Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A cuisine without cheese

Happy Tuesday! Also know as Lesson Planning Fail Day #2. Seriously, if anyone has seen my motivation frolicking past their window, please net it and return it to me ASAP. This is getting bad.

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??)
So, in that context, here are some things about Korean cuisine that stand out in my mind:
  • 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.
Given all of these, um, challenging foods, the majority of which I have eaten at some point, it’s a miracle that I’ve only had a couple of meals that I’ve really had to choke down (both of which involved fish bones). This is in stark contrast to the experiences of many of my friends here, so perhaps I’ve just been lucky. And yes, there are many foods here that I genuinely enjoy, but they'd make for a rather boring blog post, now wouldn't they? All things considered, when I get back to the States, I doubt I’ll be rabidly tracking down Korean food. Some bean fish, cinnamon pancakes or kimchi might be nice once in a while for nostalgia’s sake, but you won’t see me hanging out in the Korean groceries of McLean or Centerville sniffing out the best dried squid to go with my beer and peanuts. You might find me at Spa World, though – a Korean institution I am quite glad I won’t have to leave behind.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Not all of Asia is like Korea

I know you want to read about my trip to Southeast Asia, but I just have to share this first. I am a frequenter of coffee shops, mainly because I am incapable of getting work done in my own apartment. I’m in one right now, in fact. Coffee shops in Korea, it seems, all own the same collection of jazz tunes by this one female vocalist. But these are no ordinary jazz tunes – no “Blue Skies”, no “La Vie en Rose”, no “Take the A Train”. Instead, we have smooth, slightly upbeat remakes of pop tunes, new and old, that were never, ever meant to be set to a jazz beat. Some examples: the theme from The NeverEnding Story, U2’s “With or Without You”, “Barbie Girl”, the list goes on. At the moment, I have been spared the vocalist and am being treated to a jazz piano version of “Pomp & Circumstance”. I practically expect to hear a velvety voice crooning the lyrics to “Baby Got Back” in the next shop I go into.

So, to the truly Korean soundtrack of bastardized tunes, I shall now tell you about my vacation (patience pays off, dear readers). In summary, I began my trip by meeting my friend and fellow Englishee teacher Laura, and her friend Katie who flew in from England, in Phuket, Thailand. Thank God I was only there for one night; that place is a westernized black hole of entitled tourists. We then took a bus and ferry to Koh Phangan, a charming little Island in the Gulf of Thailand. We spent several days lying on a beach of fine, white sand next to a turquoise sea with calm waters at exactly the right temperature for cooling off without giving a cold jolt to the nether-regions. We spent our last night at the famous full moon party on Haad Rin (one of the many beaches on the Island), but don’t worry folks, my compatriots became ill after just one vodka-and-cheap-grape-soda bucket and we never even made it up to Mellow Mountain. The most tricked-out thing going on in our trio was the horrendous neon paint job on my face. After that, we flew to Bangkok where we did a walking tour of Chinatown before Katie and Laura flew back to their respective winter wonderlands. I spent the next couple of days tooling around Bangkok on my own, which was a lot more fun than it sounds. Bangkok is remarkably easy to get around on public transport and is filled with friendly people and mind-blowingly cheap, tasty food. And temples and markets and great places for people watching.

I then hopped on a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I met Paul. Since we were both flying Air Asia (me on my way back to Korea, him on his way to Ireland to visit the family), a point-to-point carrier with its main hub in KL, this was an easy, logical spot to see together, if not on the top of either of our lists of world traveling destinations. Compared to Bangkok, KL is a nightmare to get around, but we stayed in fairly convenient locations, so that helped tremendously. We tried two new fruits every day; had Malay food, Moroccan food, Spanish tapas, proper English tea, Indian food and Chinese food; visited the Batu caves, the Petronas Towers, the aquarium, the bird park, the Chinatown market, Little India, the national mosque, the national museum and Merdeka Square. Now you can click over to my Picasa album and check out the photos and get a bit more info on what I did and saw.

One of the main things I learned in my travels is which differences I’ve observed/experienced here that are just the Asian way, and which ones are Korean quirks.

Asian things: squatties; sink-hose “showers”; omnipresent cacophony of mostly unpleasant smells; lack of personal space concept (though Koreans are way worse about this than Thais or Malaysians); enthusiasm for food coupled with an illogically high metabolism; communal (“family style”) eating customs; fondness for strong fishy flavors; use of a wide array of brooms to sweep anything, everything and everywhere; love of super-sparkly, over-decorated items

Korean quirks: ajumas and their elbows; acute social distress in the presence of foreigners; trustworthiness and general good will towards others; absolute, every day, young to old obsession with fashion; a sweet tooth that even extends to things like garlic bread (this may just be a misunderstanding of the concept of baked goods); the ability to take almost anything from almost anywhere in the world and somehow make it Korean (please refer to the previously mentioned frosted garlic bread); lack of trash bins in public places; army of ajumas with tongs picking up the results of the immediately preceding item in this list

To their credit, Koreans are much better at following through on environmental concerns than people in Thailand and Malaysia. Sure, they don’t have the natural resources (jungle/rainforest) to exploit that Malaysia and Thailand do, but they are far more conscientious about recycling and the efficiency of their vehicles. There are ads plastered all over Thailand and Malaysia encouraging citizens to recycle and use less water, but the cars, trucks and buses spout noxious fumes the intensity of which I’ve never seen before. I’m not sure whether it was actually the pollution or the fact that I was all of a sudden sweaty all the time when I had become accustomed to winter weather, or perhaps a combination of the two, but my skin – and I don’t just mean my face - freaked out after just a day in Bangkok. It’s only now even considering the concept of clearing up. Fortunately my lungs got along just fine, so maybe the amount of pollution got blown out of proportion in my smog-loathing mind (or I just got lucky).

The other major difference that I noticed is that Malaysia (or at least KL) and Thailand are much more Westerner-friendly – English is almost universally spoken to at least some degree (and the locals aren’t terrified to speak to you); Western stores, restaurant chains and food are all much more prevalent; it’s difficult to find a sign that doesn’t have an (almost always correct) English translation along with the local language; and you could, with relatively little effort, completely isolate yourself from the local culture and live in a bubble of Western-ness. This is not at all possible in Korea. When you are in Korea, unless you are extremely wealthy and never leave Seoul, you know you are in Korea. There’s just no escaping it.

And there’s no escaping the fact that I am now back in wintry Korea without my boyfriend for three weeks (whine, moan, complain). Fortunately I don’t have to desk warm, which means I’ll only have to spend three days in school this entire month. These days are for grade 3 graduation, though I have no idea how in the world a graduation ceremony requires three days. In the mean time, I’ll be keeping myself busy with lesson planning for next semester, catching up on the reading I’ve wanted to do, and attempting to lose the weight I’ve gained over the past semester (due in no small part to all of the Thai and other food I consumed over my travels), and getting my ass back in shape.

So happy Lunar New Year, my dears. Stay warm and feel free to send over any food you have that tastes really good but will miraculously melt away all of my fat.