Kate has made kimbap for my lunch the past two days, which has me thinking about the best part of living in Korea: the food. Kimbap (pictured) is a roll that consists of kim (dried seaweed) on the outside and bap (rice) on the inside, along with various other things like cucumber & egg & ham. (Take away the kim and you have what Koreans call nude—as in naked—kimbap.) It’s a cheap and omnipresent food in Korea and was even the title & subject of an omnipresent and annoyingly catchy pop song the summer we arrived. The gist of the song, by a duo called The Jadu, is that the guy is the kim and the girl the bap—or was it the other way around? The kindergarteners at our school did a dance routine to the song at the end of the year. If you’re curious, download it here (for iTunes & QuickTime).
Getting Into the Tupperware, Or the Only Intelligible Thing Left in Korea Is the Food
What’s left of Korea that you could safely call intelligible is the food.
For hundreds of years, the Hermit Kingdom was sealed off from the rest of the world in a piece of air-tight, cultural Tupperware. Then somebody didn’t close the lid properly. It’s still far and away the most homogenous nation on earth, but life here has become hopelessly contaminated. In only a few decades, the culture has been reduced to a hyper-ambitious, often corrupt co-option of Western commercialism, a dizzying swirl of blinking neon lights hawking—in a language that is never quite English, but not exactly Korean, either—everything from karaoke bars to massage parlors to a “wistful land of heartfelt telebisions.”
If Koreanness is to be found in such a place, then I recommend it be sought in a restaurant.
Luckily, in our small but crowded corner of Daejeon, two out of three storefronts are places to eat. New restaurants appear almost daily, their grand openings announced by young women in skimpy blue cheerleader uniforms dancing out front to thumping techno music. They do this even in the snow. (Where do these women come from? Why do they all look exactly the same?) Meanwhile, large, colorful signs show cartoon characters of pigs or octopus or ducks, whatever be the cook’s specialty, in poses suggesting an enthusiastic invitation for you to come eat them. One place around the corner from our apartment depicts a surprised looking cow dancing on a hot grill.
Inside, however, the food and the way it’s eaten has stubbornly resisted outside interference. It has scarcely changed, in fact, since that happy day in the late 1500s when marauding Japanese armies showed up armed with red pepper sauce. In the intervening centuries, Japanese food has turned irritatingly bland while Korean food is the spiciest in the world. (Cultural note: Koreans thrive on extremes. Are you competitive? They are way, way more competitive. Do you love to drink? They drink much, much, much more than you do. Do you find holding a grudge strangely satisfying? Ask a Korean what he thinks of the Japanese.)
The threatening chaos of our neighborhood is stilled, at least temporarily, by the floor-to-ceiling windows that come standard on restaurants here. They allow passersby to gaze in at open, well-lit rooms where thin, well-manicured Koreans sit cross-legged around low tables, hungrily grabbing strips of meat off their grills and sharing sets of colorful side dishes. There’s always a lot of reaching for food. And because custom dictates that you never pour your own liquor, there is always someone holding out a shot glass and someone else filling it up. Toddlers waddle around the room creating trouble, and infants wrapped up in swaddling snore away on the heated floor.
It’s like a giant dinner party.
And all you have to do to join is invite yourself in. The most popular restaurants are easily distinguished by the large number of customers’ shoes arranged neatly on wooden shelves just inside the front entrance. The least popular leave their staff to sit and watch soap operas, which broadcast 24 hours a day here.
Once you’ve abandoned your footwear, someone who a moment ago was popping open bottles of beer or cooking or washing dishes will show you to your table. This someone is as likely as not to be the restaurant’s owner, especially if you're an American. As a rule, Koreans like Americans and will go out of their way to treat you as an honored guest. But don’t be surprised if, as you cross the room, every head in the place swivels to stare at you. Kids may even come right up and touch your skin as if to test some epistemological hypothesis. Daejeon is 99.98 percent Korean, after all. Even if you’ve lived just down the street for the better part of a year, your neighbors will still be shocked to giggles at the sight of your round eyes.
Giant menus hang on the walls and are divided about equally between main dishes and alcohol. There will be no time to dilly-dally over what you want, but the cartoon character on the sign outside has already severely restricted your choice. At our favorite restaurant, which is called, with Buddhist simplicity, Pork Rib, it is rightly assumed that you will order pork rib.
Each table comes equipped with a grill in its center. At Pork Rib, a container of glowing hot coals will be carefully lowered into it—how pleasant you find this will depend greatly upon the season—and the blast-furnace heat will also serve as a helpful signal that your food is not far behind. The meat will arrive raw and heavily marinated. While it is cooking, your server will begin to fussily arrange 10 to 12 side dishes around the table.
These dishes will contain lots of small wonders, including, in many places, miniature octopus, acorn jelly (a Daejeon specialty) and silk worm larvae, to name only the three most inedible. But they will be dominated by kimchi, the national dish of Korea. This is not the national dish in the way that, say, baseball is the national sport back in the States. Ask any school kid here his favorite food and he won’t say Whoppers or Skittles. He’ll say fermented, pickled cabbage drenched in red pepper sauce. For good reason, the Koreans can’t get enough of it, devouring huge quantities at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Other vegetables get kimchi’d, too, including radishes, cucumbers and turnips, and the spicy dish offers an amazing variety of tastes and textures to accompany your meal. In short, it’s delicious.
The closest you get to dairy products here are various egg dishes—although it’s not always clear by which species of bird the eggs have been laid. Koreans hate cheese and avoid milk. Water comes with every meal, not tea. Traditionally, the water in China and Japan was suspect, hence the practice of boiling it and making tea. Koreans, on the other hand, were blessed with clear streams, which apparently gave them lots of extra time to distill spirits.
Soju, a clear alcohol distilled from wheat, is what most Koreans prefer to wash their kimchi down with. It’s vodka-like but much weaker, and it tastes perfect against the spices of a Korean meal. (By itself, it’s not good at all.) Koreans empty about 4 billion of the distinctive green bottles every year. On top of that, they’re the top whiskey importers in Asia and the No. 2 cognac importers. Koreans really like to drink. Custom has it that the person buying the food in a dinner party fills up the glasses, and so long as he’s filling, you’re drinking. This can get out of hand quickly. Lucky for Korean guys staggering home that local mores allow them to publicly relieve themselves just about anywhere they want. It’s so that our friends, the owners of Pork Rib, comment when we don’t order soju.
When your meat’s good and ready, you’ll want to cut the strips into small pieces using a handy pair of scissors at the table. Then, with your heavy, silver chopsticks, grab a leaf of lettuce from a basket and place it in your left hand. Grab a hunk of meat and dip that in some sauce and place it on the lettuce. Now grab a small slice of raw garlic—or if you’ve got the guts (literally, since all this spicy food has bestowed upon Koreans the world’s highest rate of intestinal cancer), a slice of chili pepper—dip that in some different sauce, and add that to your lettuce. Throw on some kimchi or assorted greens at your whim, and stuff the whole package in your mouth.
Nothing elegant here. Koreans eat quickly and refuse to be slowed down by conversation. Kleenex and a cold wet towel are provided at the table for when your nose starts to run and you pores open up.
Many Americans will be surprised that the rice hasn’t shown up yet. Except when they’re eating rice-and-vegetable dishes like bibimbap, Koreans prefer to save it for after the meal, when it’s served in individual silver bowls with lids and eaten with a salty and very spicy soup. Koreans love soup. They love it spicy and they love it hot, as in at a quick boil when delivered to the table. Their love of soup has endeared them, quite appropriately, to spoons, and among Asians, they are the only ones to also eat their rice with spoons.
I’m sad to report that there is no such thing as dessert in Korea. There is a thriving candy industry, a whole holiday devoted to cracker sticks dipped in chocolate, as a matter of fact, but none of this has penetrated the cultural safety zone that is the restaurant. When you’ve gobbled up the last of your rice and slurped the last of your soup, you’re done. Again, no dilly-dallying. No unnecessary conversation. Time to uncurl your legs and stand up, which may be difficult, depending on your alcohol intake and relative limberness. Koreans are, as a rule, very limber, and if all other racial features were blurred, it would be no problem spotting an American in a Korean restaurant: He’s the one doubled over with joint pain, hobbling to the front counter to pay his bill.
It’s time now to return to that wistful land of heartfelt telebisions. But know that what you’ve just experienced is irrefutably Korean and, to boot, the food is actually good for you. My fiancee and I have managed to shed 50 pounds between us since moving here and are busy scheming up ways to market the place as a fat farm. Club Kimchi. We’ll let you know how it works out.