South Korea is spending $40m (€27m) in a bid to quadruple the number of Korean restaurants abroad and boost its food exports. Even the First Lady Kim Yoon-ok has been drafted in to help: she recently invited CNN into the presidential kitchen.
And last week saw Michelin stars glittering over South Korea as, in the opening salvo of a global PR offensive to promote its cuisine, international chefs were invited to the country to whip up recipes such as mascarpone and ginseng. Meanwhile, PR handlers whisked food writers from international publications including The Guardian and Omnivore magazine around Seoul’s culinary hotspots. A festival of kimchi – Korea’s pungent fermented cabbage condiment – was simmering in Korea’s south-west, and display trestles at Seoul’s premier convention centre groaned under the weight of local produce. Even the academics took part in the feast, pondering Korean culinary philosophies, while young chefs battled it out in a culinary competition judged by master chefs including France’s Pierre Gagnaire and Italy’s Massimo Bottura.
While most globally popular cuisines have been disseminated organically – through the efforts of immigrant communities, returning tourists, or entrepreneurial restaurateurs – officialdom is behind the Korean feeding frenzy. But given that Korea has exported everything from chips (the electronic kind) to ships, why has Korean grub not already stormed global palates? “We start with the premise that what we have is not inferior,” says Samuel Koo, president of the Seoul Tourism Organisation. “But we have not learned to package and present it to appeal to non-Koreans.”
There may be other reasons. Korea has always been a business travel rather than a tourism destination, and Korean emigrant communities have customarily been clannishly parochial. Moreover, Korean is among the world’s more challenging cuisines: Koreans dip raw garlic and chilli peppers into spiced pastes for added flavour. Such incendiary dining habits are not for everyone. “Local cuisines are usually very, very strong,” says Bottura, the two-Michelin-starred owner of Osteria Francescana, on his first trip to Korea to present a chef’s table fusing Italian and Korean cookery. “Fermented stuff is very, very local, so if you serve Korean outside Korea, you have to take it step-by-step.”
Event organisers will be pleased to hear that Bottura – whose offerings included pizza topped with fermented black garlic and a ginseng and Parmesan risotto – will be taking fermented bean and chilli pastes home to dabble with.
But why is it all happening now? While the initiative may appear, on the surface, to be a stunt cooked up by a nationalistic nation that craves international respect and recognition, there is a broad awareness that with Korean TV dramas and pop music already popular in Asia, food loads another “soft power” bullet into the national brand’s magazine: diners will become familiar with things Korean without venturing further than their local restaurant.
But there is also a pressing agenda item at home. The financial muscle behind the campaign comes from the agricultural ministry. Korean farmers, already desperately uncompetitive and imperilled by pending Free Trade Agreements with both the EU and US, need a lifeline. Subsidies and tax breaks have failed to spice up their sector. The culinary promotion plan is the latest move to give it a fighting chance before tariffs drop – and, perhaps, farmers drop with them.