Thursday, April 7, 2011

Costco: An Adventure in Side Dishes

Koreans adore their side dishes. No Korean meal is complete without at least a couple tiny dishes of pickles, kimchi, and myriad other salty/fishes selections. Anyone who has sat down to a traditional Korean meal (usually sitting on the floor), is well versed in the art of side dishes. It is not uncommon to have a tiny table completely packed with an army of little white, plastic dishes filled with at least 3 kinds of kimchi, hot peppers, some sort of fermented fish, some sort of dried fish, bean sprouts, pickled radishes, pickled cucumbers, japchae, onions, and on and on and on. So it makes perfect sense that when Koreans are faced with a dining experience sans side dishes, they will improvise and find some way to make those side dishes happen.

Enter the Costco cafeteria.

Anyone who has paid a visit to a Costco or Sam's Club in the US knows that the price clubs also feature small cafeterias selling cheap, but delicious, American favorites like pizza and hot dogs. Costco in Korea is no exception. No trip to the Daegu Costco would be complete without a visit to the cafeteria for a slice or two of large, hot, American pizza.

You enter the dining area and are greeted by hordes of Koreans chomping down on reasonably priced pizza, hot dogs, chicken/beef bakes (giant breadsticks stuffed with cheese and beef or chicken), and clam chowder (I still don't know about this one). But something seems strange. At first I couldn't put my finger on it. However, after I ordered my slice of combo pizza and filled up my 500 won Coke Zero, I realized what was off kilter.

As I passed the condiments station (you know, the place where you gets onions, ketchup, and mustard for your hot dogs), I noticed a queue for the onion dispenser and a young high school girl grappling with the metal container. She was struggling to make the dispenser give her more onions to augment her already veritable mountain of diced condiments. After she was satisfied with the amount of onions, she moved on to the ketchup and mustard containers and proceeded to douse her onion Everest in sodium-packed condiments. This was strange to me. Did she and her friends order a bunch of hot dogs and want to bypass individually dressing them? Surely this was the reason.

The pile of onions, ketchup, and mustard. Um, where are the hot dogs?
I was wrong. Oh but was I wrong!

Fighting my way into the only empty seat left in the dining area, I noticed the diners to either side of me also sported their very own dunes of reddish-yellowish onions. And they were tucking right into these. I had to stop myself from visibly gagging but I forced myself to finish off my pizza with blinders on to avoid the salty gaze of those horrible hillocks. After an intensely uncomfortable meal, I headed toward the trash bins to dispose of my plate and on the way saw that every single person in the establishment laid claim to their very own plate piled high with hot dog dressings. And they were devouring every morsel.
The side dish from hell!
And thus ends the story of Korean ingenuity in the face of a complete dearth of side dishes. Although I personally cannot even fathom how disgusting shoveling spoonfuls upon spoonfuls of the stuff into my mouth would taste (let alone the aftertaste - onions stick with you!), the Korean patrons of the Daegu Costco see it as a treat of sorts. Perhaps they didn't notice the way the onion dispenser disallowed them from building their pile of onions with ease (it's a crank shaft dispenser that allows only a small amount of diced toppings out at a time - perfect for hot dogs!). And maybe this is what they think is commonplace for price club dining across America (Western cuisine is extremely fashionable). I just hope this trend never catches on in the US. Ever.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting observation. They just upgraded the dining area at Costco but I bet the same behavior will continue :)