Saturday, September 28, 2013

서울을 먹다 by 황교익 and 정은숙 (2013)

::The Skinny::

Title:  서울을 먹다 [Eating Seoul]

Written by:  황교익 [Hwang Gyo-ik], 정은숙 [Jeong Eun-suk]

Language:  Korean

Publication year:  2013.

Pages:  429 pages.

Price:  $16.42 at

In less than 30 words:  Excellent on-the-ground level survey of Korean food available in Seoul.

Reading List category:  Food

Keyword(s):  Seoul, Food history

Writing style:  Dry but friendly. Vivid and detail-oriented.

Rating:  5 stars

::The Review::

Although Korean food is increasingly becoming a part of the global cuisine, the books dealing with Korean food--even those in the Korean language--are often unsatisfactory. Some of the books, in a misguided attempt to "globalize" Korean food, conjure up an imaginary figure of "the international audience," and try to cater to that imaginary figure's interest in the Korean food. Such books focus more on what they consider to be haute cuisine of Korean food (e.g. the "royal cuisine," the "temple cuisine", etc.,) losing sight on the kinds of Korean food that Korean people actually eat on a daily basis.

Hwang Gyo-ik has been leading the charge on countering such trend. His books and columns about Korean food relentlessly focus on the Korean food that Korean people actually eat, and how they came to eat that food. In other words, Hwang's food writing never loses sight of Korea's reality on the ground-level; in doing so, Hwang cuts through much of the fat that infects the discourse about Korean food.

In Eating Seoul, Hwang teams up with Jeong Eun-suk, a noted food writer who chronicled the international spread of Korean food, particularly in Japan. Together, the authors take a saunter through various parts of Seoul. They eschew the shiny streets of Gangnam and opt for the narrow, winding alleys of Eulji-ro and Yeongdeungpo. There, they tell the stories about the food of the people rather than the food of the promoters--not 한우 [hanu] beef or 신선로 [shinseollo], but 순대 [blood sausages], 족발 [pig trotters] and 삭힌 홍어 [fermented skate].

Such stories invariably move toward history, which reflects the rough-and-tumble history of modern Korea. Unlike the pretentious books that purport to introduce Korean food to the world, Hwang and Jeong focus on the small storefronts that sold the same food for decades. Their stories are rarely glorious--for example, 돼지갈비 [marinated pork] was born in an attempt to create a knockoff of marinated beef (which was the gold standard of Korean barbecue) in the mid-1950s, in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. The writers heap a generous portion of the humble restauranteurs' own words, leaving no doubt that the book is about reality on the ground.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you would like to get a glimpse of the people's plates in Seoul--where they are, how they taste, and how they came to be.

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