For more positive dining experience
I am writing in response to “Chef lambasts government K-food policy” by Park Si-soo in the June 25, 2012 issue of The Korea Times.
I would love to see Korean food better represented around the world, as I am a big fan of many Korean dishes. However, I don’t believe that informing foreigners about the history and origin of certain Korean foods will ever help them to become popular.
Most people don’t know the story about foods like sushi, pad thai, paella, masala, pho, moussaka, fajita or pizza but they have become some of the most popular dishes in the world today. They are all considered delicious by many but more importantly, there aren’t any significant negative associations or negative perceptions about these foods. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for Korean food.
Many Korean dishes are great, removed from the environment in which they are served. The issue is with the restaurants, which are failing to provide a positive dining experience. Concerns over food safety, hygiene and dining culture need to be sincerely addressed before Korean food will ever be able to reach international levels of popularity. The Korean government and the restaurant industry should seek to coordinate their efforts to change people’s negative perceptions of Korean food and improve the customer’s overall dining experience.
For several decades, Koreans recycled food in restaurants. Back then, people were starving, so the thought of wasting food was unacceptable back then. These days, however wasteful as it may seem, we know better than to reuse and recycle food due to public health concerns. Fortunately, the government has begun to crack down on restaurants perpetuating this practice.
Regrettably, some establishments continue to reuse food left over from their patrons’ side dishes. Understandably, they are opposed to creating so much food waste, so perhaps the culture of putting out side dishes that patrons don’t really want needs to be rethought. Either way, the tradition of reusing leftovers must stop. Too many diseases are spread from this long-standing practice. Moreover, the suspicion or idea that one might be eating recycled and reused food can be enough to lead many from eating at a Korean restaurant.
As for hygiene, the fact that most Korean restaurants are allowed to operate without having proper sanitation facilities needs to be resolved. Bar soap and a shared towel are major health code violations and the filth in most of the shared restrooms is disturbing. Universally accepted standards need to be adopted and followed. Clean restrooms, liquid soap, and air hand dryers should be required of any establishment serving food. The thought of the kitchen staff and patrons not having a clean restroom to use, yet returning to the restaurant to handle food is enough to leave a very negative and lasting impression on diners.
If you have ever been to a Korean restaurant, you may understand why the dining culture needs to be upgraded for a more global appeal. Sitting on the floor while others are shouting at the wait staff, eating out of the same dish or bowl, drinking out of a shared glass, wait staff mixing your raw and cooked meats with the same utensil can all be exciting the first time you eat in a Korean restaurant. However, once the novelty of taking the chance of getting food poisoning or much worse has worn off, those looking for a pleasant and enjoyable dining experience, will most likely avoid dining at a Korean establishment.
This is not to say that Korea has to sterilize the dining experience to the extreme of losing its identity. Korean restaurant owners just need to recognize that foreigners might be put off by eating soup out of a communal bowl or sitting on the floor, as many people do not relish the thought of getting herpes or some other disease from their office mates or friends, while their legs are cramping up and going numb. By simply altering how dishes are presented, plated, and served, and by having tables and chairs in their establishments, these problems can be easily remedied.
Korean chefs, government agencies, and the restaurant industry must come to see that Korean food won’t be elevated outside of Korea successfully without these negative factors and perceptions being resolved. The framework for making these changes already exists within the모범음식system under the Food Safety Information Agency. It just needs to be revised, implemented, and better enforced. Learning about the region and history of Korean foods might be nice but it is completely irrelevant and unnecessary. Only positive dining experiences will lead the way for Korean food.
The writer is a resident of Seoul. His email address is email@example.com.