In August, videos of shoppers trying to get their hands on Trader Joe’s new frozen kimbap flooded TikTok. The item became so popular that it sold out until at least October 2023. What’s surprising isn’t just that this traditional Korean dish is available at a national grocery chain like Trader Joe’s, or even the impossible alchemy that makes it go from frozen (which it never is) to the microwave (kimbap should never be heated) to decently edible (maybe even good).
It’s that Trader Joe’s decided to use the dish’s real name.
As Korean food continues to rise in popularity across the country, there are wild inconsistencies in how big-box companies choose to name Korean dishes and ingredients. Sometimes, brands like Trader Joe’s will go with the romanized Korean name: “gochujang,” “tteok bok ki,” “japchae.” Other times, even when the item is well-known, the same brand will undergo a bizarre creative writing exercise to uncover never-before-seen spelling alternatives or long-winded descriptive names: “Bool Kogi” (i.e. bulgogi), “Korean Style Beef Short Ribs” (read: galbi), “Sweet Cinnamon Filled Korean Pancakes” (aka hotteok).
The challenge with all this? Mass-market grocery stores like Trader Joe’s can serve as a gateway for Americans to try Korean food for the first time — and naming matters. When a Korean dish is finally recognized by its actual name, it can go from “that thing that Koreans eat” to something familiar, potentially reaching the status of once-foreign but now-ubiquitous words like sushi and quesadilla. It no longer has to be perceived as a spin-off of another culture’s food, and can be a dish — and have an identity — unto itself. Once that happens, places like Trader Joe’s no longer have to moonlight as unofficial culinary thesauruses describing kimbap as “a mega-sized maki sushi roll,” but rather as a dish specific to a culture.
In the Bay Area, many Korean restaurants and storefronts are seeing this evolution play out in real-time. Businesses owned by Gen X and millennial Korean Americans are at the forefront, as their menus, format, and overall vibes seem to appeal to a younger generation of Koreans and non-Koreans alike.
Take Queens, a now-closed Korean American-run restaurant and storefront that continues to operate as an e-commerce site and pop-up. When they started the business, co-owners Clara Lee and Eddo Kim intentionally called everything exactly as it would be named, pronounced, or described in Korean. “Queens has always been our way of not only introducing products but also informing and educating the community at large,” Eddo Kim says. “We would get a lot of questions: ‘Why would you call this perilla and not shiso?’ ‘Why do you call it mu and not daikon?’ [Our customers] were trying to make a connection with something they were familiar with, but it was important for us to show that there is a distinction. I think that it’s a really important part of what we continue to try to do at Queens.”
Of course, there wasn’t an expectation that everyone who visited could speak Korean or read hangul, but Lee and Kim made a conscious decision to write nearly all of the menu in romanized Korean. In choosing to call their products, ingredients, and dishes by their original names, the co-owners cultivated a space that lent itself to organic conversation, especially with their non-Korean patrons, which led to a deeper understanding of the food. “[Questions around] words like ‘jjoerim’ or ‘bokkeum’ or ‘muchim’ would come up often because it’s part of the title and also addresses exactly how the dish is prepared and what it is,” Lee says. “For us, [naming products this way] was so intentional because it was an opportunity for us to continue to have learning moments together, whether it was to help make Korean food and ingredients be more mainstream or just doing justice to the dish.”
For Kummi Kim, the Korean American co-owner and chef at Ilcha, a Korean restaurant and bar in the Marina, the importance of “calling it what it is’’ extends beyond the name of a dish or ingredient. Yes, everything on Ilcha’s menu (save the words “tater tots” and “oyster”) uses a Korean name or word. But it’s also embedded into the name Ilcha — which means “first round” — and the title of her food menu, anju, “food paired with drinks.” Using the original words connects them to the Korean drinking culture as a whole. “Here [in the U.S.] it’s really straightforward: You go to happy hour, then dinner and drinks, then done,” Kummi says. “[In Korea,] your drinks are based on what you’re eating. We start with somaek, and then we’ll have makgeolli, then soju, and maybe finish with cocktails. It’s lively. It’s exciting.”
Like Clara and Eddo, Kummi’s decision to use the Korean names helps to further her customers’ understanding of what Korean dining is like in Korea — and in the process, helps to push more of the culture into the spotlight. “I would love to expose people to more than just the green bottle of soju that they’re accustomed to,” Kummi says. “I feel like with the accessibility of more Korean spirits that are available to us here now, it’s something that just came natural to push forward. We don’t have a large wine list or sake. I wanted to feature Korean sojus and artisanal spirits that are made in America but by Koreans, like Hana Makgeolli in Brooklyn; Cho Wines, who are producing wines up in Oregon; and Dokkaebier here in Oakland.”
At the end of the day, making Korean food part of the mainstream isn’t the main goal for these restaurateurs, but it is certainly a welcome bonus. The more the names of Korean dishes and drinks are widely known among American diners, the more they’ll be able to usher the story forward. “A lot of the Korean producers, creators, and restaurateurs are creating a new narrative — not just copy-pasting what’s happening in Korea,” Eddo Kim says. “It’s an exciting time and juncture where it’s going to start diverging in a really positive way, and it’s going to be really exciting to see.”