Occasionally I am asked what kinds of food I cook after work, and I receive a response of surprise and delight in equal measure when I say “oh, mostly Korean actually. I do samgyetang a lot, and just the other night I made dak galbi for the first time”. But the truth is that here it’s difficult to make any home comforts. That’s not to say that samgyetang – whole chicken stuffed with rice and boiled in a soup infused with garlic, ginger, cinnamon, chestnuts and jujube – isn’t delicious, it’s just that quite often I crave a proper roast dinner. Or real sausages. Real bacon, for that matter. Pork pie. Crusty, unsweetened bread, too. Lasagne. Shepherd’s pie. Anything that goes in the oven…
It used to be quite an ordeal going to the supermarket here. I’d spend ages looking everywhere for a particular product, only to find that a) it’s not sold in Korea; b) it’s sold in Korea but only at a certain shop, which requires a 35,000 won membership fee, in the next city; c) it’s thrice the price it would be back home. Most big places have imported food sections, and every visit I forget that Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine are foreign too and its their produce clogs up these shelves, leaving little room for English gastronomy (when you’ve lived abroad for a while, this becomes less of an oxymoron by the day). Over time I learned to stop hopefully checking the meat delis for minced beef under £20/kilo or the freezers for frozen peas, and whole chickens deep-fried are as close as I can get to a roast; corn tea as close as PG Tips. There seems to be a lack of variety at these places, which I used to consider odd as many of them are huge, but you can find entire aisles inexplicably dedicated to soy sauce, packet ramen or tinned tuna.
However, I’ve gradually adapted to Korean supermarkets and in time come to learn how and where best to shop: SaveZone for whole chickens and fruit n veg (especially for bananas on Sundays when you can get a large bunch for a pound); E-Mart for chicken breast, bread, juices and dairy; HomePlus for other meat, cereal, imported beers and tinned goods; Lotte Mart, because I’m rarely in the area, is almost always worth a nosey to see if they’ve got any seasonal discounts, or Coco Pops Another thing that eases the pain of food shopping is the high number of free tasters you are given. With green plastic toothpick in one hand and cup of instant noodles in the other I slip from stall to stall, sampling a dumpling here and a cutlet there. I used to marvel at the lack of beggary in Ulsan until the penny dropped – when there’s so much free food available in supermarkets, there’s simply no need. Going to the supermarket is also a bit like going to an aquarium – only the fish are splayed out on ice, dead, as opposed to swimming around in tanks – you can see great octopi and squid, huge prawns and crabs with legs as long as mine. You’d be charged an entrance in the UK.
Why then, if I’ve mastered the art of food shopping in Korea, do I persist in cooking Korean food? Basically, because I don’t have an oven, and you can’t roast a potato on a hob. You can buy fairly reasonably priced portable toaster ovens online, but I’ve left it far too long now to do so and the mathematician in me is forever going “70,000 won equals just over forty quid divided by five months left here equals roughly 21 weeks, once a week and that’s £2 a go – nah, too expensive, not worth it”. So, until the end of my contract when I’ll eat steak sandwiches on French bread with real mayonnaise until they come out of my eyeballs I’ll continue to cook Korean. Who knows – in years to come, when Korea’s nothing but a memory, maybe I’ll have a delicious reminder of the time I spent here.