The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed many residents of Milwaukee the time to improve their cooking skills, either to preserve their sanity during isolation or from simple necessity. One thing I never expected was that watching food preparation would become part of my entertainment and exercise routine.
I am not a foodie, but I really do like food. And I have always loved Korean dishes, particularly kimchi. I could eat those pickled vegetables directly out of the ceramic pot after fermenting. But for an actual meal, I have enjoyed bibimbap and bulgogi for most of my life.
That appreciation came from cultural exposure, and many wonderful experiences. In my childhood, I was rarely exposed to ethnic food that was not completely Americanized. So I feel fortunate as a young adult to have both a curiosity and opportunity to explore foods from around the world.
My exposure to Korean meals came first from friends in Milwaukee’s Korean American community, and later during my time in Seoul, Suwon, Incheon, South Korea. And as I refer to Korean food as a general term, I mean food from Korean culture.
I have always enjoyed watching cooking shows, going back to old reruns of Julia Child. There is something soothing about preparing food. And to my way of thinking, it is absolutely an art form.
I am fascinated how ingredients combine to produce flavors. And mystified how some food was created. Who was it that thought to take a specific plant and process it in a certain way, then combine it with other elements in just the right order, and add the proper amount of heat? It is edible science.
But cooking is not like engineering. With a bridge or building, I can see a structure and design as it follows a liner plan to take shape. Producing food does follow a plan, but often it appears to be magical. Combine all these elements in a certain way, in specific steps, then abracadabra. You have a delicious cake and not a plant-based brick.
So many foods are not done until they are done. An apple can be picked from a tree, but not a pizza. And unlike a construction process, many foods are not finished until they are finished. At any step in the preparation process things can fail. After all, a cake is just a thick liquid until heat is applied.
As kid I would listed to stories from Aunts and Uncles about a meal at a corner deli or a specialty kind of street food in the old neighborhood. Such things were extinct by the time I came along, and I was content with mall food or prepackaged preprocessed edibles.
When I discovered Solly’s Grille, a place that not only made butter burgers but where I could sit at a counter, it was like talking a trip in a time machine. That coincided with the late 1990s, when it seemed like cooking shows took off on cable.
I remember reluctantly watching some of those programs. Then, getting hooked. Many shows were interesting because of the artistry of showing how dishes were made. For me, it was not like watching Julia Child to learn how to cook, it was a magic show using edible objects. Then there was a flood of copycat shows and the focus shifted. To differentiate themselves, those cooking shows became more about the cook’s personality and less about the food preparation process. It reminded me of MTV, which actually started by playing music videos.
But around that time, fate took me to Japan. It seemed like almost every show there was food related. Not so much preparing the food as just eating it. People sat around and ate food and talked about the food they were eating. The Japanese word for delicious is “oishii.” If I heard that once I heard it a million times. Everything was oishii. It was such a dominantly used word, it literally would have been all the Japanese language I would have needed to know to be on one of those food shows.
In Japan, and later China, I learned to enjoy food. Really enjoy it. There were some chain restaurants, so they would be fun to try for comparison. Like McDonalds in Hiroshima or pepperoni pizza at Pizza Hut in Beijing. But mostly, I enjoyed eating local. The more rundown or offbeat a restaurant was, the more oishii the food.
The experiences reminded me of those stories from my family elders. I was going to the corner Mom-and-Pop joints. And fresh food was so abundant. I did not ever consider myself a vegetarian, but I sure ate more vegetables than ever before in my life. Every morning the farmers would bring in freshly harvested agricultural produce to the market downstairs.
I often preferred the simple and basic types of food, which frustrated my friends. They wanted to eat fancy dishes and not indulge in a “peasant meal.” What I liked about street food was watching it be prepared. Mostly so I could understand what I was eating, and its quality. But also because I still found the preparation fascinating.
Some of my fondest, and a few frightful, memories are of those culinary experiences. Upon returning to America, and later Milwaukee, I tried to find here – as best I could – what I loved so much there. Downtown did not have many Mom-and-Pop joints, but at least what existed nearby were not the chain franchises of suburbia.
Flash forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its second winter and third year. As I began my autumn exercise routine on the treadmill in September, it was painfully clear that the lengthy pandemic had practically exhausted all the binge worthy content of interest to me. So I looked beyond what was produced in English.
I was in Japan in 2001 when the Korean Wave or “Hallyu” really took off. Almost a couple decades later it finally reached mainstream America, with K-pop and K-dramas like Netflix’s “Squid Games” and “Kingdom.”
Early in 2021 I wrote about how I virtually walked across half of Japan as a way to exercise and endure the early isolation days of the pandemic.
- Read: Video playlist of virtual walks across Japan offers a way to step out of the isolated madness of COVID-19
- Read: In step with Rambalac: How I walked 1,000 miles across Japan during a pandemic without leaving Milwaukee
For the Autumn/Winter 2022 season, I was prepared to watch more of those walking adventures while on the treadmill. Then for some odd reason, my Youtube timeline had a segment about how an industrial bakery made candy.
I remember watching a show as a kid, about how Japanese candy was created to have the face of a mythical character. Different colors of taffy were stretched and wrapped together in combination. That format was how the face design was created. So I was interested to see what turned out to be a Korean version of a similar candy, that made fruit candy with fruit designs in them. It was fascinating to watch all those blobs of colorful taffy get slowly rolled together, and magically create artwork from sugar.
Sometime later, another video appeared in my timeline, about how instant noodles were made. As a staple of my diet for many years, I was curious about that production. On and on it went, until I subscribed to those Youtube channels and they worked their way into my exercise routine.
The two categories of food production that I watched were for street food and factory food. In the factories, the workers go through a hygiene procedure that looks like they will step into a clean room at NASA. But no, they are just baking bread or chicken nuggets.
And food stands or small restaurants made the most exquisite local dishes. One segment included a “flower” pepperoni pizza that made me drool, because the pepperoni absolutely covered it. There were local dishes, many that I was familiar with, and similar food types from other Asian countries.
That was how I came to watch Korean cooking shows for my treadmill season this year. They are not narrated, which I am thankful for because it is not necessary. Occasionally there will be a subtitle in English explaining something. Otherwise, it is fun and soothing to watch the culinary creations.
I admit that it seems counter intuitive to watch food preparation while working out. And it is a big setup for disappointment. I am within walking distance of an amazing Korean restaurant, but their menu has a fraction of the types of food I watch being prepared – like a cotton candy burrito.
Otherwise, many foods are prepared in the videos that are not specific to Korea, like cakes and hamburgers. I do live above a restaurant even now and can go downstairs to eat. And I can get fresh cakes from nearby grocery stores, or ingredients for my own cooking. But it is not the same type deliciousness that I see on Youtube.
It is kind of like how grocery store samples of food always taste better than when the same thing is made at home. I like to cook, and I like the artistry of the cooking process, improving my method over time. Street food just seems far more satisfying, which is why food at Milwaukee festivals or State Fair seems so popular.
Embedded here is a playlist featuring an assortment of Youtube videos of Korean cooking and food production that I have curated, mostly from the FoodyTrip 푸디트립 and YumYum 얌얌 channels. They are of various lengths, but most under 15 minutes. I often like the short segments as filler, when a movie I am watch ends and I still have time left in my workout. Or I can watch a bunch and see a variety of foods.
So as Milwaukee continues to endure the pandemic, and as many look for ways to keep our brains entertained – or at least occupied with things that are not so terrible – I hope that this collection offers a needed break with soothing visual. mkeind.com/KoreanFoodVideo
As an offshoot of the food streaming trend in Korea, mukbang has also become a sensation. A portmanteau of two Korean words “Muk” = eat and “Bang” = room, eating shows have been getting a lot of attention. Unlike the Japanese food shows I was first exposed to, where everyone sat in the studio to eat, Youbuters go out to restaurants and video stream their meal. The popularity of this has been has been ascribed to ASMR.
“Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos conjure up sensory feelings as a way to soothe and relax audiences. ASMR, in combination with mukbang videos, are vicarious forms of entertainment, like a para-social interaction in which the viewer feels a strong sense of connection to the Youtuber.”
One mukbang YouTuber known as tzuyang 쯔양 has 5.37M subscribers, who basically watch a very tiny young woman eat mountains of food. It makes an interesting bookend of videos to view the cooking process required to prepare Tteokboki – a simmered rice cake, for example, then the eating process of a very large meal featuring Tteokboki.