GyeongGi Cultural Foundation

Transnationalism and Korean Diaspora: On Transnational Culinary Dynamism 2

This article was written for 'Korean Diaspora International Scholarship Conference' held to commemorate the Centenary of March First Independence Movement and the establishment of the Korean provisional Government.

4. Joseonjok and Lamb Skewers

Another interesting case of Korean diaspora’s transnational culinary practice is Joseonjok’s engagement in lamb skewer business in China and other countries. This has been visibly prominent in South Korea and Japan, where many Joseonjok trans-migrants operate lamb skewer business. Lamb skewer, of course, was not Joseonjok’s invention. It was Uighur from Xinjiang region who introduce this food to Joseonjok in Yanbian in the late 1980s. Uighur street vendors came there and sold their traditional lamb-skewers on the streets of Yanji City. Very soon this food gained popularity among Joseonjok people and some entrepreneurial Joseonjok started that their own lamb-skewer shops. They would sell lamb skewers with beer (which Uighurs do not deal due to their being Muslims) and also even with karaoke. Later, when the lamb skewers became more popular, some Han Chinese also jumped into this business. Joseonjok, however, were the most successful in this business because it is Joseonjok who have strong consumption culture of eating and drinking.

They first used wooden skewers as Uighurs did. Later, someone started using bicycle spokes for skewers (my Joseonjok informants in Yanji and Osaka). Soon, they used more professional equipment and tools for the barbecue. In particular, they mechanised the grilling process. Poongmu (豊茂) Restaurant was the first shop in Yanji that started to use the mechanised lamb skewer. More complete mechanisation occurred in 2011. Now Poongmu has many branches in all major cities of China, South Korea and even in Japan.

The Poongmu shop in Namba (Osaka) started as a very small shop, but soon the shop moved to a much nicer and bigger shop as it became really popular among Joseonjok customers. In the beginning its customers were mainly Joseonjok, but now there are Han Chinese and Japanese customers as well. In South Korea Joseonjok people also opened many lamb skewer restaurants. Joseonjok really “globalised” Uighur lamb skewer with various innovative measures.

5. Goryeo saram and “Soviet Korean” cuisines

From Vladivostok to St. Petersburg and from Novosibirsk in Siberia to Tashkent in Central Asia Korean foods such as kimchi and seasoned vegetables (namul) are sold in markets today. Some of these “Korean” foods did not look like the food of contemporary South Korea and these foods were identified as “Korean” food by locals. In any regards, the most well-known and popularly consumed “Korean food” in the former Soviet Union included kimchi, kelp salad (miyŏk much’im or kelp seasoned with vegetable oil, garlic and other seasonings), eggplant salad (half-boiled and cubed eggplants seasoned with vegetable oil and other seasonings), carrot salad (Koreiskiy markobiy or shredded carrot seasoned with vinegar, vegetable oil and salt).

In the case of Soviet Koreans and the spread of their food among the peoples of the Soviet Union, the unusual migration experience and history of the Soviet Koreans made it possible. As Koreans and Russians settled closely to each other in the early stage of their migration to the Russian Far East, there were quick exchanges of food between the two peoples. Koreans learned bread, cabbage, and tomatoes from Russians and quickly incorporated them into their diet. From Koreans Russians learned the customs of eating miyŏk (kelp), which was abundant in the seas of the Far East, and rice from the Korean settlers. Sea weed was not something that Russians and other Europeans used to eat, but in the Russian Far East they began to consume it in a form of salad. They gave miyŏk an interesting name: “marskoi kapusta” (“marine cabbage”). This was the first phase of the culinary exchange between Russians and Koreans in the Russian Far East.

The second phase of the spread of the Korean food to the other regions of the Soviet Union occurred after the late 1930s and this happened in a slower phase in the beginning. The forced deportation of Koreans in the Russian Far East to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia in 1937. It was in Central Asia where Korean diet changed again and their food was introduced to other peoples of Central Asia including those who were deported there from the European part of the Soviet Union. Koreans also learned food culture of local Kazakhs and Uzbeks. For example, Koreans learned the plov (pilaf), national dish of Uzbeks while Uzbeks and other ethnic groups in Central Asia eat kimchi and learned various vegetable dishes of Koreans.

The third phase, in which Korean food was even more widely spread throughout the Soviet Union, occurred in the period of the 1960s and onward. This overlaps with further dispersion of the Soviet Koreans to many other parts of the country, particularly to the European parts of the Soviet Union. The death of Stalin in 1953 brought some freedom to the society and ethnic Koreans, who had been deported to Central Asia were now allowed to move to other places for study and work. Many Korean families utilized this new freedom and engaged in seasonal market gardening or truck-farming, which they called kobongjil (Kwŏn & Khan 2004; Kim 1993; cf. Kim 1983). Many other Koreans went to big cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. Korean students also went to various smaller cities such as Minsk, Riga, Kazan, and Odessa and so on. After their graduation, like any other people of the Soviet Union, government would send them to work any place where there was demand for work force. This resulted in further dispersion of the ethnic Koreans of the Soviet Union, which also promoted the wider spread of their food, and this time more corners of the Soviet Union, where Korean food were not known until then.

There is, however, another reason for this unusual “globalization” of the Korean food in the former Soviet Union, and that is related to the general culture of the Soviet Union including its rather peculiar culinary culture. The general culture of the Soviet Union was characterized as collectivistic, proletariat-centered. It was also oppressive in general even though the intensity of the oppressiveness varied depending on the internal and external political situations of the times. During the Stalin’s reign (1927-1953), which also included the war time of the World War II the atmosphere was more repressive than earlier era under Lenin’s leadership. Nevertheless, it was the time when the Soviet culture developed rapidly as the country and peoples were more integrated through forced migrations, collectivization, and rapid industrialization (cf. Service 1999).

Culinary culture of the Soviet Union was also influenced by the general cultural and political atmosphere of the times. First of all, the mix of various peoples, promoted by the voluntary and forced migrations in the Soviet Union, gave a unique international and intercultural aspect of the Soviet culinary culture. With the collectivization of agriculture and other industries people had lunch at work and, therefore, canteen food became normal. A distinctive feature of the Russian and Soviet culinary culture is the importance of soups, especially those with cabbage and other vegetables (Glants and Toomre1997). Home cooking was also characterized with limited ingredients and also simplification of traditional dishes (Kittler 2008; Mack & Surina 2005). Certain food that was readily available in the West in the mid-Twentieth century, i.e., bananas, citrus juices, and pasta, were not available or unknown in much of the Soviet Union until the end of the 1980s. All these factors made the Soviet culinary culture rather unique, and it would rapidly change after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Ekström et al 2003).

Now, Soviet Korean (Goryeo saram) migrants in a few areas of South Korea (including Dongdaemun in Seoul and Gwangju) serve Soviet Korean style food (Song 2016).

5. Conclusion

Korean diaspora have created and globalised various culinary items through their transnational cultural practices and lifestyle. This was possible due to their complicated (and often turbulent) migration history and social, economic, political and cultural situations of their host societies. In Japan Zainichi Koreans invented horumon yaki as a “survival” food, and they eventually made it a popular food through some innovative measures. In the former Soviet Union the Goryeo saram “globalised” their cuisines both by accepting foreign influences and also by spreading them throughout the country, in which they had widely dispersed both by force and also at will. Korean migrants in the Western countries adopted the Japanese food sushi and globalised it with their own creative transformation and also with entrepreneurial spirit. Joseonjok transnational migrants, meanwhile, virtually “kidnapped” the lamb skewers of the Uighurs of Xinjiang and transformed with various innovative measures. In particular, they mechanised the grilling process and turned the humble street food into an upmarket gourmet food. More or so, they globalised it through their own transnational life style.

In one sense, these examples of a diaspora’s innovative entrepreneurial success and also advantageous adaptation to the vicissitude of global capitalism. Such transnational cultural practices show that globalisation and transnationalism can bring emancipatory opportunity for diasporic groups. It is especially feasible in the areas such as culinary globalisation as food is always a flexible field in which various traditions and creative innovations can meet. Korean diaspora have done excellent job in creating, innovating and globalising some amazing cuisines, which have been enjoyed (and will be continuously enjoyed) by the world. They have been “stealing” the food of other peoples? Well, there is no such thing as an national cuisine because a style of cooking and eating cannot be cleanly divided by politically determined borderlines (Mintz 1996). Ethnic food is something that is continuously transformed and re-invented through innovative transnational practices.


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