Salutations are connected with food in Korea. People can often be heard saying, “Let’s grab a meal together later,” especially when they haven’t seen that person in a long time. For people they have just met or feel uncomfortable around, this phrase is often spoken, “Did you eat?” There is even vulgar language related to food: “Do you want to go to jail and eat bean rice?” All of these phrases clearly highlight the connection Koreans have to food. Recently, a Chinese dish is captivating the taste buds of Koreans. It is malatang (麻辣烫) and it is comprised of hot spices and has abundant toppings. The Korean-style malatang, a localized version of the dish, is spreading among the younger generation. Besides this dish, a variety of Chinese cuisines have become popular among Koreans.
Which Chinese dishes have you eaten?
With malatang in vogue, people have just started to enjoy Chinese food, but Chinese cuisine has been in Korea for over 100 years. For instance, jjajangmyeon was first introduced in Incheon’s Chinatown in 1883, and that was the first widely known Chinese dish in Korea for many years. Taiwanese Castella became popular since 2012, but it is not known exactly when it came to Korea. What is known is that it became popular through programs such as <Grandpas over Flowers>, which was an overseas experience show, when the casts of such programs started enjoying it. Malatang and malaxiangguo (麻辣香锅) are addictive spicy foods that are enjoyed by Chinese people and have gained popularity in recent years in Korea. The spice, mala, has been imported by ethnic Korean workers since the early 2000s. However, the number of restaurants with Chinese mainland dishes on the menu and the number of people wishing to order mala-dishes has increased. People have started posting pictures of the food they tried on their social media accounts, which has also contributed to the popularity of mala food. Brown sugar boba milk, a drink that grew in popularity in Taiwan through social media from 2017, has also seen a rise in popularity here in Korea. With the brown sugar boba brand booming in Taiwan, Taiwanese expanded its businesses to Korea. Chinese dishes and drinks were brought to Korea many years ago, but their popularity among Koreans has only recently increased due to TV programs and social media.
The popularity of Chinese food, especially malatang and brown sugar boba milk, can be confirmed by the number of stores selling those items and social media hashtags. A total of 12 companies related to mala have registered with the Fair Trade Commission; four of them registered in 2018 and the other eight in 2019. In other words, in 2019, more than twice as many companies have started capitalizing on the popularity of Chinese food and drinks than in 2018. The popularity of malatang can also be seen through the actual number of stores operating in the food industry. As of November 25, 574 restaurants had malatang listed on their menus in Seoul and there are 81 brown sugar boba milk shops. There are 134 hashtags related to malatang on Instagram, and #malatang has been tagged on more than 374,000 posts. In the case of brown sugar boba milk, it has 117 hashtags and #brownsugarbobamilk has been tagged on more than 83,600 posts. Due to their popularity, restaurants and general cafés have introduced malatang and black sugar beverages to their menu line and the food industry has launched a variety of products related to the mala spice. At the moment, the craze for Chinese food and drinks in Korea is centered on malatang and brown sugar boba milk.
“Spicy-Sweet, Spicy-Sweet,” has captivated Korean taste buds
Food culture is an old culture among all nations and many nations are reluctant to accept other food cultures into their own. However, Koreans are actively accepting and consuming Chinese food. The first reasons are familiarity and exotic taste. China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are regions that are physically close to South Korea. Because of this, many Koreans travel to those countries. According to a Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport report ‘The 2019 third quarter air transport trend and analysis’, the number of Korean travelers to China reached 4.96 million in the third quarter of 2019, a 12.2% increase compared to the third quarter of 2018. For Taiwan, according to statistics from the Korea Tourism Organization, it was the main tourist destination for Koreans. Korean travelers there totaled 250,000 in 2008 but that number rose to 1.01 million in 2018. These results show that the number of travelers to China is steadily increasing. Because of the increasing overseas travel, Koreans have had more contact with Chinese food. Joo Youngha, a professor at the Academy of Korean Studies and a food anthropologist said, “Malatang has a ‘globalized flavor,’ and its spicy taste comes from a mix of exotic spices rather than one ingredient such as the red chili pepper in Korea.”1) This opinion was reiterated by the owner of a malatang restaurant near Sookmyung Women’s University, Linhu. He said, “Malatang is not new like Vietnamese Rice Noddles. It has always been around, but Koreans were unwilling to try it in the past. Koreans are now trying other nation foods, and they are excited by the new flavor.” Indeed, malatang is a new taste that is stimulating Korean taste buds.
Food has now become both important as a necessity to life as well as a pleasure. People take pictures of new and unusual visually pleasing food and post them on their social media, which inspires others to try them. This can be seen as the second reason for the Chinese food craze: the bandwagon effect, a phenomenon in which one’s demand for a particular product is influenced by demand of others and it soars on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. Those born in 1995 and later, also called Generation Z, actively utilize media and are heading the latest trends through it. They share images and videos of food that others have never encountered or food with unusual visual appearance. Especially in the case of brown sugar boba milk, it gained popularity on social media for its unique visual look produced by the downflow of brown syrup. Consumers were intrigued and uploaded images of it onto social media. This uploading tendency was introduced in a previous issue of The Sookmyung Times in the article ‘Naecipe Tribe’, about people who make and drink brown sugar boba milk at home. Videos teaching people how to make brown sugar boba milk are easily accessed on YouTube, and they range in viewership from 9,300 times to 260,000 times. With social media continuing to increase, more and more people are being influenced and affected by other people in society, which creates higher and higher consumer demand for certain products.
The ambivalence of ‘Diversity’
Chinese food may be popular nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case. Jjajangmyeon, which comes from China, is not a popular dish in China, at least compared to its popularity in Korea. Also, Korean jjajangmyeon matches the palate of Koreans. It has a stronger sweetness and more vegetables in its sauce. Also, the original pork oil was changed to soy oil. Malatang has also been modified to match Korean’s palate. In China, people do not eat malatang broth; they only eat the toppings. The soup is considered unhealthy because of its high salt content and the use of condiments, red pepper oil, and spices. In Chinese, there is a slang saying, “A person who drinks the malatang broth,” referring a poor person. However, in Korea, people eat their meals with soup and side dishes. To mimic the deep malatang taste, the food company Nongshim launched a brand of instant noodles that could be enjoyed by Koreans. The noodles have a soup base that is made with sichuan pepper (huājiāo), cloves, and star anise.2) Besides the instant noodle market, chicken-based restaurants have also introduced mala into their menus. In April, BHC launched ‘Malacan Chicken,’ a combination of chicken with malaxiangguo, and Goobne Chicken launched ‘Goobne Mala Volcano’. Other examples include Ovenmaru Chicken which serves ‘Chicken Malatang’ and Don Chicken which serves ‘Honeymala Chicken’. For Korea, malatang is a soup that contains spices that suit Korean tastes. In addition to the larger companies, smaller places like restaurants near Sookmyung Women’s University are also selling fusion malatang. Some places sell both traditional red soup malatang and plain soup malatang, which eliminates the spicy taste. Overall, Korea is selling fusion versions of foods from abroad in order to suit the tastes of local people yet still giving local people an exotic taste.
Localized Chinese food is loved greatly, but not all types of Chinese food have been successful in Korea. In 2016, Taiwanese-style Castella was popular. When it first arrived, people lined up to buy and eat it. However, it soon lost its popularity after a news broadcast showed that it was made using excessive amounts of cooking oil. According to the ‘Current Status of the Seoul Food Hygiene Center’ at Seoul Open Data Plaza, 43 of the 84 Castella stores that opened between 2016 and 2017 closed in 2017 after the news story was aired. Jung Jihyun, a senior researcher at Korea Foodservice Industry Research Institute, said, “Trendy food items lead to quickly established franchises, which leads to a rapid increase in the number of start-up businesses. People who jump on the bandwagon too quickly, loose much in the end when the trend ends, leading to a series of closures.”3) Once one restaurant closes, another follows, and this can result in a lack of sustainability. This can also be found at restaurants near Sookmyung. Currently, there are four stores specialized in malatang on the road from Sookmyung Women’s Univ. Subway Station to the main gate of Sookmyung Women’s University, and there are also three shops selling brown sugar boba milk. The Malatang store owner Linhu said, “Because there are many choices in where to eat Chinese food, Koreans are paying close attention to Chinese food offered at an establishment. The sudden increase in the number of shops in a particular industry can lead to poorly managed and sanitary problems. When these problems occur, the food being served suffers damages from a bad image.” Food trends have led to more businesses, but when the businesses all center themselves in one certain area, competitiveness weakens and diversity fades. In other words, Chinese food, though it has gained popularity and has been modified to suit the taste of Koreans, is limited to continuity and diversity.
From ‘tasty’ to ‘fun’
Eating food is a basis for survival for people to intake nutrients and to maintain the immune system. Therefore, in the past, food was a requirement for survival. However, today, food has become a fun part of life, something to watch and enjoy, not a means of survival. People are eating trendy food items, taking pictures of food, and posting food images and videos on various social media. This process strengthens a trend. The main representative example is the type of Chinese food and drinks that have settled in Korea, capturing the taste and vision of Koreans. Although there are problems such as uniformity among restaurants, the influx and steady change of various foods into Korea brings new pleasure to our lives.
1) Kim Hyojung, “[Trend] The Sociology of the Spicy Taste, the Code Hidden in Mala · Hot and Spicy Chicken”, Weekly Chosun, August 12, 2019
2) Lee Taekhyun, “Mala Fever... Has Hit Ramen and Chicken”, Kookmin Ilbo, September 19, 2019
3) Cho Sungmi, “[SNS World] Instagram Occupied by Brown Sugar… If It Doesn't Want to Be Deleted as Fast as Taiwanese-Style Castella”, Yonhap News, July 30, 2019