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.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On the Way Home...

My students have a bad habit of following me home. They've figured out where my building is but have yet to divine which apartment is mine (which may prove difficult to keep hidden as my kitchen window looks out onto a fairly well-traversed alleyway). Upon exiting school, I was greeted by a gaggle of my former 6th grade boys who are now in middle school.

After we parted ways, one of my favorite 4th grade girls (one who is persistent in her quest to come to my home) stopped to chat. Thankfully she headed off towards her house, which is in the opposite direction of mine. And then just when I thought I was in the clear came an, "ERIN TEACHAAAA!!!" Of course it was the first boy who ever followed me home.

As I approached the foot of the small hill up to my building I looked at him and, thinking this a perfect opportunity to try out some newly learned Korean, said "Kedario." This is a word I recently learned during class. Apparently it's used frequently in tele-dramas, but it comes out more like "Kedariariariariario!" accompanied by a tear-streaked face and outstretched arm. It means "Stay."

He then turned to me and without hesitating said, "I am not dog!"

I almost lost it he was so funny! I had never thought about it like that before. So I retorted, "No, but you are student!" He giggled and skipped away with his buddies. He knew why I told him to stay. I was just surprised he answered me with a full English sentence (the small grammar mistake is forgivable - articles are rough!). Now he has no excuse to be so silent in English class. Man I'm going to miss these kids.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Things to Look Forward To

Korea is festival central. And as a temporary resident and avid traveler, I feel the need to soak in as much Korean culture and life as I can. So here is my short list of festivals, events, and to-dos I am looking forward to in the coming months, before I return to the states:
  • Re-visit Andong: Go to Jim-dak Alley (찜닭) and eat the most delicious Korean food from the source. Visit the Hahoe Folk Village where visitors can take part in and catch a glimpse of traditional Korean life, crafts, and ceremonies.
  • 1st Birthday Party: My coteacher's adorable baby girl is turning 1 year old in May. As is customary in Korea, there is a big party (called 돌/dol) during which a special ceremony (the 돌자비/doljabee) is performed. The ceremony entails placing the baby at a table filled with objects such as books, money, scissors, brush, thread, etc. The baby then chooses an item from the table. The chosen item is said to indicate what kind of person the baby will grow to be - if the baby picks up the book, they will be a scholar.
  • Seongju 10k: My second 10k race, my third race in Korea, and my preparation run for the big Jeju 10k in June! We also get a pair of sneakers and a box of chamhoe melons!
  • Jeju Marathon Festival: As mentioned, I am running the Jeju 10k with a friend. We will also be cheering on our brave friend Bridgette as she runs her first FULL MARATHON! Go Bridge! We will be enjoying the weekend of sun and island life, too. 
  • Boryeang Mud Festival: It's a Korean version of Spring Break only covered in MUD! This should be an excellent time. Will absolutely post about this. 
  • Temple Stay: I've heard great things from friends who have done this. You stay for a night or two in a Buddhist temple and live life like a monk does. This includes wearing the temple uniform, performing the 108 bows, eating traditional temple food, meditating, learning about Buddhism, and enjoying the other arts of the temple (this can range from calligraphy to martial arts). I will likely go to the Golgulsa Temple in Gyeongju, as it is close by and a friend gave it positive reviews. (The temple also practices a super cool martial art called Sunmudo.)
There will of course be a few more things in store for me here before I leave but these are the big ones. If you'd like to check out the other festivals going on in Korea year-round, check out the official Korea Festival website.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Night on Cafe Street

Or that's what I'll call it anyhow. Streets in Korea, well in Daegu at least, are named after what they offer. In this strange economic model where businesses are heavily concentrated in a small area and somehow manage to survive, it's a rather amusing naming mechanism. For example, on my walk to downtown, I pass Motorcycle Street, Towel Street, and Jewelry Street. A large sign indicates that you are about to embark upon a thoroughfare lined entirely in motorcycle shops. Other notable streets about town are Cell Phone Street, Car Parts Street, and Puppy Street. So I thought, what better name for a street over-saturated in coffee shops than Cafe Street? Make it so, Number One.

My favorite brunch spot, daily bread, is found on Cafe Street. Also on the street are multiple modern, artsy-looking coffee shops offering everything from simple cappuccinos to full meals. On this particular spring evening, I planned to dedicate a few hours to finishing a book I recently began. (It was David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day. No, I don't usually like Sedaris. And though I didn't love this particular selection, though a few of the anecdotes were entertaining, I set out to finish what I began.) After a few strolls back and forth down the length of the street, I settled on a particular cafe that I'd stopped into before on my Quest for Waffles, only to discover that there were, in fact, no waffles to be had. However, they did offer what I sought at the moment, which was an excellent cup of coffee.

Khaldi Coffee is the most legit coffee house I've seen in Korea. You enter through a glass door in an all-glass facade: very modern, very chic. The interior is dimly lit (which I found unfortunate for my reading, but found just the right spot where the light was sufficient.) Pretty perfect place for a date. The high vaulted ceiling is reminiscent of an old Western lodge, with large beams spanning the length of the roof and really opening up the interior. I sat down at a table near the window and in front on the roasting room (yes! they roast their own beans in house!). I was given a menu and perused through the copious offerings of hand drip coffee made with beans from around the world, a true rarity in Daegu.
Cafe interior.
In-house coffee bean roaster. It look a bit like K-9.
Being particularly inept at making any decision when it comes to comestibles, I asked the server which coffee he would recommend, which was the best. He pointed to a offering that cost a rather hefty 7,000 won. For a cup of coffee. That's like $6.50 for a cup of brewed coffee. "Smell is flower." "Ethiopia, you know?" "Koke, you know?" I didn't know, but nodded in understanding despite my ignorance. After all, he was rather cute. But I thought what the hell, I'm here to try what they do best. So I ponied up the won and returned to my table to await my coffee which better be sprinkled with gold shavings, or at least come with a damn cookie. While feeling the initial pangs of buyer's remorse, I read to pass the time until my joe arrived.
Koke Organic: Take One
It did so about 12 minutes later in a small but lovely orange tea cup with gold filigree decoration on the inside. It was a proper, beautiful tea cup filled with what I hoped would be the best coffee I'd ever tasted. The server awaited my response, reassuring me that the "smell is flower."  I feigned smelling the said notes of flowers (all I smelled was coffee and money). I took a sip. It was good coffee, not the best, but good. I sucked it up and returned to my book.

I tried earnestly to savor the precious few ounces of coffee before they got cold. As I reluctantly downed the last sip, I thought, well, I guess I can still hang here for awhile and finish my book. As I enjoyed my personal time, I noticed a man enter the roasting room behind my table and set to work crafting blends of coffee. After he got through a few batches, he stopped by my table and asked, "Refill?" I was stunned and relieved. I said, "OK!" And after a bit of confusion and consultation with a server who spoke partial English, I thought we were in business for some more coffee. I was going to get my money's worth! Well, sort of. About 15 minutes passed and still no more coffee in my little orange demitasse. Ten pages later, the server arrived with a large, red, gold-rimmed cup of hot coffee. Thank you, Coffee Gods! Happier with my investment, I set back into my book with a renewed spirit.
Refill of Sighs
After I finished my reading, I snapped a few photos of the establishment (which had quickly filled up with patrons seeking coffee touched by the hands of Midas himself, or at least which bore such a price tag), and left with every intention of returning. Only next time I'll be sure to go with a more affordable espresso.

Sharing Is Caring

My kids drive me crazy sometimes. Like when they won't stop chatting away in the middle of class or insist on following me home and begging to take a look around my apartment. But most of the time, they are complete gems.

I never pictured myself teaching elementary school children. Most of those who know me were likely shocked when they heard I was to be an English teacher for small children. "Erin, children? Really?" But I've grown to love it, despite the occasional bad lunch and smelly classroom. One thing in particular never fails to brighten up my day.

Sharing is an intrinsic part of Korean culture, something anyone who has sat down to a proper Korean meal will realize. Small gifts, usual snacks, are commonplace. The classroom is no exception to this cultural trait. My students love to share with me, whether it's a small piece of candy or a bite from the partially-nibbled tubed ham they happen to be snacking on. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've been offered partially chewed upon cookies, but the thought is still sweet. I've received numerous drawings, slips of papers saying they love me, small cookies, candies, stickers, and even vitamins.

Found this on my desk during Winter Camp. From a lovely little 1st grade girl.

These little tokens are usually offered out of the grubby palm of a 4th grader and it presents me with a sanitary dilemma. Kids love to stick their fingers up their nose, in their mouth, back up their nose, into other people's noses, and highly dislike washing their hands. This is not an assumption, but a fact based on extensive observation. When presented with a vitamin chew from a starry-eyed 6th sixth grader, I graciously accept the gift and place it on my desk, making it seem I will save it for a later occasion. To the extensive illnesses I've caught while working down at the 초 등학교 (cho dung hakyo), I cannot risk ingesting the precious presents given to me by my adoring students. Regardless of the fact that I cannot enjoy most of these gifts, their generosity and sincerity always lifts my spirits, even if they have sunk into the depths of "squid and dried fish for lunch" depression. I've fallen into the habit of depositing each snack into the middle drawer of my filing cabinet, which now bursts a rainbow plethora of sugary snacks and Konglish notes. I only have to slide it open to remember why I am here in Korea, and that people here really do care.
Translation: Wavy hair hair shop. Erin Teacher I love you. From one of my 4th graders, Miss Yu Bin.
I will always remember these students as the kindest and most generous I've yet encountered. Though many of them despise the study of English, they have managed to get past the fact that I am the harbinger of phonics lessons and see me as as the "Sam" (teacher) they love despite my inability to understand their words.

Never underestimate the meaning of a half-eaten cookie.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Daegu-BETTER, Always

Here in Daegu, at least among many of my friends, we have a superiority complex. A very well-founded superiority complex, to be sure. Daegu is in the center of Korea, the hub of transportation. This makes it easy to travel anywhere in the country with extreme ease. We are an hour from multiple beaches! Daegu is in a valley surrounded by lovely mountains providing excellent hiking and touring. We have a thriving downtown with bars and restaurants galore. If you want a change of scenery, we have 2 uni areas to explore. And we have all this at a cheaper price than Seoul or Busan. Things are, from what I've found, a bit more affordable in Daegu. And did I mention our transit system is pretty excellent? Bus and metro fare is 950won with a transit card - that's less than dollar a ride! With free transfers! We have a great mix of the old and the new.

Really I could continue on forever on why I think Daegu is the best. This is, after all, Daegu-Better. What I want to highlight here, though, is my appreciation toward the city of Daegu, the Daegu Sports Council, and the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation, hosting their World Championships in Daegu this August). From a tipsy conversation outside the Viniroo cocktail-to-go stand when I agreed to run the Daegu 10k, to this past Sunday, I finally made the journey to my first real running race. And it was amazing.
That picture is exactly how I felt on race day. (The Korean says: Daegu Marathon Club)
After months of training, and then letting all of that work go to waste due to a month-long illness, the Daegu 10k on Sunday, April 10th 2011 came. I am not a runner and I kind of hate running but I stuck to my goal and ran this race with my best friends in Korea (couldn't have done without you guys). My personal goal was to finish the race under the 1.5 hour time limit. I did, although not by much but I am happy enough. There is always next time.

But my appreciation for the people who ran this race came about 2 weeks before game day. I was hanging around my apartment on a Saturday morning, sipping my coffee when I got a call from an unknown cell phone number. I answered and could hear the Korean spoken through my receiver coming form my hallway. I hesitantly opened my door to find a delivery man outside clutching a silvery package. I hadn't ordered anything to my house. Was this a mistake? The man, seeing my confusion, made some running gestures and said "maraton!" Ah, this was stuff for the run!

I eagerly accepted my swag and ran back into my apartment to tear open the pack like a kid on Christmas Day. Inside held my race number and tracking chip, a program for the event, and a backpack! Nice!

Fast-forward to race day. I met up with my friends and fellow runners before the race bright and early Sunday morning. The area was packed with people! Although the other runners were mainly Korean, I've never felt more welcome in such a big setting in my life. People left and right wanted to snap pictures with us and spirits soared high the whole day. As a very novice runner, I lagged behind my better trained friends and footed the race alone. Or so I thought. The entire race course was lined with Koreans holding up hands for high fives, offering encouraging cheers, snapping photos, screaming "fighting!," and a wealth of other encouragements. These guys definitely kept me going when I felt down and out.

Also to my rescue were the random Korean men who would run up beside me and try to keep me running their pace. As a foreigner in Korea it's usually hard to feel part of something bigger besides the expat community. During the race, we were all people just running together. It was a welcome unparalleled to any I've experienced in Korea thus far. The cheers and encouragement lasted all the way to the end of the race, when an ajumma pushed her way through people crowding the water table to hand me a bottle of water.

Once I reconnected with my friends, the welcome continued! At the snack stand, we got our snacks along with a participant medal (I was extremely excited about this, I haven't gotten a medal since college!) which I eagerly hung around my neck. After we were all be-medaled the guys and gals manning the snack area, a self-proclaimed ajusshi, an adorable middle schooler from Ulsan we met at the start of the race, and other various race-goers were so excited to snap pictures with us. I felt like I belonged there, that I wasn't some crazy foreigner but I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Photo courtesy of Miss Bridgette, my inspiration for running and the one who got me to run in the first place.
With the cool boy from Ulsan. He found us after the race!
So thank you Daegu and everyone involved in the 2011 Daegu International Marathon Race for making this waygook feel not so waygooky. I didn't know I could be so happy after running that far, but you made it possible. And I will never forget it. Daegu-Better, all the way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I love my 6th graders. They are my oldest students, meaning that they've been with me since the beginning. They've witnessed my awkward transition into elementary education, let alone into Korea. They've also become my one-stop shop for answers on Korean culture. Of course my co-teachers can help me out with issues regarding daily life and language, but pop culture is an entirely different story.

I have a bit of a crush (as does every female in Korea) on the Big Bang rapper/"singer" T.O.P.
This guy. Is so hot.

So anyhow, he launched a solo-ish career with fellow Big Bang-er, GD (or G-Dragon). This KHip-Hop duo pumps out some excellent beats that you literally cannot escape in Korea. For example, while shopping for an hour on Saturday, I heard their song "High High" literally 8 times in different stores.

But my favorite release is their more recent "Knock Out," or 뻑이가요. It has an awesome beat and the video is wonderfully hilarious (Segways, puppies, and tanks!). However, I had no freaking clue what 뻑이가요 meant. Sure, the translation was "knock out" but what exactly does that entail? I posed the question to my co-teacher and was met by a blank stare. This needed to be handed over to the students.

So, after 5th period English class, I asked a gaggle of 6th grade girls about my linguistic query. They debated for a moment, giggled ferociously, then began to explain what it meant. "First time meet, love, big!" Ah yes. But in order to convey the meaning more accurately, they formed hearts with their hands, placed their hands in front of their faces, and began to move the heart forward and backward. Kind of like this:


And now I know, thanks to my very with-it, in-the-know 6th graders, I now know that 뻑이가요 means, essentially, "love struck," that a person a total "knock out" and you become instantly smitten. So pretty much my feeling when I first saw T.O.P. at that YG Family concert back in December...