December 12, 2012 by travelinggrits
I consider eating one of my favorite pastimes, so it’s about time for a blog post dedicated to that necessity of life.
I had never tried Korean food until this year. When I was coming to a decision about taking the Fulbright grant, someone advised me to take the kimchi test: if I could handle Korea’s traditional staple, fermented cabbage slathered with red pepper and garlic paste, then I was ready.
It was good advice. Koreans boast its health qualities, and it is a ubiquitous side dish. The few times I’ve had a slight cold while here, I’ve doused my throat in its juices to make my nose run. I never avoided spicy food in the past, but I can definitely tell I’ve developed a high tolerance. By now, I’m a kimchi connoisseur; I can tell that a restaurant’s is never as good as my host family’s homemade sauce. We had a running joke about the kimchi at our orientation at Jungwon University, and at the conclusion of our program some Fulbrighters even made a skit where the kimchi came to life and haunted their dreams.
I’ve even had several Koreans ask me, in all seriousness—when you stepped off the plane at the airport, could you smell the garlic?
A friend from home inquired about the Korean diet and whether I felt that I was eating healthier these days. My response is mixed. I was generally a health-conscious eater in the states, so it is pretty hard to beat. I do eat less meat, but what I do eat often seems to be more fatty than portions I would select on my own. For example, samgyeopsal, or pork belly, is seen as a special treat. (This may be a regional difference, as many coastal areas would eat far more fish than pork and beef.) Snack foods are almost always empty calories, and healthy options are hard to find; a common Korean favorite is the chocopie, which is quite close to an American moon pie. I do eat smaller portions of snack foods and desserts in general than in the States, however. Cheese and yogurt is rare, and all milk is whole. White rice is offered at every meal, and I find that I often leave some in my dish rather than finishing it.
I’ve eaten my fair share of some strange things, or at least eaten some uncommon choices more often:
Makchang (the equivalent of chitterlings, for you Southerners)
Anchovies (almost weekly at school)
Soondae (stuffed intestine)
Copious amounts of squid and octopus
The list goes on, and there are many that I haven’t tried yet. The unmistakable smell of silkworm larvae often greets me as I walk through the markets, but let’s just say it hasn’t overcome me with its tantalizations yet.
My one rule is to try everything I’m offered at least once. On one dinner out with my family, the appetizer was a steaming, gelatinous gray block. I nabbed some with my chopsticks and gave it a go. “What’s this?” I casually asked, mid-chew.
“Cow blood,” my host mom replied. She chopped some up with a spoon and proceeded to mix it in the beef stew that was served next, proclaiming it “delicious.” Let’s just say I chose not to follow suit.
But my tastes have certainly changed. One of my “go-to” choices when ordering on my own is soondubu, a tofu stew, and I’ve grown to enjoy odeng, or fish cake. And don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of delicious offerings in Korean cuisine. Honorable mentions include shabu shabu (similar to fondu, where the meat is simmered in broth and later wrapped in lettuce or even Vietnamese rice paper), dakdoritang (chicken simmered in a spicy red sauce), kalbi (grilled marinated meat), bulgogi (sweet marinated beef), doenjang jiggae (soybean stew). But my personal favorite is another Korean staple, bibimbap, a bowl of mixed vegetables, rice and red pepper paste topped with nuts and sesame seeds. It’s a shame that the cold weather drives my favorite dessert, patbingsu, a giant bowl of shaved ice and ice cream topped with fruit or red bean, off the menus. My mouth is watering just thinking of my street food picks: hoddeok (sweet bread fried, split open and filled with brown sugar and sesame seeds) and gyeran bbang (egg bread – essentially like a cross between eggs in a basket and sweet French toast). Is yours too?
Sure, I’m looking forward to the day when I can eat more dairy products, fruit and salads, but I’m enjoying the cuisine tour while I’m here. Across the nation, the winter marks the kimchi-making season, and I even rolled up my sleeves and contributed to production of the host family’s annual supply. (My host mom asked me what the equivalent of yearly kimchi making in America would be and I told her “Christmas cookies.”) And although some of these menu options may sound strange to you—well, some of what we eat may be equally strange to them. How about peanut butter and jelly? (Butter? And jelly, which to Koreans refers to jello? I probably wouldn’t try it either.) Or just take my blog namesake, for example—grits.
Next up, dog soup, perhaps. (I’ve heard it’s my host dad’s favorite.)
one hoddeok, coming right up the humble beginnings of kimchi ah, bibimbap mmm, makchang da blowfish one of my first meals at my homestay - bulgogi I also impressed them by eating the raw peppers another early meal at the homestay note the rice, front and center shabu shabu at my teacher dinner table set for Korean Thanksgiving meal kalbi learning how to make bulgogi and kimbap at a cooking class during orientation patbingsu, how I love you