The new gastronomic aesthetic from Korea: Between disgust and appetite

Do these images fascinate or cause rejection? This new visual trend seeks to show the rawest, most visceral reality

Korean cuisine on Instagram
Korean street food in Seoul.Francois LOCHON (Getty)

At first glance, it might be difficult to understand what one is seeing. They are close-ups of shiny shapes, and they are appearing with increasing frequency on Instagram. What the photographs show are actually typical dishes of Korean gastronomy, portrayed in an unusual way that is captivating thousands of people around the world.

Guiyue Pei, from the Korean restaurant Casa Pei+ in Madrid, Spain, explains that even she does not recognize some of these dishes that users upload, and that she reads the descriptions to find out what she is looking at. “People who do not know Korean cuisine in depth will probably not understand those photos,” she says. Things like fried eggplants with sweet chili sauce (gaji tuigim), grilled cuttlefish (kap ojingo gui), steamed chicken (dak jjim) or cooked monkfish (age suyuk) are captured in an atypical way, as far as gastronomic photography is concerned.

These images convey the two key sensations of Korean gastronomy: spiciness and sweetness, explains Pei. Broadly speaking, the reddish colors express the former, and the gleam, a candy-like glow. Byul Nim Ro, co-owner of the Pocha restaurant and the Seoul Nadri Korean barbecue that she runs with her husband, chef Inhoi Joo, says that, in addition, Korean gastronomy aims to be harmonious, and it is cooked to be shared. The abundance of the dishes, as well as the extreme close-ups on the food, magnify a feeling of horror vacui that feeds, and even fills, just by looking at them.

Ro explains that, traditionally, Korean cuisine has been very mindful of plating: “It is important that a dish has obangsaek, that is, the five colors that are yellow, blue, white, red and black. Currently, for marketing reasons, it has become fashionable to break this rule, both in modern dishes and in the most traditional ones.” On the other hand, she sees the images as “very direct,” something that in her opinion is very attractive to the Korean public, but that “might not whet the appetite of someone who is not Korean or who doesn’t know the dishes.”

Photographer Joan Pujol-Creus, whose work includes more than a dozen recipe books, says that the images of this trend remind him of sampuru, the plastic food reproductions that show people who walk in front of restaurants in Japan what is being cooked inside. “They are photographs with exaggerated brightness, taken with the phone and with cold light, probably from a direct LED bulb. The way I see it, that brightness causes a lot of noise and eliminates some of the texture of the product. In addition, both the proximity of the food and the large amount that is shown, as well as that saturated color, produce an intoxicating effect. They get you drunk.”

“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe,” wrote John Berger in his classic book Ways of Seeing, which was based on the series of the same name broadcast by the BBC in 1973. Photographer and videographer Samuel Aranda — winner of the 2012 World Press Photo of the Year and the 2016 Ortega y Gasset Award — agrees that our culture and collective imagination determine the way we perceive images. “Speaking about images, Asia has always been at the forefront: they have a completely different way of looking and, therefore, a very different vision of the world.”

Aranda explains that what we are seeing today in these images of Korean gastronomy is also happening in other fields, such as fashion. “Since photography was invented, until the arrival of digital photography, technology was developed to achieve perfection, so that the image was as reliable as possible, which is why increasingly brighter optics and more sensitive, less grainy types of film were created. Today, the opposite is happening: there is a rebellion against perfectionism. We are bored by perfection, and we are experiencing a regression towards the imperfect.”

In the photographer’s opinion, the imperfection of these photographs is noticeable in the framings — which include elements that would not be there if they were aiming for something more polished — as well as the hard shine of the flash. “They are not looking for a commercial aesthetic, but rather something raw and visceral. There is an intention to unsettle the viewer, to take them out of their comfort zone. We can talk about a trend because many authors are following this same style.”

Do they fascinate or repel us? Do they stir our appetite, or our disgust? It is food porn on steroids. “They are not suggestive. They are bizarre. They take us to the limit of attraction and repulsion, a bit like some photographs by Martin Parr,” says Aranda. Be that as it may, they are part of a country’s new gastronomic culture; who knows if we will end up imitating it.

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