It’s just starting to get dark, and the bright red sign over H Mart on Massachusetts Ave seems to give off its own glow. Patrons bustle in and out of the low-slung building, hoisting bags of groceries and pastries from the store’s in-house Korean-owned Parisian style bakery-cafe.
H Mart is a South Korean-owned grocery chain that boasts a number of lofty aims on its website. Its mission includes the cultivation of healthy, affordable, and high-quality foods, as well as providing shoppers with the means and inspiration to create “magical” meals. It’s also distinctly aware of its status as an international grocery store, and the potential for community-building that status can provide:
“[F]or over 30 years, Hmart has worked its best to provide quality Korean food and service to communities throughout the U.S.,” writes founder Yeon Kwon on the chain’s website. “We believe the excellence of our products, encourage our fellow Koreans to have profound pride and dignity in the magnificent culture of our motherland, South Korea.”
The products at H Mart, then, serve as a bridge to home for Korean shoppers as well as an introduction to foreign food for locals. And thanks to its position in Central square, the H Mart audience is diverse. According to 2010 US Census data, Cambridge is home to the second largest Korean and Japanese populations in the state. The store is located between MIT and Harvard, and caters to students with special deals and accommodations for meal plan money, drawing another population to the busy market. Their colorful shelves are stocked with an incredibly rich variety of packaged and fresh products primarily from Korea and Japan, with other offerings from Thailand, Malaysia, and beyond. From speciality fish products and traditional desserts to myriad noodle varieties and a generous snack selection, H Mart gives Cantabrigians an opportunity to immerse themselves in Asian cuisine.
Wit this history and demography in mind, H Mart provides a perfect opportunity for exploration into the world of Japanese and Korean chocolate and confectionary. The many colorful offerings on display raise their own questions about the unique role and perception of chocolate products in Korean (and more broadly Asian) culture. Analysis of the selection and presentation of chocolate at the mart reveals a distinct Korean sensibility around chocolate, and insight into what is gained and lost when that sensibility is transplanted into Cambridge.
At H mart, chocolate is framed according to Asian contexts and tastes, which gives it a distinct identity from commercial American chocolate. That identity centers around an alternative framing of chocolate products as social, aesthetic snack foods rather than luxurious dessert indulgences. The reflections of this identity become apparent in a number of ways, from how the chocolate is packaged and arranged on the shelf to its taste and history.
SALTY SNACK OR SWEET DESSERT? FRAMING CHOCOLATE
Placement of any food, but especially non-essential items like chocolate, within a grocery store is critical to that product’s success or failure; it can also change the way that food is perceived. The location of chocolate products among H Mart’s colorful shelves is a first clue to the way that chocolate is framed in Korean culture.
Chocolate can be found in a number of locations in the market: the checkout aisles are lined with a combination of familiar American candy bars and less familiar Japanese and Korean products, mostly in the form of bars and small chocolate-flavored candies (One intriguing option there are tubes of Japanese Gummy Choco, which come in muscat and apple flavors). A lonely island of Lindt chocolate easter bunnies stand sentry by the shopping baskets. Chocolate also makes its way into more traditionally Asian deserts throughout the store, making appearances as a flavor option for mochi ice cream or stuffing variety for packaged doryaki.
But the majority of H Mart’s chocolate confections—many of which take the form of specialized cookies, cakes, and other snacks—are located in aisle 3, under the heading “Korean Snack” and “Japanese Snack.” In contrast to an American framing of chocolate, the chocolate products aren’t segregated into a dessert section. Instead, they rub shoulders with seaweed snacks and salty chips and crackers. Many of those offerings, as well, blur the line between snack and dessert, savory and sweet. Some soy or rice crackers are dusted with sugar, placing them into much the same ambiguously sweet-salty categories as chocolate-covered pretzels and the like. In contrast, traditional deserts like mochi and Japanese roll cakes are located several aisles away, in their own concentrated section.
The blending of sweet and savory flavors in Korean snacks, and classification of chocolate products as a snack, reflects a distinct desert culture in which chocolate understandably has a unique and unusual role. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, traditional Korean sweets are typically consumed as a supplementary snack to tea. They are often “healthy snacks made with nutritious ingredients like beans, rice flour, varied nuts and seeds,” in other words; a shifted flavor profile from the American conception of dessert and candy (Korean Tourism Organization). Traditional desserts like Gangjeong or Tteok utilize rice flour and rice paste, while other common ingredients include bean paste, ginger, sesame, honey, and fruit. Many deserts are intentionally only mildly sweet, allowing them to be consumed in larger quantities as a snack or compliment to tea. More contemporary versions may also incorporate chocolate while still retaining traditional aesthetics and flavors (Korean Tourism Organization).
Traditional Korean focus on more savory flavors, social aspects of desserting, and aesthetic considerations all help to explain the chocolate offerings on display at H Mart. Instead of marketing chocolate as a highly concentrated, luxurious dessert in much the way an American company might, Korean confectionary brands use chocolate in more snack-like configurations to reflect the role of dessert in Korean culture. A prime example is Pepero, a long, thin biscuit-like cookie dipped in milk chocolate. Though the thin chocolate coating provides a note of sweetness, the biscuit itself is unsweetened, producing an overall more subdued effect. The packaging itself invites snacking: with a handy re-openable flap at one end and an inner package that holds the Pepero sticks in place, uncoated end-up and ready for snacking.
THE GIFT OF CHOCOLATE
In addition to their ambiguous status as both sweets and snacks exemplified by their presentation in the store, the Korean chocolate product on display are part of a broader culture that frames such snacks as social.
Where an American chocolate campaign might frame the desert in question as a solitary indulgence or a seductive romantic offering, the framing of Korean chocolate as a social snack allows it to be presented as a gift for friends. In Korea, a number of gift-oriented holidays, including Valentine’s Day and White day, when couples may give each other gifts of chocolate, spur the production and purchasing of specialty chocolate (Yoon). Those holidays encourage the giving of specialty foods including chocolates to friends and coworkers.
A prime example of this is Pepero Day, a genius stroke of marketing that emphasizes the chocolate snack’s shareable qualities. On 11/11 each year, boxes of the long, thin biscuit are given away as gifts in a celebration of love, friendship, and luck. The Wall street journal reports that nearly two thirds of annual Pepero sales (which account for 38 % of parent company Lotte’s annual $2.5 billion revenue) occur in the the two months preceding Pepero Day. The popularity holiday has also inspired the company to produce more specialty varieties of Pepero, evident today in the range of flavors on H Mart’s shelves (Yoon). In Korea, gift giving practices drive the production of chocolate confections centered around cute packaging and presentation.
The Pepero Day phenomenon may also be a reflection of chocolate’s origins in Asia. As Lawrence Allen writes in Chocolate Fortunes, chocolate as a higher-quality, novel, imported good was originally perceived by many Chinese consumers as an ideal product for gift-giving (25). Combined with the wider culture of gift giving prevalent in China (and other Asian countries like Japan), these perceptions of chocolate provided a canvas for the development of chocolate products centered around giving and sharing. In contrast, in other chocolate markets around the world, writes Allen, gift-giving accounts for less than 10 percent of sales (26). As chocolate moved from being an imported luxury good to an ingredient of Asian-manufactured sweets, its versatility and aesthetic value as a gift remained important elements of its design and use.
SPECILIZATION AND MEIJI CHOCOLATE
Like its Korean offerings, the Japanese confectionary and chocolate products available at H Mart also emphasize shareability and snacking over sensibilities of chocolate quality, luxury, or purity. Instead, the products center around specific design and combinations of flavors to produce a fun chocolate experience for target audiences to collect and share with friends.
Meiji chocolate, based in Japan, has oriented their product design and advertisement around the creation of novel, shareable snacks and innovative combinations of flavors. (Much like Lotte’s Pepero, which comes in a variety of flavors from cookies and cream to less internationally transplantable durian.) According to a swathe of food industry press briefs released by the company from the 1990s-2000s, innovative, highly affordable chocolate snacks were a priority: in 2003, the company released Kurogama Pucca, “a lovely bite-sized chocolate snack made by filling chocolate kneaded with black sesame paste in a fragrant pretzel.” In 2003, the company released Meiji Hyotenka, a “new type of chocolate” that was meant to be dissolved slowly on the tongue after being frozen. Flavors included strawberry and banana. Earlier that year, the company re-launched “Chocolate Koka [Effect],” branded as a “healthy yet delicious chocolate product for adults.” The product claimed to help “prevent arteriosclerosis and the occurrence of cancer.” All of these products were priced at 100-150 yen and came in shareable packages, which would have made them accessible and appealing to children, teens, and anyone hoping to give or share the inexpensive product. The press releases emphasize how new and different each new combination of flavors and designs is, creating a food landscape in which consumers are encouraged to collect and try new Meiji products.
These launches reveal a few key elements of Meiji strategy, reflected in the products available at H Mart. A focus on hyper-targeted marketing results in the creation of highly innovative and unique products (like 1999’s “Fooa,” a white chocolate and strawberry product aimed at “female consumers in general and those of high school age in particular;” which was created as a foil to the more austere Chocolate Koka [Effect] product) that touted the benefits of different kinds of chocolate products for different people and different settings.
This also results in a detailed focus on aesthetics, for both packaging and the products themselves. These concerns are critical, given that, as Allen notes, some 70 percent of chocolate purchases are on impulse, and so “packaging must make an immediate and distinctive impression” (31). Sometimes, those aesthetic concerns can seem to outweigh the chocolate content itself. One such example is Meiji’s Black Chocolate, a sleekly packaged bar that boldly stands out from Meji’s other, more brightly colored offerings. Online, the chocolate is advertised as “irresistible dark chocolate with a sharp, high quality bitterness and an extravagant cacao aroma.” The dark colors of the package seem to reflect Meiji’s association of higher cacao content chocolate with seriousness, adulthood, and quality. However, the chocolate within is sweet and milky, and seems to be only slightly darker than Meiji’s classic milk bar. If anything, the most pervasive scent and taste is of sweetness, rather than bitter cacao.
The diverse and fascinating chocolate products on display at H Mart reflect the ways in which chocolate has been adapted to Korean and Japanese dessert traditions and tastes, and in turn transformed into a component of a diverse world of carefully designed snack products. They are unique and intentional in their framing of chocolate, generating a distinct ethos of chocolate creation and consumption entirely separate from the American sensibility; namely, promoting a dessert culture formed around snacking and sociability. These products also challenge some of the more radical assertions made by Allen in Chocolate Fortunes. Allen paints China as a “xenophobic land of austerity and deprivation,” ripe for exploitation by big chocolate companies. In that view, it is difficult to reconcile the hyper-designed and fun-oriented products of Korea and Japan with an Asian market resistant to change. There is no room in Allen’s interpretation for innovative, hybridized sweets arising from Asian companies like Lotte and Meiji; products which celebrate chocolate’s mutability and the innovative possibilities of sweet snackery.
In an increasingly global food culture, where access to global chocolate products is increasingly easy and prevalent, it is both exciting and important to consider the different orientations of chocolate products within different food cultures. A short trip to H Mart provides a brief glimpse into one such context.
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