SEATTLE >> Spam, trout, fried chicken, moon pies and anything slathered in mayonnaise — those are some of the flavors of South Korea’s home cooking that might seem just a bit familiar to the U.S. athletes and hordes of westerners preparing to descend upon the small Asian country for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
But within those bites is a story of South Korea’s resilience, pride and adaptability, which fueled its rise from a poverty-stricken country torn apart by the Korean War, to a world power set to host the glittering Olympics for the second time, all in a matter of just a few generations.
“They would recognize things that were of great use and they would take them and adapted it with what they wanted out of it,” said Michael Pettid, a Korea history expert and author. “The things that came to them, they have another existence in Korea. It just didn’t stay the same.”
Korean eats like kimchi, barbecued meats and bibimbap bowls have likewise become ubiquitous in urban areas of the U.S., with nearly 1.8 million people in America identifying as Korean, according to Census data from 2015.
When the world’s most elite athletes move into the 21st-century Olympic village, there will still be echoes of the war that tore apart that land decades ago. Organizers in Pyeongchang said some of the 450 items on the menu at their 24-hour dining facility during the Games will include traditional Korean dishes, including local specialties.
Though Western influence on the South Korean diet dates back more than a century thanks to missionaries, diplomats and world explorers who left an imprint on the cuisine, it was the massive GI influence since the 1950s that brought a wave of new ingredients and tastes at a time when hunger was a serious problem in the country.
Alves Key, secretary of the Korean War Veterans Association, said more than 5.7 million military members were officially involved in the three-year war, but more than 2 million others have since served in the country through the rebuilding years after.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular Korean foods with an American influence:
A South Korean dish called Budae Jjigae, or “army stew,” prominently features Spam, the canned meat product from Minnesota.
The stew is a salty, savory concoction of spicy kimchi, ramen noodles and various processed meat products served bubbling hot. SPAM — which has a somewhat mixed reception back home in parts of the U.S. — has been loved by South Koreans as a symbol of American prosperity and a source of always-ready protein. That’s been the case since they appeared on the U.S. military base and then given away to starving children or sold on the black market as a prestigious food item. The dish in some cases is also affectionately known as “army base stew” or even “army garbage stew,” as some suggests the poor got them as scraps.
Young Kim, 22, moved to the Seattle area as a teenager but remembers eating the stew with family or friends in restaurants in South Korea. He said its origins are well documented as a part of Korean history, which has been passionately passed down to younger generations because the war so changed the country and its entire trajectory.
“The story about budae jjigae, I think everyone in Korea knows it,” Kim said. “Your parents would tell a story about it.”
Meanwhile, some food interchanges reflect the makeup of the GIs themselves.
Southern foods such as fried chicken and moon pies have made lasting impressions on the Korean diet, just as the U.S. military has historically included a large percentage of its recruits from the Southern U.S. The taste of flour-battered chicken and using deep-frying as a technique are both hallmarks of southern cuisine. And long before KFC made its way to Seoul, the crispy, buttery chicken pieces were also referenced simply as “Kentucky chicken” to South Koreans, said Clark Sorensen, Korea history professor and the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Korea Studies.
A.J. Han, who grew up in South Korea, said her relatives remember falling in love with fried chicken at first taste. The 34-year-old restaurant owner and chef said her family then developed their own recipe that she still uses at Stars In the Sky, a popular Korean-style fried chicken shop outside of Seattle.
“Because of the Kentucky fried chicken came over, that’s why people started doing battering,” Han said.
Key said there was fried chicken served on base during his time with the U.S. Air Force between 1968-70, though it was nowhere to be found outside of his military quarters in Gunsan along the west coast of South Korea, south of Seoul.
“The chicken I remember was mostly boiled,” Key said.
THE MOON PIE
Moon pies — a treat made of chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallows — are also similar to the popular Choco Pie in South Korea. The native snack food has such a cult following that it’s been rumored to be something of a sought-after contraband and bribery tool in North Korea, according to Pettid.
“The fact that it’s the southern style (food) also reflects the demographics of the army style,” Pettid said.
Even when South Koreans are influenced by a product, historians point to how the prideful country has made it its own. While mayo is commonly used in cold salads and sandwiches in the U.S., Koreans have enjoyed it as a ubiquitous sauce, dip and general flavor enhancer. It’s also often used in the banchans, or side dishes, that accompany every meal, mixed with everything from potatoes, cabbage, corn and seaweed.
“You always get these vegetables covered in mayonnaise but that’s not actually western. They’ve adapted, indigenized that, just like American pizza is not like Italian pizza,” Sorensen said. “The flavors aren’t exactly western flavors.”
But of all the food examples that illustrate the enduring U.S.-South Korean alliance, one little talked about story has become lore. And it involves trout swimming in the waters around Pyeongchang, where the Olympics will be held.
Many years ago, as the story famously goes, an American officer who was an avid fisherman helped convince local and military authorities to import a species of live trout from the U.S. into the mountain streams near Pyeongchang, where there were other kinds of native trout, according to Sorensen.
Locals viewed that as a win-win situation, as the officer presumably got his fishing in and the natives had another source of protein. Pettid said he’s heard the story too but hasn’t found it substantiated in any historical or official text, though it could be one of the many things that happened during the massive era of transformation that the governments quietly allowed or facilitated.
Pyeongchang today still hosts an annual trout festival.
“He must have gone through a considerable amount of trouble and he must have had Korean collaborators, too,” Sorensen said of the officer. “Koreans like fish.”