Seoul food aims for top table

By Christian Oliver
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b56f1ae0-417d-11de-bdb7-00144feabdc0.html
Published: May 15 2009 19:28 | Last updated: May 15 2009 19:28

Across the world, every octopus should be quaking in his rock-pool; Korean chefs are going global.

By 2017, we will not just be dialling out for pizza Margherita and chicken korma, we will be hankering after tongue twisters such as samgyeopsal and doenjang-jjigae – sizzling pork-belly and spicy bean-paste stew. Those of a hardier constitution may even have tried dog soup and wriggling tentacles.

As part of an ambitious national branding scheme intended to awaken the world to the joys of an undiscovered hermit kingdom, South Korea’s government says it is planning to make its cuisine one of the world’s top five over the next eight years.

It is a very Korean goal. Koreans love league tables and outstripping performance targets. It is why they do so well. But the desire to produce one of the world’s top five cuisines also illustrates Korea’s peculiar tendency of seeking to quantify the unquantifiable.

The culture ministry does have a more quantifiable target of increasing Korean restaurants worldwide about sevenfold. The fluid strategy involves a sort of Korean Michelin star scheme, Korean cooking classes at Cordon Bleu schools and tweaking recipes to suit international palates.

Even if that works, is Korea then in the world’s top five? Who will measure such a subjective notion? If one starts counting restaurants, should you include the thousands of restaurants that serve dishes from all over the world, including the odd Korean dish?

Then there is the prickly issue of food from a region, not a country. Korea might claim victory over Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria on restaurant count but, in the real food wars, has fermented cabbage really defeated tajine and couscous?

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None of this matters. It is an output target and not to be questioned. Much of this Korean love of pecking orders hails back to the educational system. Fear of nepotism means Koreans prefer that exams be reduced to “right” and “wrong” questions, partly explaining why the humanities are so weak. You may flunk exams but at least the mark did not depend on the whim of an arbitrary or corrupt examiner. Ranking people or things has become overly acceptable because it was seen as fair at school.

Korean officials now maintain the illusion that league tables can nail subjective issues. Their graphs can reflect their own opinions about certain themes, rather than objective data collection. The culture of statistics is pervasive and the otherwise truculent domestic press whimpers before them. An international survey ranking Korea only 50th in mothers’ welfare received wide but bizarrely uncritical coverage.

Korea’s culture ministry concedes there is no real ranking system for foods but wants random people surveyed in 2017 to say Korean food is in their top five. As with many things presented as statistics in Korea, it is ultimately a question of raw emotion.

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