Friday, July 17, 2009

The Way the Kogi Crumbles

From The Wall Street Journal (hat tip: Koreanfornian Cooking):

Kogi, a humble lunch truck, became instantly famous in Los Angeles last November when it began selling Korean tacos: grilled short ribs marinated in Korean flavorings, topped with Asian slaw, and wrapped in Mexican tortillas. Today, Kogi, has three trucks, a lounge, 36,000 Twitter followers, and lines around the block wherever they park.

Kogi had a great Internet-era, come-from-nowhere run selling something no one else had—until now, maybe. It’s not surprising that Korean-style tacos are popping up at restaurants around the country. But Baja Fresh, 283-unit casual Mexican food chain went a step further last month when it tested a version of the Korean taco at one of its restaurants and called it “the Baja Kogi taco.”

Highway robbery? No, says the corporation: “There were certainly no intentions to rip off a name or a product,” says Chuck Rink, president of Fresh Enterprises, which owns Baja Fresh.

This is an only-in-America story. It has dynamic and valuable cultural evolution. The Korean taco trucks have quickly become the hottest thing in LA, despite their humble circumstances. And it has cultural fusion: Korean insides wrapped in a Mexican outside. Not to mention that the spokesperson quoted in the article for the taco-truck company, Caroline Shin-Manguera, has a last name that bespeaks neither Latino nor Asian culture, but something altogether new. The addition of lawyers to the mix is what officially assimilates the tale into the melting pot.

The success of the Korean taco truck, and the need of a big corporation to get in on it, is a lesson in how foolish a lot of thinking about culture in the age of globalization is. Culture is never pure. It is always subject to outside influences, which are not bacterial contamination but instead experimentation, often for the better. "Protecting" some imaginary pure culture ideal form is thus equally foolish. And, contra anti-globalization hysterics, this an instance of the big corporation having to adjust its behavior because of innovation from below, and in so doing bringing a new cultural form - the Korean taco - to far more people. This is culture in a globalized world, and we are lucky to be alive to sample it.



Blogger Joshua said...

Culture is never pure. It is always subject to outside influences, which are not bacterial contamination but instead experimentation, often for the better. "Protecting" some imaginary pure culture ideal form is thus equally foolish.

AFAIK no one is claiming that Kogi tacos are anything other than the hybrids they are, so it seems to me there's no "contamination" going on with either Mexican or Korean culture anyway.

Actually the story of Kogi reminded me of a Michael Klavan post from a couple weeks ago:

Private minds create a useful product to meet their needs: like Gorp, or trail mix, a blend of raisins and nuts made by campers to deliver a natural and healthy blast of energy during a hike in the woods. Some smart company gets the idea to package and sell the product. After the product reaches its full customer base of, say, hikers and health-minded snackers, the company seeks to expand the product’s appeal while maintaining its identity. So they add carob or yogurt covered raisins: sweeter, so more people will buy it, but still arguably “natural,” and “healthy,” although now with quotation marks. Then someone at the company says, well, hey, if people like sweet stuff so much, why not add something really sweet like, say, M & M’s? So ultimately Gorp, while weirdly retaining some completely undeserved aura of healthiness, is transformed into sugary garbage.

Klavan didn't say, but presumably Gorp lost much of its original health-conscious customer base once its marketers stripped the product of its authenticity. Would Kogi still have been the success story it is, had they tried to expressly market their tacos as authentically Mexican or authentically Korean cuisine, when in reality they are neither here nor there? In the same vein, one is left to wonder how well Kogi tacos would be received in Mexico and South Korea* themselves, as opposed to the nation that wrote the book on cultural fusion.

* Short of the Dear Leader taking a liking to these tacos, Kogi would probably find it a tad difficult to start running any trucks on the other side of the DMZ.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

People often make claims that global cultural flows result in damage to small cultures helpless to resist the Disneyfication of their societies, and so Kogi, I think, is an example of what culture really is - never pure, always interacting.

In that vein, I have my globalization students read an article about a Japanese woman who studied in the US for a few years, saw what the Japanese restaurant she was working at had done to sushi (adding cream cheese and chili peppers, e.g.), and after overcoming her revulsion took it back to Japan and found that some Japanese liked it some of the time, which made her a lot of money.

Kogi is the kind of thing that makes cultural protectionists uncomfortable, but that reveals the poverty of cultural protectionism.

1:33 PM  

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