Constructing Korea’s Food Culture
Food critic Lee Yong-jae (Department of Architectural Engineering, ’01)
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An ordinary food critic wouldn’t use a phrase ‘overturning tables’ in their reviews. However, a special food critic did. In the era where various social contexts influence all criticism, Lee Yong-jae (Department of Architectural Engineering, ’01) bravely expressed his opinions solely based on his thoughts through a book, The Dignity of Korean Dishes. Through his book, he emphasized his unique thoughts desiring for an improvement in Korean dishes.
The dignity of Korean food
On the 16th of June, a new book full of criticism on Korean dishes was released. “To make it simple, I just wanted to live a better life with better food.”, mentioned Lee. After living abroad and experiencing a different culture towards food, he felt the flaws of traditional Korean dishes. He started having doubts on traditions of Korean food. Lee asked himself, “Do we really have to drink hot soup in a ttukbaegi (an earthen bowl) when it’s obvious that you’ll burn the roof of your mouth? Is this truly a tradition or is it just a habit we never cared to question?” He came up with such unique questions and studied the fundamentals of cooking himself, extending his studies into the book, The Dignity of Korean Dishes. In his book, he points out the shortcomings of Korean dishes explicitly as a true food critic.
Throughout his book, he uses expressions other critics wouldn’t commonly use. Lee defines his words as straightforward rather than provocative. “I dislike modifying and making up opinions for my own interests. When interests of people are intertwined, it’s hard to fully deliver the opinions of the food itself.” Lee explained. "Korean food is tasteless" is one of his comments that caught a lot of people’s attention in his recent publication. He explained that there are a number of meanings in this sentence. He asserted that "delicious" doesn’t stand solely for the food itself. “It’s not only the food on the plate I’m trying to assess. The service, plate settings or formality are the aspects that should be considered when assessing food.”
A born critic
Although Lee is currently a food critic who has reputation for having his own firm beliefs, his major can be seen less relevant. He did have an interest in cooking and even ran a blog on it since he started to cook for himself. However as his passion still lied in architecture, Lee left abroad to study further in 2002. He initially wanted to be a critic in architecture, so he had a job in America as an architectural designer.
Lee came back to Korea in 2009, with determination to write as a living. He sent articles to numerous magazines, and started a column on architecture. However, as his interests toward food grew more than ever, he started writing various articles on food and came to the position where he is now at, solely concentrating on assessing food. “I continued writing on my blog and tried lots of Korean food, consequentially leading myself into a food critic. I would enter a random restaurant and write on my blog about the food. Then I would experiment on various methods and make the food for myself.”, Lee reminisced.
Food = Architecture
Lee commented that a plate of food is equivalent to an outcome of construction. “Food and architecture has a lot in common. They both require quite accurate information before they start, and have a three-dimensional visual result. The only difference would come from their durability", explained Lee. He asserted that the two subjects are incommensurable as they are important parts of uisiku (three basic elements of human life in Korea, standing for clothing, and shelter).
Lee emphasized the importance of having an objective perspective point of view when evaluating a particular dish. “You have to stay away from the outer, social elements that could affect your judgement. Once you maintain a certain distance, you would be able to solely concentrate on the food you are eating.” Lee pointed out the weaknesses of Korean dishes through this point of view. “Korean food usually doesn’t make a good use of salt. They tend to season the food only through seasonings. Salt and seasonings have their own roles but Korean dishes don’t use this classification.”
Changing the perception of food criticism is what Lee wishes to achieve through his career. “A lot of people don’t even realize food can be a subject of criticism. I wish people would be able to break this prejudice and live in a better food culture.” Moreover, he wishes to write more books related to food, such as food for people eating alone. “Food culture isn’t something sophisticated. It’s all about making a better quality of life with better quality of food, and that’s what really matters. I hope I could assist the development of Korean food throughout my career.”
On Jung-yun firstname.lastname@example.org
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