At the entrance of a Korean restaurant in an Insa-dong alley stands a large menu board introducing their dishes in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese, an effort to attract foreign tourists. We asked an American passing by if he can figure what anything is by looking at the menu. “‘Bean-curd refuse stew?’” he said. “Bean-curd I know, but what’s ‘refuse?’” What the restaurant meant to explain was that this is a stew made of the edible residue left over after making bean curd.
The menu is the “face” of a restaurant, the first thing customers look at before they taste the food. Menus in English especially serve to introduce unfamiliar food to foreigners with little or no knowledge of Korean food. But in many Korean restaurants in the tourist districts of Insa-dong and Myeong-dong, the poor translation only confuses foreign customers and serves as an obstacle to globalization of Korean cuisine rather than a help.
The most baffling thing to foreign customers is when the Korean name of a dish is simply transliterated, such as “doenjang-jjigae” and “seolleongtang” (two popular stews).
This provides no information. Choi Ji-a is a “food stylist” who gained a doctorate from Ewha Womans University in February for her English thesis “An Exploratory Study of Foodies’ Perception on Korean Food in New York City.” In the book, she records remarks by New York foodies that Korean food names are difficult to pronounce, spell and thus hard to remember and read the menu.
Well-known Korean restaurants including SamcheongGak, YongSusan and those in the N Seoul Tower are known for their commendable English menus. But this doesn’t come easy for most other small-scale mom and pop restaurants. Experts are calling on the government to issue a standard in menu translation.
The Korea Tourism Organization last year published guidelines on English menus and basic conversation for receiving foreign guests. It spelled out various Korean, Chinese and Japanese dishes in the three languages with help from language and food experts. The KTO also provides an expert translation service on tourist-related names that takes only a week. But only 6,000 copies of the guidebook were published, and few restaurants know about the translation service.
The Korean Food Guide, published in 2003 by the Korea Foundation, is being hailed as a juicier translation than the KTO guide. But 11,000 of the total 13,000 copies were distributed to overseas Korean missions, related agencies at home and at events abroad. The remaining 2,000 copies were sold here, but few restaurant owners know that such a book even exists.
Most experts advise Romanizing the name of the dish and attaching an explanation. Choi says she interviewed foreigners who had Korean food at least five times but still wanted the ingredients of kimchi (garlic, ginger, green onion, salted fish) to be explained. Choi advised that one or two sentences explaining the ingredients, cooking method and general taste as if to a child will suffice.
Standardizing the hard-to-pronounce Korean food names is also a way to embrace foreigners. Choi praised some Japanese restaurants in New York selling Korean pancakes “jeon” as “chichimi” for the easier pronunciation – but she also worries that Japan could someday take over the Korean panfried delicacy.