Dog Day Afternoon: Exoticism, Cuisine, and Culture

On a family trip, the ugliest Western cliché about Korean food makes an unexpected appearance

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For all my oddball cultural struggles while growing up as one of the only Asian-Americans in my neighborhood, I at least took pride in one thing: my peeps’ food. Yes kimchi was something of a dirty ethnic secret due to its fermented stinkiness and reputation as destroyer of fridges, but it was an umami bomb—spicy, savory, refreshing, the taste of home. And the barbecued meats made me an eternal carnivore: to this day nothing in my mind is better than freshly broiled sweet-salty kalbi ribs. It was the family weekend event to drive half an hour to the Korean restaurant in Silver Spring and waddle out overstuffed and smoky from the tabletop fumes.

As I grew into a semi-militant pride in my cultural heritage, I was quick to toot Korean food to my peers, to bring red-hot dishes to workplace potlucks and more. And to my excitement, people loved it. Soon foodie media also caught on thanks to Korean barbecue taco trucks and David Chang’s fusion dishes, and the ongoing rise of South Korea as an economic power.

But there were still moments of shame and awkwardness too, particularly around the secret that made kimchi seem harmless in comparison. The rumors about Koreans eating man’s best friend. Fido. Snoopy. Arf arf. Or mung mung as they say in Korean.

I would roll my eyes in anger when white people would joke about it in punchlines or post about it in trollish message board comments. When I lived in New York, and a local TV segment about an illegal dog farm run by Koreans was shown on the evening news, I wanted to write to the station in protest, furious at their cultural ignorance and perpetuation of false stereotypes. The segment was indeed horrifying, showing via hidden camera a middle-aged lady who could be my aunt taking large hedge-clippers and chopping off a frozen dog’s leg. They said you could secretly order bo shin tang, a.k.a. dog stew, at restaurants in Flushing by special request.

I thought, with 5,000 years of heritage including inventing the easiest alphabet in the world and gorgeous celadon pottery, this is all America focuses on about Korea? With years of invisibility on TV, movies, and books, the one time I see Koreans on the tube is about dog eating? I was livid.

It seemed like the ultimate in Western racism: to peer down their nose at this group of savages that would eat Lassie in a heartbeat. Never mind that Westerners eat some odd game as well, like fuzzy cute bunny rabbits, or woolly little lambs, or veal—suckling baby cows held in tiny pens. (None of which I eat.) Dogs were unforgivable. I agreed that of course it was disgusting, but I thought everyday Koreans don’t really eat them. I’d never seen it on a menu or anywhere. It was exaggerated lies.

I’d visited Korea a handful of times in my lifetime, usually every decade or so, and it would change exponentially each time. When I was a child, I remember Seoul being overcrowded, chaotic, with huge ugly concrete buildings, strong diesel fumes everywhere, disorganized and messy utilitarian marketplaces. The last time I went, in 2010, Seoul had become a futuristic city with hyperreal lighted signs, spotless subway trains and shopping boulevards and arcades, manicured public spaces. It was the first time I thought Seoul was moving past the U.S. in terms of modernity, and I even debated moving there to teach English if I didn’t like the new job I was starting soon.

Of course, a lot of this development was a glossy façade covering up some ongoing societal issues, like income inequality, a growing non-Korean immigrant population that was heavily discriminated against, absurd levels of plastic surgery, and a punishing education system leading to high youth suicide rates. I wasn’t one to overidealize any culture, even one I’d known closely. But I still carried an innate pride that Korea had come so far, so fast. It was miraculous and a testament to a driven, ambitious, inspired group of people.

And aside from the material progress, I still loved the down-to-earth aspects of Korean culture, with its familial clannishness, where everyone was your big aunt or little brother or older sister (those are the actual terms everyone uses to address each other in Korea), where my uncles would down tiny glasses of soju with lunch, and dinner, and breakfast, where every meal included a wide array of colorful banchan (side dishes) to feast on.

One day during my 2010 trip, my cousin said they had planned a trip to a very special “country restaurant” just north of Seoul, where it was still pastoral and not urbanized. Her husband’s school friend owned and ran the place, as well as a farm next to the restaurant, and it was going to be good for me to see “the real Korea.” I clapped my hands in excitement, “Sure!” I loved the idea of going to a unique culinary setting, imagining it to be Korean locavore eating, like the French Laundry of Seoul, even though I knew it would be “earthy” as well. I even dressed up for the occasion and wore fancy sandals. I was thinking like the clueless Zagat-reading urbanite I was, having just moved out of Manhattan after a decade.

We drove out of the crowded city into some much needed green scenery, with the rolling low mountains prevalent throughout Korea. I felt my blood pressure drop and smiled.

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