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Korean food is winning over palates worldwide, including the world of haute cuisine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's hard to miss the impact of South Korean cultural exports these days - from music and literature to the movies and TV. That success is carrying over to another area. Korean food is now winning over palates worldwide, including in the world of fine dining. I don't know why I did not get this assignment, but NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to meet chefs and taste dishes in Seoul.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, guys, welcome back to our first lunch service of the week.

(APPLAUSE)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Staff get pumped up for lunch at Evett in Seoul's trendy Gangnam district. The restaurant has been listed in the Michelin Guide since 2020, with one star for its high-quality cooking. Australian chef Joseph Lidgerwood is assembling some of his signature dishes.

We have a sandy-colored block in front of us. Tell us what it is, Joseph.

JOSEPH LIDGERWOOD: Amazing. So this is meju. Meju is essentially the building blocks of most Korean fermentation.

KUHN: From meju come three of Korean cuisine's most basic ingredients - soy sauce, fermented soy paste and chili paste. On top of the block is a ball, a donut with caramelized cream, anchovies, and black garlic. You can't eat the block. It's there to make you think.

LIDGERWOOD: I'm not from Korea, but I have a love affair with Korean ingredients. And what we do here, through this snack and through all the dishes here at Evett, is present them in different ways to make people kind of look back at the past.

KUHN: Lidgerwood applies his creative, playful approach to the next dish - a traditional Korean black hat made of earthenware, filled with onions, radishes and abalone and topped with a perilla-seed wafer. There's a wooden Korean window frame holding sweets including a ginseng marshmallow and a sesame-oil caramel. Many of the dishes at Evett are both sweet and salty. Many have a creamy consistency closer to European cuisine than Korean. Lidgerwood says he forages around South Korea a dozen or so times a year to gather local ingredients.

LIDGERWOOD: Our cuisine revolves on fresh, seasonal ingredients backboned by fermentation. So we have an amazing library of fermented stuff that we can pull and pick as we choose.

KUHN: In recent years, Korean food has carved out its own space in a global fine dining scene once dominated by French, Italian and Japanese eateries. In New York, 2 of 12 new Michelin stars awarded last year went to Korean restaurants. Chef Junghyun Park is owner of the two Michelin-starred Atomix and three other Korean restaurants in New York. He says Korean chefs didn't suddenly burst onto the scene.

JUNGHYUN PARK: (Through interpreter) They all started cooking around the early 2000s, like myself, and have trained as chefs for nearly 20 years, developing their own culinary skills. I think such efforts are now bearing fruit.

KUHN: He argues that Korean haute cuisine is not about adapting Korean cuisine to suit Western tastes. He says he just cooks what he thinks tastes good.

PARK: (Through interpreter) I like cooking in New York because people there are very open to new cultures. They like accepting new things. So it's not like I have to change their tastes.

KUHN: Chef Cho Hee Sook is sometimes referred to as the godmother of Korean cuisine. She got her start in the 1980s, when the only fine dining in South Korea was in hotels, and chefs were considered a lowly profession. She says she focuses on how to adapt Korea's traditions to modern lifestyles. In Korea, meals were traditionally built around rice with assorted side dishes called banchan.

CHO HEE SOOK: (Through interpreter) But more and more people are excluding rice from their table now, and having what would have been banchan as standalone dishes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW YOU LIKE THAT")

BLACKPINK: (Singing) How you like that?

KUHN: Korean cuisine is riding the wave of popularity of Korean cultural exports - from bands such as BTS and Blackpink, to movies and dramas such as "Parasite" and "Squid Game." South Korea's government and corporations are thinking of ways to promote Korean food and profit from it. Yang Joo-pil is an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

YANG JOO-PIL: (Through interpreter) Our ultimate goal is to increase exposure of Korean food overseas and through that, increase exports of Korean agricultural and food products.

KUHN: To do this, his ministry is finding ways to link Korean food to other facets of Korean culture.

JOO-PIL: (Through interpreter) For example, we select about 10 food items each year for product placement in dramas.

KUHN: They also sell Korean food at K-pop concerts overseas. The Korean food conglomerate CJ, meanwhile, aims to sell more of its products overseas by cultivating rising young chefs like Evett's Joseph Lidgerwood. Back at Evett, Lidgerwood prepares a final course of grilled Korean beef served with a puree of rice and fermented soybean paste. He admits not all his customers are starving for information about Korean food, and he says that's OK.

LIDGERWOOD: My curiosity and my energy for Korean food is why I moved here. So it might seem like a lot of work for people who aren't as interested in meeting the cow and the farmer, but for us, it's kind of a joy. So that's why we get up every morning.

KUHN: The culinary knowledge is, of course, not free. Lunch at Evett will set you back about $114 and dinner 190, not including wine.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.