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The Peninsula

Learning about People 6,500 Miles Apart: Comparing Cuisines from the State of Iowa and Jeolla Province

Published November 14, 2013
Category: South Korea

By Jake Braunger and Da Seul Moon

Award Winning Foods from Hard Working People

Recent news out of South Korea is the excitement over having “kimchi” likely placed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritages. When one is asked to describe where they come from there is a myriad of topics they may choose to start from. Food tells you a lot about the people. With there being such diversity in the food from different parts of each country I thought it would interesting to compare the cuisine from my own home state of Iowa with  that of my colleague, Da Seul Moon, from Jeolla province in the southwest of Korea. While there are differences between the two states there are some similarities, but it is the journey not the destination that is fascinating.

Iowa Cuisine

If one were to read any church bulletin or news about the Iowa State Fair they would find listings of casseroles, meatloaf, anything deep fried, and anything you can place on a stick. While certainly these foods have become a point of distinction for Iowa it is not something that would fully describe Iowa’s cuisine.

Yes, we do enjoy a good casserole and old-fashioned meatloaf with mash potatoes might bring back good memories of family dinners, but it is certainly not the only things that we claim as our cuisine. The article In Defense of Iowa’s Food is a great place to start.  Morels mentioned in the article were always a nice addition at the dinner table. Corn-fed Iowa beef is world famous and because we are close to the production it is a lot easier to see steaks served at dinner than it is in Washington, DC. There is the famous Red Delicious apple that was found in Iowa and applesauce is a popular side dish at lunch and dinner. Obviously corn is also a major staple. Whether served as crème corn, corn bread, sweet corn on the cob, or simply the corn based cereal that makes up an average breakfast we’ve got it.

To give a quick answer to the question of what Iowa food is like often times one would say it is simply meat and potatoes, similar to German food. If you dig deep and find the breakdown of Iowan’s ancestry you will notice that the plurality of Iowans are of German descent. This explains why a summer time classic, the humongous pork tenderloin sandwich, looks so much like the German wiener schnitzel. Iowa cuisine certainly does have its “comfort foods,” but at the heart of it you will find German traditionalism and Yankee ingenuity.

Jeolla Cuisine

One cannot talk about Korean food without mentioning food in Jeolla province, which is famous for its variety and distinctive tastes. There is a lot of great food besides Kimchi. With Yellow Sea on the west, lots of mountains, and streams, there are numerous kinds of ingredients. For example, Bibimbap, from Jeonju, the capital of North Jeolla province, is a bowl of warm white rice, and distinctive chili sauce, mixed vegetables, such as cucumber, carrots, mushrooms, bellflower root, spinach, and soybean sprouts. It could be made only because people had those ingredients from nearby sources. Another characteristic of Jeolla province is they put a lot of seasonings in food to prevent food decay under warm weather. In general the food is spicy, salty, and strong-tasting or fermented. Lastly, one has to mention soju. Soju is not only popular in Jeolla and Korea, but around the world. In fact, soju is the most sold drink in the world. With rice being the most popular crop in the province it explains why liquor distilled from rice is so readily available.

Because of this diversity of ingredients and food, many wealthy ‘yangbans’, aristocrats in the Joseon Dynasty lived in the province. The Lee dynasty who ruled the country for 500 years originally came from Jeonju so great numbers of royal families and the wealthy and distinguished could pass down their traditions of ‘yangbans’ with strong attachment, one of which is food. As they pass down and develop their distinctive way of making food at home over centuries, Jeolla province still contains the taste and tradition that differentiates it from other provinces, which Jeolla’s people are greatly proud of. If you go to any restaurant in Jeolla province, most of time you will not fail to see a table that is full of plates of food that reflects the generosity and pride of the people in Jeolla.

Coffee- The 6,500 Mile Bridge Between Cuisines

One commonality between Iowa and Jeolla may be coffee. From some of my earliest memories I can remember walking into small town cafés early in the mornings. Farmers dressed for work in the fields occupied the tables sipping their refillable, sturdy coffee mugs. For hours they might sit and talk while having their mugs re-heated by a waitress pouring in fresh coffee. Although coffee was introduced to Korea over a century ago it is growing in popularity. If the recent trend of combining coffee with social activities continues along a similar path to the United States they will be starting their days off with it as I do.

When looking at the numbers from the United States and then the numbers from Korea it may seem as though coffee is not as big a part Korea’s cuisine as it is with the United States. However, the United States has over 300 million people, while Korea has just over 50 million. Secondly, Korea, while experiencing a slight cut back recently , witnessed 12 consecutive quarterly gains in household purchases of coffee. The coffee craze in Korea was becoming so out of hand that South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission banned coffeehouse chains from opening a new shop within 1,640 feet of each other.

Two different states residing far from each other have very different cuisines and background stories. Each cuisine is unique and displays the pride of its people. Learning the differences and similarities is the journey, and perhaps the journey is best experienced over a cup of java.

Jake Braunger is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Prior to joining KEI he was a political campaign consultant with Rick Santorum for President and Lange for Congress. 

Da Seul Moon is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and an Asan Academy Intern. 

The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Andyman622’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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