So today, rather than getting a jump on next semester, I’ve been compiling my thoughts on food in Korea (among other activities that might fall into the procrastination category). The first question to tackle was where to start. I can’t possibly cover it all, so you’ll just get a dose of what I’ve eaten (or just observed) over my time here so far.
First, we’ll start with some basic facts about Korean food and eating customs.
- Koreans eat for health rather than taste. Well, maybe they would say they also eat for taste, but Koreans’ taste has been developed over thousands of years to favor things that are at least believed to be good for you. Foods are recommended based on how they will benefit your health rather than how delicious they are. So when I’m eating too much of that fried vegetable pancake, I’m told that “Caity, there are more nutritious things on the table.” That’s why they’re all so thin.
- Kimchi and rice with every meal. Kimchi is one of the numerous little vegetable side dishes that come with every Korean meal. But, unlike the other banchan, kimchi possesses miraculous superpowers that may not just be limited to the health arena. Not long after my arrival in Korea, there was a cabbage shortage that was considered a national crisis. That’s how seriously they take their kimchi here. And no meal is complete without rice. If you haven’t eaten rice yet, your meal is not finished. There will be at least one more course, so save room. There’s also usually soup with every meal, which helps with the no-water thing.
- Eating is a communal activity. Always. It is very rare to see Koreans do anything alone, most of all eating. If you have a snack, you share it. Relationships are built over food (and drink), and the quickest way for a native English teacher to ruin his or her relationship with a co-teacher is to not partake in lunch or snack time with everyone else. Everything is always served family style, so everyone eats the same thing. The question is not “Where shall we go for lunch?” but “What shall we eat for lunch?” This dictates where you shall go, as the majority of restaurants (with the exception of the Kimbap Nara and its counterparts) only serve one thing. This fact is also the main reason that waygooks frequently find themselves in tough spots – you’re expected to eat what everyone else is eating, or risk insulting every Korean in the entire restaurant.
- Manners. Rice goes on the left. Rice that is set to the right is reserved for the dead. Naturally I was eating somebody’s ancestor’s rice for at least a month at lunch before someone clued me in to this one. Never finish the side dishes unless you intend to eat more, as this means that you weren’t given enough to eat, and your dish will keep getting refilled. No Clean Plate Club here. Never pour your own drink, and always hold your glass with both hands as someone pours for you. When drinking with elders (that’s anyone who’s at all older than you), turn your head away as you drink. Offer to refill your elder’s drink when their glass is empty, and do so with both hands.
- Creativity. Even after six months, I continue to be surprised by things that are set on the table in front of me. Koreans eat things it would never even occur to Westerners to eat. Some of this may have been born of necessity in years past, but I have no idea why some of these foods persist in the modern Korean diet. Examples: leaves that belong on trees rather than in my salad, bugs in various stages of their life cycles, fish that are so tiny they must be eaten whole and in piles (how do they even make nets small enough to catch those things??)
- Seafood. Koreans eat a TON of seafood, and it’s incredibly cheap compared to Western prices. This is a peninsular nation, and they will eat anything with which Poseidon doth bless their nets (or whoever the traditional Korean sea-god is). The thing is, lover of seafood that I am, it is still my opinion that there are things in the sea that just aren’t meant to be eaten. Sometimes it seems that someone just scraped the bottom of the sea with a giant plastic bucket and dumped it all into my soup. Koreans are also loathe to remove the bones from their fish, a fact that causes me more trouble than anything else about eating in this country (*gag*).
- Love affair with seaweed. Seafood is not limited to creatures. I have seen more varieties of seaweed sold on the street than I even knew existed before I got here. Recently I was introduced to seaweed-flavored jellies. No sugar - they're not like candy – just an extra-firm, rectangular jelly with seaweed flavor in it. I rather resent them for their deceptively candy-like packaging. This came right after the seaweed soup we had for lunch that contained a variety of seaweed which strongly resembled the stringy algae one finds floating on a small, stagnant pond. Lukewarm pond water with little rice balls floating in it. It didn't taste too bad, so I just tried not to look at it. I’ve actually become a pretty big fan of other varieties of seaweed soup, as well as kim.
- Obsession with fresh food. Koreans like everything to be as fresh as it can possibly be. Frozen and prepackaged foods are looked down upon as extremely unhealthy. Yes, this is reminiscent of Western attitudes, but Koreans actually follow through on these views. Fish are bought from squirming buckets-full on the street and vegetables with dirt still clinging to them. Many dishes are brought to the table uncooked, and you get to do the grilling/boiling yourself, just so you know it’s really, really fresh. The most infamous of the super-fresh foods is raw octopus. No, not just raw, but still squirming on the plate. You might think that after a while, when the tentacle pieces have stopped moving, it might be safe to eat. But as soon as you touch that slimy mass with your chopsticks, it starts writhing all over again. And detaching the suckers from the plate is a challenge all to itself. This is usually served as part of a larger raw seafood meal including everything from white fish to as-yet-unidentified shellfish.
- Regular meat is as expensive as seafood is cheap. This makes sense, given that Korea has little, um, ranchable land (add that to your dictionaries). However, some of the ways they work around this – well, one way in particular – is disturbing and puzzling to the average American: Spam. Now, I’m sure this lovely Spam eating trend probably started around the time of the Korean War (see #5 here for a similar story), but unlike Guam, Korea most definitely has a native cuisine to embrace. They also, at least these days, have plenty of money to spend on things other than meat product. So why, in Korea, does Spam come in gift sets and cost at least twice what it does in the U.S.? Perhaps some insight can be gained from #1 in the previously mentioned article, but I’m not completely convinced.
- The almighty sweet potato. Forget yams, there are more kinds of sweet potato than I could have ever imagined, and they are all eaten with gusto here in Korea. They also turn up in rather unexpected places, like on pizza, in cakes and in milkshakes and lattes.