Thursday, April 28, 2011

Is Pizza in Korea a Xenophobic Conspiracy?

Dear Korean,

My question is related to food. Don't remember where I saw once that it was said that koreans used to "bastardize" the world food. One classic example is pizza, where all kinds of ingredients are put together, with no particular reason or logic. So my question is: Do koreans simply change the international dishes to adapt them to the local taste or is there anything else going on there, e.g., "let's make sure we change it, so we show that we don't swallow what comes from overseas"? And, in the sequence, a more specific question would be: why they have sweet potato in the classy mozzarella pizza???

Thanks and looking forward to your comments on this. And, please, keep it up with the great blog.

Kung-Food Fighter

Dear Kung-Food Fighter,

You are thinking too hard. Not everything (and actually, only a few things) Koreans do is based on some inscrutable xenophobia. Koreans are changing non-Korean dishes to suit their taste, and that is all.

"Rich Gold Pizza" from Pizza Hut Korea, whose defining 
characteristic is a ring of sweet potatoes along the edge.

The pizza in Korea is one of the most common complaints that the Korean sees from the expat community in Korea. In fact, there might be more revulsion toward pizza with sweet potatoes and corn than toward dog meat. The Korean is actually pretty understanding of that complaint. (The Korean is not a fan of those kinds of pizzas either. Why would anyone eat pizza in Korea at any rate?) If there is one food in America that unites the thoroughly diverse childhood memories of Americans, it is pizza. There is a great deal of emotional attachment to the dish, and it is pretty understandable for an American to fly off the handle a bit when it appears in an alien form. 

Actually, the Korean recently had an equivalent experience. Near the Korean's office, there is a "Korean" place that sells "bibimbap." The words are in quotes because the place is not really Korean nor does it really sell bibimbap. It instead has a bar reminiscent of that from a Subway sandwich store, and people can choose various different kinds of starch, veggies, meat and sauce. As long as you choose the right things, the end result is kindasorta like a bibimbap. But what if you chose all the wrong things? 

One day, there was a white dude standing in front of the Korean at that place. And the dude ordered for his bowl the following: brown rice, steamed broccoli, an ice cream scoop full of guacamole, topped with teriyaki chicken. Then the dude sat down, and proceeded to mix everything. And that sight seriously made the Korean close to vomiting. He is being absolutely serious; not one bit of exaggeration here. Just thinking about that sight is turning the Korean's stomach right now. The Korean had to get his food to-go; if he had stayed in the restaurant, he would have thrown down that bowl of abomination, grabbed the collars of the poor white dude (whose only crime was ordering what he liked) and screamed in his face: "What the hell is wrong with you? Have you given up trying to be a human? What you're eating is not human food!!!"

So here again, the lesson for the umpteenth time is: welcome to the life of living as a minority, Kung-Food Panda. When you are the minority, you are disenfranchised from protecting the food you love from the acts of horrible mutilation perpetrated by the mainstream. If the mainstream wants pizza with sweet potatoes and bibimbap with guacamole, the mainstream gets them -- and really, it is not like they are doing anything wrong. It sucks, I know, but you are better off getting used to it for the sake of your mental health. If he had his way, the Korean would have firebombed David Chang's Momofuckyou restaurants a hundred times over. But that's life as a minority.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. One of my former clients was once the head of Asia-Pacific marketing for a large international pizza chain. He claims to have invented the aforementioned sweet potato ring that has become a ubiquitously available add-on to pizzas in Korea. If it's true, I hope he got a huge bonus. A large pizza with cheese crust and a sweet potato ring costs something like W32,000!

  2. Oh, and if you want true horror, it seems that "Korean-style Pizza" made its way to Thailand as early as 2006:

  3. What's interesting is that pizza in US is also a bastardized food changed to fit the taste of the locals. The few Italians I've met (mostly in the summer of 2006) call them "abominations", for example...

    Maybe it's because I got a taste of the Korean pizza when I was little, but I don't think I would mind the corn in my pizza. I'm actually a bit curious as to what sweet potato filled crusts would taste like.

  4. Continuing this conversation... What's your beef with David Chang?

  5. Ordering pepperoni with no sweet potato from Pizza Hut is the closest to getting decent pizza in Korea.

  6. "One day, there was a white dude standing in front of the Korean at that place."
    Why call him a white dude? Why not just a "dude"?

    Why did you just racialize this post? The topic of Minorities have nothing to do with whether a food has an unusual variation in different settings. Even within one country, there are unusual variations. Mexicans from the capital think Northern Mexicans' tacos are weird and unusual, while Southern Mexicans think a "mole" from any other part of Mexico is a bastardization.

    With all due respect, you did not need to racialize the post.

  7. I'm glad Bumfromkorea brought up the point that pizza is bastardized in America. Hell we see the debates between Chicago and New York all of the time. I honestly don't know what an authentic pizza would taste like.

    On another note I remember ordering a pepperoni lover's in Korea about 20 years ago and then calling back because there was hardly any pepperoni on them at all. They were very apologetic and sent two more that looked identical. Decided to just live with it and once you bit into it there were layers of pepperoni underneath the cheese. Ate pizza for a few days after that. It seemed like a very normal pizza to me in a place where things didn't quite always taste normal (ie. McDonald's and Coca-Cola)

  8. I'm sorry, but the last thing a American can complain about is bastardized pizzas. People in US don't eat pizza with sweet potato, but you, guys bake it in a gas/electric oven and it's too heavy, very different from we can eat in Italy. Pizza must be baked in a wood-fired oven and can't make you feel heavy.

  9. A plain cheese pizza from ourlocal "Pizza School"isn't too far from American style pizza, maybe the crust is a little less crusty and alittle more spongy. Costco brand pizza here is also strikingly similar.

  10. Next thing you'll tell me is that Panda Express isn't authentic Chinese food.

  11. I feel as though some Italians may have a complaint about an American BBQ chicken pizza or a Hawaiian pineapple pizza. It sounds kind of gross until you try it. And then you realize that it's amazing. And, actually, I really have grown to like the sweet potato crusts here...

    Americans also change food to their own tastes. I think that's just normal for any culture when they adopt new foods.

  12. bumfromkorea,

    One of the most awesome pizzas the Korean has ever had was in Venice, Italy, where they had a fried egg on the middle of the pizza.

    The James,

    Innumerable crimes against Korean cuisine. One example -- selling six sticks of ordinary tteokbokki for $12.


    Regional variations of food within a single country is not the same thing as what goes on with pizza in Korea.

  13. Pizza is different the world over! In Sweden you might find banana and curry spices on a pizza, but you'd never see that in Italy. Come to enjoy the differences, make your own pizzas, or eat different things. I actually like potato on some of the pizzas (though I am not a fan of corn. But then I am also not a fan of olives that show up on a lot of pizzas in North America)... but I dislike the cheaper places with cardboard-tasting crusts, too-sweet tomato sauce and plastic-tasting cheese. No toppings can save that.

  14. I'll bet a large sweet potato-and-corn pizza that you'll find various factions of 'pizza elitists' in Italy itself.

  15. Personally, I think Korean-style pizza is nice. But that's also coming from a guy who makes his own pizzas with whatever ingredients he feels like and with absolutely no regard for Italian tradition.

  16. I'm always amazed how so many people aren't able to "put themselves in somebody else's shoes" and how their way of seeing things is "always" right. Quick story:

    A guy walks in to a pizza place in America from let's say France. He walks up to the counter and starts speaking French to the guy behind the counter (Bob), trying to order some pizza. As the Frenchman speaks Bob just stares at him and then says "Buddy this is America, speak English or I don't serve you." The Frenchman keeps on talking. Bob raises his voice "English!" The Frenchman stops and then in English says "One". He gets a slice, pays for it, takes a bite and then spits it out. He mutters to himself: "Much better at home". Bob furious stares at him and says "You are in America and in America this is how we make pizza. If you don't like how we do it why don't you go back to your own country."

    English -> Korean
    America -> Korea
    Frenchman -> foreigner
    France -> foreigner home country

    "Why did you just racialize this post?"

    Maybe because in the context TK is referring to it does matter. The point (I think) TK was trying to make was that people/cultures adapt things to suit their own needs and tastes. TK could have gone up to the white guy and said "That's not the right way of making bibimbap, I know the proper way of making it because I'm from Korea.", which would have gotten a proper response of "Mind your own business" or "F**k Off".

  17. "The point (I think) TK was trying to make was that people/cultures adapt things to suit their own needs and tastes."

    This is a universal thing, happens to all. Nothing to do with minorities or race.

  18. People do need to chill. The way they rant about corn on pizza you'd think we were putting dead animals on top instead :P On the other hand, If we wanted to talk about "strange pizzas", it's hard for me to figure out why Americans put anchovies in their pizza - it's too salty and not even de-boned, the last thing I want to chomp on while I eat my pizza is fish bones. There, now we can both be ignorant and obnoxious.

    Our school cafeteria provides a horrible excuse for a bibimbap every other Wednesday which makes me retch just by looking at it. (huge chunks of scrambled eggs, spinach, overboiled kimchi on long grain rice, ew) along with other bastardized versions of Asian food every now and then. I guess everyone is guilty of ruining other's foods.

  19. are u serious korean pizzas are so creative and delicious compared to american ones!

  20. I get how you feel about David Chang! I'm the same way about high-end "Viet" food, or any attempt at fusion really.

    Though I do wonder if you feel any goodwill towards Mr. Chang, however much he overcharges for his tteokbokki, for helping to elevate the status of Korean cuisine in the States?

  21. Yeah, Korean pizza can get kinda whacked-out, but considering that some of things done to Korean food in America should be prosecuted as crimes against humanity... I mean, there's a place a few blocks down from my school that's actually run by Koreans. Koreans who should be in The Hague right now.

    Anyway, I'll always be grateful that the pizza place near my apartment in Osan taught me how awesome it is to put steak fries on a pizza.

  22. There's always a hundred or maybe thousand ways to do a dish. Every every other culture has their own version of another culture's food to suit their taste. This one maybe it's a really horrific experience for some die-hard pizza lovers out there. Sweet potato & corn are healthy for you..would you rather slather it w/ fattening things that give you stomach troubles? Nothing wrong with experimenting with food & shocking your taste buds once in a while. When all else fails, there's always McDonald's.

  23. Pizza is impossible to fuck up - it's just a bunch of stuff covered in melted cheese! I'd eat the side of a cardboard box if you melted some cheese on top of it. You really can't go wrong with the recipe of "[stuff] covered in melted cheese," no matter what the [stuff] is. Call me unrefined, but I've had some pretty damn tasty pizza in Korea.

  24. Domino's is absolutely out of control with their weird mega-combo-pizzas in Korea. Has anybody seen the "Deutsch Fillet"? Ye gods. Actually, Pizza Etang does some pretty good pies, at about 1/2 the price of Domino's and Pizza Hut. Their regular combo is just fine--no corn or sweetpotato at all. And while it's kind of a pain (and you have to know a bit of Korean), you can get a custom pizza at Domino's--just tell them whatyou want on it. I used to get pepperoni and green pepper pizzas all the time.

  25. I remember when I was in Hong Kong, I saw Peking Duck pizza at a Pizza hut, amongst other strange variations. Same story with Taiwan and China. Pizza Hut/Dominoes cater to local tastes. It's not just a Korean phenomenon. But there is a surging demand for pizzeria pizza in Hong Kong, so much that lot of small shops have opened up to try to create a New York slice.

  26. some of things done to Korean food in America should be prosecuted as crimes against humanity... I mean, there's a place a few blocks down from my school that's actually run by Koreans. Koreans who should be in The Hague right now.

    The Korean will gladly be the lead prosecutor for that trial.

  27. Though I do wonder if you feel any goodwill towards Mr. Chang, however much he overcharges for his tteokbokki, for helping to elevate the status of Korean cuisine in the States?

    The Korean really, REALLY does not care what status Korean cuisine has in America. The status is not worth mutilating the food.

  28. What's wrong with bastardizing foreign good to suit our own taste? Americans have Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Panda Express, and need I mention more? None of these very successful and popular chains seem to serve authentic foreign cousine and frankly I couldn't care less as long as they suit my palate.

    But then again, at least the Sweet Potato Pizza actually tastes great. If you haven't had a chance yet, I'd suggest you give it a try.

  29. Any restaurant serving non-native food, whether that's in America or Korea or anywhere else, ALWAYS adapts it to the tastes of the local population. As others have mentioned, our version of pizza isn't authentic either.

    Even the "Mexican" food we eat in the states is a bastardized version of the real thing, and Mexico shares a border with us!

    By the way, Korean, this is my first comment on your blog, and I just want to say I LOVE IT. It's one of my favourites. Thank you! :)

  30. Nathan - during some of your more intoxicated nights in college we put fries on all sorts of things. One cheesesteak shop put fried mozzarella sticks and steak fries on a cheese steak. Not at all healthy or a good idea, but tasty at 2AM.

    Joan - speaking of healthy pizzas, I propose the opposite: chicken bacon ranch pizza. Another 'only good at 2AM' idea.

  31. @Monica, funny you should say that there's nothing wrong with bastardising foreign food, it's really wrong when some of you think Panda Express equates to 'real' Chinese food and this is what Chinese people eat all the time i.e. greasy, yucky gunk that a lot of you seem to love but complain about nevertheless. I've lived in the US for quite a few years and the amount of times I've heard my seemingly 'educated' coworkers tell me that the Chinese eat too much 'sweet and sour pork' (by the way the ssp that Panda Express serves is NOT the way SSP should taste like) and other greasy stuff makes me pretty pissed off (also made it a point to tell me that I eat greasy food all the time because I'm Chinese). So, I dare say that there is nothing too right about these chains bastardising foreign food. By the way, if you were about to tell me to return to my own country since I can't stand those inane comments by some of your fellow countrymen, you can save your breath or in this case more typing as I've already left the US.

  32. The Korean is copying me? Haha, nice read.

  33. In Brazil you can find pizza with all the typical toppings you'll find in the US but then people will eat it with ketchup and mayonnaise. I'm not a fan of either of those condiments especially not on pizza. Sweet potato and corn on pizza sounds odd too especially paired with tomato sauce and mozzarella. If that's what people in Korea think tastes good then oh well. I'll have to stick with local food of Korea if I ever plan to go and visit.


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