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Chapter Excerpt: Exoticizing the Familiar, Domesticating the Foreign

Ethnic Food Restaurants in Korea

Written by Sangmee Bak

Excerpted from RE-ORIENTING CUISINE: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Kwang Ok Kim

A food connoisseur whose job allows him to travel abroad frequently, Mr. Lee telephoned an Indian restaurant near a university in Seoul to make a reservation for dinner with a group of colleagues.

He had dined there once previously, and found the place satisfactory. The restaurant was charmingly decorated with an Indian theme, the food was delicious, and the manager and staff appeared to be Indian. Everything was in line with his expectation of what a proper ethnic restaurant should be: a place where one can dine on authentic ethnic food as part of a cultural experience. However, as soon as he began conversing with the manager on the phone, he thought something was wrong. Instead of the Indian manager he met on his previous visit to the restaurant, a “Korean” man identified himself as the manager. Mr. Lee was extremely disappointed, thinking that the management of the restaurant has changed. He decided to confirm: “I think I met an Indian manager the other time. Has there been a change?” The person on the line replied, “Oh, I am that manager. I am an Indian myself. You must have met me!” As he was eagerly clarifying the situation, this Korean increasingly gained a distinctively Indian accent. The reservation was made, and when the group arrived at the restaurant, they found that the manager was a native of India with a high level of proficiency in Korean. This anecdote illustrates the constructive processes of the meanings and roles of ethnic food restaurants in today’s Korean society. It shows the dynamic negotiations and compromises engaged in by Koreans and the operators of ethnic food restaurants. Together they define what ethnic food restaurants are supposed to be in Korean society.

This chapter is based on anthropological fieldwork on the meanings and positions of ethnic food restaurants in contemporary Korean society. It represents an attempt to understand how Koreans experience the process of globalization by focusing on ethnic food. When we use food culture as the lens through which to observe the process of globalization, we can find concrete and useful illustrations of several key concepts in the discourse on globalization: homogenization (standardization), heterogenization (localization or fragmentation), and hybridization.

Consumption of ethnic food is not only an expression of identities by the diverse ethnicities residing in Korea, but it is also a way for Koreans to construct their identities through consuming exotic food and the accompanying culinary culture. In this chapter, interviews were given and observations were made in various contexts where ethnic food is consumed in Korean society. Most of this took place in Seoul, but some fieldwork was also carried out in Ansan, a city about one hour’s drive from Seoul, where a distinctive community of multiethnic immigrants is located. Both restaurateurs and consumers were interviewed, along with specialists in food production and consumption.

Ethnic Food and Ethnic Food Restaurants

Ethnic food, if one defines it as a nondominant food practice, has been part of human history as long as people have been moving to locations remote from their birthplaces. Ethnic food has enriched local food cultures by introducing new ingredients and recipes. While ethnic food increases variety in local food culture, a form of standardization (homogenization) occurs when a cuisine is introduced as ethnic food to other cultures. For example, the cuisine of the Chinese, whose variety and depth of culinary sophistication are almost limitless, has been more or less standardized when it is served for American consumers. Except for exclusive upscale restaurants and, of course, restaurants catering to the Chinese immigrant population, only a limited number of dishes became widely available in the ubiquitous Chinese take-out restaurants in the United States. These include various combinations of stir-fried meat, seafood, and/or vegetables, fried noodles or rice, fried meat or seafood in egg batter, spring rolls, and dumplings. One could expect practically the same array of Chinese food whether in California, New York, or Minnesota. These processes of homogenization and standardization can also be found in the cases of Mexican and Thai restaurants in the United States. In other words, there is great variety among diverse ethnic cuisines, but within the individual cuisines, one can find a high degree of similarity from restaurant to restaurant within particular contexts.

In recent years, ethnic food has received more attention in the context of globalization as people became more alert to the possibility that the domination of Western culture will further accelerate. Valuing the diversity of local traditions also enhances people’s appreciation of ethnic food. Malcolm Waters (2001) argued that one of the results of the globalization is the realization that all ethnic identities are legitimate. These identities include those without nation/state status. The increase of ethnic-food restaurants has been most notable in Western societies. Roland Robertson (1995) called this a “universalization of particularism,” meaning that various kinds of ethnic cuisines have become popular in many different locations of the world.

Ethnic Food Restaurants in Korea

The production and consumption of ethnic food in Korea has a close relationship with class status. Food in general is an important marker for “distinction” (Bourdieu 1984), and Jack Goody (1982) also attempted to analyze the relationship between cuisine and class in historical processes. Consumption of food carries powerful meanings because food becomes a part of one’s physical self. Th e close relationship between food and identity is clearly shown in the examples of Jewish dietary rules and the avoidance of beef among observant Hindus. Those food-related rules are not simply dietary rules but strong components of who they are and who they are not. Arjun Appadurai (1988) argued that a newly created “middle-class Indian cuisine” significantly contributed to the construction of a new collective identity in India after independence from the British colonial rule. The publication of cookbooks to establish and standardize the new national cuisine was pivotal in this process. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (1993) conducted a historical study on the central position of rice in defining Japanese national identity. Kyung-Koo Han (2000) and Yeong-ha Ju (2000) have both argued that kimchi might be the Korean equivalent of a defining food like rice for Japan. Eun Kyung Park (1994) examined how Chinese residents in Korea have adapted Chinese cuisine to suit their customers’ palates and in the process established an overseas Chinese identity within Korea.

Expectations and Adaptive Strategies in Ethnic Food Restaurants

Ethnic food restaurants in Korea satisfy the expectation for exoticism while still remaining within the comfort zone of such expectations. It is a guarded and safe form of exotic experience, to a certain degree custom-made for Koreans. These characteristics are expressed in the interior decoration, the selection of menus, and the modification of original recipes to cater to the palates of average Korean customers. In this way, ethnic restaurants dutifully carry out their role, akin to the object of “tourist gaze” (Urry 2002). Th e experience that Korean customers have is that of a distinctively unusual yet comfortable form of exoticism.

Since the majority of Indian restaurants in Korea are operated by Nepalese immigrants—not Indians—Nepalese owners strongly argue that there is in fact no significant difference between Indian and Nepalese cuisine. The Nepalese restaurant operators argue that they can provide authentic Indian cuisine without much difficulty. To support this argument, they enthusiastically emphasized that the relationship between the Indians and the Nepalese has always been amicable. Otherwise, they asked, how could the Nepalese have survived when they are surrounded by India in all directions?

The restaurateurs I interviewed were obviously proud of their food. For example, the owners of Indian restaurants maintained that Indian food is the healthiest cuisine. As evidence of this, restaurateurs mention that their signature dish, tandoori chicken, is put into an oven after removing all the fatty skin, their dishes use a plethora of vegetables and fruits, and many ingredients of Indian food, such as turmeric, have medicinal qualities. But even with this pride that they have in their original recipes and ingredients, they are ready to adjust their recipes to attract more Korean customers. In this way, the restaurateurs are negotiating the notions of authenticity with their customers.

The managers of Delhi Indian Restaurant in two locations told me that they are preparing their dishes sweeter than the versions popular in India because they believe that Koreans nowadays like their food sweet. They make their curries and a variety of nan bread sweeter by adding sugar or honey. However, some diners already familiar with Indian food strongly dislike these additions, and complain that the sweetness and Indian spices simply do not harmonize on the palate. In this way, efforts to please one group of customers may alienate others due to the different backgrounds and expectations of customer groups. An attempt to modify the original may seriously harm the expected authenticity of the cuisine and restaurant, which can in turn negatively affect the establishment’s appeal for some customers.

The Popularity of Ethnic Food in Korea

There are several factors that have contributed to the popularity of ethnic food restaurants in Korean society. Most importantly, Koreans have become much more globalized in recent years. They are more informed about other cultures, and more willing to experiment with the less familiar. An increasing number of Koreans have traveled abroad and want to experience global cultural diversity in Korea as well. The increased availability of information on food and restaurants, and particularly the sharing of knowledge via websites on cuisine or tourism (for example, or, have also allowed Koreans to experience exotic cuisines without putting in too much time and effort. Koreans have been dining out more frequently with increasing economic affluence and more women working outside the home. As one possible destination for such exploratory culinary excursions, ethnic restaurants have gained popularity. The ethnic restaurant business really started to take off after the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when Koreans began to seriously look outside their society and sought a global identity. Before this, the few ethnic restaurants available in Korea mainly catered to foreigners who already had experienced these cuisines prior to their arrival in Korea.

People who run restaurants in the same ethnic food category are obviously competitors, but also collaborators who exchange information with one another on the Korean market and try to promote their particular cuisine. They strive to increase the number of Korean customers who enjoy their cuisine. These efforts have significantly enhanced the visibility of ethnic food restaurants in Korea.

About the book

East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Kwang Ok Kim

“The chapters provide thought-provoking ethnographic material and theoretically rich insights into cuisine, place, identity, authenticity, borders, and taxonomy in Asian foodways in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries…[They] are ethnographically rich, analytically sharp, and cover a wide range of topics to ensure that this book will be read, taught, and cited by scholars interested in food, identity, globalization, and regionalism.” · Journal of Anthropological Research

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