Discovering K-Cuisine: The Hanshik Wave

Hanshik – Korean Food – is becoming more popular and it’s no surprise, given that its pop music and tv show equivalent crept upon the west insidiously in the early 2000s.

After hit Tv dramas like Boys Over Flowers which revolved around the lives of 4 young conglomerate heirs and the daughter of a dry cleaner, and Winter Sonata which is renown for causing the surge in North Korean defectors, the South Korean ministry of Entertainment thought it would be a great idea to sponsor and export Kculture. 

Now a whopping KRW 26 trillion flows into Korea every year as a result of the Hallyu wave – and about KRW 300 million per episode is pocketed by dramas for product placements and subliminal messaging. 

If people see their favourite actor using a Samsung phone chances are they may get one too at their next phone shopping session. So as a given, people who watch dramas would lust after the on-screen delicacies and constant references to typical dishes like kimchi, a fermented cabbage side dish, kimbap; rice, pickled radish and other ingredients wrapped in seaweed, dumplings and a vast assortment of noodles.

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So after discovering kculture it made sense to me to try to conquer the next step in becoming an honorary Korean. (Specifically South Korean). I went with Marco and Camilla to Rome’s alleged best contemporary Korean restaurant Galbi, located in close proximity to the Villa Borghese.

We are greeted in a dim lit fully-booked restaurant by courteous staff desirous to please, and shown to a cozy part of the restaurant.

The food is like nothing we’ve ever tasted: delicious with a mix of savory and sweet that is unexpected but I suppose to suit western tastes, the spiciness has been adjusted and the kimchi dumplings are not as hot as we warned Marco they would be. 

Korean food is nothing like it’s Chinese counterpart, I must add, for I’ve heard on countless occasions that ‘how different can they be?’

For one it’s a lot more expensive, one small dish costing between €15 to €20 and one bottle of a more diluted Soju, (which is not Sake, for although they are both rice wines, Soju is also made from barley and sweet potatoes) selling for €14.

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“We’ve been open in Rome for 10 years now,” one restaurant manager says. “We weren’t making any profit initially because people felt the food was too expensive and they weren’t curious to try. But now it’s different.”

When asked, he acknowledges that K-pop culture definitely contributed to the increase in customers. “Now people come in and say they want to try the Kimchi fried rice, or jjajangmyun because they saw it on the tv shows and they are willing to pay any price, because they came all the way just for that.”

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Korean food is not cheap and understandably so, as the market for ingredients is small and sparse. There are very few Koreans living in Rome and rarely do they wish to eat at Korean restaurants in foreign countries especially since not all the chefs are Korean.

Some Korean restaurants are more traditional with handmade tapestry, wooden bowls and heavy chopsticks of stainless steel.

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Presentation is everything at this restaurant. It has this European gourmet feel to it, the utensils, the decor and chefs have been ‘tainted’ by a modern Italian touch. I’m a bit sad that they don’t have kimbap, but fortunately I happen to live with a Korean girl. Kwak Ju Eun if you’re reading this, make me some kimbap, howboutdah?

 Are the prices high in your country too? Is the food less spicy? For dish recommendations feel free to ask! 

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Stay connected for guest blogger Chiara Pietrangeli’s post “Why Veganism is Bad for You… But It’s Your Life”

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