Famous \’fɑ̃-məs\ (adj): known or recognised by very many people.
As is well known by all people everywhere, everything in Korea is famous. Surprisingly however, some non-Koreans when first arriving in the most famous place on Earth appear overwhelmed by it all, even going so far as to act as if unaware of just how famous everything around them is.
Korean people sometimes misunderstand this bizarre foreign behaviour as being a product of sub-standard non-Korean education systems, or even willful ignorance borne of intense jealousy. Koreans should note though that the majority of foreigners subconsciously employ this strategy as a short/medium-term survival mechanism, lest their heads explode from K-fame-exposure overload.
Cultural communicative differences such as this explain why Koreans often seem very pleasantly surprised when they explain to a foreigner that something is very famous, only to find out that the foreigner has already heard of the very famous Korean something-or-other, or maybe even knows what or who it is! Korean people love it when this happens and, in my experience, never adequately explain why it is so amazing that the very famous thing is not such a huge secret.
For those new to Korea, or thinking of visiting, the world famous cuisine is a good place to start. All Korean food is famous because it is. It’s also easy to find. Due to the nation’s insane population density and insightful town/city planning, a famous restaurant shall be no less than 300 feet from where you are standing. For some reason your Korean friends will want to drive for 40 minutes, past approximately 17,000 restaurants, to the one that is even more famous than the others.
When you arrive in a pre-selected famous street with all the identical looking restaurants selling the same famous dish, stand in the queue outside the only one with a queue. This is the most famous one in this particular famous street, so it is the best. You may have to wait a while but don’t worry – this one’s more expensive.
One of my favourite famous Korean dishes is 부대찌개 (budae jiggae). It originated in Uijongbu, just north of Seoul, so it is imperative that one makes the trip to Uijongbu to eat it (rather than anywhere else in Korea). I worked in Uijongbu for 5 years so it was imperative that I enjoyed 부대찌개 there. Almost criminally, I ate it just outside my workplace rather than making the pilgrimage to the famous 의정부 부대찌개거리 (Uijongbu Budae Jiggae Street), which is pretty much as its name suggests.
It is actually pretty cool to go scouting out these extra-famous restaurants because there is always a back story to them, and there is a sense of occasion eating at them when you learn that particular story (though I do wonder sometimes how the other 19 empty neighbouring identical restaurants survive).
This is ‘Odeng Shikdang’, the world’s first budae jiggae restaurant, where Heo Gi-suk, the owner and inventor of the dish still works today. She invented budae jiggae (army base stew) while working as a cook on an American army base shortly after the Korean War. Food was very scarce at that time, so Heo and the other cooks would smuggle leftover food from the base. The general idea was to get hold of whatever was available, which was often spam, hot dogs, baked beans, instant noodles and processed cheese. She decided to throw all these delicious ingredients in a pot and boil them up into a stew with some kimchi and red bean paste (to make it palatable to Koreans), and voila! If you’re wondering, it’s surprisingly good!
Anyway, every town and suburb in Korea seems to have some such story, so everywhere you go is famous. It’s great! These little stories also help bewildered non-Koreans like me to understand all the bizarre national customs, like why Koreans still spend a small fortune each year at Chuseok giving each other presentation gift sets of spam.