What would you do if you had a few days to pack all of your things and move to a foreign land at an unknown location? That’s what many Koreans faced during the mid-1930s when Joseph Stalin’s anti-Asian policies removed 200,0000 Koreans from a peaceful Russian settlement in East China to Central Asia. However, Koreans adapted to life, creating wonderful dishes that fused Uzbek, Russian, and Korean foods in the process.
How does it taste?
This type of food is called Koryo Saram, named after the Koreans who settled in Central Asia. The dishes are a medley of heavy European flavors mixed with spicy and tangy Korean spices and seasonings. For instance, kimchi is a distinctly-Korean cabbage that undergoes fermentation and is mixed with various spices and seasonings, but the makers of Koryo Saram kimchi dip it in vinegar and add pickled tomatoes, a Central Asian custom.
You’ll also find kuksi, deriving from the Korean-based guksu. Kuksi begins with traditional Uzbek chilled broth and includes cabbage crisps, noodles, cucumbers, and strips of beef and omelet all blended together.
As you eat Koryo Saram food over time, you’ll notice the addition of some familiar delights, such as coffee, bread, and milk. Such breakfast items hail from Russian culinary and cultural influence.
From Russia with love, or lack thereof
Before settling in Central Asia, the Koryo Saram people were Koreans who migrated to the Russian territory after an intense famine devastated the Korean peninsula. Although Koreans have migrated there for centuries, Russians officially acquired the territory from China in the late 1800s. However, Russians grew concerned as Koreans outnumbered settlers, and authorities imposed a mandate that all Koreans who settled in the territory must adopt the Russian culture. The decree manifested in certain Russian-inspired dishes, such as the carrot salad topped with garlic, vinaigrette, cayenne pepper, among other seasoned ingredients.
It was during this time that Koreans fused Russian culinary delights with Korean food. During the 1930s, however, Russian leaders believed many Koreans were aligned with the Japanese, even though many of them aided Russia in the Russo-Japanese War against the Japanese in the early 1900s. Without warning, Soviet agents killed or imprisoned many Koreans and forcibly relocated them to Central Asia, which was part of the USSR at the time.
During forced removal, the sick and elderly who could not travel were killed or abandoned. Those who were left behind found themselves in labor camps, where they died from disease or starvation. During the month-long excursion, it is believed that as many as 72,000 Koreans died during the relocation campaign.
How Koreans adapted in central Asia
Settlement in Central Asia was equally harsh, as many displaced Koreans settled in farming towns and swampland, struggling to find adequate food. With that, the locals worked with Koreans, teaching them how to hunt and grow food.
The Koryo Saram grew accustomed to their new life, intermarried with locals, and absorbed Central Asian customs. The end result was the succulent Koryo Saram dishes we know today. However, Koreans living in Central Asia retained some uniquely-Russian habits, such as drinking vodka and consuming bread. Many Koreans no longer wanted to return to the Russian settlement or Korea and stayed in Central Asia.
Where can I find Koroyo Saram?
You can find Koryo Saram cuisine if you travel to parts of Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, and other parts of Central Asia. Moreover, you can search for certain restaurants throughout the United States that serve it. Although Koryo Saram is not as popular as other ethnic foods, entrepreneurial chefs are spreading the word about this fusion cuisine and may be coming to a neighborhood near you.