Food in Korea: Kimchi and School Dinners

09/12/2011

I kinda wanted to wait to write this until I’d tried something insane here, as Korean seems to be the place to go if you like to treat eating as an extreme sport. Regularly topping lists of expats’ craziest, wackiest, zaniest foods eaten out here is a dish called sannakji, or live octopus. I think it’s most common that the chef guts and chops the octopus before the eater kills and consumes it (important: do in that order, as there are several sannakji-related deaths a year, through asphyxiation, apparently), although one friend has told of the time she was presented with a live octopus impaled on a chopstick, only for its legs to sucker themselves onto her face once she popped the head into her mouth. But I reckon an experience like that would merit a post all on its own; and having done some research on names and ingredients before writing this, I now know that my diet here so far has been a lot less mild than I previously though, and I should have plently to sink my teeth into.

First up has to be kimchi. The word is a blanket term for any dish consisting of seasoned, fermented (read: rotting) vegetables, and you’ll find it on your table at any Korean restaurant you’ll ever go to, my school cafeteria included. It comes in many forms. The most common type is made from the napa cabbage and is seasoned with the ubiquitous red pepper paste (at least in my experiences anyway), although I’ve eaten kimchi made of radish (this is one variety I’ll unquestiongly avoid when it’s available at school – there’s not even a hint of a “well, it could be nice this time” in my mind), cucumber and various other members of the plant family. My enjoyment of kimchi could be plotted on a graph as a short, fat bell curve, with the present day being approximately 75% along it. My first experience of kimchi can only be described as a sort of crunchy, spicy, vegetablised gone-off milk, and if this makes no sense to someone having never tried it, it’s because kimchi is like nothing else on earth. Having been subjected to the stuff at least 10 times a week for my first few weeks here (Eliz and I ate out a lot because it’s so cheap to do so here) my tolerance levels gradually rose, and then peaked – at the point where I’d would actually willingly help myself to months-old cabbage at restaurants without having been peer-pressured into it. Having been subjected to the stuff at least 10 times a week for my subsequent few weeks here, my enjoyment then declined – to the point it’s at now, where I find it okay but don’t want to be eating it every single day.

Perhaps one of the reasons for my renewed indifference to kimchi is its omnipresence. Maybe I’d look forward to it a bit more if Koreans weren’t obsessed with it (many Koreans turn it into ice-cold soup and other strange things, eat it for breakfast and even believed it would provide immunisation against SARS in 2003; there’s even a kimchi museum in Seoul and newspapers described a 2010 kimchi price hike as a “national tragedy” – can you tell I’ve read the Wikipedia page?); or if it was slightly more consistent in its taste. I’ve only had one or two bites of kimchi that I’ve thought were really delicious, and sometimes a particular batch can tease you into believing it will taste like that again, only for the school chefs to have smothered it with wasabi or something equally unpalatable.


Kimchi

Before I came to Korea I’d heard two slightly contrasting views about Koreans’ attitudes towards eating: 1) it’s rude to finish off everything on your plate, as it implies you’ve not been fed well enough; 2) it’s rude to waste food here, especially rice, and you should eat what you’re given, like it or not. So, I approached my first school dinner with trepidation. It turned out though that, despite their collectivist tendencies Korean individuals leave what they don’t want to eat and that’s the end of it – at least at school. Every lunchtime I pick up my spoon, chopsticks and metal tray, which consists of three small indents meant for banchan – or the side dishes that accompany every meal – next to two larger, bowl-shaped ones, and I soon learned that it matters a great deal what goes in which compartment. Luckily the teachers can choose what they want from what’s there – and how much they want of it – as long as it goes in the right section of your tray. What’s there is rice, soup and kimchi, every day without fail. Aside from the big three there’s a surprising amount of variety, and my lunches at school have actually been pretty good, especially now I know what most things taste like – for the first month or two I would help myself to piles of stuff that looked good but tasted disgusting, and I would tentatively try small portions of stuff that I’ve not seen since. The other day I helped myself to piles of what looked like black pudding in a red sauce, and I decided not to ask what it was in case the answer put me off my meal altogether, but it actually tasted surprisingly unbloody. It was only later I learned I’d been eating something called sundae – a blood sausage mixed with glass noodles (which presumably disguised its texture). There was no prior warning, no “oh by the way, you’re about to tuck in to a big mound of blood and ex-vital organs”, so while I wasn’t actually too bothered by what I’d eaten, it raised a few questions in my mind as to what I’d already unkowingly consumed.


Sundae

At restaurants you’ll be presented with a variety of leafy side dishes and other bits of greenery to accompany a main meal of something more substantial, but at school the banchan form for a part of the main meal, and so I eagerly await the moment their identities become revealed to me. Like I’ve mentioned, I know now which dishes I’m most partial to and to which I’m not, and so as soon as my nose and eyes are within range I attempt to find out what’s on offer on that particular day – I start sniffing as soon as I reach the top of the staircase that leads down to the cafeteria, and I’m always peering into students’ trays to try and get an idea of how much I’ll be enjoying my lunch. One of the nicest soups is spicy and contains pieces of whole crab in it, whereas the most drab is basically warm water with a small suspicion of a beansprouty flavour. Rice is always just rice, no matter what colour it’s served up as (I’ve had yellow, brown, red, purple and black in addition to the usual white), and I’ve already talked about kimchi. I look forward to the days when we’re served a kind of spicy stew, with bits of meat and potato swimming about in it, although eating a chicken wing with chopsticks is one of the least dignified things I’ve ever had to do, despite my increasing proficiency with chopsticks; and I sigh inwardly when in stew’s place are cold, grey cubes of condensed scrambled egg. I’ve also learned never to judge a foodstuff by its cover – I’ve been fooled enough times by a piece of deep-fried tofu masquerading as a chicken nugget. I look forward to lunchtimes, as they’re a nice indication that my working day is well over halfway finished with, and it almost seems as though all the looking forward I do in the mornings has been a waste if I get cold noodles and two versions of kimchi to go with my rice instead of nice bits of meat. After eating, any solid leftovers are transferred into the remaining centimetre of soup which is always left uneaten (undrank? Unswallowed) for lubrication, so that they can easily slide into giant waste containers. This then is turned into dog food or something similar – and unfortunately this is the last time I’m going to write dog and food in the same sentence, for today, anyway.

I’d like to write a separate blog on my experiences at restaurants here, so I’ll end with a mention of something almost as pervasive as kimchi: red bean paste. A dark, sweet paste, made from beans (obviously), the stuff is in everything relatively snacky or deserty (perhaps a slight exaggeration) and is disgusting (another exaggeration, but it really bugs me when I look forward to something that much and it’s ruined by red bean paste. Eliz and I bought some pic n mix the other day, and I got one of those big sugared bananas – red bean paste in the middle. An innocuous-looking cookie was left on my desk, supposedly chocolate chip – red bean paste in the middle. If anyone knows and would care to enlighten me: how do you even get paste into a cookie in the first place?!

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