Observations of South Korea #2
As there are only four food groups and a limited number of vitamins, minerals and such, you might imagine that feeding oneís face is a similar function around the world. Alas, in our recent experience weíve found this is just not the case. Sure, in Korea you eat beef, pork, chicken and seafood, but you eat them in unusual ways.
By far the most common form of eating in these parts is Korean Bar-B-Q. This is an event meal where you sit around a hot surface (either gas fired or heated by hot bricks) and cook thin strips of beef. This beef is then eaten directly with your chopsticks or you can put it inside a lettuce leaf, add a little sauce, fold it up and eat it in one bite. I donít know why one bite is important, but it seems to be. Along with all this cow, you have a wealth of side dishes (most of which are too exotic for us to try) stacked all around you, and you just reach out your chopsticks and take a taste from the communal bowls. Most of the time weíve eaten this way we sit on the floor around a low table, which makes it a more cultural experience but also is a literal pain in the back, legs and sometimes bottom.
Of course, one of the side dishes is invariably kimchi. This is the fabled Korean dish consisting of fermented cabbage with some sort of red chilly based sauce and tons of garlic. Itís edible, sure, but Iím afraid itís not the sort of thing which will me making its debut as McKimchi at McDonaldís anytime soon. But then again, I guess thatís at least part of what traveling is all about.
After our first month here we moved out of the very nice hotel the company had picked out and into a half-apartment, half-hotel room around the corner (The locals call these officetell). Since then weíve been cooking a limited repertoire at home and that requires grocery shopping. This should be simple, right? I mean, in the US you canít swing a cat about without hitting two or three supermarkets, and they seem pretty darned recognizable. In Seoul we first couldnít find a supermarket at all; then we found two, both a fair distance away. This leads to a new problem: transportation. The company didnít get rental cars here (a hired van takes us to work) so we have to travel around by taxi or subway. So you can imagine Angela and I running around in the winter air carrying grocery bags and chasing after taxis, which are sometimes rare and sometimes plentiful but they just donít feel like stopping for us; we donít think trying to take the subway while carry groceries sounds like much fun.
One other note on grocery shopping: apparently the preferred advertising method for cosmetics and cleaning supplies companies in Korea is to hire young women, put them in bright outfits and have them stand about the store explaining to customers what a fine product they represent. Weíve read that gas stations do the same thing; in the summertime, while one person pumps the gas another stands by your car window and tells you what a wonderful petroleum product youíre buying Ė while wearing a bikini. Youíll be glad to hear in the wintertime the same things goes on but in parkas.
A few other interesting items:
When a restaurant delivers food to you (like Chinese food or noodles), they deliver it in real dishes, with metal chopsticks and spoons. You leave the dishes outside your door and the delivery guy comes back and gets it later. Pizza is delivered in a box, though you can order bulgogi (a variaton of Korean b-b-q beef) pizza and itís pretty darned good.
Sushi is a bargain, at least at a place near our hotels. Itís a little hole in the wall place, with just enough room for the horseshoe shaped sushi bar. If you order sushi at the Ritz Carlton restaurant, though, expect to cash in the kidsí college funds.
Fried chicken comes with all the parts: neck, head, etc.
On the streets there are tons of small carts selling sausages, fish, cookies, etc. In some places you can even find silkworm larvae soup, something so surprising to my eyes I took a picture of it.
None of the deserts seem to be overwhelmingly sweet; like in Japan, a little bit of sweetness seems to go a long way for the Koreans. Some of their cookies are these thin, crisp wafers with a little seaweed stuck on them.
Of course, times are a changing. We have plenty of fast food around us in Seoul, including chain restaurants like Outback and TGIF. There are some cookies and candies which are Americanized, dripping with sugar. Someday soon you may not be able to buy a single chicken neck in all of Korea and take out wll be in paper and Styrofoam. Someday kimchi may not even get buried in the ground for months before being served.
It could happenÖ