Korean Food Trend

by journojames on January 31, 2012

Originally published Mar. 24, 2011

Kimchi, Photo by JournoJames

Spicy, tangy Kimchi, smoky and sweetly marinated bulgogi, and vibrant, earthy bibimbap aren’t as well-known in the U.S. as tacos and fried rice, but food industry analysts insist that’s about to change.

Culinary experts around the country have predicted Korean as the next big Asian cuisine to take America by storm. Publications like Plate Magazine, which is read by restaurant industry professionals, recently dedicated its entire January/February issue to Korean cuisine. The culinary website “Epicurious” announced Korean food would be a major trendsetter this year. Chicago-based Technomic, one of the country’s top food industry consultants, made the same prediction.

Kogitruck serves Los Angeles, Photo by JournoJames

All this attention, however, is not new. Organizations and journals that study and monitor American food trends, have been predicting the emergence of Korean food since 2008.

“I’ve been reading about how Korean cuisine is up-and-coming and going to be the next big thing, but who’s going to support that?” said San Diego-based chef Cathlyn Choi. She’s the host of PBS SoCal’s “Cathlyn’s Korean Kitchen,” the only English language Korean cooking show in America. “There has to be supporters behind this trend. I think it’s a lot of hype out there.”

Kogi Tacos, Phot by JournoJames

Choi has a point. So far, the predicted popularity of Korean food, or hansik, hasn’t fully lived up to expectations. But, that may be finally changing.

Take the recent and rapid rise of Kogi in Los Angeles, a food truck that began serving tacos with kalbi, Korean marinated short ribs, instead of traditional carne asada. Kogi Chef Roy Choi’s fusion of Mexican and Korean flavors into an affordable street food was simple, delicious, and a major trendsetter. It introduced Korean marinated beef to the masses, boosted its visibility, and spawned Korean taco trucks across the nation, among them Seoul on Wheels in San Francisco and Korilla BBQ in New York.

But Alice Shin, Kogi’s creative director, said the Kogi team rejected the notion that Korean food was just now being recognized.

“We don’t think of Korean food as a trend,” said Shin. “It’s been a staple of L.A. since the 1970s.”

In addition to the success of Korean food trucks, modern Korean dining establishments are now garnering media attention and critical praise, like chef David Chang’s Momofuko chains in New York as well as Cham Bistro in Pasadena, which offer updated takes on traditional Korean cuisine.

Korean fast food shops have also started to pop up in major American cities. Sorabol, an eatery that concentrates on serving Korean barbeque beef and a variety of noodle dishes, has stores in more than a dozen food courts throughout California. Similarly, KyoChon, a popular chain in South Korea that primarily specializes in simple chicken menu items, like hot wings, recently made the jump to a few American malls in Los Angeles and New York.

KyoChon in Glendale, CA, Photo by JournoJames

KyoChon West’s District Manager in Los Angeles, David Walia, said he saw a bright future for hansik.

“Korean food is very healthy and it’s a top-five (food) trend right now,” he said. “Things are coming along. We’ll be franchising later this year and expanding our menu and have things like bibimbap.”

“People love the food,” said Brandon Curley, manager of KyoChon in the Galleria mall in Glendale, California. “And we have a good mixture of customers, not just Koreans.”

Another new Korean fast food restaurant in Southern California is Bibigo in Westwood, near U.C.L.A. The shop opened up for business in May last year and serves a variety of bibimbap, a bowl of rice topped with seasoned and sautéed vegetables, beef, and a chili pepper paste called gochujang. All the ingredients are stirred and mixed in a bowl before eating.

“There’s a reason why we opened far away from Koreatown,” said Ryan Chung, manager. “We’re trying really hard to open in local areas and not in areas with just Koreans.”

KyoChon's Samsam Bowl, Photo by JournoJames

Chung said that the company would continue reaching out to customers other than Koreans later this year when they strategically open up 13 more restaurants in smaller and regional locations.

The opening of Bibigo in the United States is part of a larger South Korean effort to promote and foster the globalization of Korean food. The $40 million government program was launched in 2008 and their plans include promoting Korean chefs, establishing Korean cooking schools, and opening over 40,000 popular Korean restaurants worldwide by 2017.

This program also responds to Korean-American chefs like Cathlyn Choi who are critical of the Korean food industry for not reaching out more to non-Koreans.

Chef Mike Hong, founder of the Culinary Institute of Korea in Chino, outside of Los Angeles, said that Korean cuisine is finally starting to come off the back burners and move into the spotlight.

Bibigo's Bibimbap, Photo by JournoJames

“What’s really encouraging is that we’re being invited to do Korean cooking demonstrations at places like county libraries, Y.M.C.A.s and private parties,” said Hong. “There’s a great interest out there in Korean food. The palate has shifted, interest has shifted, and so, I think, it puts Korean cuisine out in the forefront right now.”

Taeyang Yoon, contributing writer for the “ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal” blog, shared chef Hong’s outlook. He took particular note of the recent gradual rise of Korean popular culture in the United States as a good sign for hansik.

“The more people listen to Korean music or watch those Korean dramas, they’ll get interested in Korean food,” said Yoon. “It’s definitely a growing trend.”


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