How we eat in South Korea
How we eat in South Korea
In a past life I was a kindergartener. My key duties began with an afternoon bus ride to Tootin Hills Elementary School (yes, the real name of the school) but the journey from home was always preceded by lunch with mom. It was an important routine to me, as routine tends to be for most young kids, and like most 6-year-olds I craved repetitive meals. I would request “a melted tortilla with cheese” in the culturally neutered language of a white suburban child craving a Kraft Singles quesadilla lunch. I would lean my chin on the kitchen counter and watch the glowing insides of the toaster oven. The appearance of the orange bubbling ooze told me to alert mom that my lunch was ready. Sometimes on these occasions, Mom, hawkishly watching the clock, would stuff the half moon of cheese and tortilla into a paper towel and shuffle me to the bus stop.
Twenty two and a half years later, I am more or less educated regarding Mexican food. I’m an independent who is in between ownership of toaster ovens (though I am getting married, and am inclined to put a tiny toaster oven on my registry).
These days, I prefer burritos. But if I order a quesadilla, I prefer it to have shrimp inside, with mango or pineapple as a bonus. Being that I live in Korea, thousands of miles from the life I lived as a six-year-old (and sixteen-year-old), Mexican food is not something I can easily or regularly get for lunch. And that’s okay. I have a new way of eating now. This isn’t about my evolution as a Mexican food eater but about the many lives I’ve lived as an eater, period: and now, as I’m about to leave Korea to return to the United States, I want to memorialize how Korea has changed my eating, palette, and self-nourishing routines.
When I came to Korea, soup was something I had when I was sick or if everyone in my former New York office was “grabbing” (as we Americans do) lunch from Au Bon Pain. I liked spicy food but was still more of a “medium to mild” level girl. I had never eaten rice for breakfast. This is not to say I wasn’t eating Asian food. My college and post-college self couldn’t get enough. I went for Thai and Japanese most avidly, but Vietnamese and Chinese foods sometimes prevailed. I had yet to meet a dish of noodles that didn’t enthrall me, and I willed my fingers to functionally wield the chopsticks that funneled them to my gullet.
Pre-2012, Korean food was still under the radar for most Americans. I had ducked into suburban Korean places at the suggestion of friends, but it was all bibimbap, barbecue, and fried rice. The “safe” Korean dishes didn’t really leave an impression and by the time life took me to Korea, I was essentially venturing into a personal gastronomic unknown.
In 2013, I began to evolve into a different eater. In the mornings, I shifted my quotidien fried egg onto a pile of rice yielded by a chirping, red and white machine. Days I could have doengjang soup with it were even better. Bread, my all-time favorite food, had become an indulgence, something I treated myself to on the way home from work, scarfing it in mouthfuls from the bag. I began to notice that in winter I could no longer tolerate drinking cold water and began filling my mug with warm or hot—bless those omnipresent Coway machines—and drinking it slowly through workday afternoons.
That same year I had my first bite of glistening, yellow-tinged Korean pizza. Of course, dyed-in-the-wool Northeasterner that I am, I scoffed. I stifled a shudder. I walked past the window stickers of Domino’s Korea and stared slack-jawed at pizzas covered with seafood, corn, sweet potatoes, and mayonnaise. As I write this now, I have 22 days left in Korea, and I have plans next week to procure a pie from Pizza Hut Korea with that now-irresistible starchy ring of cheese and pureed sweet potato. I may even get it with shrimp, too. Am I converted? No! Actually, maybe yes? Korean pizza, for better or for worse, has become a part of me.
I am drawn to food rituals and Korean food has no shortage of them. Chicken and beer after a hard work day (or just because)! Jeon and makgeolli when it pours. A steaming pot of samgyetang on a hot summer day. Tteokkbokki at your birthday party—a junkier alternative to the traditional seaweed soup which I can rationalize because my mother is not Korean! Imagining giving up these rituals, ones I adopted in my temporary home, is one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of leaving.
And yet, there are parts of me as an eater that refused to budge these past few years. I cannot complete a meal with only a thimble-sized cup of water. My body demands hydration. I will get up eleven times during a meal to hit the Coway, and there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve tried resisting to no avail. There is no pleasure in eating when one’s tongue turns into Emory board after a few bites. Also, I am undoubtedly on Team Regular-Sized Napkins.
Fresh cream icing is and always will be worthless in comparison to buttercream. This is written in my DNA and cannot be amended. If I never eat another “milk cake” again it will be too soon. I will, however, miss the Paris Baguette cheesecake even if consuming it thousands of miles from NY.
In my next life, I will eat sandwiches for lunch often because I have always believed they are the perfect midday meal. I have missed the salacious Italian deli sandwich with a passion. I will bake cookies and cupcakes which I abandoned doing in Korea. I will (still) be able to buy and eat all sorts of bread but there will be abundant, more affordable blueberries and Three Buck Chuck and nearly every roast of coffee under the sun.
But no chestnut makgeolli.
But no fish-shaped red bean ice cream.
No chi-mac joint that is appropriately dingy and un-Americanized.
I will miss living in Korea and savor any chance I get to taste pieces of it and reminisce about the past life I had the privilege to lead.
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