Korean cuisine embraces mayo, but is it true love?

Mayo, once thought of as foreign, is now considered by many Koreans to be a key ingredient in their cooking

Published May 18, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Mayonnaise (Getty Images/ALEAIMAGE)
Mayonnaise (Getty Images/ALEAIMAGE)

H Marts abound across New York City and the surrounding suburbs, featuring Korean products like tteokbokki (rice cakes), chunjang (black bean paste), kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage), and colorful bottles containing that thick, creamy sauce called mayonnaise.

Unlike rice cakes, black bean paste, and kimchi, mayo was born not in Korea or anywhere else in northeast Asia, but in western Europe, where both France and Spain claim credit for its creation. The condiment, made from the emulsification of eggs, oil, and an acidic liquid such as vinegar, was crowned by Auguste Escoffier in 1912 as the mother of French cold sauces—the culinary equivalent of being consecrated by the Pope.

Mayo has since become a sauce of the people—that is to say, commercially produced and widely available to Americans. And Americans have met abundant supply with prodigious demand. In 2021, it was the most popular condiment in the United States, with $164 million worth of jars taken off the shelves. An American, so accustomed to mayo as a fact of life, might be surprised to find that it is considered by some Koreans to be their own condiment, its section on the H Mart shelf an outpost of familiarity bobbing in a sea of foreign unfamiliarity.

“Mayo is such a common presence in Korean cooking now that Koreans no longer think of it as a borrowed ingredient,” says Michael J. Pettid, a Professor of Korean Studies at Binghamton University and author of "Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History." “It’s considered to be as Korean now as ingredients that have been part of the Korean palate for far longer.”

Jiho Ahn, a bespectacled middle-aged engineer, is browsing H Mart on New York's 3rd Avenue, between 31st and 32nd Street, to restock his kitchen. “When there is something that needs sauce, but I don’t know what sauce, I like to use a spicy sauce or mayo, or best of all, a spicy mayo,” he says, ferreting out the bottle of mayo with the furthest expiration date. “It goes best on a sandwich, especially a chicken sandwich, or with just chicken by itself.”

When Jiho travels to Seoul to see his family, there is always mayo available in the kitchen. There is also a food truck near his sister’s apartment that sells Korean breakfast foods, including a sandwich that mixes scrambled eggs with mayo. It is strange, Jiho muses, that the Americans love their scrambled eggs and love their mayo, but never thought to combine the two. (This is not entirely true.) The Koreans seized on the idea, adding this kind of sandwich to their culinary repertoire.

Pettid also travels to Korea semi-regularly, and sometimes enjoys snacking on dried squid dipped in mayo during his visits there. Before the introduction of mayo, Koreans typically fortified their dried squid with gochujang, a fermented red pepper paste. Now, Pettid observes, the condiment dish that comes with the seafood is typically divided into two sections—one for the gochujang, and one for the mayo.

At Tribeca’s Michelin-starred Jungsik, chefs have removed the barrier to make gochujang aioli, part of their signature braised octopus dish. Restaurants tend to keep their sacred recipes under close guard, but such was the acclaim for this particular creation that then-executive chef Ho Young Kim appeared in an H Mart video to show the public how to cook it at home. Another Jungsik menu item pairs yukhoe (Korean seasoned raw beef) with truffle aioli, which chef de cuisine Wonsuk Jeong describes as a binding agent that brings all the flavors together while also providing its own umami-rich element.

For all the prevalence of mayo on Jungsik’s menu, Jeong does not consciously think of the condiment outside of its application in the kitchen. “It has definitely become used more and more by Koreans here and in Korea itself,” he says, shrugging. “But we don’t really think about it that way, or try to make sense of it. It is just a normal thing for us, a tool that we can use in cooking.”

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According to Pettid, mayo might have entered Korea for the first time during the period of Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945. But it did not gain widespread appeal until after 1948, when Western ingredients and dishes began to spread out from American military bases scattered across the peninsula. “Mayo, like hamburgers, was considered a novelty at first, and did not make any imprint on traditional Korean cuisine for a long time,” Pettid explains. Part of the delay, he added, might have had to do with the fact that the Japanese came as heavy-handed colonizers, while the Americans came, ostensibly, as allies to the South Korean government.

The introduction of mayo into Korean cookery faced both economic and political barriers. Korea lacked a mayo-producing tradition, having to import the condiment from the United States or from Japan, where mayo had already established a strong foothold. And because of protectionist trade policies favored by the South Korean government until the 1990s, much of the mayo and other imported products were circulated through the black market and only accessible to those who could pay an exorbitant price.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Koreans were encouraged by the government to eat natural, homegrown products, which proponents considered to be appropriately patriotic, and more importantly, healthier to both body and soul. This practice of Sinto Buri (roughly translated to “the body and the soil cannot be separated”) further hindered the proliferation of mayo, considered at the time to be a Western interloper.

So the matter stood until the 1990s, when South Korea’s pivot towards economic liberalization opened domestic markets to a flood of mayo and other foreign products. Prices for those imports dropped, mayo appeared in household kitchens, and new, experimental restaurants tried new, experimental ways of using mayo in their dishes. South Korea soon began producing and exporting its own mayo like those of the food manufacturer Samyang, which features on its Spicy Chicken Mayo bottle an angry chicken sporting a bowl cut and breathing fire out of its beak.

Christopher Kim, the executive chef of East Village’s Ariari, remembers growing up in the southern port city of Busan during the 1990s, where his mother made mayo-based dip to eat with fried chicken strips and drizzled mayo on top of salads. “To me and many other Koreans, mayo reminds us of childhood,” he says. “Which is interesting to think about… right now that might surprise Americans who do not associate Korea with mayo.”

"To me and many other Koreans, mayo reminds us of childhood."

The menu of Ariari, which serves food inspired by the cuisine of Busan—and perhaps his mother’s cooking—serves an assortment of hot and cold dishes featuring mayo infused with Korean flavors. Those include scallop rolls with scallion mayo, fried chicken with curry powder and chungyang (red pepper and soy sauce—Kim’s favorite) mayo, and fried soft-shell crab with gochugaru (red pepper flakes with a smoky veneer) aioli—all very popular selections among the customers.

While Korea and Japan have both seen a rise in mayo consumption, other East Asian countries remain unconvinced. Mayo is rarely served in Chinese restaurants, except as a dip for walnut shrimp. At Jungsik, Jeong sees the marriage of mayo and Korean cuisine as a happy, compatible union. “Korean cuisine is very strong and very sharp, and adding mayonnaise often helps tone it down a little bit, provide some contrast to make it easier to enjoy,” Jeong explains. “Other times, the mayonnaise is a base to put strong Korean ingredients in, to add more flavor to a dish that is milder. How much we want to do that affects what ingredients we might mix with the mayonnaise.”

Koreans living in the United States congregate in metro areas and can find mayo on almost every street corner, but its indigenization in Korea itself is still incomplete. Young Koreans like Kim and Jeong, who grew up just as South Korea opened its markets, are more likely to eat food with mayo compared to older Koreans who find comfort evocative of their childhood in more traditionally-prepared dishes. But the biggest divide, says Pettid, is by socioeconomic class. “Mayo is still more expensive in Korea than it is in the United States, and the trend of putting mayo in Korean dishes is occurring in trendier restaurants that poorer Koreans do not typically frequent,” he says. “At the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re not necessarily exposed to these kinds of things, you don’t go abroad where mayo might be more popular, and you’re in a circle with people of similar backgrounds who aren’t pushing the envelope too much in the foods they’re trying to fix.”

Despite some demographic unevenness, Korean food in general is becoming more internationalized. Rice, long the staple of East Asian cooking and typically eaten three times a day, is both healthy and grown in abundance, but its popularity has been slowly declining as mayo trends in the opposite direction. According to the 2023 Grain Consumption Survey released by Statistics Korea, annual rice consumption per person in 2023 was 56.4 kilograms, down from 56.7 in 2022, and the lowest recorded figure since the survey began in 1963. Just ten years ago, rice consumption per person was 65.1 kilograms.

“The Sinto Buri, eating healthy mentality is not as popular with the younger generation,” Pettid says. “With globalization, there’s a changing view among Koreans of what they should and could eat.” Thursday Kitchen and Mokyo, two “modern Korean” sister restaurants run by Kay Hyun in the East Village, seem to typify the experimental, globalized model of Korean cuisine, furnishing traditional Korean dishes with Western ingredients, or the other way around. Like Ariari, one of Thursday Kitchen’s most popular dishes is a soft-shell crab—but rather than using red pepper-infused mayo, Hyun chooses to prepare the crab with wasabi remoulade, which in addition to mayo uses mustard, capers, and other herbs to enhance the flavor. Only one dish features rice, and it’s a seafood paella.

Despite the triumph of mayo, Pettid does not think there is any great danger of more traditional condiments disappearing in its wake. “The role of mayonnaise overlaps with, but does not replace, its predecessors,” he posits. Perhaps, then, the dish that was served with his dried squid best represents the current state of affairs. There is classical gochujang, but there is also mayo. And sometimes, an enterprising chef or diner will mix the two together.

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

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Deep Dive Korea Korean Cuisine Mayo