Koreans love kimchi so much that they want global citizens to enjoy the unique side dish, which they do not hesitate to identify with the Korean culture itself. The people who make the world’s biggest ships, best color TV sets and cell phones, and increasingly reliable automobiles have wondered why Korean food had to be rated below Thai and Vietnamese, let alone Chinese or Japanese.
So, they are thrilled to learn that a 13-part documentary series introducing Korean food along with its culture and nature made its debut in the United States this week, released by the Public Broadcasting System under the title of “Kimchi Chronicles.” It premiered on Sunday in New York City on WNET at 4 p.m. EST.
The program takes viewers to Seoul, Busan, Jeju Island, and Sokcho and to luxury and working-class restaurants, traditional markets, Buddhist temples, the kitchens of noble families and the work sites of woman divers to show how Korean cuisine is prepared and consumed. The secrets of fermenting sauces suchas ganjang, doenjang and gochujang, and the multiple-year storage of kimchi with its great varieties are told by the Korean-born host Marja Vongerichten, wife of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Michelin three-star chef and New York restaurateur. Hollywood stars Hugh Jackman and Heather Graham appear as part narrators.
Marja’s life story adds drama to the program, which could otherwise be billed as yet another Korean government-sponsored international promotion piece. Born to a Korean woman and an American soldier in 1976, Marja was adopted by an American family in Virginia at the age of three, grew to become Miss Washington, D.C., and worked as an actress and model. At 20, she found her biological mother who was living in Brooklyn and Marja fell in love with kimchi through her mother.
With the joint support of the Visit Korea Commission, Korean Food (Hansik) Foundation and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Frappe Inc., the leading producer of food and travel programs, started filming the series in Korea in May and wrapped it up in December.
Sample videos of the program proved the talents of the individuals involved in its production and their enthusiasm to enhance global awareness of Korean food. Kimchi Chronicles, the first major product of the government campaign to increase the “brand power” of Korea, will, first of all, stimulate and encourage the many rising chefs of Korean cuisine in the U.S. who have independently endeavored to appeal the palate of the American public. Sales of Korean cookbooks will certainly grow.
Some in the government may believe that, with a little more push, it would not be too farfetched to expect a Korean food craze in the West, similar to the Korean pop music and drama boom in Asia and elsewhere. But they need to be reminded that what is essential is the entrepreneurship of individual restaurateurs overseas trying to satisfy their clientele with authentic, delicious food and good services.
A recent move by Hansik promoters in Seoul to open a luxurious Korean restaurant in New York met strong resistance from local food businesses. There must be a limit to the effect of government-initiated projects, either a huge restaurant or a star-studded TV series, as far as promoting ethnic food is concerned. We are not supposed to produce a “Kimchi Chronicles” every year, so making steady efforts to develop indigenous culinary arts and raise the hygienic standards at home will also be a good policy.