Korean Food, Infinite Possibilities
By Chang Tae-pyong
Minister of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
People often ask me why ``hansik,'' or Korean food, is so important. I reply, ``Because it is the face of our country.''
There are many things that represent Korea. Along with hanbok (traditional constume), Hangeul (Korean alphabet), gugak (old Korean music) and taekwondo, the Korean martial art that is part of Olympic official competition, hansik is one of the ``Korean brands.'' Some may disagree that our everyday food can be labeled as such. But ask foreigners and they tell just how big a Korean brand hansik is.
Some seven million foreign tourists visited Korea last year, and local food proved to be the biggest attraction for them. In a survey by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) of foreign visitors, 49 percent of respondents said they came to Korea to try Korean food.
Also, in a 2005 report by KOTRA, 59 percent of foreigners named hansik as the first thing in their mind about Korea. This shows food is emerging as a major contributing factor to draw foreign tourists to Korea, alongside Jeju Island or the World Heritage's Hwaseong in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. The Korean mega-hit television drama, ``Daejanggeum'' or Jewel in the Palace, which was also popular overseas, is believed to have played a pivotal role in the trend.
I see this as a possibility that Korean food can be popular in other countries.
Thailand, for example, has been carrying out ``Kitchen of the World,'' a project to promote its culinary culture worldwide since 2001. Consequently, it led to a remarkable rise in food material exports ― from $3.5 billion in 2001 to $6 billion in 2006.
This success can also apply to hansik. Daejanggeum, a Korean restaurant franchise, which operates eight restaurants in China, imports 10 million won ($6,850) worth of gochujang, or Korean hot pepper paste, every month from Korea. Soban, a Korean restaurant in France, always gets its supplies for bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables and Korean hot pepper paste), from Jangsu, North Jeolla Province.
Korea is abundant in fermented foods, which are tasteful, nutritious, and healthy. From kimchi to condiments like doenjang (bean paste) and gochujang, a lot of major Korean foodstuffs are made through the fermentation process.
Kimchi, the most widely-known Korean food, was named on the official menu at international events such as the Seoul Summer Olympics and the France World Cup in 1998, as well as the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup.
The vegetable dish has constantly been gaining greater global recognition. In the March 2006 edition, Health, a U.S. monthly magazine, included kimchi in the list of five healthy global foods.
Fermented foods are just part of hansik. Korean food has nutritional balance as it uses various ingredients such as grains, vegetables, meat and fish. It has less calories and lower saturated fat, compared to many western foods. That's why The Financial Times introduced Korean food as an example of a balanced diet, and the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles serves it on its menu for patients.
Now, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries aims to foster Korean dishes as a global brand, with the goal of making hansik one of the world's five most popular ethnic foods. For that purpose, the government is working on a blueprint for a Korean food globalization initiative.
First of all, it is working on the standardization of Korean foods, so everyone in the world can prepare and enjoy them according to recipes. Also, the ministry will make sure of more support in research and development (R&D) to make the most of the strong points of Korean food and complement its weak points.
In 1998, the International Travel Catering Association picked bibimbap as the world's best flight meal. Some technology in preparing the ingredients helped gain this honor, as pan-fried and processed hot pepper paste and sterile-packed cooked rice are used for the meal. This is a successful example of what technology backed by the government can do for the promotion of Korean food.
The ministry also plans to foster quality cooks specializing in Korean dishes who can work overseas. Cooks of Korean foods need to be ``diplomats of hansik,'' because the stories and artisanship behind them can give more for those who eat them to appreciate.
Bruno Libralon, dean of the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, named the integrity of restaurant owners and professionalism of cooks as the most important reason for the global success of Italian foods, during his speech at the Korea Food Expo (KFE) in October last year.
In that regard, the ministry aims at ultimately making Korean restaurants like cultural centers, where customers can experience not just Korean food, but Korean culture.
Last but not least, the ministry will continue to constantly publicize Korean foods. I will make every effort to get the world's most renowned chefs and food critics to recommend the virtues of hansik, to let the world know how valuable and enjoyable Korean foods are.
Hallyu, or the Korean wave, which endeared Korean pop culture to Asia and beyond, will now turn to a huge boom for Korean food. A lot of foreigners wonder about Korean dishes they see in the dramas and movies they watch. The ministry will make sure that information is readily available, so they can enjoy hansik with the stories.
The second edition of the KFE is scheduled for this October. Following the inaugurating event last year, this year's food exhibition and fair will offer opportunities for the rest of the world to enjoy the enchanting world of Korean foods.
I remember all the admiring exclamations from foreign participants after they sampled Korean dishes at last year's KFE. This year, it will give every visitor a more enjoyable and memorable moment.
For all the advantages it has, hansik is not popular overseas like foods from Japan and China. I sincerely hope all the efforts by the ministry to globalize Korean foods will bear fruit and Korean restaurants will be an accessible place for everyone in the world.
I am more than sure the day will come when people from around the world will choose to go to a Korean restaurant to celebrate their most special occasions.