"Dae Jang Geum
", or "Jewel in the Palace", is one of the flagship Korean dramas that spearheaded the Korean Wave, which swept Asia and some parts of the Middle East over the last five years.
However, it was the variety and versatility of Korean royal cuisine that captured the attention of many foreign eyes. Recent reports of popular Korean restaurants in North America and Southeast Asia show the huge ripple effects of the cultural contents industry.
Korean food arguably best represents the nation's culture. According to a survey conducted by the Culture Ministry in 2006, about 50 percent of tourists in Korea picked "Korean food" as the first reason to visit the country. They chose "close location" and the "desire to learn more about the country" as the next two choices.
Another survey by the Korean Center in Los Angeles showed that about half of Americans surveyed picked "Korean food" as the first thing that comes to their mind when they think of Korea. It was followed by martial arts, Korean language and cultural contents.
Among tourists, enjoying Korean food was picked one of the three major tourist attractions, along with shopping and sightseeing, the Culture Ministry's survey showed. In terms of what impressed them the most, Korean food came in second, following the Koreans' hospitality.
What also stands out in recent years is the larger variety of Korean food gaining popularity overseas. Menu items like haemul pajeon (seafood pancake), gamja tang (pork stew with potatoes) and dweji galbi (marinated pork barbecue) are getting popular in the world's 10 major countries, according to a survey conducted by Delinews, an online magazine dedicated to culinary trends.
Despite this uplifting news, promoting Korean food still faces challenges, according to culinary experts interviewed by the Korea Policy Review.
Paul Schenk, the director of kitchens at Seoul's Grand InterContinental Hotels, called Korean food "one of the best kept secrets in the world". He, however, points out that Korean food is not properly marketed. Koreans need to talk more about their food and it needs to be shown to more people around the world, he told the Korea Policy Review.
"Write and express more Korean food, funky cookbooks, invite more international media to share with them Korean food. Whenever I watch cooking and travel shows on cable channels, it's always Singapore or Hong Kong but I don't see them in Seoul", he said.
In order to better promote Korean food, it is important to establish and deliver the right image and identity, said Cho Tae-kwon, CEO of Kwangjuyo, a high-end restaurant chain and traditional pottery manufacturer.
He pointed out the short history of Korea's gastronomy industry and that the brand and image of Korean food has not been firmly established due to fierce competition among local restaurants.
Kwangjuyo is a market leader in high-end cuisines featuring organic ingredients. It also boasts traditional kitchen wares and the unique ambience of traditional Korean homes.
Cho didn't hold anything back in an aim to set an example of Korean cuisine in a standard setting. "It is sad that Koreans never take their guests to a Korean restaurant, but only to Japanese or Italian restaurants. Koreans tend to think that their own food is not for special or formal occasions", he said.
He said the promotion of Korean food starts from acknowledging its superiority and uniqueness. And it should be accompanied with setting the standard of Korean food, whose origin dates back 5,000 years.
His advice, however, is being realized. The Government has been developing standard recipes and proper names of some 300 Korean dishes. In cooperation with the Seoul-based Institute of Traditional Korean Food, the Agro-Fisheries Ministry last year hosted an exposition on 12 of the most popular Korean dishes, standard recipes and some 60 course meals and deserts.
Called the "100 Beautiful Korean Food", the book will be translated into English, Japanese and Chinese and distributed online around the world within this year, according to Seoul's Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation.
Professor John Nihoff at the Culinary Institute of America thinks this is a right direction toward globally promoting Korean food. He says Korean food is gaining solid ground in the United States, but still, many Americans consider it "mysterious", "difficult to pronounce" and "too spicy".
Nihoff said Korean food's healthy, fresh and fermented side has been "known for so long but it just needs to be recognized".
At the reputable Culinary Institute of America, Nihoff developed and instructed a class on Korean cuisine. "I make the students depart with a small container of kimchi that they are to store and enjoy in a few weeks", he said.
Cho emphasized the role of opinion leaders in promoting Korean food. He also suggested that large enterprises should start or expand their investment in the gastronomy industry.
"Once opinion leaders show the public that they enjoy Korean food on special occasions, the majority of the public will also follow their lead. After all, food is a tourist product that is irreplaceable and can be also consumed overseas".
Nihoff agrees with Cho. He says Korean golfers' top-notch performance in the United States has contributed to Korea being recognized on the global stage. "Cuisine is a natural follow-up to this wave of interest", he said.
Schenk says, "Korea's pop-icons could be the best marketers for Korean food. If Rain
said his favorite restaurant was a Korean restaurant, it would be full forever on", he said.
Cho also emphasized the need to loosen regulations that prevent market players from liberal competition. "Only when we allow free investment and competition, the quality of Korean food will rise", he said.
He also hoped that large enterprises would step into the gastronomy industry and help spread Korean food abroad in a more strategic way. "'Dae Jang Geum
' could have been even more popular if the food featured in the drama had been available in those countries. The Korean Wave could be replaced by other cultures, but food can not".