JINAN, China - An Asia-wide hit television drama is drawing unprecedented attention to traditional Korean food in China, one of the world's culinary powerhouses.
Last Saturday afternoon, the exhibition hall at the Jinan Youth Science and Technology Center in this city in Shandong Province was filled with the smell of Korean cooking.
The sharp but mouthwatering aromas drew hundreds of Chinese people. In one corner of the hall people were in a long line waiting for their turn to sample "bibimbap" (one of the most popular traditional Korean dishes - mixed vegetables and meat over a bowl of steamed rice with hot sauce), while many other food lovers were moving from booth to booth in search of Korean food they had got a glimpse of through popular Korean dramas.
A Chinese mother talks to her son about Korean food at the Jinan Youth Science and Technology Center in Jinan, China, on Saturday. [Lee Yong-sung/The Korea Herald]
The exhibition was part of a string of events co-hosted by the Shandong provincial government and the World Food Culture Center, a Seoul-based culinary research center, which is aimed at increasing cultural understanding between Korea and China through various food-related events including lectures, forums and traditional performances. "Chinese food is already well respected worldwide", Grand National Party lawmaker Lee Kyung-jae said during his congratulatory speech at the opening ceremony of the exhibition. "But I think Korean food has its own potential to be affixed with the 'world-class' label, because of its healthy recipes".
Following the exhibition was a special autograph session of actress Lee Se-eun
who played Yeul-Yee in the popular Korean soap opera "Jewel in the Palace (Dae Jang Geum
)", which recorded historic ratings in China. "She is a lot prettier than on television. I'm happy to be here", Li Qing, a sophomore of Yantai University, said.
Though her vicious role in the series was comparatively minor, Chinese fans of the television drama seemed to be thrilled to meet the actress face to face. "I didn't expect this many people to line up for my autograph", Lee told The Korea Herald after the autograph session that lasted about an hour.
The food exhibition, which displayed the full spectrum of traditional Korean dishes under varying themes ended on Sunday with "The Jewel in the Palace Cooking Competition", the highlight of the event that was inspired by the television series featuring old royal recipes.
Out of some 40 Chinese, both amateur and professional, cooks boasting their skills with a few selected recipes from the television drama, four were selected to be winners of a fully-sponsored four day trip to Korea in June. "I'm excited to have this opportunity to visit Korea", said Cheng Xing Yu, a cook whose original specialty is Shandong cuisine, after receiving his award. "I'd like to open a Korean restaurant in China someday, if I could", continued Cheng who was first interested in Korean food after seeing the television series.
Many of the finalists, though, came up with variants of a dumpling dish from the drama, which made the competition look a bit monotonous to the eyes of the audience. "There are increasing numbers of Chinese people who are interested in Korean food, but there are few culinary institutes specializing in Korean cuisine in China, which I think is why the dishes they've come up with today taste different from authentic Korean style, though they tasted good", Yang Hyang-ja, president of the World Food Culture Center, said, wrapping up the competition.
Encouraged by the success of this year's events, the World Food Culture Center plans to host a similar culinary festival in Beijing next year. "I hope the culinary exchanges between the two countries will spread to other socioeconomic exchanges as well", she added.
By Lee Yong-sung