Food, globalisation, and cultural capital


Food is not only the product of context, but it can also transform into the context itself. Culturally and ecologically food carries meanings and symbolism (Fischler, 1988; Mintz & Bois, 2002). For instance, eating sushi at a sushi bar or at home can deliver the sense of Japan through the shape of the food, the way it was cooked, and the way people eat. In this respect, sushi is closely related to the culture of Japan, not just as a mere food made of raw fish and rice. In this paper, I will explore the surroundings and the understanding of one Korean dish called kimchi, and look into its relations to globalisation and influence through the concept of “cultural capital”. Cultural capital, according to Bourdieu, is the form of capital which determines one’s social position through the accumulation of it. The growing global recognition of kimchi can be seen as growing cultural capital in the globalising world in terms of influence. In fact, South Korea’s effort to promote its cultures abroad began with the influence of American cultures. As a defensive measure, it strove to gain more recognition through its cultural objects in other cultures, with the aim of transforming the nation from the “influenced” to the “influencing”. Through commodification and commercialisation of cultures, the nation was able to export its diverse forms of popular cultures to other countries. With the moderate success of popular culture industries, more investment has been put into promoting Korean food. As the recognition of Korean food grew, there have been some visible changes in the social ecology it resides, including its relations with people and the environment. First, the names of Korean dish does not need to be translated into English. As more and more people learn the names of Korean dish, the need to explain them in different means of reference has been reduced. Second, kimchi, one of the most smelly food, is being accepted in neutral environments such as international flights. These changes, to some extent, imply the influence of Korean food in the global arena. The main sources of the research are journals, books, and news articles. However, my personal encounter with the changes is also included.


In March 2018, I was on a plane from Frankfurt to Incheon airport, South Korea. As the food cart arrived, an old Korean man sitting in the front row ordered Korean food without a moment of hesitation. Two women sitting next to him ordered other meals. Once everyone in that row received trays of food, the old man started talking to the women, “do you know Korean food?” One woman answered and asked politely presumably pointing at the small package of Kimchi, “what is this?” After some exchange of questions and answers, the man started to convince the women about how good Korean food is. I turned my attention back to my small screen attached to the back of the chair, thinking it is a typical scene in which Koreans proudly convince the goodness of Korean food to foreigners. After emptying my Korean meal in a small tray, I had to play Tetris with food containers on my tray trying to figure out how to organise each of the boxes while not spilling the juice from the Kimchi package. Kimchi is a Korean staple side dish made from salted and fermented napa cabbage and radish with chilli powder. It has a particularly strong smell that dissuades people from trying. Even for Koreans, searching for information on how to remove the smell of Kimchi in their refrigerator or containers is a common practice. As I did not want to spread the strong smell of the fermented vegetables all over the plane, I had to be careful handling my food tray. Despite my concern and effort, the cabin was already filled with the sour odour by the time the flight attendants collected the trays. I wondered how this food was allowed on a plane that has no open space that the smell can disappear to. I wondered whether other non-Korean passengers find the smell uncomfortable. I wondered how this German airline decided to provide such smelly food on their international flights. It may seem like such small things to wonder about but what is too small for an anthropological inquiry after all?

This is indeed the central question of this paper. How does one culture(cultural component) get to be placed on the global map and what does it have to do with power? The acceptance of national or traditional objects in other cultures can alter or expand the circle of social ecology that the objects hold. It does not mean, however, that the objects themselves necessarily take completely different meanings. But their surroundings and how people use those objects can be changed. For instance, Japanese food, Chinese food, and Italian food are not only popular among people who grew up with that food, but they also form a common food landscape in globalising cities. Japanese sushi culture, among those, is a particular example of exporting culture. The acceptance of the culture, including the ingredients, cooking techniques, and the way of eating, in other parts of the world, has a sizeable influence in international communities. Exerting influence is the power of modern international relations. Morgenthau (1985) argues that the desire to dominate is “a constitutive element of all human associations.” The power to influence, thus, is an important part of international relations. However, I will not look at international relations in detail in this paper. Instead, I will look at the assumed influence of food and the effort made to make that influence happen.

Cultural capital and power

In explaining the ecology of culture and power, the concept of “cultural capital” is especially helpful. When it comes to the term cultural capital, one would immediately think of Pierre Bourdieu and his work on “The Forms of Capital” in 1986. Influenced by Karl Marx, Bourdieu suggested that capital forms the foundation of social life in which one’s position is determined within social order (Bourdieu, 1986). The accumulation of the capital leads to a more powerful position in a society. What Bourdieu argued further in addition to Marx’s economic capital, was that the capital not only constitutes with economic value but with cultural values such as skills, tastes, language, material belongings, and education (Bourdieu, 1986). For instance, one’s taste in certain food or sports may form the collective identity with which the individuals create the notion of “people like us.” Bourdieu (1986) suggests three forms of cultural capital: embodied, objectified, and institutionalised. The embodied form may include one’s accent, greeting, or table manner with which one grows up with, while objectified capital suggests books, luxury goods, or sports equipment. Institutionalised state refers to educational qualifications which function as a certificate of cultural competence (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 50). Considering the function of the “capital”, however, cultural capital, like economic capital, inevitably poses a hierarchical relation among elements depending on what the dominant society recognises as valuable. It, at the same time, affects the group of cultural capital holders according to Bourdieu; “Everything suggests that as the cultural capital incorporated in the means of production increases (and with it the period of embodiment needed to acquire the means of appropriating it), so the collective strength of the holders of cultural capital would tend to increase. (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 20)” In other words, being holders of cultural capital that is well recognised and powerful enough gives the advantage in positioning themselves in social order in a given society. Then, why is it so important for South Korea to have its share of cultural capital in the global arena?

Culture, or food specifically in this case, in relation to globalisation can be linked to power. First of all, food is not only consumed to sustain life but it is also culturally and ecologically meaningful as it often carries secondary meanings and symbolism (Fischler, 1988; Mintz & Bois, 2002). In this regard, it is suggested that food is not only functioning for sustaining life but it is also crucial for the proliferation of the modern-nation state, as food policy, food security, and even food culture are increasingly becoming one of the powerful determinants of the country’s bank of food power (Morgenthau, 1985; Brown, 2011; Reynolds, 2012). Similarly to the economic capital, power has been traditionally understood with a physical and quantifiable means such as military or economic capabilities. According to Nye, however, we have more than the hard power. He suggests the term “soft power” which is the positive attraction and persuasion for achieving foreign policy objectives (Nye, 2004). Especially with the interconnectedness between people and cultures, more and more cultural practices seek for acceptance and their own identity in global societies (Reynolds, 2012; Ritzer, 2008, pp. 164-165). As a result, the soft power using food has also become an important agenda for some nations.

Using these concepts, I will explore how the growing recognition of Korean food in other countries should be interpreted in relation to cultural capital and the power relation it conveys. I used secondary data including journals and news articles as sources for analysis.

From influenced to influencing

South Korea has long been considering itself as a small nation that does not have much hard power over the global political and economic landscape. Its history of being colonised by Japan and being heavily influenced by China is still being considered as an important part of being Korean, and the political and military influence from the US after the Korean War still continues today. In this context, Korean Wave, a term indicating the growing popularity of Korean popular culture in mostly Asian countries, has given Korean people the sense of being “influencing” instead of “influenced” and helped with building the national self-esteem in a globalising world.

Korea has long waged a struggle for cultural continuity, confronted by a series of threats of foreign cultural domination. Because of the deep-seated “underdog” consciousness in terms of cultural exchanges, it was not easy for them to believe the extent of Korean pop culture being popularly consumed in other countries. (Shim, 2008, p. 30)

Since the 1990s, the popularity of Korean pop culture has made headlines in South Korea, and the policymakers who saw the opportunity from the success of the cultural products overseas began investing in cultural industries to further promote the development (Shim, 2008). The making of popular culture that started as a defensive measure against cultural Americanisation has indeed created opportunities to “globalise” its cultures including media, film, music, and food, in the realm of Western popular cultures (Shim, 2008). I still remember vividly when Korean news media reported about the rather unexpected levels of popularity of Korean pop music in Europe. It was not simply about potential economic benefits for the popular culture industries. My father once said, “they are doing a patriotic job.” News media was consistent with this view in that they believed the success of Korean culture abroad, especially in Europe, brought Korean people an enormous amount of pride. The moment taught me that “being recognised” was a form of empowerment for the “underdog” nation.

Motivated by the moderate success of “marketing” Korean popular culture and the reactions from foreigners, more attention and investment has been made on a more traditional form of culture: food. In 2009, the first lady Kim Yoon-ok launched 77 billion Korean won 4-year pet-project to promote the globalisation of Korean food. Following the initial plan, government teams were established including The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Ministries of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Strategy and Finance, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Knowledge Economy, the Executive Office of the President, the Korean Food Foundation, and the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation (Oh, 2012). One of the initial plans was to open a flagship Korean restaurant in the centre of Manhattan and make it a landmark in New York, which would have cost 5 billion won. What this giant project insinuates is the recognition of food as soft power. The desire to make Korean food recognised by the global society was so dire and important that the physical cost was considered to be a minor barrier that can be overcome in order to achieve the goal. In 2010, Korean Food Foundation was established with the aim of making Korean food as global food. It ambitiously proclaims to expand Korean influence on international cuisine culture, which will “boost the image of Korea through Korean Food Globalization,” which will also stimulate domestic business such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, restaurants, tourism, and culture (Korean Food Promotion Institute, n.d.). The next elected government also poured much effort into promoting Korean food abroad spending an enormous amount of money. Based on these facts, it is not difficult to tell that South Korea puts a lot of effort into promoting its food and that it takes the business seriously. However, what exactly is expected by increasing the global recognition of Korean food abroad?

Exporting Korean food means exporting not only the food itself, but also the cooking techniques and to some extent, cultural ideology (Reynolds, 2012). Take sushi, for an example. Reynolds (2012) argues that Japanese sushi culture carries cultural propaganda and soft power. With the cultural heritage embedded in the production, Japanese sushi has successfully maintained its cultural identity while transforming its image into “cool” or “modern” overseas, from its ordinary or even unpalatable ethnic speciality (Bestor, 2009; Reynolds, 2012). For instance, sushi became a sign of class around the 1970s as it was getting popularity in New York, the United States, which is a form of cultural capital. This transformation is noteworthy in relation to the marketing of Korean food. According to a news article from 2012, the Asiana Airline began serving “kimchi chigae (stew)” for their first class customers (JoongAng Ilbo, 2012). Kimchi chigae, for some Koreans, is so ordinary that ordering it in a restaurant can even be considered unusual. Serving it in the first class, therefore, can be seen as an effort to make the transformation of the dish into something sophisticated, while changing its original ecology as well.

The widespread Japanese sushi culture has raised global awareness about the country and its cultural ideology (Reynolds, 2012). The specific ways of eating sushi, for instance, teach people about the lifestyle and the taste of Japanese people. It is, as Nye defines soft power, a positive attraction that can influence on achieving goals in international relation. Japanese government firmly believes in the use of soft power to achieve international goals (Lam, 2007; Makoto, 2009). Japan began selling its brand, during which it carefully managed the quality as a safeguard;

This will to ‘sell’ the correct image of Japan can be illustrated in how the Japanese government approached Japanese sushi culture. To safeguard consumers overseas from ‘bad’ Japanese food experiences, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries formed a panel of experts, to inspect Japanese restaurants globally for authenticity, chastising those that were not up to standard (Kyodo 2006; Renton 2006; McCurry 2007; ThingsAsian 2007). (Reynolds, 2012)

From the effort to preserve the quality in other cultures, we can see the considerable amount of investment placed in promoting Japan’s “correct” culture, which will be crucial to gain positive attraction as it gains more cultural capital. In the following chapter, I will describe the changing cultural capital of Korean food in other cultures, partly based on my experience of change. Changing cultural capital, in this case, refers to the changing power of the holder of that specific culture—Korean. The power, specifically soft power, grows as one gains more share of cultural capital. At this stage, however, I will at most describe the changing dynamic of the recognition rather than the effect of the soft power.

The changing ecology of Korean food with the changing cultural capital

Back in 2008, I was preparing to leave for a foreign country for the first time in my life. What I remember during the time was a lot of complaints in the guise of warning from people saying that Australians often do not know what South Korea is. This was a widespread sentiment throughout online communities which involved trips to Australia. Not surprisingly, friendly strangers who would greet me on the streets always guessed my nationality as Chinese or Japanese but nothing else. Some were aware of the existence of South Korea but in the image of the 1950s. If I was enthusiastic enough to explain more, I often explained that it is located between China and Japan, but sometimes “Samsung” could do the job. It is not at all surprising that South Korea was not a well-known country worldwide and it was not exactly on the geopolitical map of Australia, either.

10 years later in Belgium, I found myself in the situation where I do not even have to translate the names of Korean dish into English, which has been a common practice of restaurant owners in South Korea. For example, restaurants often translate “kimchi” into spicy Chinese cabbage for non-Korean customers, mainly because not many foreigners knew about Korean dishes then. The dish itself and the way it is presented by other cultures is the marker of influence. Considering the fact that one does not have to translate “sushi” or “foie gras” into the English language most of the time, having to change the proper noun into English sentence seems as if Korean food does not have much influence in the globalising world, thus it has little share in global cultural capital. One day, I was discussing with my colleagues about what each of us was planning to bring for a potluck dinner. I told them I was thinking of bringing “bulgogi”. While I was preparing to explain what that was, they all excitedly said that was a good idea, even suggesting other Korean dishes. It stunned me in a way because it was an apparent difference from the reaction I received in 2008. During the 10 years, the cultural landscape has gradually changed and South Korea eventually placed its name on the global map.

The change I experienced is more evident in airplanes. My initial inquiry about the presence of kimchi in an airplane seems to have been the concern of airline companies as well. According to news from 2011, Korean Air which is the national airline of South Korea, did not serve kimchi to its customers despite the pouring complaints from Korean customers. Its argument for their decision was that as it pursues to be a global airline, it needs to consider non-Korean customers because they might not like the smell of kimchi (Ahn, 2011). It says the single biggest reason for not serving kimchi is the smell since it can be absorbed in the surfaces of the cabin (Nam, 2008). In contrast, Asiana Airline, one of the two major airline companies in South Korea, and other foreign airlines such as Lufthansa, Delta, Air France, Emirates Airline, to name a few, are serving kimchi during the South Korea route. In fact, it is known that Asiana Airline only started serving kimchi in around 1995 after a period of careful consideration (Ahn, 2011). The reason it was hesitant to introduce kimchi in the first place was that of the strong smell of kimchi. The airline official told the news that it had been difficult for them to serve kimchi in an airplane because foreigners do not like the smell. However, he continued, it is a completely different story nowadays because the ventilation system of planes has improved and also, people are less likely to feel uncomfortable by the smell of kimchi, thanks to the increased global recognition of it (Ahn, 2011). Interestingly enough, it means gaining more recognition can potentially be the factor of introducing kimchi. What it also implies is that having more share of cultural capital in the global society creates the power that can override the negative attribute such as the bad smell. The global recognition, or the cultural capital, can indeed change its relations with people and its physical surroundings, hence the change of social ecology.


I have looked into the global recognition as a form of power in a globalising world, and Korean food as a means to gain the recognition and the confirmation of the recognition at the same time. The cognitive recognition of certain cultures or the holders of the cultures is closely related to Bourdieu’s cultural capital. The capital has the power to shape the social order. Cultural capital, in this sense, is also related to the soft power which plays an important role in international relations.

Power is not just about the military or economic influence. In this paper, I have explored the kind of power that cultural capital can influence in a global society by looking at the example of Japan’s sushi culture and South Korea’s effort to become the “influencing” instead of the “influenced”. Indeed, South Korea was bombarded with American culture ever since the presence of the US in the South Korean territory. Korean government and industry did not want the American culture and its influence to dominate the country and began developing its own media industry as a defensive measure. As a result, South Korea became the “influencing” within Asia and it expanded to other regions later. With the success of media export, the government began to promote Korean food as a nexus of culture and influence.

Japanese sushi culture is the prime example of culture and power. Japan successfully exported their food, the techniques, the lifestyle, and the ideology into other cultures, and even transformed them into modern and cool. When the food is widespread and the level of recognition is high, the name of the food does not have to be translated. Sushi is sushi and ravioli is ravioli. During my moving between countries in the last decade, I have experienced the stark difference in the recognition of Korean food outside South Korea. The major change was the fact that I did not have to translate the names of food. This change is not the product of the taste alone. There has been a tremendous amount of effort to promote Korean food as well as commercial industries such as Korean popular music, films, dramas, and beauty products, which has been especially helpful for the tourism industry. The visible change of growing acceptance of Korean food can be spotted in the airplanes. Given the size and the closed environment of planes, it is not easy to expect to see food with such a strong smell. Yet, more and more airlines are introducing kimchi and other Korean dishes to and from South Korean route despite the fact that the smell of kimchi can be widely disliked. However, according to the explanation of an airline official quoted above, the growing recognition of kimchi can potentially overcome the issue of smell. Thus, it is not just the presence of kimchi that determines a situation. Depending on how people perceive kimchi in the context of “social order”, the situation surrounding the smell can change.


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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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