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How can we spread the delicious goodness of Korean food around the world?


This question has come to me a lot recently, from interested students in Korea as well as from members of both the Korean and American media. I'm no culinary evangelist, but I have been writing and covering American tastes for over a decade and I have an intimate relationship with Korean cuisine. I correspond with people all over the world about Korean cuisine as the Korean food expert here at About.com. So I can speak reasonably about how to expand the popularity of Korean food here in the States.

1. Focus on Taste

Bulgogi box
Naomi Imatome
Korea food tastes wonderful. Forget the marketing slogans that work in Korea. No matter how many "well-being" labels are slapped onto something, Americans won't be swayed if they don't have the promise of delicious goodness. People go back for more if they like the way it tastes and Korean food tastes good. Sell that. Even the exhaustive research on the health benefits of different Korean dishes is overkill.

2. Focus on Korean food

Naomi Imatome
Don't compare and contrast Korean food to other cuisines in advertisements, articles or brochures, especially if you're putting down the food of Korea's neighbors. It makes you look like you have a culinary (and cultural) inferiority complex and it definitely won't win you any friends in America, where diversity is the ideal.

3. Adaptation is Key

Bibimbap Burger
Naomi Imatome

The South Korean government say they want to "globalize" Korean food, but what they really seem to mean is that they want to increase its popularity around the globe. There's nothing wrong with that, as it's good for Korea's tourism and food industries. But the true definition of globalization implies some blending or transformation.

Many of the Chinese, Japanese and Thai restaurants in America serve food that would be foreign to people in China, Japan and Thailand, respectively. Because most of the Korean restaurants in America serve the Korean immigrant population and not the wider American audience, there has not been much room for modernization until recently.

And despite what some purists seem to think, I don't think this would have be all bad. I'm talking about small changes in presentation or style, not changes in substance. Some changes might even be positive: the first advice I'd give Korean restaurants in America is to add little serving spoons to their banchan dishes. It really is healthier not to dip into the same side dishes all the time.

And for Korean culinary ambassadors, they could look at this from the other angle: that Korea is influencing America for the good. The bibimbap burger at Social Eatz restaurant in NYC was given a "Best Burger in America" award last year. And it's certainly healthier than a burger drowning in bacon and cheese.

4. Address Service and Ambience in Korean Restaurants in America

Naomi Imatome

According to the Chosun Ilbo (Korean Daily News): "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."

SERVICE: Many of my own friends and acquaintances love Korean food, but go more eagerly if they will be dining with a Korean speaker. Americans generally want different things than Koreans in their waitstaff. While eating in Korea, I always notice that people don't want their server to be hovering over them and engaging in friendly chitchat. If they are in and out quickly and the food arrives and is cleared promptly, then they are doing their job well. Not so in America. So an American diner not only feels put off by what they see as brusque service, but also by the lack of guidance in ordering or understanding the menu if the waitstaff doesn't speak English.

AMBIANCE: According to a survey quoted in the Chosun llbo, Korean food is unpopular and considered overpriced in the U.S. I don't think Korean restaurants in America are overpriced, but I think there is a disconnect for many Americans between your dinner bill and the experience of dining in a Korean restaurant. For the hefty price of eating Korean barbecue, Americans also want some ambiance (without cafeteria-style florescent lighting), a leisurely dining experience and spotless bathrooms.

I don't know how Korea's marketing campaign could convince Korean restaurants in America to change their decor, food presentation or their staff if the majority of their clientele is Korean or Korean-American. There's no way to control quality and service in thousands of independent businesses.

My suggestion: Offer free menus with translations to Korean restaurants abroad that want to expand their customer base to include non-Koreans. The marketing campaign should invest in professional descriptions and photographs by food writers, stylist and photographers. They should make sure that the menus have no typos, are edited by native speakers, and that the photography is clean and modern.

5. Publicize and invest in what's already there

Naomi Imatome

Korean food has come into the spotlight in the past few years.

David Chang and his Momofuku brand uses Korean inspiration in his menus, the Kogi food trucks made waves with their bulgogi tacos, and there have been some Korean chefs on American food TV shows. Pinkberry and Korean-style yogurt shops and Korean fried chicken have made headlines and fans in American cities. PBS recently aired a solidly produced and well-received series about Korean cuisine called "The Kimchi Chronicles".

Last year, I went to a Korean Food Foundation luncheon at Bann in midtown Manhattan. It was hosted by Kelly Choi, who had been the host for Top Chef Masters, an American food TV show. Bann as a location was a perfect showcase- it is modern and has smokeless tabletop grills. Kelly Choi as a presenter was also a good choice, since she has a name and face that is recognizable in the food world.

Although the format as part luncheon and part press conference was a little disjointed, I applauded the use of Korean-American people and restaurants with their own domestic credibility.

Personally, I don't have a problem with Korean restaurants here in America. I can speak to the waiters and I'm used to the smoke and noise. But if you want to push Korean food into the limelight in a hurry as the South Korean government does, the road will not be paved with kimchi.

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