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[KH Explains] How Netherlands has become a top K-food destination

Logistic benefits, coupled with enhanced distribution channels, boost budding affection for Korean food

By Kim Hae-yeon, Song Jung-hyun

Published : Dec. 12, 2023 - 15:58

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Soju Bar, a Korean food and alcoholic beverage establishment in the Netherlands (Soju Bar's Facebook page) Soju Bar, a Korean food and alcoholic beverage establishment in the Netherlands (Soju Bar's Facebook page)

In a surprising but pleasant twist to the global wave of Korean cultural influence, the Netherlands has emerged as a formidable player in its love for Korean instant noodles, kimchi and K-food overall.

According to customs data, the Netherlands imported $48.64 million of ramen from Korea in the January-November period this year, becoming the fourth-largest importer in the category, following China, the US and Japan.

In a separate report, the country also ranked third in kimchi imports, totaling $6.14 million, during the same period.

The figures are considered a surge, considering the Netherland had not even been included on such lists until about five years ago, with other Asian countries mainly occupying the list.

While China and Japan's fondness for Korean cuisine may be expected, and the US' large market size rationalizes its widespread popularity, the question remains: What is behind the Netherlands' surge in Korean food imports?

Delving into the phenomenon, an intriguing connection emerges – the pivotal role of the Netherlands' extensive "port operations," as highlighted by a leading food company official.

“The Netherlands is a crucial export point for European countries, among others,” he said on condition of anonymity.

According to the official, shipments from Korea often land in the Netherlands before being distributed across Europe.

“Possibly to keep the customs process simple, many European countries are collectively categorized under the Netherlands,” he added.

Another industry official cited the possibility that a Korean exporter could have secured a major distribution deal with local retailers.

“When it comes to ramen, it is crucial to build an extensive distribution network locally, which leads to a surge in exports,” he said.

While the figures may not directly indicate exports to the Netherlands, there is an evident trend of Korean food gaining prominence in the country in recent years, according to local sources.

“From 2015 to 2020, Japanese sushi all-you-can-eat restaurants were a big thing, but today, all-you-can-eat Korea restaurants have become a new thing among my friends and communities,” Lotte Giesbers, a Korean studies student at Leiden University in South Holland, told The Korea Herald.

Lotte mentioned that just a few years ago, Korean restaurants were primarily found in major cities like Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam. But nowadays, it has become easier to come across K-food establishments in smaller cities. “Even outside K-restaurants, Dutch restaurants have adopted Korean menus on a small scale and in fusion style; it is easy to find burgers with kimchi, and at supermarkets or train stations, it is easy to find Korean-inspired sandwiches.”

In contrast to a few years ago when Japanese culinary culture held sway as a prevailing trend in the Netherlands, the current trend is leaning toward Korean influences. This is why local media also calls K-food the “new sushi.”

Notably, the Soju Bar chain in the Netherlands, renowned for its offerings of Korean fried chicken, soju and beer, has become a household name in multiple cities. There is rising enthusiasm among younger generations of Dutch individuals to emulate Korean cultural elements as portrayed on social media and streaming platforms like Netflix.

This popularity extends beyond physical stores to online consumer markets, with the appearance of dedicated online shopping websites in the Netherlands focused on selling kimchi, ramen and soju.

Kim Soo-jin, a sous chef employed at a Dutch restaurant within one of the country's premier luxury spa centers, noted that upon joining the restaurant in early February, she discovered an array of Korean ingredients and sauces readily prepared in the kitchen, ranging from buckwheat noodles to kimchi and even kimchi powder for seasoning.

“K-food was already popular among chefs when I was employed, and I think this (phenomenon) is largely due to the pandemic when people indulged in watching Korean dramas and meokbang videos. We update menus once every three months, and Korean dishes get picked easily,” she said.

Kim also highlighted people's preferences for spicy food and "gukmul," or soups. "The Netherlands has a significant population of immigrants from Indonesia, and as a result, the use of spicy spices and sauces is familiar to the people. Additionally, due to the frequent rainy and cold weather, individuals often seek out foods with warm soup."

The Korean Food Promotion Institute pointed out that agricultural products have traditionally played a significant role in the Dutch economy. This, in turn, has naturally generated heightened public interest in kimchi and other vegetable-infused Korean dishes.

Also behind the raised awareness of Korean food are relentless efforts from the food industry to better satisfy international palates. For instance, a less spicy version of kimchi, which still possesses its unique flavor and healthy ingredients, has been developed, and kimchi packages that can be stored at room temperature have made it easier and more efficient to export kimchi globally.

“Korean kimchi has found its way into large retail chains in Europe, with many countries now regularly consuming kimchi products,” according to an official at Korea Agro-Fisheries and Food Trade Corp. “The introduction of various kimchi products led to a significant increase in EU exports, which can be attributed to consistent promotion efforts by both public and private food-relevant sectors.”