Earlier this week we began exploring the culinary path traveled by prominent Korean food blogger Joe McPherson. As an expatriate in one of northeast Asia’s lesser visited countries, McPherson has harnessed a niche in both the blogging and food worlds that is clearly his own, and in some ways, his calling.
When McPherson first arrived in South Korea, there were no Korean taco trucks roaming the streets of New York or Los Angeles. It was common to connect Korean cuisine with taboo subjects like dog meat or the undesirably pungent smells of kimchi, Korea’s most famous dish. Now, with Korean fried chicken and bibimbap a common lunchtime choice for office workers in Manhattan, it is almost hard to believe Korean food was sometimes associated with objects of anathema. How did public opinion change, and what does McPherson think of this vast change of mass opinion? Find out in our third installment where McPherson tells us of the amazing transformation of Korean cuisine.
AsianTalks: Many food bloggers in the United States have heard about your blog. In the past eight years as you blogged from Korea, what do you think has changed American perceptions of Korean food? And what’s your role been in that process?
I didn’t really see how much influence I had until I went to New York two years ago. Because in Korea people really don’t know me. And it’s funny, because I’ve been on TV and on radio in Korea quite a bit. But when I got to New York, people were asking for my autograph, and wanting their pictures taken with me. That was weird! I wish my wife could have seen that because seriously she has no idea about the blog. She just thinks it’s still a hobby.
I’ve co-written a book that’s coming out in Korean, in June, and it’s about Korean food globalization. So they’re in the middle of translating my writings right now. And they gave me an early release of it, and I printed it out, gave it to my wife, and she’s now in the middle of reading it. And — she’s never read my writings before, and she’s like, “Wow. You’re aggressive.”
I would say the change in American perception of Korean food is, they don’t talk as much about the dog meat as they used to. It’s gradually becoming politically incorrect to associate Koreans with eating dog, almost to the point people who do dog-eating jokes when talking about Koreans are starting to be viewed as of racist. So that’s one change.
The perception of kimchi has changed. Starting in the 1950s, there’s a US military term, “to be deep in kimchi,” of course means to be in deep sh-t.
Kimchi had a reputation of being foul, smelly and rotten, something that’s just impossible to wrap your mind around. There’s even an episode of Good Eats with Alton Brown a few years ago, where he was pretending to have a chili cook-off with some lady, and he sabotaged her chili by putting kimchi in it. Because he was trying to get the most foul thing to sabotage someone with, and it was kimchi.
Now kimchi is starting to get the respect it deserves. People are starting to realize kimchi like a lot of fermented foods is very similar in complexity to wine and cheese. People are starting to savor it a lot more, and learning how to eat it. I myself when I first tried kimchi in America, I didn’t know how to eat it, I just grabbed it straight out of the jar, and going, “Why do people eat this?” (I later learned) you eat it with rice, and it’s great with eggs. People are finding applications for it.
But it seems like there’s been a succession of what is the trendy cuisine, and Korea was pretty — you know we did Japan, we did China, we did Southeast Asia, what about the one country in between?
AsianTalks: The elephant in the room.
The flyover! It’s like Korea’s Kansas. Travelers do that too. They fly to Japan, then they fly over Korea to China.
Up next: Joe talks frankly about his new book, the South Korean media and why menus in Korea need to be translated properly!