A few months ago, I was talking about Korean food at a social gathering with people I had mostly just met. Somebody else at the gathering, making small talk, tried to be helpful: “I really, really want to visit South Korea, but as a vegetarian, I worry about the food I’d be able to eat.”
This struck me as rather odd. Not that this is not a valid concern, but the rest of the conversation made clear that this person’s underlying assumptions were incorrect. Dried fish is often used as an additional seasoning, and clams in particular are thrown into almost every dish you can imagine. Given that soups are such a pivotal part of Korean food, the likelihood is that some animal flesh has been used to add umami and protein to the dish.
Instead, this person, who was an adventurous eater by most standards, clearly had a picture in their mind of Korean BBQ as “traditional” Korean cuisine.
This isn’t unreasonable, given how KBBQ has proliferated in the US in the last 15 years (with Korean fried chicken starting to assert itself in similar fashion). But it’s a woefully incomplete picture of Korean food. And in trying to wrap my mind around this, I’ve come to a simple conclusion:
Other cultures’ cuisines, when imported to the United States, tend to become more meat-forward, whether it be by emphasis of meat dishes or de-emphasis of meatless ones.
I’m not smart enough to know what the implications of this are, necessarily, but I do think it is worth exploring this as a symptom of our incredibly meat-heavy diet (tops in the world as of 2009, according to the UN).
South Korea checks in at 69th, still above median but with less than half the per-capita consumption of the United States. North Korea checks in at 158th, and while food availability is part of the 4:1 meat consumption discrepancy between North and South, the famine has been over for 20 years and food security outcomes are better than places like India. It would be unwise to ignore the influence of American meat consumption on the way that South Korean consumption habits have developed.
I mentioned that Korean food is heavy on soups, which may come as somewhat of a surprise to you. But things like bulgogi, galbi, etc. were considered high-class food and reserved, at best, for special occasions. The soups usually do contain meat, but the most important ingredients are often not meat. Soondubu jjigae is based on soft tofu, kimchijjigae on kimchi, miyeokguk is based on seaweed, ddeokguk on glutinous rice cakes, doenjangjjigae (my personal favorite) on fermented soybean paste. It’s easy to make doenjangjjigae without any meat at all; it’s one of the things I cook at home most frequently. Even noodle soups, which are common in Korea, can be easily made vegetarian; my mother has talked about making mul naengmyeon, a delicious-as-hell cold beef noodle dish, with just a pear and radish broth when meat was unavailable.
This is not limited to soups. Japchae is a staple Korean potato noodle dish, one that I grew up with at countless church potlucks as well as plenty of Korean restaurants. I’d always assumed, until this year, that it was always served with thin strips of marinated beef (as well as strips of egg). But when I ordered japchae in Seoul in February, it came as a vegetarian dish, with no meat option.
This duality might be best encapsulated in the wildly popular budaejjigae, or Army stew, which is similar in base to kimchijjigae but includes foods found in typical U.S. Army rations, particularly Spam, to make it more meat-forward. Ironically, given the (decreasing) stigma surrounding Spam in the United States, this dish, a distinctly American creation, has not really crossed over yet here, although that may be changing.
And to draw it into further relief, even Korean fried chicken is a directly American influence on Korean food: chicken was usually either steamed or (more likely) turned into stock for these soups before the American military presence arrived. Within 70 years, fried chicken turned into such a phenomenon that fried chicken joints in South Korea alone outnumber McDonald’s locations worldwide.
With a world that is quickly leaving scarcity behind, it makes sense that American proclivities toward meat have affected Korean food in both the United States and in South Korea. (South Korea, of course, has benefited greatly from American investment, rising from 73rd out of 110 countries in 1960 per capita GDP to 29th out of 196 in 2017.)
As for other cultures, I only have my own anecdotes to go on, but the pattern seems to hold. Middle Eastern food is often shorthand for kebabs or chicken over rice in many contexts, despite the wonderful variety of dips and salads that are out there. (My kingdom for Tanoreen’s mhammara and veggie grape leaves on demand.) Traditional Mexican food is heavy on hominy, cactus, avocado, and tomato, but meat preparations such as carnitas and al pastor tend to garner outsized attention.
And in perhaps the most striking example, the two ubiquitous foods at Indian restaurants tend to be tandoori chicken and chicken tikka masala, even though India is home to a literal majority of vegetarians worldwide. On the flipside, I’d be hard pressed to name the most iconic vegetarian Indian dish in the United States. (I’d guess chana masala, but I’d feel not at all confident about it.)
There are countless implications for this, of course. It’s unclear how much factory farming in particular benefits from and contributes to this, and it’s also unclear how much people assume that vegetarianism is unattainable due to things such as restaurant offerings skewing meat-heavy. And perhaps there is a supply question to be resolved as well, given that white potatoes and tomatoes alone make up over half of U.S. vegetable consumption. And of course, there are numerous economic strains that underlie this, first in the immigrants who have access to plentiful meat both to consume themselves or to prepare for others, second as another manner in which food deserts can skew consumption, and third (and not last) in what it means for foreign migration, travel, and investment.
I don’t mean to make this out to be some earth-shattering new discovery, of course. But moving our society forward happens as much at the margins as it does with big and bold proclamations.
Our assumptions matter, and we should make sure that we understand them and account for them.
There is, truly, no other way forward.