It’s 1988 in Korea, the year South Korea hosted the Olympics. In a small neighborhood alley in Seoul, it is dinner time. But with dinner, starts an exchange series of bowls of food and delicacies across the neighborhood. The six lead characters of the drama pass along from one house to another delivering food that their moms sent to their neighbors. A family of single father and son who initially set the table with a pot of ramen and eggs end up with a table full of side dishes sent from their neighbors from the alley.

These small scenes portraying harmony and closeness between neighbors through the medium of food is not an isolated incident in Korean Dramas. Whether it be between a group of friends, romantic partners, siblings or family members, the way food becomes an important part of taking the story-line forward  in K-dramas, create a very subtle but an interesting impact on its audience. It can make the audience want to pick up a pair of chopsticks and stuff their mouth with Ramen or Samgyeopsal or whatever is cooking or being eaten in the scene.

One thing that is common in the dramas is the enunciation of “food” as their love language. Whether it be between a group of friends, romantic partners, siblings or family members, the way food becomes an important part of taking the story-line forward subtly but scrumptiously creates a weird craving for a cuisine pretty unfamiliar with Nepali palette. It isn’t only the fictional content, but even a variety of shows and behind the scenes shows of Korean Idols attempt to make you want to pick up a pair of chopsticks and stuff your mouth with Ramen or Samgyeopsal.

There is a popular expression in k-drama, “Rameon meokgolle?” It’s a k-drama version of “Netflix and Chill?” that has gained popularity in real life as well. Similarly, if a guy or the girl adds a piece of gogi (meat), or kaerang “fried eggs” in your bite then those are hints that the guy/girl likes you. When a character goes inside a small tent and drinks glasses of soju alone, the expected reaction from the audience is heart wrenching sadness.

Mixing beer and soju and creating “maekju” is a sign of celebration, happiness and party. The ice creams that can be split into two, the looking away when you are drinking with a senior, making a number of side dishes and cooking for your loved ones are all subtle examples of how food is a method of communicating so many emotions in K-dramas. The blessings of the elders are always “I hope you live long enough to eat tastiest things” or “Live well”, “Eat well”.

The characters look like they absolutely enjoy the food. Eating large portions, and continuous expression of joy and appreciation after each morsel speaks a lot about how much they enjoy food and appreciate the person that is feeding them. This in turn, makes the food completely different from our palette very appetizing and you crave to explore the cuisine.

It is not just the Korean drama but even the K-pop artists that play a significant role in exporting their food culture. The K-pop entertainment content is immensely rich as their entertainment company keeps on posting videos and contents of their daily lives on youtube and other media platforms.

Most of these daily videos and broadcasts and even daily variety shows show the stars enjoying their food or making the food. If one were to follow BangtanTV, a youtube channel dedicated to broadcast behind the scenes moments of the popular boy band BTS, a reasonable amount of their content has been the boys enjoying their food. Even their popular variety show, RUN BTS, has a significant amount of episodes dedicated to them making food and serving each other. These episodes are not just considered entertaining and even healing, highlighting the importance of good, hot, homemade healthy food and the role food plays in living a good life.

All of that however, is intentional, and the crux of this article. It’s intentional not only from the production, but also from the Korean government.

Welcome Soft Power!

Soft power, an approach of extending economic and cultural influence internationally, has been an important priority for South Korea in the recent decades. The unconventional approach it has adopted for that is through their national cuisine, as decided by the Korean government back in 2008. In a time when consumerism has taken over, food is in fact an incredible cultural export. The South Korean government started a ‘Korean Food Globalization Campaign’, and had aimed to have 40,000 Korean restaurants overseas by 2017, along-side plans of making Korean food one of the top five world cuisines.

While the benefits of soft power for any growing nation may seem too simplistic to be pragmatic at first, the reality is much grander than one could imagine. Through cultural influence around the world, a country is able to extend one’s media globally, get more tourists, fill their universities with international students, mark political influence in other countries, make it easier for one’s citizens to gain opportunities and recognition overseas, sell any products of cultural significance globally including food, art and fashion, shape public opinion globally in favor of their country’s ideologies and gain any other benefits that are an outcome of people’s interest towards their nation. The list could go on. Extending influence through soft power is a priority for any country willing to mark presence in the global arena.

Have you noticed the rapid rise of Korean restaurants in Kathmandu and all around the country? Only a decade ago, they weren’t that high in number as well as reach. It’s an outcome of Korea’s success in its ambitions of global outreach.

Though most of these restaurants are easily ‘out of budget’ for most Nepalis (and even for many that are regular customers), they have found a way to gain the town’s interest. As the popularity of K-Dramas and K-Pop continue to grow globally, Nepal has not remained immune from this spill-over.

This phenomenon, though interesting, is not new. Hollywood and the spread of the American Dream that exported the idea of individual liberty have tested these waters and have been successful in these endeavors. US based shows alone are the reason why ‘would you like to go out for a cup of coffee!’ is common all around the world, influencing an increase in coffee shops globally. For Japan, it’s the success of Mangas and Anime, exporting Japanese language, food and lifestyle. South Korea, with its K-pop and TV series, has garnered global appeal, and have been platforms for an attempt to establish Korean social culture as mainstream. This includes food, music, lifestyle choices (cosmetic surgeries included), dance forms, conversational styles, dress code, and so much more.

In American series involving hustle and bustle, Americans are usually shown to start their day with a coffee. To some extent, a lot of coffee habits that have evolved as a part of Nepali life can be sourced to these mindless depictions of characters needing a cup of coffee to get on with the day. “Coffee Shops” are now a part of Nepali meeting culture, and it is obvious where we picked it from.

The rapid explosion of Chinese food and Indian food culture all across the world can be attributed to their expanding migrating population, but a small country in one part of Asia (South Korea) being able to influence food styles and even lifestyles all across the world, tells us significantly about the influence popular culture may have in societies globally.

In contrast, the cross pollination of people from Korea to Nepal is pretty much one sided. Nepalese people generally go to Korea mostly for work and studies, whereas Koreans don’t have the need to visit Nepal for opportunities, unless it is for touristic purposes. When it comes to India, there’s immense both-sided interaction. Even the culture has more similarities than it has differences, either it be around the lines of food or festivals. The number of Indian restaurants shouldn’t be surprising, or even the presence of widespread South Asian cuisine in Nepal. The food also doesn’t feel foreign to our taste buds. We’ve always lived in close proximity in terms of language, food and culture with India and other south asian countries. Through adaptation of English language in Nepalese education, we’ve had easy access to western media, and hence to the United States.

But for South Korea, it’s the harder route. While their food has a foreign taste for our taste-buds, the language too is largely unknown. Yet, it has been able to access the Nepalese market, primarily due to its prominence of entertainment-based media, that has allowed the country to export its food and culture.

This article is written jointly with Ojaswee Bhattarai. A Lawyer by Profession, she loves reading, thinking and writing about society and social phenomena.

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