Friday, November 04, 2011

Pick one: Healthy or Foreign. A Korean Food Lament


not long ago, to my dismay, a product began to vanish from my ken. It's not a big deal, cosmically speaking, but it had brought a lot of happiness to me.

Soy ice cream. Of the Purely Decadent kind. (image from linked page)
First it was available at a health food store near my old home by Anguk Station. Then I found it at Lotte Department Store, and for a few glorious years, I could get it at Family Mart, but recently it's vanished from all three places.

Why was this a loss? Because I'm allergic to milk, so I can't eat regular ice cream... unless I want to be very unpopular, in a Pumbaa sort of way.

And this has gotten me thinking: one of the funny puzzles of living, and eating in Korea, is the Korean attitude toward healthy, and foreign, food... as if the two were mutually exclusive. Wherever it came from, and exactly how overblown this attitude is, is up for debate, but there's a funny thing that happens when non-Korean foods come to Korea.

Paragraph 5:
And just to assure any readers that I'm not a ranting furriner making wild and unsupported generalizations... I'm well aware these are generalizations, they are not true in every case, or of every Korean, and it is certainly, certainly true, that the attitudes/paradoxes I discuss here are much less universal, and/or much less extreme than they used to be. So un-jerk that kneejerk. I'm not trying to be a straight hater, but now that I've made my qualifications, please take this paragraph and apply it to the whole article: the hedging and qualifying statements get tiresome. So if you get upset about generalizations, kindly substitute "some Koreans" or "many Koreans" wherever I say "Koreans" (or name any other group) and settle down.

Koreans like to take a lot of pride in how healthy Korean food is. We all know this: my first year in Korea, it became a running joke among me and my friends that every Korean food was either "healthy" or "good for man" because my boss in particular, and also a whole bunch of other proud Korea promoters made those claims, again and again and again.

And perhaps the "Korean food is healthy" boast is kind of like "Korea has four seasons," in that all thinking Koreans realize that Korean is not the only cuisine in the world with healthful properties (or the whole world would either eat it, or have slowly died out/succumbed to the healthier, stronger Korean/Korean food-eating invaders, at some point in history), it just seems like Koreans think Korean is the only healthy Korean food, because they haven't really been instructed on the health benefits of other cuisines, have no reason to talk about that with foreigners anyway (let's not forget that many of the conversations Anglophones have with Koreans are colored, at least a little, by an intent to represent Korean culture positively to the non-Koreans), and have reinforced images of other cuisines formed by focusing on the least healthful aspects of those cuisines (in order to contrast with Korean food and make Korean food look better). I've heard so many times from my Korean friends and colleagues that Chinese food is too greasy, and it is... if you choose to focus on the greasy Chinese foods. If you focus on grilled meat, barbeque chicken and pig skins, Korean food comes across pretty greasy too.

Pig skin. Lookin' healthy.

Japanese is bland, sez some Koreans. You know what else is bland? Juk. And nurungji. If you contrast ssamjjang with sushi, yeah, Japanese is bland. If you contrast teriyaki or yakitori with clam jjuk, Korean food sure is bland, isn't it?

So let's just acknowledge that every cuisine in the world can be healthy or unhealthy, greasy or plain, savory or bland, depending on your choices. Green salads and sandwiches made with whole grain breads? American food is healthy. Big Mac sets and deep dish pizza? American food is unhealthy. Soups, bibimbaps, seasonal fruits and vegetables? Korean food is healthy. Barbequed and/or deep-fried animal parts with soju and a side of ddeokbokki ramen? Korean food is unhealthy. Let's not be simple-minded.

One of the things that's puzzled me the most about Korean preferences in food is, for a country and a people so interested and concerned about the healthful properties of their native cuisine, how unhealthy, and sometimes just awful their taste in foreign foods are. And not only are the tastes in non-Korean food awful and quite unhealthy, the real baffler is that there often seems to be little to no interest in even knowing about the healthier alternatives. (go reread paragraph 5)

For example: my soy ice cream. It's hella good stuff. In fact, it's almost as good as real ice cream... but it tastes only a little less rich, while having waaaay less fat and fewer calories. For a country where I've watched people pay eighty dollars for a medium sized box of mushrooms because they're the healthiest kind, for a country where one of the most famous duty free must-buy items is boxes of super-expensive red ginseng, famed for its health properties, you'd think soy ice cream would be a no-brainer to catch on!

But it's disappeared instead.

For another one: what about soy milk in coffee drinks? (tipping my milk allergy bias here) It's less fatty, has fewer calories, and (if you use the right kind of soy milk), doesn't make the drink taste like beans (warning: don't try using any old supermarket soy milk in your macchiato. Some of them make for weird tasting lattes). But especially in Asia, where there are a lot of lactose intolerant people, it seems really odd that Starbucks is the only chain I've found that offers soy as a substitute in milkish drinks.

This post was prompted by my disappointing visit to coldstone creamery, which used to have raspberry and lemon sorbets among the flavor choices: two things I could eat, and now they are off the menu. Argue that it's the simple realities of supply and demand, but that simply reiterates the vital question: why is the demand so low?

In the country where your mother-in-law will nearly force-feed you foul tasting side dishes because they're healthy, and pay sky-high prices for ingredients or medicines that are healthy...

(Songi mushrooms: can be costly)

Why aren't really good (more healthful) breads more popular in Korea? I mean, they're more popular now than ever before, and it's miles better than 2003 when I got here, when the choices were wonderbread, wonderbread, and imitation wonderbread, but Korean sandwich places like Joe Sandwich  and Isaac Toast still don't even offer a whole grain option, and you'd think that healthy option would go over well here.

Why aren't low-fat drinks, ice creams and soy substitutes more popular, and more available, in a country that gives so very many damns about looking good, and where being thin is so important?

My theory? When Koreans are looking for healthy food, they go Korean. And because Korean is always the go-to healthy choice, notKorean is what people go for when they're not interested in healthy - perhaps to treat themselves, or try something exotic, or to get a stopgap snack between real meals. And if you're looking to get through to dinnertime, or to sample strange flavors, or to feel a little luxurious, the healthy option is moot.

And that's too bad, simply because a good sandwich on a real substantial bread, for example, is a real treat, and once Koreans get a taste for it, I think it'll catch on (as is happening now). What's available in Itaewon now is better than has ever been before, and what's available outside of Itaewon is better than ever before.

What it means is we have our little "chicken-and-egg" vicious cycle, though, where (as in music) the foreign foods that catch on here are almost invariably the sweetest, least healthy ones (belgian waffles, anyone? Abba?)... and then just to make sure everybody's clear it's "Western" food, any possible healthful aspect of the food is removed -- how many brunch places in Seoul have whole wheat, or multigrain pancakes? Or how many of the "brunch" places have museli on the menu (which was on almost every breakfast menu when I traveled around china: even some of the smaller towns), but Museli is far too healthy to convince people they're living it up like the sex and the city girls. So people develop that image of Western food in their minds, and then only go for Western food when that's what they want -- meaning the market only demands it, so providers only provide it, so that image of Western food further crystalizes.

(Museli picture source)

And that's where sweet garlic bread comes from, boys and girls (either that, or it came free with the original pizza, I guess). And innocent-looking bread products stuffed with whipping cream.

And will Koreans ever turn their noses up to things like sweet garlic bread, sandwiches with shredded cabbage on them, and truly unexpected pizza toppings? Perhaps. Given the fondness here for foreign cars, clothes, handbags, and everything other than products that directly compete with Samsung, it's a reasonable prediction that the trend will continue, for more authentic, or just better quality, foreign products to keep growing in popularity (see: vast improvements in the breads, beers, coffees, cheeses, organic foods and home cooking materials available here) -- and even that eventually, people will develop a nose for quality, and not just look at the price tag (whiskey). If Korea can go from coffee straws to hand-drips from 2006 to 2011, I won't put it past Korea to move beyond sugar garlic bread, Isaac Toast, and Joe Sandwich as well.

And you know what? As long as I can get a good sandwich on real bread, I don't really care if other people like their Joe Sandwich and their sugar garlic bread -- it doesn't take long to figure out which restaurants and shops are serving the real deal and which aren't.


ZenKimchi said...

Awesome post! I'm going to rip off some of your arguments. Also... I went to Joe Sandwich recently for the first time in seven years. They're progressing. The ciabatta sandwiches ain't so bad.

chiam said...

I'm a bit confused. You keep asking questions like "why don't Koreans care about........" but then go on to say that it has gotten better.

If it's getting better, then what's the point in asking "why don't" if you've already said "they're starting to" or "it's better than it was in 2003"

Your "why don't" questions have become "they're doing" statements.

For this reason, you appear to be grumbling.

Roboseyo said...

"You keep asking questions like "why don't Koreans care about........" but then go on to say that it has gotten better. "

go reread paragraph five.

unqualified opinions are not the only kind of opinions. You're the only person I know who criticizes me for having too much perspective: isn't the usual problem with these kinds of complainey blog-posts the opposite?

anybody who's taken a writing class knows that having a thesis makes writing more interesting. So I'll pick a thesis. Hopefully one that gets people talking (and "a Korean food lament" will probably attract more eyeballs than "some contradictory ramblings on the increasing availability of healthy foreign foods in Korea") . But while headlines catch eyeballs, qualifiers are a part of being intellectually honest and fair to the actual situation. Any writer targeting an audience has to ride that line.

Yes, blogs make mountains out of molehills (as you said on the sexism post)... that's part of the fun -- stirring up something to talk about, rather than just doing rundowns of links to news stories.

If you'd prefer the similar thoughts as a half-baked rant without qualifiers or perspective, you're kind of in the wrong place (or the right place at the wrong time: go read my clumsy stabs and broad strokes from 2007): you've been commenting on my blog for a long time, so I'd think you'd know what you're getting here.

I've been here long enough to have a perspective on what's changed, but that doesn't mean artisan breads are yet as available as I'd like them to be, and I shall exercise my right to discuss why I think they aren't.

Eugene said...

Re: the health-nuts.

I think you might not have a total picture of the level of health nuttiness in Korea. Maybe it's just that my experiences are different than yours, but I've really only ever noticed people talking about the healthful benefits of Korean foods that they actually don't eat on a regular basis (kind of like that insanely expensive red ginseng you mentioned.) I've been forced to drink several kinds of teas made from tree barks, herbs, berries, roots, and the like under the premises that it will cure what ails me or make me more regular or whatever.

But I've never really been actively promoted to that Korean food is any more healthy than any other country's food by anyone other than people with actual jobs in promoting Korea (such as the Korea society, KOTRA, KTO, etc).

In fact, almost all the Koreans I know wholeheartedly agree with me that Japanese food in Japan is way better than in Korea, and healthier if not as healthy as Korean food (especially natto). They also don't have this idea that foreign food is particularly unhealthy, although, many do talk about Chinese food being unhealthy, but that's because they have only eaten Chinese food in Korea.

Anyway, either you and I hang out with different crowds of Koreans, or Koreans react differently towards you than they do to me... or both...

On a side note, soy ice cream is gross, and I like soy milk. It's not that the health crazies are too dumb to realize that it is healthy, it's just that it is gross to them too.

So when do you have free time to go try out that pizza place that is apparently "awesome" (reccomended by a gyopo)?

Roboseyo said...

I don't even eat ice cream, and I also agree that many soy ice cream products are gross.

This Soy Delicious by Purely Decadent is the only soy ice cream I've eaten that I really, really like: because I've had my milk allergy from birth, I was never able to drink milk/eat ice cream, and then couldn't, thus needed substitutes for my cravings for the foods I missed, so my appreciation of soy delicious is purely on its own merits.

meanwhile, I'm interested in this pizza...

Anonymous said...

Ahh, the sweet breads of Korea, I do not miss them. One of the most baffling/ endearing comments made in my mothers' class was by several mothers claiming that they didn't like American bread because it was too sweet. I tried to explain that most American bread isn't in fact sweet, but no one seemed to believe me.

Also puzzling to me was sweetened tomato juice. On the flight from Incheon to Seattle I made my husband taste-test the tomato juice I ordered to make sure it was the sodium-rich kind I love and not the sweetened Korean-style tomato juice. To each his own I guess, but I agree with you Rob, once Korea gets a hang of the whole nutritious bread thing, it will take off like crazy.

Anonymous said...

"especially natto"

Oh dead god.

It smells like old feet.

But usually I love Japanese food.

Eugene said...

Natto takes a while to get used to, but it is damn good!

Everyone try this:

Take a Korean from Korea friend overseas with you to sample something that you think is "authentic" in the overseas locale, but poorly represented in Korea (Or if you are a good cook, cook it.)

I will bet that 8 times out of 10 your guest will say it is the best (of that particular food) that they have ever had.

Am I right? So I have to wonder who they are actually making these sweet garlic breads and funky pizzas for, because Koreans actually PREFER the same that we are used to when given the choice.

chiam said...

"you've been commenting on my blog for a long time, so I'd think you'd know what you're getting here."

The flipside to that is, you've been reading my comments for a long time, so I'd think you'd know what kind of person I am. :P

I keep coming back because I like this blog and I like what you have to say (sometimes). :) Please do not ever regard my snarky complaints against you as me being a troll. I am not.

Bluebird said...

A lot of Koreans eat bread as a snack or a desert, not as an actual meal... why would you want a whole grain non-sweet bread for you desert when you have many more options that are much sweeter and tastier?? Multi-grain breads are indeed sold in Korea as Tongmil.. you just gotta look for it. I do wish it was more prevalent since in Korea a lot of people bake or have toast-related food for breakfast...

Roboseyo said...


"Please do not ever regard my snarky complaints against you as me being a troll."

the thought has never crossed my mind.

trolls do not merit the length of reply I gave you.

Roboseyo said...


that's kind of the point of my entire post... but thanks for summing it up so succinctly.

Anonymous said...

Along the same lines as shotgunkorea's experience with ajummas not believing that an American knows what American bread is like...a couple of months ago, my husband was eating a fresh salad and omlette that I had made him, and he stopped midbite and said, 'Your family is very strange. You don't make fried food. We (Koreans) think you (all Westerners) eat deep fried food all the time, but you've never fried anything, and when we were in Canada, your family didn't deep fry all of their food.' I think I sat with some lettuce leaves hanging out of my mouth. 4 years of dating, over a year of marriage, 2 trips to Canada, eating at many Canadian houses + Canadian restaurants + good North American restaurants in Korea, and my husband still believed the idea that Western food = french fries.

Ange said...

Good news! Soy Delicious is available at EMart. At least, it's available at Dongchun EMart in Incheon. Surely it's elsewhere as well. Also, Loving Hut (vegan) restaurant in Achasan also sells it. Zoo Coffee also offers soymilk. And the GS Supermarket here in Songdo (I'm just kinda assuming these are in Seoul also) makes fresh bread that is milk, butter, egg and sugar free, 60% wwheat. A pretty healthy option.

I love the food here: so many wonderful veggies, to-die-for tofu aisle (this matters to a vegan), and rice and spice everywhere. But, I agree with you: the amount of sugar, sodium (good grief!), and fried chicken served up here is FAR from what I'd call healthy.

ZenKimchi said...

Another anecdote. I was badly craving a salad yesterday. FRESH VEGETABLES!! So we went to VIPS. I noted that I was the only person who even touched the salad at the salad bar. Other people in the restaurant had their plates piled up with pizza and fried chicken.

Regarding the sweet tendencies, I remember a coffee expert being on the "Restaurant Guys" radio show. She was talking about Americans' adaptation to European style coffees, but she put forward the idea that cultures tend to sweeten the foods of foreign cultures when they're first introduced. For another American example, compare the idea of spaghetti sauce in the 1950s (these days in can form as Spaghettios) to now.

I'm speaking on a panel about Korean food globalization next week, and I brought up your post in our pre-meeting. Your points perked up some ears. I'll try to bring it up during the panel.

JLR said...

Can you have coconut? If so, have you tried NadaMoo brand ice cream? It's made with coconut milk and is dairy free (and they don't all taste like coconut, or at least, not to me).

Of course, if you can't find Purely Decadent, I seriously doubt you'll find NadaMoo. I just wanted to put it out there as a dairy-free alternative.

I know it sounds weird, but the Creamy Coconut flavor goes really well with cashew butter, if you ever get a chance to try it. If you like cashews, that is. And coconut.

Roboseyo said...

JLR: have you found it in Korea? Because the brands you can find in Korea are way more limited than the ones you can find in Canada or USA.

@Zen: I also had my first horrific witnessing of Costco banchan for the first time this week.

I also wouldn't be a bit surprised to hear that sweetening new foreign foods upon first introduction -- followed by a maturing/refining of tastes -- is a universal for cultural exchanged. In which case it's a simple matter of patience, waiting for the really good stuff to make it here. But, you know, I gotta blog about something during the wait.

Roboseyo said...

ah. cashew butter. JLR you're assuming I have the luxury of readily available health food stores selling ingredients like can be found in western health food stores.

Health food stores here exist, but are vastly outnumbered by Korean medicine stores, which sell the traditional roots and such (which ARE awesome and healthy)... I've found two health food stores in my whole time here, selling organic pastas and such. Lotte Department store also has an organic corner... but what exactly's available there can be hit or miss.

kushibo said...

Are you allergic to milk or do you have lactose intolerant?

The former is severe to life-threatening, while the latter is very uncomfortable but also very manageable.

Roboseyo said...

It's funny, Kushibo. Every time I talk about my milk allergy, people ask if I'm actually lactose intolerant. I'm not sure why.

Different milk products/ingredients prompt different reactions, some of which resemble an allergy (headache, bile, itchy inside of mouth), and some of which resemble an intolerance (When I was a young warthog! -When he was a young warthog!). When I was a kid, it was definitely an allergy. Now it's a grab-bag which I prefer to avoid.

Eugene said...

If I've ever done that it's only because I didn't know that there was a difference. I suspect that everyone else doesn't know either..

kushibo said...

Roboseyo wrote:
It's funny, Kushibo. Every time I talk about my milk allergy, people ask if I'm actually lactose intolerant. I'm not sure why.

Well, it might be because a lot of people mistakenly say one of them when they mean the other. Even well-educated folks. Part of the confusion is that a lot of people use the two interchangeably, even though they're entirely different things.

Milk allergy is an immune reaction, usually to the proteins in milk. The Mayo Clinic lists common milk allergy symptoms as wheezing, vomiting, hives digestive problems, and on rare occasions anaphylaxis, which is life-threatening.

Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is the inability to break down milk sugar due to a lack of lactase enzyme. It symptoms are not life-threatening but can include cramping, flatulence, diarrhea, and other issues that come when the flora in the digestive tract break down the lactose for you and produce excessive amounts of methane and water in the gut. Not everyone has the same set of symptoms; there are tests to determine this conclusively.

Lactose intolerance is found in 80 to 90 percent of Asian adults, with similar numbers among Blacks and Hispanics. But Whites also have it in numbers around 10 to 20 percent.

Anyway, the reason I brought that up is that lactose intolerance is a very manageable condition, if it turns out that's your issue. Maeil Dairy, I believe, still sells lactose-free milk (소화 잘되는 우유), and if you read the nutritional labels, you can avoid all the milk that is in so many foods (bread, soups, etc.).

Roboseyo said...

ahh, but Kushibo, you probably googled that, and when I ask people (who, immediately after being told I have a milk allergy, say 'you mean lactose intolerant?') to describe the difference between an allergy and an intolerance, and almost none have been able to.

It's a proper allergy. I've tried lactaid, and it didn't work; when I had an allergy scratch test for other reasons, it was confirmed. And the condition is best managed through avoidance.

But thanks for asking.

My theory is that "lactose intolerance" is a fancy sounding phrase people frequently hear, but rarely have opportunity to pull out and use in a conversation.

jcs said...

I'm an American trying to learn Korean who's loving this blog...

A few months ago, we finally got the English-language Arirang TV in our city. I decided to tune in and take a look.

Literally, the first 2 minutes were a report on the health benefits of kimchi. The next 2 minutes were a report on how K-pop is taking the world by storm.

I turned off the TV...and that's when I realized that the K-bloggers really *aren't* exaggerating when they talk about this stuff!

Anonymous said...

I agree.

Just one thing about bread in Korea. I think that they, as in Koreans (some nice over generalising for you there), don't really eat what can only be described as good quality bread is because they eat good quality rice - which is wholegrain - on a daily basis. Sure white rice isn't really good for you, but any time I visit a Korean home the rice is delicious. It's multi-grained and packed full of beans and peas to name a few. In fact, the food you eat in a home excels every time, while I find a lot of restaurant food very oily and increasingly over reliant on MSGs these days. Of course there are exceptions to this, but your run of the mill place disappoints too often.

We all have our own prejudices about the food we eat and other people eat. Two that I have heard repeated are, Korean food has a distinct lack of vitimans in it, and they all eat the same food. And yes, I realise how strong these arguments are.

Food is a stereotype for every country of course: US is deep fried and fatty, chinese food is all sweet and sour, Indians only eat curry and the Japanese only eat sushi. As for Europe, the Italians always eat pasta, the french survive on frog's legs and snails (still wriggling on your fork as you put it in your mouth, of course - imagine that with a side of Costco banchan!), the English boil everything (and eat curries), and the Irish survive on nothing but potatoes dug fresh from the soil with their stubby and bleading fingers. Such is the beauty of humanity.

Of course the best part about food being a stereotype is prooving this all wrong.

P.S. Costco banchan - I've been wretching at that since the first time I walked into Sangbong costco all fresh-faced and sweating.

bigrich said...

Last night, I went to Paju Outlet with my wife. We ordered a Gorgonzola pizza in the food court. When it arrived, there were two tiny nuggets of gorgonzola, and the whole base was smeared with 유자 marmalade. MARMALADE. The whole thing was inedibly, cloyingly sweet, and on top of that, it had a honey dip. We had a conversation along the same lines as this post: Koreans think western food is sweet, so only sweet western foods become popular, reinforcing the view that western foods are sweet...

Turner said...

You're not wrong, but I have a feeling it will only be a matter of time before healthy foreign foods become regular imports. Is the blanket idea that Korean food = healthy the reason I see so many nutrition facts in English without even a Korean translation? And you touched upon the organic section at Lotte Mart; the best choice available in the country, IMHO, but for anything fresh I go to High Street Market in Itaewon.

Roboseyo said...

It might have been better if you wrote "greasy or light" instead of "plain" when you were stating that every cuisine has its pros and cons...

Because, "plain" is just, well, plain. But that's just me.

By the way, Korea has only been internationally open for less than half a decade, so it's pretty much a big-frog-in-a-small-pond kind of mentality for the mean time. Until the masses experience the world outside that tiny peninsula, they will keep thinking that they are the best at pretty much everything. The media has already slowly shifted to convey significant information about the rest of the world. So I guess you just need to wait a little longer for your boss and your colleagues to change the way they think about the world and Korea.