How Korean Seaweed Got Turned into a Health Food
For decades, Korean laver (seaweed) was barely eaten outside of the Korean community. Today, itsu, Waitrose, and countless organic retailers sell Westernised versions of the stuff, promoting it as a low-calorie snack.
Photo via Flickr user Emily
Gochujang and seaweed (gim) aren't quite as hallowed in Korean cuisine as kimchi, but they're close. Gochujang—the sweet and spicy paste that's like a less tart sriracha—and seasoned gim are staples of many rice-based meals. They're also becoming increasingly popular among non-Koreans, thanks to a combination of globalised pop culture, inventive chefs, and savvy marketing.
Take seaweed. For decades, the Korean stuff was rarely eaten outside of the Korean community, found in East Asian stores on a more remote shelf than popular Japanese nori. It was called "laver"—a word few of us have ever said out loud—and its imported packaging was almost exclusively in Korean.
Today, the British-Asian fast food chain itsu produces its own laver, but calls it "crispy seaweed thins." Organic food company Clearspring prefers "sea veg crispies," while Welsh seaweed producer Selwyn's uses the term "seaweed snack." These products come in multiple flavours, from honey and sesame to sweet soy and sea salt. They also trumpet their health and ethical benefits (organic, gluten-free, vegan, low-calorie, olive oil-dusted—rather than sesame oil-doused like nori), which has started to influence the labelling of Korean-produced seaweed.
Natalie Sugarman, head of marketing at itsu's grocery division, tells me: "itsu were the first brand to bring seaweed thins to the UK market (a top-selling snack in Korea) back in 2012." From the beginning, she says, the chain stressed the nutritional benefits of the seaweed, such as its high iodine levels.
Sugarman calls the thins "authentically Asian—made by a family run business in South Korea." As for the not-very-traditional name? It was chosen to be "as simple and descriptive as possible," while tying into the market for vegetable crisps, "to try and make the then unique product relatable to a UK consumer, who may have originally not been tempted to try."
Waitrose, meanwhile, brought out its Korean line last year. The supermarket's executive chef Jonathan Moore tells me: "We started to see a trend for Korean food emerging in restaurants and Korean street food pop-ups a couple of years ago, and even more so in 2016 with the increasing popularity of kimchi."
The itsu seaweed thins are less oily and salty than traditional Korean laver. This makes them less tasty, but it also means they're less likely to leave your fingers feeling greasy and gritty.
Korean-style seaweed can therefore be an object lesson in the commodification of "ethnic" products for majority culture: these products are made milder, healthier, more varied in flavour—and of course, more expensive. Itsu seaweed thins retail for up to £1 per 5-gram pack. At Seoul Plaza in London's Golders Green neighbourhood, 45 grams of the plain stuff would run you £3.59, or nine times more product for less than four times the price.
Gochujang—a ubiquitous condiment in Korean cuisine—is another case in point. As a food marketer, how do you make an ethnic minority product more palatable to the majority?
If gochujang is any indication, you eliminate taboo ingredients like corn syrup and MSG. You make it more convenient to use (putting it in pourable and squeezable packages, rather than the traditional rectangular tubs). You add non-traditional spices and seasonings (Waitrose's gochujang chili paste contains cumin, oregano, and yeast extract). You give customers guidance on how to use it (gochujang-style paste is included in Tesco's Korean bibimbap meal kit). You slap a knowing or cutesy logo on it (the logo of Ajumma Republic, founded in 2014, features a faceless woman who resembles a cross between a rockabilly hipster and a Korean aunt). And, again, you charge more by using smaller packages.
This price uptick isn't always inevitable, especially for something initiated by a minority entrepreneur. Ahmad Jamal, an expert in ethnic marketing and entrepreneurship who's based at Cardiff Business School, gives me the example of Indian food company Patak's, whose products "tap into the value-conscious consumer."
This is monetary value, but another crucial value is cultural cachet. It's not uncommon for retailers and food producers to seize upon the cultural cool of minority-group products. Jamal explains: "There is some evidence to suggest that mainstream brands like McDonald's consider minority consumers to be trendsetters and hence benchmark them for effective mainstream strategies."
In his opinion, the key to success "is to communicate that it is a culturally authentic product," meaning that it's "worth using a mix of mainstream and culturally authentic material on packaging." This might mean mainstream-focused products mimicking the traditional shape of Korean gochujang containers, using Korean script, and referencing Korean dishes. "Authenticity" is only needed up to a point. Waitrose, for example, mixes Japanese and Korean items by including gochujang paste in its katsu curry kit.
Jay Lee, the manager of the Seoul Plaza shop, has noticed an uptick in seaweed sales to white English customers in the past six months. Gochujang, he reports, is less popular among non-Koreans, but white customers who do buy it often intend to use it for tteokbokki, the spicy rice cake dish.
He attributes increased sales to the reach of Korean pop culture—characters in Korean dramas are forever chewing on tteokbokki. And, if recent sales are anything to go by, it seems British diners may soon be too.