There's a story behind that kimchi on the supermarket shelf

kimchi packed into jar
© K Martinko

Many exotic ingredients aren't on shelves because people ask for them, but more so because the governments of those countries are actively promoting them.

The government could be pulling strings behind that delicious bowl of bibimbap that you enjoyed for lunch. In a fascinating article for Priceonomics called “The Campaign to Make You Eat Kimchi,” writer Sarah Scharf explains how the rise of ethnic restaurants in North America is a direct result of countries’ campaigns to promote their food and get people interested in their culture, which then translates into tourism and increased revenue back home.

Take Thailand, for example. The number of Thai restaurants worldwide has increased from 5,500 in 2002 to 15,000 in 2016, thanks to a government-run program called Global Thai. The program trains chefs, gives loans to help start restaurants abroad, and helps the chefs to move overseas.

“In addition to helping chefs find work abroad, the program makes it easier for Thai companies package and export Thai ingredients. One restaurateur told us that when she started her first Thai restaurant in 1995, most curries in the U.S. were made with evaporated milk rather than traditional coconut milk. Today, thanks to government support for manufacturers and producers, a host of traditional Thai ingredients including coconut milk and green curry have become grocery store staples.”

Has it helped? Thailand has seen its tourism increase 200 percent since 2002, and one-third of visitors cite food as one of their biggest reasons for going.

A similar push is underway in South Korea, a nation that has long suffered with an image problem. For some reason, perhaps due to its association with North Korea, the country fails to trigger the same curiosity in travelers as neighboring Asian countries do. Hence the government’s launch of Global Hansik, a program designed to promote Korean food and quadruple the number of Korean restaurants overseas between 2008 and 2013. The Korean government focused on kimchi. Scharf writes:

“The government established the Kimchi Institute to test various kinds of pickled vegetables for foreign markets, with the stated goal of ‘develop[ing] the domestic kimchi-making industry into the country’s strategic export market.’ According to the Institute’s director, Park Wan-soo, this requires fine-tuning the production technique and codifying different taste profiles for the traditional dish, ‘so that when we export it to the United States, we can tone down the spiciness and sourness, and when exporting it to Japan, we can heighten the sweetness’.”

It seems to be working. Tourism has increased 70 percent since 2009, which the Korean Tourism Organization attributes partly to foreign interest in Korean culture.

Food is the ultimate comfort zone, which is why being familiar with a particular country’s cuisine and knowing what to expect would make many travelers, particularly those less experienced, more inclined to visit. There’s something about looking at a foreign menu, recognizing the names, and knowing the basic components that makes it less daunting.

Many travelers may be surprised at how different the ‘real’ thing is, compared to what they ate at a restaurant back home, as programs like Global Hansik modify recipes to appeal to certain markets. Does that diminish a dish’s authenticity? Yes, but it’s not a bad thing. I’m thinking of ketchup-soaked pad thai noodles, devoid of tamarind. It’s still tasty, and it gets people eating, thinking, and trying food in new ways. For some that will eventually translate into interest in ‘authentically’ prepared versions. Besides, as Scharf writes, “Gastro-diplomacy programs are all about wooing a global audience, and that often means trading off authenticity for mass appeal.”

In the meantime, I really hope the Korean government looks at my tiny, rural town on a map of southwestern Ontario and decides, “They need a restaurant right now!” I could really use a good bowl of bibimbap that I don’t have to make from scratch for once.

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