His new book takes readers onan eating tour through the food-centric country.
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graham holliday
Credit: © Josh White

Graham Holliday's new book, Eating Korea: Reports On a Culinary Renaissance, now available from Anthony Bourdain's Ecco Books, is not an encyclopedia of Korean cuisine. Instead, Holliday's aim was to whet the appetites of his readers. "I just wanted to talk about enough to get people interested," he explains. "I didn’t want this book to be some kind of endurance test. It has to be about pleasure, and nurturing a sense of exploration in readers."

Unlike Holliday's first book, Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table, which was more journalism-infused-memoir than food guide, he describes Eating Korea as "a modern day travelogue with food as my lens." However, when you're attempting to document the state of regional cuisine in a particular country at a particular time, to what lengths does a writer need to go? How in-depth did Holliday need to get to better understand the food and eating culture of contemporary Korea? Well, besides the nine notebooks worth of notes, 60 or 70 recorded interviews and 6,000 photographs the writer took along the way, it was his passion for Korean culture that assisted him in his research above all else.

The food was just the beginning

For Holliday, Eating Korea is not just about food, but about the current state of Korea as a whole. "I wanted to cherry pick some regional dishes and use them as a springboard to explore bigger themes about food, culture and how Korean society is evolving," he says. "My book is called Eating Korea, but I think it’s just as much about the society and culture of Korea today as it is about food."

Holliday wanted to document a changing country

Holliday felt his personal experience added an element to the story that hadn't been seen before. "I have the benefit of having lived in South Korea over twenty years ago and that knowledge was utterly invaluable," he says. "It helped me see the huge number of changes in a very vivid manner. It is very much an outsider’s view, but not an expat’s view—it’s an outsider’s snapshot, my snapshot."

book cover
Credit: © Harper Collins

The research process was delicious

"I’ve eaten hundreds of Korean meals in Korea, way more than ended up in the book, and, in hindsight, all that eating constitutes research," he says. "When I lived in Korea, I very rarely ate foreign food and Korean colleagues and friends were keen to show me as much of their food as they could."

Differentiating between regions was important

Korean food varies tremendously by region, a point Holliday concentrated on while preparing for his trip. "I planned where I would visit quite carefully and I think I hit between fifteen and twenty cities, towns, villages and hamlets and I visited all nine provinces," he says. "I spent about six weeks in country for the book. I originally planned to make two or three visits, but in the end the book took on a life of its own."

He went in search of rare tastes

While Korean food can now be found across the globe, there are still certain ingredients that never leave Korea itself. "I’m talking about herbs, roots, berries and leaves which only appear at certain times of the year and, even in Korea, you only get to experience them if you go to certain places, normally in the countryside," he says. "That’s not possible to replicate outside Korea, because these things don’t all grow outside Korea."

The experience of eating is what he misses most

Asked what he misses, now that the project is done, Holliday describes a scene: "I’m at the coast, on a harbour wall somewhere, plastic stools and braziers kind of place. It’s probably quite rowdy," he says. "I’m with a friend, and we’ve got a small dish of raw cut up sea squirts (meongge 멍게) and a cold bottle of soju to share. The sun is about to go down, we've just chosen a fish from a small aquarium and an old woman is cutting into Korean-style sashimi, and after this we’ll have a hot and spicy fish stew, Maeun-tang (매운탕), made with the leftovers of our fish. I don’t even like soju, but that combination of raw sea squirt and rough alcohol is electric."