The Koreo-Sarem: Discovering Korean Food in Central Asia

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

– Anthony Bourdain

Kimchi. Kimbap. Korean fried chicken.

I’m guessing these aren’t the items you were expecting on a Central Asian restaurant’s menu, right?

Yet, in the two months we explored this incredible region of the world, these are the items that kept popping up in traditional bazaars, mall food courts, and downtown restaurants of any large Central Asian city.

Why is there so much Korean food, we started to wonder. And so began our quest to find the answer, leading us into a history lesson of incredible cultural importance. This quest ultimately led us a deeper understanding of Central Asia, a region that is so multi-cultural and complex, it is hard to summarize in a few sentences if someone were to ask “what is Central Asian food?

When trying to describe and make sense of anywhere in the world, perhaps the best place to start is with food. It’s something we can all understand, something Anthony Bourdain advocated which can connect cultures around the world. And through this common ground, perhaps we can start to piece together a sense of understanding of the unknown.

“Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.”

– Anthony Bourdain

The origins of Korean food in Central Asia trace back to Siberia. Today there are approximately 400,000 Koreans in Central Asia. They are not new immigrants but are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation Koreo-saram, as they refer to themselves, meaning Korean Person. By non-Koreans and Russians, they were termed Sovetskiii Koreets (Soviet Koreans). They arrived to Russia and Siberia around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, drawn to this vast and sparsely populated land by job opportunities, many of whom escaped Japanese concentration camps. They retained their language and culture for many years, building successful thriving communities. However, during the Stalin purges of the 1930s, thousands were deported over one fateful night to Central Asia very suddenly, to a land that was foreign to them and their ways of life. They were able to slowly build their lives back, and eventually became respected people within their communities across what is now termed as the “Stan Countries”. Today, most do not speak Korean and have lost their language; instead they speak perfect Russian and the local languages across the region. But what thrived was their food; through their food, they could pass down their heritage from generation to generation; food, it seems, was strongest way to advocate their culture, keep it alive, and as restaurants formed across the region, food had the power to build cultural bridges between the Koreans, and the local and Russian populations.

Because we stayed the longest time in Kyrgyzstan, volunteering and living in Bishkek, we became more familiar with the Korean presence there, despite there being a larger population in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. We met local Koreans working in restaurants we frequented and hostels we stayed at.

Our favorite Korean restaurant in Central Asia is Chicken Star, located in Kyrgyzstan. It was recommended in our Lonely Planet Guidebook, and upon entering it we assumed it to be an expat restaurant. We were wrong. It had the feel and look of a typical expat restaurant with its log wood interior, but almost all patrons were local Kyrgyz. The owner is Korean. They help support the local community by featuring local artists’ art work on the walls inside the restaurant, and hold various events such as Russian poetry night, which is what we listened to as we drank soju, and ate kimbap and Korean fried soy chicken. It truly was what one would call an authentic Central Asian Korean restaurant, a blend of the two cultures that we think seems to define the identity of Kyrgyz-Koreans.

What are your favourite Korean restaurants in Central Asia? Share in the comments below and help fellow travellers experience and help keep alive the diverse mosaics of culture in Central Asia through its food.

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