There is a famous quote saying that you are what you eat. Of course, it should not be understood literary, as our food cravings do not predicate our biological nature. The line rather describes the combination of values one is likely to carry, which can be evaluated according to their food preferences. Most countries have their distinct cuisine that was forming during many centuries. Food is not only the source of human nutrition processes, but it is also one of the brightest cultural examples. In such a way, one can predict certain traits or values of other people based on their food choices.
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East Asia is one of the world’s regions that has a very distinct cuisine. People from this area associate themselves with their nationality, which includes food preferences. Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian restaurants are spread worldwide, and their kitchen cannot be confused with that of others. This paper reviews examples of South Korean and Japanese food that served as markers of national identity in the past. Yet, they are losing this determining role due to political shifts and the process of globalization.
Modern Korean land is divided into two halves, representing a separate country with an opposite economic structure. However, the food culture remains similar due to Korea’s long history as a single state, which experienced its internal cultural development and foreign influence. Nowadays, most research on this country is done regarding South Korea since its northern neighbor is not open to the world.
In the past, Korea used to be one of the Japanese colonies. Although the two cultures had similar culinary products, many of them had differences in ingredients and making. For instance, soy sauce is a product that is currently viewed as traditional in East Asia, yet not many people are aware that the modern recipe is Japanese. Korean households used to brew their soy sauce, which was later replaced by the Japanese version1. This happened because Korean culture was not viewed as superior, and local citizens attempted to look better in the eyes of their rulers. Food as a part of this culture also had to correspond with Japanese civilization’s high standards. This is a bright example of associating food with identity, as Koreans wished to become closer to the superior nation by changing their food habits. Nowadays, another trend adds to the local soy sauce phenomena, as it is produced industrially instead of homemade. Koreans identify themselves as busy people who have no time to cook difficult recipes, which is the same for the rest of the modern world.
As the country became independent and economically strong, Koreans received a need to promote their national pride. It is now normal to be proud of Korean culture and food in particular. Thus, the recent case of the first Korean astronaut created a precedent for developing a special recipe of kimchi, a national food, that could be taken to space2. Journalists compared this event with the tradition when mothers gave kimchi to their sons who left home. This is an example of how modern Koreans identify themselves through their national food, saying that they are more than proud to be a part of this culture, which has to be taken to outer space to sign their identity.
Unlike Korea, Japan did not experience the same foreign influence, except for the times in the XX century, when it had to assimilate to become an equal partner in the world’s economy and trade. Nowadays, Japanese culture is regarded as one of the most famous, yet still difficult for a foreigner’s understanding. For instance, the Japanese see raw food as the one ready for consumption, which has much to do with their perception of nature and its resources3. The philosophy of harmony with nature and oneself is one of the key principles of Japanese culture, which is achieved to keep past values.
Nowadays, boundaries between countries dissolve due to the economic processes, making different cultures blend. Japanese and Korean food are widely represented in the West, giving people from other cultures an opportunity to admire it from childhood. This trend makes the saying about food being a part of the identity to lose its positions. Although I acknowledge that this was the case in the past, modern reality demonstrates that Koreans can consume a lot of American food, and vice versa.
While food remained one of the national identity elements in the past, it was subject to changes for political or economic reasons. Nowadays, independent countries find pride in their food as a traditional element. However, the process of globalization threatens to exclude national cuisine as an identity feature.
Bestor, Theodore C. “Cuisine and Identity in Contemporary Japan.” In Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, edited by Victoria Lyon Bestor, Theodore C. Bestor, and Akiko Yamagata, 273-285. Oxon: Routledge, 2011.
Cwiertka, Katarzyna J. “The Soy Sauce Industry in Korea: Scrutinizing the Legacy of Japanese Colonialism.” Asian Studies Review 30 (2006): 389-410.
Sang-Hun, Choe. “Kimchi Goes to Space, Along with First Korean Astronaut.” The New York Times, February 22, 2008.
- Katarzyna J. Cwiertka “The Soy Sauce Industry in Korea: Scrutinizing the Legacy of Japanese Colonialism.” Asian Studies Review 30 (2006): 390.
- Choe Sang-Hun, “Kimchi Goes to Space, Along with First Korean Astronaut.” The New York Times, February 22, 2008, para 2.
- Theodore C. Bestor, “Cuisine and Identity in Contemporary Japan.” In Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, ed. Victoria Lyon Bestor, Theodore C. Bestor, and Akiko Yamagata (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), 275.