Noodles are pushing rice off the South Korean dining table
A low-carb campaign that began in the 1960s has lead to dietary change
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Over the past four decades, there has been an outstanding change in Koreans’ dietary patterns ― noodles have been gradually replacing rice.
Koreans’ per capita rice consumption in 2016 was 61.9 kilos, less than 50 per cent of the 1980 level.
Koreans’ noodle consumption, however, has grown fast. Korea’s per capita instant noodle consumption is the highest worldwide, and consumption of other noodles, such as noodle soups, is also on the rise.
The changing dietary pattern shows Koreans’ food preference has been changing in favour of foreign ingredients.
Korea imports 98 per cent of its wheat flour, the main ingredient of noodles, amid the overproduction of homegrown rice.
Noodles were once an alternative meal that fed hungry Koreans in the wake of the 1950-53 Korean War. Today, however, they are pushing rice, which had been Koreans’ main meal for centuries, off the Korean dining table.
Joo Young-ha, a professor of Folklore Studies at the Academy of Korean Studies, says Koreans’ changing food preference is not alarming.
According to him, the main consumers of noodles are those who were born in the 1970s.
They spent their childhood years in the 1970s when the nation saw its first noodle boom, so were more accustomed to noodles than rice. Their dietary pattern has not changed as they grew older. They keep consuming noodles.
“The golden days for noodles in Korea came in the 1970s,” he said. “Those who were born in the 1970s when various noodle-based foods were a big hit are now in their 40s and they are the main consumers of noodles.”
U.S. aid in the wake of the Korean War triggered the first noodle boom. Commodities such as maize, wheat flour, powdered milk and fertiliser were main aid items sent to the war-torn country.
As wheat flour became abundant, the Korean public was able to have access to noodles. Unlike rice which was then rare and expensive, wheat flour was common and even working-class citizens were able to eat noodle soups.
The surge of various noodle-based dishes was then a new phenomenon; before the 1950s, noodles had never been a main part of Korean gastronomy.
During the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom, for example, noodles made from wheat were considered a luxury food item due to the nation’s low wheat production.
“Wheat was harvested once a year before the summer monsoon season and its production was very limited as territories that grew wheat were small,” Joo said. “So only the upper-class citizens in the northwestern and central part of the Korean Peninsula were able to eat dishes made with wheat flour, such as noodle soups and dumpling. The lower-class citizens consumed noodles made with buckwheat.”
Due to small production and no storage facilities, noodles in those days were a seasonal food available only during a certain time of year.
It was after the 1950s when the public began to eat noodles all year round as the supply of wheat flour suddenly soared, thanks to U.S. aid to Korea.
A low-carbohydrate campaign in the 1960s and 1970s also played a part to steer Koreans’ meal consumption from rice to noodles.
The government-led campaign calling for blending other grains into rice began in November 1962 when national rice production hit a low and soon led to crop price hikes.
The price of an 80-kilogramme bag of rice soared four times higher from the previous year. The government unveiled a set of measures to stabilise rice prices.
Under the scheme, retailers were required to blend 20 per cent of other grains in each bag of rice. Restaurants also had to follow the 20 per cent rule when serving rice to their clients. In schools, students had to show what’s inside their lunch box to make sure they followed the rule. Once a rice-only lunch box was discovered, the student in question was not allowed to eat it.
“We, Koreans, began to put dried rice in ‘seolleongtang,’ or broth soup made from ox bones, in the 1970s as part of the government-led low-carb campaign and the recipe has since continued until today,” Joo said.
Food columnist Hwang Young-chul said the 1988 Seoul Olympics served as another milestone in Korean gastronomy. Eating out has become part of Koreans’ lifestyle in the post-Olympic years as several fast-food franchises opened in the nation on the occasion of the Olympics.
“Koreans were exposed to a host of foreign dishes, including spaghetti, and they became the alternative meals and pushed rice and soup out of the dining table,” he said.
Wheat flour-based foods underwent another major change in the 1980s as Koreans’ noodle craze showed signs of declining. With the opening of bakery franchises and some foreign fast-food brands such as McDonald’s and Burger King in Seoul and other major cities around the country, bread became a hit. But bread has never become part of Koreans’ regular meals as they enjoyed it as a side dish or dessert.
Although the popularity of noodles waned in the 1980s after reaching its peak in the 1970s, Koreans continued to enjoy noodle dishes.
Among them, “jajangmyeon” or noodles with Chinese black soybean sauce played a key role to keep noodle dishes popular among Koreans.
The food appeared after 1883 when the western port city of Incheon was opened to the world following the Jemulpo Convention signed between Korea and Japan in 1992.
Over 500 Chinese migrated to the eastern part of the port city to make a living. The vast majority were male labourers who made ends meet by working at the port.
The Chinese accounted for 11 per cent of the entire Incheon population (which was merely 4,700) and their food habits later spread to Koreans.
“These Chinese labourers were called ‘coolies,’ unskilled migrant workers from a foreign country,” said Cho Yong-hee, a cultural interpreter working for the Dong-gu Office in Incheon. “They tried to make noodles they could eat fast that could make them full.”
She said the Chinese developed their own noodles based on a recipe they used when they lived in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. In the Korean port city, she said the Chinese labourers couldn’t find the ingredients for the sauce they ate, so they developed it with local ingredients. This is how they created their own unique Chinese-Korean delicacy, which has enjoyed popularity among Koreans for decades. Jajangmyeon was once a big hit among Koreans and they ate it with their families when they had something to celebrate.