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(Yonhap Interview) New hansik ambassador vows to promote Korean culinary culture

All Headlines 09:20 April 20, 2016

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, April 20 (Yonhap) -- One of the best ways to promote Korean cuisine worldwide is to give international visitors here the opportunity to enjoy local food together with its culinary culture, whether it's taking cooking courses, eating a royal meal in a traditional village or hunting down urban street food, a Korean food ambassador said Wednesday.

Yoon Suk-ja, who took office as the fourth chief of the state-run Korean Food Foundation in early April, said that she will strive to upgrade the quality of Korean restaurants and promote food tourism for travelers to help them return home with a strong impression of Korean culinary culture.

"The task of globalizing Korean food is rather limited. A better approach to the global market is to combine traditional Korean food with cultural experiences," Yoon, who also leads the Institute of Traditional Korean Food, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

Born in Kaesong, which is now part of North Korea, in 1948, Yoon learned how to make traditional food from her mother. The author of "The Beauty of Korean Food: With 100 Best-Loved Recipes" published in eight languages, Yoon has taught at several colleges and culinary institutes, hosted overseas fairs, and set tables for major summits over the past decade.

Korean cuisine, locally called hansik, has recently drawn unprecedented attention worldwide thanks to the popularity of Korean pop culture and cooking shows. Many diets are increasingly known abroad for their health benefits, with some Korean celebrities introducing fusion menus to their international fans.

To further promote hansik on the global culinary scene, Yoon called for concerted efforts by the government and food industry to develop a wide range of products and creative menus for non-Koreans.

Her first task after taking the position at the foundation on April 7 is a campaign to encourage Korean restaurants at home and abroad to use the correct names for local cuisines.

During her previous trips, Yoon witnessed several Korean restaurants sell "doenjang jjigae," a Korean staple stew made of soybean paste, with the name of miso soup, a Japanese recipe consisting of similar ingredients. On some occasions, "bulgogi," or Korean barbecue, would be served with the name of Japanese-style barbecue, or "yakiniku."

"I think the Korean restaurants served Japanese and Chinese foods together, or used their terms for the Korean menu because they were more widely known by foreign customers," Yoon said. "The atmosphere has changed. More Korean restaurants are being dedicated to offer a wide variety of local cuisines."

This year, she plans to work with 14 Korean restaurant associations in eight nations to conduct surveys and set official names in major languages.

"We will raise awareness of hansik as part of our efforts to establish infrastructure for the Korean food business," Yoon said. "The education of Korean restaurant owners in the past mostly focused on teaching authentic recipes, but now it's time to upgrade the overall level."

The foundation recently opened the Korean Culinary Center inside of a tourism promotion center called "K-Style hub" in downtown Seoul to showcase Korean food culture and promote culinary tourism among international travelers.

"The Korean Culinary Center is expected to serve as a hub of promoting Korean food and traditional culture, providing easy access to the general public and foreign travelers as well," said the refined official wearing a white-and-purple hanbok, or Korean traditional dress.

While Yoon has mostly promoted Korean traditional food, including royal cuisine, deserts and drinks, she positively evaluated the rising popularity of contemporary food culture, taking note of thousands of Chinese travelers enjoying a fried chicken and beer (called chimaek in Korean) party last month.

"Foreigners get to know about our Korean contemporary culture and become more curious about different layers of Korean culture through a series of experiences," she said. "Cooking TV shows can be useful if they click well with the Korean food culture. In that sense, the recent popularity of the Korean food buffets operated by local conglomerates is also a good sign."

In light of the recent food show craze sweeping South Korea, Yoon wished that more celebrity chefs with a passion for hansik to appear on the global stage, stressing the need for opening Korean food culinary institutes.

Local colleges have food and science departments and culinary programs, but there are no college-level institutions dedicated to teaching Korean culinary and food culture.

"We plan to educate Korean chefs who have a deep knowledge of Korean culture, not just food, so that we can send them overseas when there is a need in the future," Yoon said.

Her next goal is to promote traditional culinary culture on the global stage jointly with the local food community.

In 2013, the annual practice of making kimchi before winter, known as "gimjang," was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List. Considering kimchi as the representative fermented food, the foundation has been studying ways to add the annual fermentation practice to the UNESCO list as well.

Other typical fermented foods are sauces, or jang, of all kinds, including ganjang (soybean sauce), gochujang (red pepper paste) and doenjang (soybean paste).

Although fermented food is an essential part of Korean cuisine, the pungent smell and strong taste are considered as discouraging factors for foreigners at first. But that's not a problem, she said, as long as they are mixed with different ingredients to have a more appealing taste, yet have the same healthy nutrients.

"Knowledge of the traditional recipes needs to be passed on to the next generation the way it is, while chefs can develop modernized menus to cater to foreign customers through creative recipes."

ejkim@yna.co.kr
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