Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Food Journey

Food is fuel but to many of us, it is something so much more. Food is an experience, a lifestyle, a religion. Food conjures up every emotion on the human gamut. It’s a big deal. So when one’s food environment is rapidly changed, emotions can run wild, whether for the better or worse.

When I decided to move to Korea over a year ago, I knew life would be different. Not everyone speaks English here – I would need to learn some Korean. Korean society operates under Confucian ideals – I would need to adjust (or at least temper) my severely individual, Western outlook. And of course, the food would be very different – my palate would require a few adjustments. However, this final difference proved much harder than I expected.

As someone well versed in international travel and culture, I embrace chances to learn about other places, learn new words, meet different people, and try strange foods. Korea would be different, though. This wasn’t a three week jaunt across the globe to some exotic locale where I would be constantly on the go seeing the sites, embracing the new flavors; I was moving to Korea. My life for twelve months was to be based in an entirely new culture very different from my own. And boy would the flavors change.

I’m extremely accustomed to the luxury that is the American specialty supermarket. I absolutely adore shops like The Fresh Market, Whole Foods, and local specialty stores but despite my elitism I equally embrace that enormous Kroger Marketplace and the sprawling, gorgeous produce section of Meijer. We are lucky to have such unbridled access to quite literally the world of food. Feeling like Mediterranean? Why there is an antipasti bar and wide selection of hummus to choose from. How about Mexican? Avocados, cilantro, and tomatillo abound. Perhaps more in the mood for a bit of a baked indulgence? Every store I’ve ever seen in the US has all the fixin’s for a lovely batch of oatmeal cookies or even the most delicate of meringues. This was the life I knew. Anything my taste buds desired was only a short drive away. And then I moved to Korea.

Korea has a well-established local cuisine. Some of its specialties are better than others (as it goes with any culture) but tasty dishes abound; that is, if you enjoy a particular handful of flavors and ingredients. Rice is king. This is a well-known fact across much of Asia but it is especially true in Korea. The word for rice, (bap), is by no coincidence also the word for meal. After eating my fair share of plain rice with beef, plain rice with vegetables, plain rice with soup, I began to get damn tired of plain rice. Well, in Korea that isn’t exactly an option. It accompanies any soup and comprises the bulk of many Korean traditional dishes (bibimbap, kimbap, boggumbap, chobap, and so on). Rice is something I eventually had to come to terms with, and now our relationship is rather pared back but still fairly amicable. But rice has a queen, a very proud, loud queen that really stands as the true symbol of Korean culinary culture. Her name is kimchi.

Fermented cabbage soaked in large clay pots with chili paste, garlic, ginger, scallions, and fish sauce does not sound at all delicious. And the first time I tried it, it was probably one of the more unpalatable things I’ve ever put in mouth. Kimchi is so vital to Korean culture that when heavy rains in 2010 caused massive cabbage crop failures, the South Korean government rushed to lower agricultural tariffs to prevent a veritable cultural disaster. Without kimchi, there is no Korea.

For many months, I snubbed that little plate full of wilted, pickled Napa cabbage and allowed my Korean friends (or my more accepting foreign friends) to polish off the side dish. And then all of a sudden, one day whilst rummaging through my fridge I had a craving for a very specific flavor. I stopped what I was doing and pondered what that flavor was. Then a light bulb went off and, to my horror, I realized what food I longed for: the dreaded kimchi. Only it wasn’t so dreadful anymore. From that point on, I felt myself enjoying kimchi, remarking on whether this was a particularly good or bad batch, and finding myself ordering seconds. What had happened? Was I finally in Korea for too long? Or had I been in Korea just long enough?

I noticed myself perking up when I found a recipe involving kimchi on one of the many foodie sites I frequent. Kimchi quesadillas? Why, yes please! Kimchi on pizza? Why this could bring a nice amount of umami to such a standard dish. What had happened to me? Even my friends ask who I was and what had I done to Erin? She was there, all right, just with a newfound hankering some old, spicy cabbage. Now I am proud to report that this girl has a whole package of kimchi in the fridge and sometimes I take out a few pieces to snack on cold or perhaps toss in the frying pan for a few minutes to take that unique flavor to the next level of satisfying.  And I am ok with it.

Every culture bases its cuisine around some carbohydrate, and this carb generally manifests itself in the form of pasta and/or rice. Since it is quite clear where rice fits into the Korean culinary canon, it is important for me to give noodles their due respect. I adore pasta and it is amazing in so many ways. It is versatile, delicious, and filling. One of my most coveted comfort foods is Pad Thai: the perfect marriage of quintessentially Asian flavors coupled with the satisfying base of those supple rice noodles that absorb the brilliant tastes of the dish’s main ingredients of tamarind and fish sauce. So where do noodles fit in here in Korea?

Noodles abound across the Korean peninsula, which is lucky for this girl. As you will find pastas made from your basic wheat to the more colorful and nuanced spinach or potato varietals in Italy, Korean noodles are equally as varied. Kalguksu are you’re basic hand-cut wheat flour noodles. These tender tendrils are usually found in abundance floating in a savory broth along with scallions and other seasonal vegetables. A hot bowl of this is akin to a chicken noodle soup (minus the chicken) and warms you up from the inside out on a cold day during the brutal Korean winters. The best of kalguksu is served up in traditional markets across the country that feature rows upon rows of noodle soup vendors specializing in this simple yet highly satisfying soupy dish.

Although I heartily enjoy a steamy bowl of knife cut noodles merrily swimming in a rich broth, nothing could be less appetizing on a sweltering summer day in the middle of the hottest city on the peninsula. See, in Daegu, we live in a veritable bowl.  Surround by mountains and established in a low valley, Daegu traps in heat and humidity and refuses to let any of it escape. This unfortunate geography renders the city beyond miserable on the average summer day. Even in summer, though, people still get hungry. Enter naengmyeon. When I first learned of this dish I immediately dismissed it as absolutely disgusting. Naengmyeon is a large steel bowl of chewy buckwheat noodles immersed in an ice cold bath of vinegary, tangy broth garnished with cucumbers (which I always pick out), crunchy Korean pear, sometimes a little bit of a kimchi, a few dashes of the red pepper paste gochujang (or a more liberal serving, as I prefer), and half of a hard boiled egg. They are cold noodles. Cold noodles are what I eat after coming home at 4am after a long night and realizing I have leftover macaroni and cheese and my late night munchies can’t be bothered with microwaving anything. Why would I ever soberly choose to eat cold noodles that aren’t pasta salad? So I (quite foolishly) avoided the dish for months.

I honestly cannot remember when I first actually sampled my first naengmyeon. All I remember that it was infatuation at first taste. Naengmyeon may be one of the most brilliant dishes I have ever sampled. Refreshing, oh so flavorful, exceedingly filling, and rather healthy. It may well be the perfect dish. I never would have considered craving a bowl full of ice cubes and noodles, but these July days that make me question if I live in a city or a sauna find me longing for, day dreaming of, a silvery bowl that is the chalice cradling the manna of summer. Even as I write this I find myself lusting after that cold, chewy paradise.

Following my honeymoon stage in Korea, my intense disenchantment with the seemingly uninspired state of sustenance in my new home grew to a worrisome level. My comments regarding my life’s most recent state of culinary affairs became downright rude and impossibly cynical. Kimchi became the source of extreme anger and rice (oh the horror!) became the bane of my lunchtime ritual. Rice again? How inventive. And then the day came when I sat in my apartment hacking away on my keyboard some scathing review of my afternoon meal (in what universe does it make sense to serve spaghetti AND rice together in the same meal), my taste buds began to tickle and call out for a familiar yet strange flavor. Could it be? I wanted kimchi? And that is the day that everything changed. I no longer thoroughly resented the bright red little dish of pickled greenery placed in front of me in lieu of the Western breadbasket. No longer did I brush it away, dismissed as a complete waste of precious table space. I picked up my chopsticks and nibbled happily away at the most Korean of condiments, until I found the chili-stained ramekin empty. And I asked for more.