Fusing flavors at the cost of abandoning culture

There is an alarming shortage of good Western style Korean restaurants in Seattle. The problem with these fusion restaurants is not that there aren’t proper ingredients to accommodate the blending flavors, but it is the lack of deep understanding for the individual cultures, which can lead to a faulty cultural mash. While achieving the ideal taste is important, food also requires a particular atmosphere or even a special celebration for a person to truly appreciate the dish.

Most of these fusion restaurants, however, fail to grasp an entire tradition and, instead, pick out the dishes that are easy to replicate. Furthermore, many restaurants that are allegedly Western fusion usually just serve watered-down dishes; this is especially evident when Asian restaurants have to scale down their spicy levels.

An example of a failed fusion restaurant would be Girin, a Korean restaurant located near the Century Link Field, which uses “contemporary cooking techniques,” according to their website, by their chef Brandon Kirksey. Girin mainly specializes in lettuce-wrapped meat, or ssam, but it also serves a variety of Korean dishes. There are multiple problems with Girin and some of them are not even food-related.

First, the name of the restaurant means giraffe in English, but the restaurant’s insignia on their menus is a Kirin, which is a Japanese word for a majestic dragon-like deer. It’s understandable that the two words can be easily mistaken for each other, however the owner of the restaurant Steven Han is Korean, which makes this more disappointing.

In addition, Girin’s food is not noticeably better than any other reasonably priced Korean restaurants around the city. For example, their ssam plates are outrageously small when compared to other Korean restaurants, giving customers only a handful of lettuce wraps and a dollop of ssamjang, a spicy dipping paste. Ssam is relatively easy to prepare, requiring cooked pork or marinated beef, slices of garlic and chili peppers and a basket of perilla and lettuce. It’s supposed to be a large dish that can be shared with family and friends, however Girin’s ssam plates can barely serve four people.

On the other hand, the atmosphere of the restaurant is quite trendy, with soft-colored lights guiding customers into either the bar or the dining area. The restaurant is built with mostly wood and the lights are all in non-geometrical covers. Other traditional Korean restaurants do not normally share this modern design. The best Korean restaurants are those that have a homey atmosphere, where a Korean person would expect their mom to be coming out of the kitchen with a plate of spicy kimchi soup. In an effort to be trendy and modern, Girin sacrificed a variety of aspects in the Korean culture that are crucial to any Korean restaurant.

Girin, however, is not the only restaurant that does this. Many other restaurants in Seattle, and cities around the world, that claim to be fusion or contemporary tend to only represent the superficial qualities of a culture. As a result, though the food looks like it is a fusion of two cultures, the atmosphere and flavors usually shift to one side.

This does not mean that all fusion restaurants fail at combining cultures. Successful fusion restaurants know how to properly combine flavors because they truly understand the depths of each culture.