Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Korean on "An Economist Gets Lunch"

The Korean is a faithful reader of Prof. Tyler Cowen's blog Marginal Revolution. Like Prof. Cowen, the Korean is also a resident of Northern Virginia, and he cares about food deeply. So the Korean is expecting his copy of Prof. Cowen's An Economist Gets Lunch with great interest. The Korean did not read the book yet, but based on the reviews, it sounds fascinating -- Moneyball for lunch selections, as it were. A lot of what Prof. Cowen suggests makes perfect sense. For example, it makes sense to go for the ugly-sounding dish in a nice restaurant, because the dish had better to be good if it deserved a place on the menu. (Oven roasted bone marrow at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington D.C. comes to mind as a good example.)

But the Korean couldn't help but furrow his brow a little bit at the part of the book about selecting good ethnic restaurants. For example, in the New York Times book review that discussed Prof. Cowen's favorite Ethiopian restaurant:
It’s a sports bar, which seems like an unlikely choice, but not to Professor Cowen’s way of thinking. He chose it precisely because it was an unlikely choice. An American sports bar might mean Buffalo wings and cheeseburgers, but an Ethiopian sports bar? “They are making no attempt to appeal to non-Ethiopians,” he said.

How does he know it is good? Ethiopians eat there. It’s crowded. People look prosperous. But the two-page menu offers more clues. A few American items are tucked down in a corner, but other than that it is all Ethiopian. It has Ethiopian breakfast items. The descriptions are sparse, because why would they need explaining to its core audience? There are dishes on the menu that he doesn’t recognize. “That’s always a good sign,” he said.
At a first glance, all of the above seem to make sense. If you want the best Ethiopian food, it makes sense to look for the place that cater more or less exclusively to well-off Ethiopians. However, that idea rests on a critical assumption:  well-off Ethiopians know how to look for the best Ethiopian food. The Korean's problem with this assumption is -- at least when it comes to Korean food in America, that assumption is completely false. I cannot speak for any other ethnic cuisine in America, but I would not be surprised similar trends occurred in other immigrant communities.

Here, the Korean should take a quick detour and remind everyone about his own peculiar stance with food, especially Korean food. Simply put, I am an irrational Korean food purist. I have been called "Korean food Wahhabbist." I despise any and all efforts to steer Korean food away from the way it is supposed to be. (And "the way it is supposed to be" is defined as the way it is made in the place of the dish's origin, i.e. a particular region in Korea. And yes, that means I despise much of Korean food in Korea also.) When I comes to Korean food, I am a deranged lunatic. When it comes to Korean food, I am more unreasonable than an obnoxious sports dad attending his child's little league baseball game. I will utterly disregard the reasonable preference of everyone else. I will lose my shit and wantonly issue death threats to anyone who gives a bad Korean food recipe. So take this post as what you will.

Having said that, how is it the case that well-off Korean Americans still are not competent judges of good Korean food?

Korean Americans have been living in the U.S. in large numbers since the 1960s, and at this point it is fair to say that Korean American cuisine has developed a number of subtle differences that distinguishes it from traditional Korean cuisine. A few of those divergences are positive -- for example, Korean Americans expanded the potential of soondubu soup (spicy soft tofu soup) by adding more, and more diverse, ingredients, to the point that the American-style soondubu soup was reverse-exported back to Korea.

But the Korean would daresay that vast majority of changes applied to Korean cuisine applied by Korean Americans have been negative. One major difference in Korean versus Korean American cuisine is the infantilization of flavors -- going from sophisticated to crude, from complex to one-dimensioned. Much of Korean food in America is one or more of too sweet, too spicy, too salty, etc. Sweetness, in particular, is the all-encompassing evil that completely downgrades Korean food in America. Proper Korean food hardly uses any sweetening agent, but overwhelming majority of Korean restaurants in America liberally use sugar in their food. For anyone with discerning taste, it is vile.

Korean restaurants in America also take many shortcuts to save the cost and effort. Faking umami through the use of MSG in any brothy Korean food is an easy example. Less noticeable (at least to those who never had the real thing) are the "cheap restaurant tricks" that Korean restaurants use in certain types of food. For example, seolleongtang [설렁탕] is a cow's leg bone soup, whose broth becomes milky white after many hours of slowly boiling the bone in low heat as the collagen in the bone slowly melts out. But instead of spending those many hours, Korean restaurants use a shortcut -- take the regular, store-bought beef broth, and add coffee creamer (!) to it.

[-UPDATE, 4/18/2012- Lest there should be any misunderstanding, this is not to say that "cheap restaurant tricks" are used exclusively in Korean restaurants in America. Most of those tricks originated in Korea, and are still used to cheap restaurants in Korea. The difference is that in Korea, the customer base knows enough about Korean food such that "cheap restaurant tricks," for the most part, actually stay within cheap restaurants. In the U.S., that is not the case -- coffee creamer seolleongtang can be found in the places that look like they are supposed to be decent places.]

Then there is the influence of American eating habits creeping into Korean food in America. Vegetables are the backbone of Korean cuisine, as Korea has more than 1,000 edible vegetables and herbs. Korea also has a huge variety of seasonal fish, thanks to the fact that it is surrounded by the ocean on three sides. To keep those vegetables and fish for a long period of time, Koreans have developed a number of pickling and fermentation methods that add a great deal of complexity to those ingredients. (Kimchi is the prime example of this.) In a typical Korean meal, vast majority of the food served will be vegetables or fish, and a lot of them are pickled and/or fermented. But in America, Korean BBQ is the de facto representative of Korean cuisine. Nary a fermented side dish (which invariably takes much more effort to make) can be found. In a disturbing trend, the newer, more "hip" Korean restaurants are doing away with the last vestige of vegetables in Korean BBQ by getting rid of the lettuce wraps that would always accompany the meat.

All told, Korean food to Korean American food is a movie to a pornography -- the entire endeavor is reduced to a single, crass purpose, which is achieved by artificial "enhancements." Yet Korean restaurants, even those only patronized by well-off Korean Americans, merrily stay in business. How?

Ever wished as a child that you could eat your cereal with chocolate milk, or have a piece of cake for breakfast? That's what has happened with Korean food in America. Unmoored from parental supervision (in this case, the centuries of tradition,) Korean Americans have made Korean food in America cheaper, easier and simpler, at the cost of quality. It is particularly notable that most well-off Korean Americans in America did not start out well-off -- they arrived poor, but became middle class through hard work. While Korean Americans' immigrant work ethic deserves lavish praise, it would be ludicrous to claim that those Korean Americans arrived at America with highly sophisticated culinary aesthetics. (Because rare is the case that a group of wealthy people immigrate to America, the Korean would think that similar trend may hold with other ethnic cuisines.)

The presence of young Korean Americans, second generation and beyond, drives this trend to a much deeper nadir. The second generation Korean Americans grew up without ever exploring the ceiling of what Korean food could be, or establishing the floor of what Korean food, at a minimum, should be. Yet, by virtue of their minority status, they become false representatives of authenticity to mainstream America, which is never all that good at appreciating finer differences within a given ethnic group. Even David Chang, probably the most famous Korean American chef in the U.S. right now, apparently "had no idea there were such endless varieties of namul," or seasoned vegetable dishes, in Korean cuisine. To me, that is an inexcusable level of ignorance -- namul is (or, at least, should be) on a Korean table every meal, every day. If you do not even know the characteristics of one of the most foundational components of Korean food, what the hell do you know?

This means that even following Prof. Cowen's advice does not necessarily lead to good Korean food. In Manhattan, for example, one could always find a restaurant around 32nd street that makes no attempt to cater to non-Koreans; that is crowded with prosperous-looking Koreans; whose menu is exclusively comprised of Korean food items with little English description accompanying them. Yet, no matter -- that restaurant will serve shitty Korean food laced with so much MSG that, if you have sensitive stomach like my wife, it will give you the runs all day long.

By my count, the New York metro area (Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey) only has three or four good Korean restaurants. (Please note that this is "good" in the scale of "great-good-tolerable-inedible.") Northern Virginia has one that could be considered good.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

28 comments:

  1. Which Korean restaurant in NoVA would you consider good?

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  2. I love Yelp reviews of K-places where where the baseline is mom's Coca-Cola bulgogi. Yes, tastes like home, but sorry, maybe your mom wasn't a great cook.

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  3. Xradman, 토속집 is prett good, but avoid 여천 like a Japanese plague.

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  4. The things that US restaurateurs have done to make Korean-American different from Korean food also sound like things that would make Korean food more similar to the prototypical American diet. Tyler Cowan, presumably, is not looking for *authentic* food, per se; he is looking for food that tastes good *to him*.
    OK, so why doesn't he just eat steak and potatoes all the time? It turns out, taste is a malleable sense that is easy manipulated by psychosocial factors, like how expensive something is or how much your friends like it. Perceived authenticity is probably another such factor- something that enhances the taste and flavor your brain perceives.
    So, Cowan goes to this restaurant. Let's say that it's not actually just like the food served in Ethiopia, but some adulterated version. He doesn't know any better but still perceives it as authentic, using the logic he's outlined here. Anything this restaurant serves him is going to get an automatic boost in flavor simply because of that. Now, let's see what happens when they actually give him his food. The food isn't that authentic- it's the candy-flavored version that appeals to the American palate. So his tongue is happy, since it is not encountering flavors that are challenging to it. So, by going to this restaurant, he gets the best of both worlds: the actual flavors are familiar and comforting to him, while he gets the cognitive flavor boost of dining at an exciting and "authentic" restaurant.
    TLDR: Your definition of "good" Korean food is different from the definition of someone who has primarily been in the US and raised on American food. Serving inauthentic food but telling the customer that it's "authentic" is cheating them, but the lie enhances the flavor.

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  5. Good read! You appreciate Korean food much better than I, who live in Seoul. I definitely agree with the "too much sweets/seasoning" in Korean-American restaurants thing, from my experience of living in LA/OC area.

    Also, as an average Korean non-foodie eater, I can personally attest to the fact that on a regular day or night eating out, we usually pick restaurants with "food that tastes good to us" not necessarily "the real-est Korean food"--authentic enough to please my Seoul-raised palate and just pleasant-tasting enough to my non-connoisseur tongue. Looking for "authentic" cousine is more of a special occasion event for us. So it's natural that the most popular restaurants are not generally the most authentic ones. But authentc restaurants are usually popular enough and usually have frequent regulars.

    On a side note, though, I want to note that while I also don't appreciate the bastardized, cheap flavor that MSG gives to any food it's added to, not much scientific evidence yet exists about its supposed evil-ness (healthwise).

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  6. 32nd St. is deplorable in so, so many ways.

    Your support for 이태원's 이스트빌리지 seems to contradict what you claim here, however. I haven't been there myself but that restaurant seems like the epitome of bastardized Korean cuisine, taking into account the food as well as the geography, clientele and interior decor.

    I've found that in Korea and Japan, food is *generally* better outside the capital areas, whereas in America and Canada, it is the opposite. Of course, Seoul and Tokyo are home to many of the best restaurants in the respective nations, but when I considers the price range of those places, I cannot truthfully claim any of them to be among my favorite restaurants...

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    1. As to 이스트빌리지, I support the chef, not the restaurant. He claims that he is doing 한식, but in my opinion he is not. But I do think his efforts to procure fresh and rare Korean ingredients are extremely commendable.

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  7. I would hate to see TK stumble upon one of the Korean taco trucks popping up in LA & SF!

    I think Tyler Cowen's point is addressing the tendency of many Americans to assume that because a restaurant is in a strip mall, has modest/outdated/kitschy decor, etc., that the food will be mediocre/bad. Or they're intimidated to eat at a place where they are (temporarily) an ethnic minority, don't comprehend the menu, or maybe be expected to eat with their hands. Instead, they gravitate toward places in certain locations, with a certain atmosphere, where they feel comfortable and know what they're ordering. Following Cowen's advice might not lead to more authentic Korean food in most places (assuming any exists), but I agree with his implied point that restaurants that cater to the mainstream often over-charge for below-average food.

    Cowan is basically encouraging people to step outside their comfort zone, in terms of where they go & what they order. And I think this will ultimately lead to people discovering new things they like. If his advice leads people to food that's more authentic and costs less (as it likely would for e.g. Indian food in the SF bay area), that's even better.

    As TK is such a stickler for authentic Korean recipes, I'm wondering if he has a recipe for 잡 채 that he'd be willing to share...or an online recipe source in general? (I'm still looking for a recipe as good as the first time I tried this dish.)

    (Re: Monica's other comment, as a biologist, I can say that eating a lot of MSG is unhealthy in the way eating a lot of salt + protein is unhealthy. If TK's wife got the runs, that's almost certainly microbial. Maybe a better reason not to go back...)

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    1. To rift on Erin's point. Though you may not find authentic Korean food by following TC's advice you will find better tasting more interesting Korean food then by not. For instance if you walk down 32nd street NYC and you are an American Foodie you will find a better experience by selecting the venue that is not shiny and filled with happy socializing kids.

      The objective is not necessarily to find the most original but to find the venue most focused on the food.

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  8. I am also in the NoVA area and would also like to know the one restaurant that's considered good!


    This reminds me of a trip in Florida I went with my mom. She wanted some Korean food and since I was unfamiliar with the area, I yelp'ed a place that had a rating of 4+ stars. We were extremely disappointed. But thinking back, I think none the yelp'ers were Korean.

    Food evolving to suit the taste of the locals is pretty much a given though. I can't really complain much because I kinda love jjajjangmyun and it would never have come to be if all food remained purist.

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  9. As a Korean-born Korean who spent last 10 years in the US, I think I agree with TK's ultimate conclusion that it is hard to find Korean restaurants that serve "authentic" Korean food in the US, but disagree to certain aspects of the analysis as to why that is the case.

    * The cheap "shortcuts" in Korean cooking, e.g., using MSG and putting creamer in oxbone soup, is not original to Korean restaurants in the US. I recall from my younger days in late 80s and early 90s that these practices were well-known to be practiced in Korean restaurants in Korea. I do not know if these practices were all "invented" first in the Korean restaurants in the US and then reverse-imported to Korea, but doubt that is the case - the number of Korean restaurants in the US then would have been much smaller than it is now. At any rate, these cullinary shortcuts are still believed to be practiced in many restaurants in Korea (not all of them cheap, diner-equivalent joints), and those restaurants that do not usually make it a selling point ("we do not use MSG in our food" signs). So these are not unique problems in Korean restaurants in the US.

    * Another point: this is just my observation, but it seems to me that when one eats food that is not familiar to such person, the base taste (in particular the salty taste and sweetness) of the food is much more emphasized. When I first came over to the US and tried "authentic" American food, every meal tasted too salty and every dessert too sweet. I often find this reaction from people who is visiting the US from Korea as well, and I have this experience again for a short while after I come back to US from a long trip in Korea. On the other hand, I sometimes witnesses my American friends having a similar complaint when they try non-familiar food - ("Asian food is so salty"). The upshot of all this is that, to some degree, you get to appreciate subtle differences in flavor only when you are familiar to the specific type of cuisine by prolonged exposure. Given that Korean restaurants in the US cannot rely on the assumption that its clientele will have an experienced tongue in Korean food, the flavor of the food they serve necessarily becomes take a different turn from Korean food served in Korea. I think this explains why Korean food in the US tastes so sweet - I think US expats in Korea probably have the same complaint to American food served in Korea.

    * We can discuss what is "authentic" Korean food all day long, but I won't try to get into that. But, after spending 10 years here and getting used to Korean restaurants in the US, I now have a presumption (which may or may not be misplaced) that the Korean food in the US may be safer food that the food in Korea. There have been deluge of foodstuff imported from China, with some high profile horror stories (dumpling made of cardboard box, fake eggs, lead in crabs, etc. etc.), which are used in many Korean restaurants in Korea. Meanwhile, I assume there is (or, supposed to be) a stricter regulation on what gets served in a restaurant in the US. This is of course not relevant as to whether the food is authentic or not, but I feel that belief in safety of the food adds to one's enjoyment of Korean food (or any food for that matter).

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    1. I agree with you, except once you get out of Seoul, most of your concerns disappear. Korean food is much better outside of Seoul.

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  10. I'm from a Spanish descended Cuban-American family, although I was very much raised in the context anglo US culture. For Cuban and Spanish food, I'd say there's some truth to the idea about it being popular with people from that background. Of course, there's a reason why some people call south florida "North Cuba."

    Where'd I'd disagree is the idea of well to do Cubans going there is an especially good sign. The fact is that every day Cuban food is not especially expensive to make unless maybe you start getting into seafood (like crab cakes). The "fancier" restaurants charge more, but they do not necessarily have better food. Somewhere that appeals to Cuban Americans ranging from "lower middle class" (by US standards) to well to do families will often actually have better food. Somewhere that appeals to poorer Cubans might not have the best food, but then if you're really poor how often can you actually go out to restaurants? There's a reason why so many Latin American families eat rice and beans all the time in their home countries.

    Once you start to get further north there definitely start to be more and more adaptions to appeal to people from other backgrounds, but there's often some good stuff there too.

    Of course, I've never been to Cuba due to the travel restrictions, so maybe I'm as far gone as those Korean-Americans you criticize. But at the same time paella is paella and I don't just know it from restaurants. The adaptions that my family makes tends to either be for cost or health, not as a round about way of having donuts for breakfast.

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  11. Don't ever eat Korean food in Arizona, TK. Your head will explode in a nuclear rage.

    Kimchi around here tastes like caramel-covered 배추.

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  12. Re: TK's Korean food purity: is this a tendency that carries over to other things as well? For example, with languages: certain grammar rules being slowly forgotten, or word meanings altered over time, loanwords from other languages, and so on.

    Or is it just about food?

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    1. With languages, yes -- not a fan of the way Koreans mix in English words, for example.

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  13. TK, your food purity is both respectable and cute. I might not necessarily be willing to call the Korean food I encounter in Los Angeles traditional, but I certainly wouldn't say that it's not Korean either, nor would I say that it isn't good (although that part really depends on the establishment). If the assumption is that well off Koreans know how to look for the "best" Korean food, I'd probably disagree. In fact, the very idea of a "best" food is a bit on the silly side. On the other hand, I do think if you find an ethnic restaurant filled with people of its ethnicity and is constantly popular, you can at least make a decent bet that you're going to be in an ethnic restaurant that caters to the popular taste of that ethnic group, which, for some, might encompass their entire criteria of a good ethnic restaurant and I'm not one to judge that as being incorrect.

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    1. Your stance is totally reasonable. Therefore I must reject it.

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    2. And I'll keep reading your food rants all the more for it. It's quite entertaining.

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  14. Curious, but who gave you the ""Korean food Wahhabbist" nick name?... ;)

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  15. I don't really understand how you can be an "irrational Korean food purist" while still preferring American-style 순두부.
    I would think that an irrational food purist would put tradition above taste, but it seems like you're not doing that. It seems like you're just preferring the food that tastes good to you.

    I understand that your palate might differ from some other Americans or Korean-Americans, but preferring whatever food tastes good to you sounds like exactly the thing that a typical rational food-eating person would do.

    Am I missing something?

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    1. Yes - I do not prefer American style 순두부 at all. The only good 순두부 in my book is one that was made hours earlier, eaten only with a bit of soy sauce. My point about American style 순두부 was that at least the changes applied in America were additive, not subtractive.

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  16. About 75% of your posts are right on target. Your posts on Korean food would be in the other 25%.

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  17. One thing I noticed about Korean food in NYC and LA: too much meat! Korean BBQ's aside, meat has traditionally been much more scarce in Korea than the US, so I don't feel that it has the same central place at a meal. I had some awful ox-tail soup in LA that was more meat than broth! The broth itself was watery and unspectacular, and even though there was a ton of meat, it had been boiled at such a high temperature, the connective tissues became hard and tough. It was like eating a bowl full of gristle in hot water. I feel that part of the art of Korean cooking lies in making various dishes savory and flavorful even though meat is used sparingly.

    Another complaint I have is the practice of eating meat WITHOUT rice. I know that the restaurants want to make extra money off me by filling me up with meat instead of rice, but it just doesn't seem right to have pork or beef, and lots of flavorful side dishes without something a bit bland, like rice, to balance everything out.

    Lastly, I also have to say that I have never had a good bowl of naengmyeon in the US. I'm not talking about arrowroot naengmyeon with cider in the broth. Real buckwheat noodles, and a clean, savory broth are hard to come by. Even in Seoul, good naengmyeon is a rarity!

    I'd like to hear more about what TK thinks is the right and wrong ways to prepare and eat Korean food. Also are there any Western foods that TK thinks are well-executed in South Korea? (Fried chicken gets my vote, but pizza here is a war crime!)

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  18. The Korean, I wonder what your opinion of Chinese food in Korea is? Or Italian food? Or Japanese food for that matter?

    I have found that just about every foreign cuisine in Korea has been ruined with fists fulls of sugar and a chocolate-milk with cereal attitude towards cuisine. I mean, I love 짜자면 as much as the next guy--but its not Chinese food. I still can't fathom for the life of me why anyone would ruin perfectly good garlic bread with sugar...

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    1. I think Chinese food in Korea has evolved into its own thing and is no longer Chinese food. The same goes with Japanese food. Italian food in Korea is not a food at all.

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  19. So that's why the 닭갈비 I had in LA wasn't anything special, even though my friend told me it was highly-rated on Yelp. Also, I totally agree with you on the overly-sweet Korean food this side of the Pacific; here in Toronto there is a cheap and fairly popular restaurant with some kind of barbeque sauce rib dish called Yummy (it isn't). Their side dishes also tastes like ass, but that's another issue. Speaking of side dishes, the Korean restaurants here always serve the same ones, instead of the random assortment you'd get in Korea. Dunno why that is.

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