurants, adorned with signs written in both Korean and English. Sixteen years ago, Ruth Reichl, then a New York Times food critic, asked after a delectable dining experience at one of these restaurants, "Why hasn't Korean food become popular in New York City?"
Being seated by friendly waiters and presented with six different side dishes including kimchi and namul, followed by bulgogi barbecued right on the spot over a freshly delivered charcoal fire, Reichl wrote, "Most of us have yet to discover Korean cooking, which offers a great many things we already love -- beef, barbecue, the opportunity to graze -- and presents very few obstacles -- Well, you do have to love garlic and chilies."
Four years later, Reichl said, "Asia's most robust cuisine combines everyone's favorite flavors: sugar, salt, spice and peppers. It is fresh, healthy and low in cholesterol. Yet even in New York, this fascinating food remains a mystery."
New Yorkers have eclectic tastes. Having overcome their initial distrust of garlic, they have wholeheartedly embraced Chinese food; they have also risen above their fear of eating raw sushi and sashimi, as evidenced by the presence of Japanese restaurants on every city block. And Thai food has long outgrown its humble beginnings.
Drinking soju and eating pajeon after a bowl of warm seolleongtang during the late hours at a Korean restaurant, it struck Reichl that she was the only American in the place. She realized that Korean restaurants were content to keep themselves afloat just by catering to their Korean regulars, paying little attention toward attracting American customers.
She cites the menu as evidence. It introduces, for example, a pancake stuffed with oysters and chives, a popular dish among Americans, only as gul pajeon, without any additional descriptions. Although a recently improved menu dubs it "Korean Pizza," most Americans still liken reading Korean restaurant menus to deciphering a secret code or reading an encyclopedia. For instance, the English translation of doganitang -- "gelatin cow knee" -- is incomprehensible at best, while yanggopchang -- "grilled tripe" -- is simply mortifying.
Korean experts in New York City agree that Korean restaurants in the U.S. lack a business model that can readily attract American customers. It would be a superficial success for Americans to praise Korean food when their Korean friends treat them to it. Instead, American customers should willingly and regularly buy it with their own money, as they do in Chinese, Japanese or Thai restaurants.
Experts say that problems such as confusing English descriptions, Walmart-style menus, or bland interior decoration can easily be solved if restaurant owners tackle them with a serious intention of attracting the American customers. Out of 18,000 restaurants in New York City, only nine Korean restaurants are properly featured on the website of the New York City Tourist Agency, compared with 76 Japanese, 25 Chinese, and 25 Thai. Considering that 238,000 Koreans visit New York City annually -- second only to Japanese among Asians -- it is apparent that Korean cuisine is not getting the proper recognition it deserves.
Reichl, now editor-in-chief of the food journal Gourmet, touted Korean food as the next food sensation for the U.S. in a lecture at the Columbia School of Journalism early this year. But unless restaurants develop a business model to attract the locals, Korean cuisine will remain an unfinished masterpiece.
By Park Jong-se, the Chosun Ilbo's correspondent in New York