South Korea is in the middle of a food revolution. Led by expats, returning Korean-Americans and Koreans who have fallen in love with food overseas, once unheard-of dishes are now being served up all over Seoul. Spinach and artichoke pizza, pulled pork sandwiches and Spanish paella were just exotic dreams 10 years ago, but today they're widely available, though price and quality can vary enormously.
Gemma Wardle, 31, is the self-described "fat girl" from England (though she lost significant weight two years ago). She is dedicated to documenting the Korean food revolution through her blog, A Fat Girl's Food Guide to Eating in Korea. In four years, the Fat Girl's Guide has become the go-to resource for foreign food in the Korean capital.
"I have been fat all my life," Wardle says, tucking into a slice of macaroni and cheese pizza at Maddux, a new by-the-slice pizzeria near her apartment. "And I'm a person who loves to eat."
The beginnings of a blog
Wardle began running the blog four years ago, after eating and shopping her way through the city. "I had this wealth of information, and people were always asking me, ‘Oh, how did you make this?' or ‘Where did you buy this?' or ‘Where's a good date restaurant?'" Wardle says. "And I was just sick of saying the same things over and over again. So I started writing it down."
Today it gets over 100,000 unique views a month, and advertisers are flocking to it. Wardle describes the blog as a "kimchi-free zone" that focuses on the influx of foreign food into this once isolated, now rapidly diversifying country. Though blogs covering Korean food are legion, there is little that focuses on the expanding foreign food market.
"I felt, as a Westerner living in Korea, I didn't need to find Korean food. It's everywhere you look," Wardle says. "For those people coming up to Seoul a couple times a year, I wanted to say look, come here, this is the place you need to eat at."
An international city
Though Wardle covers the whole of Seoul, she focuses mostly on the central neighborhood of Itaewon. Located near the gates of Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison, for decades it had a reputation as a sleazy, U.S. Army camptown, the place only soldiers, and the prostitutes who served them, would visit.
But beginning in the late 1990s, Itaewon started to gentrify -- the number of soldiers was drawn down, and those left were put on tighter leashes. Foreign businesspeople, English teachers and migrant workers began hanging out and opening businesses. Finally, Koreans themselves, eager for an "authentic" foreign experience in their own country, started visiting and investing their money. Today, it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.
"It's become more of an international kind of city," Wardle says, a phenomenon she attributes to Koreans traveling more and developing more of an international palate.
Cocktails -- which Wardle adores -- have also become popular, in a country where a few years ago the only way to get liquor at most bars was by the bottle. Wardle says today's other big trend is American comfort food, like barbecue, meatloaf and hamburgers.
A boom in restaurant growth
There has also been a liberalizing in trade laws that allows you to get nearly any ingredient you want, provided you can pay for it. A lot of the blog used to be recipes to make hard-to-find items from scratch, like cheese and yogurt. Today Wardle does much less of that, since almost everything is available on the shelves.
"I will still do a recipe now and again," she says. "And I used to do a lot more where-to-shop posts, and I will still throw one in if there's something worth doing. But I'd say the bulk now is restaurant reviews, where we used to be a bit more evenly split."
Every week there is at least one, and often up to four, new restaurants to review, a rate of growth unimaginable a few years ago. There are currently at least 300 restaurants listed on the blog -- Wardle doesn't know exactly how many.
Wardle continues to teach English part time. She'd like to only write the blog, but the money just isn't there yet. In the meantime, she plans to stay in Korea at least two more years before contemplating a return to the UK.
"I've loved living here, and I'm very happy writing here," Wardle says. "I just wish I'd started it sooner."