Dear Char Kol
Dear Char Kol,
I don’t remember the first time someone asked me if I ate dogs. But I do remember how I felt. I remember telling them that of course, I didn’t eat dogs—I loved dogs. I must’ve been in elementary school at the time, and the question would have come after I told them I was half-Korean. My response was always anger, righteous indignation, then sadness. Then, the wondering if that’s what people thought I ate. That would not be the last time someone would ask that question, I would grow to get used to it. Just like how I would grow used to the wrinkled noses of my classmates at my lunch or the subtle fact that none of my friends ever stayed over for dinner at my house.
After the one time I went to a white-owned Korean restaurant, I never went back. It was Tofu House on Sawtelle in Little Osaka in LA, and I distinctly remember it by its kimchi. I’ve never been all that great at handling spice, funnily enough, because all my family is, except for my cousin AJ, who orders his soondubu white. I love you AJ, but really, white soondubu? Tofu House’s kimchi was something bland— something even I wouldn’t consider spicy. Amazing, because I ordered my soondubu mild. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t kimchi. Kimchi, if you don't know, is the Korean National dish which is composed of fermented vegetables and spice unless it’s summer kimchi. Korean parents will tell you it’s good for your health and shove it down your throat, proclaiming you’re “not Korean if you don’t like kimchi.” Up until recently, I’ve never liked kimchi, but I knew what it tasted like because my emos (aunts) would wash off the spice and feed it to me. To take the spice out of kimchi is almost like taking the Korean out of it. There’s something about it that’s just not right, it’s lacking the very thing that makes it Korean.
I didn’t grow up as “Korean” as other kids. My mom is Thai and Chinese, and my popo, her mom, helped raise me. But Korean food, to me, was always special— food for when we were celebrating, sick, or when I begged my dad hard enough. It was a sign of better times and excitement. As I got older, Korean food became more commonplace for us, but the Korean food of my childhood was a blessing that my parents would endow. It would be the same when I would visit my Halmonie (grandmother). The only food I would ever eat with her would be Korean food, that is until the last time I saw her, where I would eat Brazilian food for the first time ever. My Halmonie was from Busan, and she lived through it all, everything from the Japanese occupation to the Korean War. Her brother would end up being taken away by the Japanese to either study or work. I don’t really know what happened because no one would speak of it in her presence, even if she couldn’t understand English, and I couldn’t understand anything but English. For her, like too many others, the war never ended. My Halmonie would die at 96 only ever having said one word to me, “cold, brrrr” because we didn’t have the heater on and it was winter in LA. She would die also never having said “I love you”. But she would’ve died cooking for me every time we came to visit, and having cooked salmon most of those times, knowing my love for it. This would end up being more than enough.
To Koreans, food is sacred. To most Asians, it is. Modern Korean food was developed between 1900 and 1959 through the Japanese occupation, Korean War, and economic distress. Our food became a sign of our poverty, but it would, later on, become a sign of our success—a ‘look at us, we can take the ugly, the misfit, and make it beautiful.’ Food like budae jiggae became a symbol of Korean identity, or the generational trauma that now defined what it inherently meant to be Korean. My mother loves it for that reason, despite not being Korean. She always taught me that Korean food is wonderful because it takes the worst parts of the cow, what other people throw away, and makes it edible. It’s also what makes it cheaper. Korean food can be expensive, but it’s not made so that the best of it is the most expensive. And for those of us who’ve never been to Korea, food is the way we communicate with our families. It’s the last thing we have even when all other hallmarks of our culture have been stripped away from us. Jook for breakfast, fried chicken for fun, samgyetang for sickness.
Enter you, Char Kol, a restaurant in Philadelphia, the most recent offender in a very long line of... disappointing modern/fusion/pan-Asian restaurants opened by white people. I will probably never go to Char Kol, not because of its overpriced items, hellish attempts at hybridising Korean and Japanese culture, offensive name, clear lack of understanding of Korean culture, use of English names like “scallion pancake,” or it’s banchan (small side dishes) which includes western broccoli. But because it’s in Philly, a city I’ve never been to, and likely never will. However, that doesn’t mean the hurt is lessened. To include edamame salads, gyoza, and cherry blossoms in between pajun, and bulgogi, claiming they’re including “traditional Korean” dishes while only having bibimbap on their menu, is wrong. It’s offensive, and it hurts coming from the perspective of a half-Korean who both idolised and was teased for foods that I loved growing up. While I appreciate it when white people want to partake in my culture and love the beauty of it, to attempt at an appreciation where they forget what it means to be Korean, isn’t appreciation. It’s appropriation. Char Kol has done nothing less than this. There are no Korean chefs on their team and seemingly no Korean servers. It is white people benefiting from a culture they know nothing about. I want white people growing to love the parts of Korea they so often ignore, in favour of pop culture aesthetics like our mainstream food, k-pop, k-dramas, and fashion. But you can’t do that without Korean people present, and ignoring our anger about your bastardisation of our food which represents our people only makes it worse.
So Char Kol, I ask you to take a step back and think. Think about what you’re doing, what this means, and how your appreciation is nothing less than a colonialist attitude nicely wrapped up in rice. Your removal of gyoza, sapporo, and cherry blossom lanterns are nice, but they’re not all the work you need to do, and there’s a lot more that should be done. I recommend you hire a Korean chef or consultant, in order to help you put that spice back on your menu.
Larger than that though, white restaurateurs, like you, should not be allowed to open up Asian “appreciation” restaurants, or fusion places, because they so frequently don’t understand the basics and traditions that our food originates from. White chefs are too often given praise and awards for the “elevation” of “cheap” and “common” dishes that are far from simple or easy to make, another clear sign of white imperialism over the so-called “dirty” or “lesser” cultures. Reviewers like Zagat, the Atlantic, the Infatuation, and Yelp, applaud them for adding a “new flavour” to, or “modernising” previously “simple” dishes. These dishes can take hours at a stove when done correctly and can take years to master properly. Here’s the problem, fusion and modernisation really only works when you know the basics, and to be blunt, I don’t think most white people do. If you want really good examples of modern takes on traditional foods, turn to places like Pearl River Deli as your example. These are affordable places, run by us, in our neighbourhoods, homage to our childhoods and have an appreciation and mastery of the basics that can be clearly seen in all elements of the meal. Learn from the Halmonie’s, the Ahma’s and Popo’s and Nainai’s, and from us who’ve been taught to cook and taste these dishes since we were young. Then feel free to open up these places and work with chefs who are Asian.
But until then? Please stop.
- Theta Sujung Chun
For more on this? Check out Racist Sandwich, this twitter thread, a hilarious short story, why the term “ethnic food” is racist, and everything that happened at Bon Appetit