Friday, September 10, 2010

Food for Thought: An increase in foreign restaurants makes Seoul more inclusive

Warung Indonesia in Ansan
Written by Lindsey Huster

Although South Korea may feel (at times) a bit homogenous, the food culture is showing signs that may uproot this notion.

According to a recent article, the number of international restaurants operated by foreign owners has risen by more than 10 times in the last 10 years.

Send your gaze down a popular alley of Seoul, and perhaps will you see what I mean.

Alongside kimbap and galbi restaurants lay a sundry array of foreigner restaurants and shops. Around the Jung-gu area, one can stumble into "Mongolian town" and "Russian street." Venture even more southwest, and you are sure to enter Itaewon, an infamous foreigner district that caters to most gourmands palates. Itaewon, stands out as a hub that serves an assortment of African food, including Nigerian, Ghana and Ethiopian. Venture even more south near Gangnam, and you will stumble into a French district that offers pastries that rattle even the most devout Paris Baguette connoisseurs.
Vietnamese Frog Legs in Ansan

With an Indian population estimated at 6,000, restaurants that serve up traditional Palak Paneer and other curry dishes also remain in demand as well. In South Korea, there are at least 300 Indian restaurants, of which around 50 located in Seoul.

Of course, such numbers stem from the palpable increase of foreigners that reside in Seoul and South Korea.

According to data released by the National Statistical Office (NSO), in 2005, the number of registered foreigners was about 485,000, accounting for over 1 percent of the population. This is a significant increase from the .1 percent in 1992, and 0.53 percent in 2002. Currently, the number of foreign residents in Seoul has quadrupled to about 260,000 in 2010.

Another reason for the significant increase of foreign restaurants may have to do with the relatively stable economy of Korea. As the value of the Won dropped during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, immigrant workers from central Asian nations like Uzbekistan and Mongolia, came to Korea. As a result, many workers remained and opened shops and restaurants. Now, many Americans are taking a similar route, seeking refuge from a downtrodden economy, and starting jobs and businesses in Korea.

With the increase of international restaurants, a number of "foreigner-friendly" effects will take place just in time for the G-20 summit. The Korean government plans to distribute manuals in English and Chinese on food sanitation laws to foreign owners, which until now have not been present. Additionally, the government will also provide financial assistance to Korean restaurants so they can print English-language menus.

Looking to other well-populated and diverse cities, the process of making immigrants and foreigners a part of the spirit of a city is crucial for its globalization. For example, New York City was built by the hard work of immigrants and population of "foreigners." The city is now marked as a global leader and a location were all kinds of people live, share their ideas and eat food. Ultimately, diversity ensures the ability of a city to thrive and grow.

The ability for the foreign community, and Koreans to seek out more diverse cuisine will work in favor of making Seoul a more livable and immersive community. Seoul will not only become a tourist destination, but also a sought after locale that provides an inclusive, international atmosphere.

Lindsey Huster is a writer who usually hails from Chicago. She enjoys listening to music,wearing cardigans and generally anything vegetarian. Send her an e-mail here: Lindsey Huster 

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