K-dramas Have Whet Chinese Youth’s Appetite for Korean Food

Thanks to the prevalence of Korean culture and influencers online, the culinary offerings of the East Asia peninsula have found incredible popularity among globally-minded Chinese youth

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5:20 PM HKT, Mon October 24, 2022 4 mins read

Young China Plates is a monthly series in which we digest the latest food trends making young Chinese people’s mouths water. Drop us a line if you have a suggestion. This month, we learn more about Korean food in China and how young people in the country have come to love the cuisine.

Given the global rise of Korean pop culture, it isn’t surprising to see Korean food trending worldwide, including in China.

According to a recent study published in July, Korean cuisine is one of the most popular international cuisines in China, particularly in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. It is second only to Western fast food in the nation.

The same study revealed that budae jjigae (a spicy sausage stew), garlic fried chicken, and cheese fried rice are the top three Korean dishes among Beijing-based respondents.

Korean fried chicken is famously popular in China. The dish took off in conjunction with the hit K-drama My Love From the Star in 2013. The TV show also sparked a craze for chimek, a portmanteau for ‘chicken’ and ‘mekju’ (beer).

korean food china

Korean fried chicken is usually seasoned and fried twice, resulting in an extra crispy and flavorful crust. Image courtesy of Angus Zeng

Shanghai allegedly boasts the most Korean eateries in China. The city also has a dedicated Koreatown, which is home to more than 30,000 residents of Korean descent.

And in case you didn’t know, China is also home to two Korean autonomous areas, Yanbian and Changbai, both located in Northeast China’s Jilin province.

RADII spoke to young Chinese urbanites — cooks and customers alike — to learn more about Korean food culture in China.

Korean Food in China: On Screen to On Plate

The rise of Korean TV series — Autumn in My Heart, Winter Sonata, and Dae Jang Geum are just a few — in the early 1990s fueled China’s first wave of Korean eateries in the country.

By 2017, China had the most Korean restaurants outside of Korea — 16,000 outlets, to be specific. Japan came in second with almost 10,000 establishments, while the U.S. only had slightly over 3,000.

Angus Zeng, a 22-year-old foreign trade clerk based in Guangdong, first tried Korean food in high school — a meal of Korean barbecue with a group of friends. She still remembers being served sizzling, juicy meat, a slew of banchan (or small Korean side dishes), lettuce, and raw sliced garlic. Korean dramas and reality TV shows further introduced her to more Korean dishes.

korean food china

Angus Zeng’s introduction to Korean food was by way of Korean barbecue. Image courtesy of the interviewee

“Korean food has a special taste, usually sweet and spicy. I like seafood cheese tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes). It’s not hard to make, and it makes me feel like I’m living in Korean dramas. Bibimbap rice bowls are also good, as they are colorful and nutritious,” she shares.

Zeng likes Korean food so much that her alias on the Chinese lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu is ‘Zeng who likes Korean food.’ In addition to trying different Korean restaurants in Guangdong and sharing her favorite ones on the platform, she also posts pictures of her attempts at making Korean dishes.

She particularly likes time-honored outlets owned by Korean chefs who specialize in street snacks or home cooking, but she is also willing to try contemporary creations if they seem innovative.

In Zeng’s opinion, Korean cuisine is trendy among Chinese youth, as they have access to more digital channels and are therefore able to better understand and appreciate Korean food and culture.

korean food budae jjigae

A homemade dish of budae jjigae by Angus Zeng. Image courtesy of the interviewee

Sarah Zhang, another Korean food enthusiast, was born in Daejeon, South Korea, and resided in China for eight years before returning home after completing an exchange program in Shanghai.

The 24-year-old is grateful for the prevalence of Korean eateries in China.

“Korean food is very popular in China. Every time I went to a famous Korean restaurant, I had to queue in a long line,” says the recent grad. “Korean restaurants there were very authentic with delicious recipes, diverse offerings, good service, and homey interior decorations. It felt like I was in South Korea.”

Fueled by Korean dramas, more contemporary Korean eateries have mushroomed in China. As Zhang points out, Chinese youth have adapted their eating habits accordingly, such as mimicking Korean drinking culture.

Internet Famous Experiences

China’s food influencers and KOLs are always on the hunt for new and rare creations. As a result, long lines are unavoidable at popular Korean restaurants. Some eateries even have months-long wait lists.

For example, Jeju Izakaya in Shanghai is notoriously hard to get into. Seating a maximum of 20 diners a night, it usually takes months to book a table.

Restaurateur and chef Tom Ryu, who is behind the internet-famous eatery, is more than fully aware of the contemporary Korean food trend in China, which he believes “holds more potential [than ever before].”

“People hold notions regarding stereotypical Korean food: Korean BBQ, bulgogi, bibimbap. The truth is, though, that there are so many other delicious Korean dishes,” says Ryu in an email correspondence with RADII.

“I believe that, at present, the main driving factor behind this change is the media, specifically the curiosity and nostalgia that’s generated from encountering fresh trends through the online microcosm.”

Born to a family of Korean gastronomists, Ryu aims to preserve the original flavors of Korean cuisine in his cooking while adding a new dimension to his brand by incorporating different flavors, forward-thinking cooking techniques, and refined plating.

As a culinary curator, that’s what he does for the luxury automobile brand Genesis at its restaurant in Shanghai. The Genesis Restaurant, located on the second floor of the car brand’s studio space, is where they share hospitality through modern Korean cuisine.

Chef Ryu’s Ingenuinity Set at the Genesis Restaurant is a six-course series including specialty dishes such as the jeonbuk bibimbap, which is paired with abalone and clam soup rice. Image via Genesis Motor China

Chef Ryu’s Ingenuinity Set at the Genesis Restaurant is a six-course series including specialty dishes such as the Jeonbuk bibimbap, which is paired with abalone and clam soup rice. Image via Genesis Motor China

The restaurant provides two menu sets, one created by Ryu and the other from the Korean Culture Research Institute and Michelin-star restaurant Onjium, as well as an a la carte menu.

One of Ryu’s goals is to connect Genesis Restaurant with the automobile brand’s values.

“I hope the emotions our guests feel at the restaurant can serve as a preliminary experience of the Genesis brand — luxurious, energetic, [...] memorable. I think the experience of these emotions is what distinguishes Genesis Restaurant from other Korean restaurants.”

korean food china

Genesis Restaurant is located on the second floor of Genesis Studio Shanghai, which presents a distinctly Korean culinary experience. Image via Genesis Motor China

Jing F, a fan of Genesis Restaurant’s food and vibe, has been there twice. Originally from Wuhan and presently based in Shanghai, she is drawn to strong flavor profiles.

“I like the sweet, spicy flavors of Korean food,” enthuses F. For this reason, kimchi jjigae is one of her favorite and frequent orders.

But no matter which dish is trendy, one thing seems inevitable: As long as Korean culture and influencers continue to dominate corners of the internet, the culinary offerings of the East Asia peninsula will likely remain popular among globally-minded Chinese youth.

Cover photo designed by Haedi Yue

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