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What new flavors are coming out of Korea?

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

This guest post is written by Brant Worrell, a graduate of the University of Colorado and The Culinary Institute of America. He previously worked at Simmons Foods as the company’s first research chef, where he embraced the new discipline of Culinology, the blending of food science and culinary art. In 1998 he joined Illes Seasonings & Flavors, a Dallas-based manufacturer of liquid and dry food ingredients for food manufacturers, restaurants and beverage distributors across the U.S. He is now head chef there.

Introduction to DineAround

On April 18, three chefs from Illes Foods & Seasonings, embarked on DineAround Asia, a two-week quest to discover Asian flavors and cuisines.  Taken annually since 2005, DineAround is a research trip where Illes chefs scramble to sample dishes from around the world in search of new ideas for its clients, including national restaurant chains, food manufacturers and packaged meat producers. To learn more, go to or view videos of the experience on Illes’ DineAround blog.

Setting off

In fall 2010, the team identified Asia as the source for new flavors, inspired by Korean dishes and, particularly, the Korean BBQ taco trucks so popular now in the U.S. Moreover, the collective American palate will continue to be influenced by Asian foods and flavors, as the population – and buying power – of Asian Americans continues to grow. According to a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth, the buying power of Asian Americans will reach $752 billion in 2013, up from an estimated at $397 billion in 2005.

The team’s first stop was Seoul, where they explored traditional markets, Korean tea service, makkoli (rice ale) pubs, street food and real Korean barbecue (Mapo Jeong Daepo).


What struck me most about our three days in Seoul was the variety. Surely as a tourist, everything is unfamiliar and exciting, but in Seoul the feeling of novelty never wore off. Not once did I recognize an ingredient or dish as something I’d seen the day before.

The most stunning example of this was the Noryangjin Fish Market, one of the largest markets in the world. The fish there is so fresh that the whole place has the salty smell of the sea – not the fishy smell one would expect.  And in some cases, the fish aren’t even dead before being served on a platter for an unsuspecting Westerner.

Old meets new

In Korea, familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt – it seems to inspire variety and novelty. The people of Seoul are continually updating and creating a contemporary lifestyle shaped by relics of the past. An example of ancient meeting modern came on our second day when we walked through the historic neighborhood of Insa-dong, itself experiencing a bohemian renaissance, and stopped at Insa-dong Chatjip. We sat in the courtyard and sampled tea, just as the royal YI family did in the 15th century. The industrious owners of the teahouse, however, took the unique nature of Korean tea – often made from diverse ingredients including fruits, leaves, roots and grains – and updated the experience by adding herbal infusions such as yuzu, a grapefruit-like citrus fruit, quince and mugwort.

I could have skipped the bitter mugwort, a plant once used as a pesticide, but our group enjoyed trying these flavors that are rarely used in the U.S.

Will we recommend pine and mugwort for our clients? Probably not, as the American palate (including mine) is not as accustomed to bitter tastes. But we were inspired to go boldly – if not where no man has gone before, at least where no American has gone before.

Open borders

The number of foreigners in South Korea tripled from 1997 to 2007, and the influx of Western and other Asian influences is not lost on Korean cuisine. We had the pleasure of dining at Chef Kim Ho-Nam’s Star Chef Restaurant, “discovered” by Food Network star Andrew Zimmern, who featured the restaurant on in his “Bizarre Foods”. While the ingredients – fresh king crab, octopus and mullet – are distinctly Korean, Chef Kim adds a Mediterranean flair to an octopus salad and his signature dish,  The Amazing Fish– a twice-fried whole mullet served in a wok, Chinese style, and ladled with a seasoned soy sauce, topped with sliced onions and a pickled ginger and cilantro salad.

While fusion is a decidedly American term, the concept seasons many of Seoul’s modern cuisine, resulting in great restaurants and dishes such as The Amazing Fish – our favorite so far.