Recent studies suggest that when it comes to Korean food -- or Hansik -- consumers have clear preferences. For the past three years, the Rural Development Administration (RDA) has been surveying foreigners to find out which Korean foods are most popular and why. Overall, survey participants favored dishes with distinct seasonings: bulgogi with its sweet and spicy flavors, salads tossed with sour and tangy soy sauce and vinegar dressing, and spicy roast chicken seasoned with chili peppers.

In partnership with Ehwa Womans University, Seoul Women’s University, and Kyung Hee University, the RDA surveyed foreigners from France, Japan, China, and the U.S. from 2009 to 2011 in order to analyze trends in the globalization of Korean food. Instead of being asked to pick their favorite dish from a variety of dishes, participants were asked to choose their favorite recipe for the same dish from a variety of recipes that use varying proportions of seasoning and cooking methods.

Different versions of the same food were presented (photo courtesy of RDA).

Menu items were selected based on the versatility of their recipes -- seasoned dishes that taste different with different amounts of condiments, vegetable dishes that acquire different textures depending on cooking duration, and dishes like dakbokkeum (seasoned roast chicken) and jeon (fried vegetable pancakes) which can be reinvented by adding unique ingredients.

According to the survey results, American consumers tended to favor a sweeter and more savory bulgogi, seasoned with a sauce that uses 30% more salt and sugar than typical recipes. They also preferred their salads tangier with more vinegar and soy sauce.

The appeal of bibimbap varied with the type of ingredients, the texture of the vegetables, and also how long the ingredients had been boiled. The French, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean participants all preferred their bean sprouts fully boiled and their pumpkin and carrot slices only slightly blanched. The group was divided, however, when it came to spinach. While French and Chinese consumers tended to like fully cooked spinach, Japanese and Korean consumers preferred less-cooked versions.

Dakbokkeum, which is usually seasoned with a soy sauce base, was spiced up with red chili paste and dried chili peppers for the survey. Participants from all countries but Japan seemed to welcome the added heat.

Survey organizers used varying ratios of flour, potato starch, and buckwheat flour to make fried vegetable pancakes. Chinese participants tended to prefer the mixture containing 50% flour and 50% potato starch, while the rest of the participants were most satisfied with the dish made with only flour.

Participants rate dishes depending on their personal preference (photo courtesy of RDA).

The results on bulgogi seasoning were published in the Journal of Food Science, the international publication of the Institute of Food Technologists, in an article entitled “Sensory Characteristics and Cross-cultural Consumer Acceptability of Bulgogi.”

“Although a survey conducted in a few select cities cannot be said to represent the tastes of consumers across the globe, the results of our study, which included a sensory test, nonetheless provide a statistically reliable basis for exploring the appeal of Korean food among non-Koreans,” said Lee Jin-yeong, a researcher at the RDA.

By Lee Seung-ah Staff Writer