My romance with Korea started more than 10 years ago when I chose Korean Language and History as my major at Moscow State University. At that time there was no special reason for me to apply for the Korean department, and I have to confess that it was pretty much a random choice then.
I did not know much about the country and only had some romantic stereotypes about a "mysterious Oriental land". However I was fascinated with the beautiful writing system Koreans had and decided to master it as some sort of "secret code" which would help me to look into the Asian soul. So that is how I came to Korean Studies in the beginning.
Since then I have visited Korea many times and even had the experience of living and studying there for several years. Now I speak the language to some degree and even write it but still cannot say that I understand Koreans entirely. I would even say that the more I learn about the country and its culture, the more questions are raised. It seems Korea has really proved to be a bit mysterious.
Among other cultural issues, I became especially interested in Korean food culture. Like many other foreigners coming here, I have noticed that Koreans speak about food and eating food much more than people in other countries, or at least in the countries I have been to. Food related topics can "pop up" here in the most unexpected situations. The first and most basic example can be popular Korean questions like "Have you eaten?" (밥을 먹었어?) or "Do you eat well lately?" (요즘 잘 먹고 다녀?) which are used as common greetings. And these are far from being all.
Food is also one of the most widespread "small talk" themes in Korea, regardless of the level of conversation. Almost every foreigner can't avoid answering questions posed by Koreans about his/her favorite Korean dish. And at the same time it was the very food to be discussed as a "light topic" between the two Korean leaders when they met at the first South-North Summit in 2000.
I have already collected a lot of similar examples from different spheres of Korean culture, such as language, literature, everyday life customs and so on. All of them show the special place that food and eating-related issues occupy in the Korean traditional and modern cultural context. It can be summarized that food in Korea is much more than just a medium of nutrition. It has a lot of symbolic connotations and can be treated as a "cultural code" to understand Korean values and norms of life.
Food can be perceived as the foundation of being and spirit, a guarantee of happiness and well-being, a reflection of social background, lifestyle, age, religious and political ideals, a measure of financial prosperity and one's character, and a medicine in the broadest sense of the word. In short, a whole philosophy.
Of course, to some degree this idea can be applied to any country but in Korea this phenomenon seems to have particular importance. So studying it is really fun! Now I am just at the very beginning of this road but I hope one day I will be able to at least partly find the answer to the broad question "why are Koreans so 'obsessed' with food?"
By Maria Osetrova
Maria Osetrova is a Russian student completing her PhD. in Korean Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.