My latest over at Sweet Pickles and Corn: Sometimes the things that foreigners like about Korea are the simplest (OK, except maybe for ddeok).
My latest piece over at Sweet Pickles an Corn: on the odd practice of eating condiment onions as a side dish, and the odder habit of freaking out about it.
By John Bocskay
Any American or Canadian who has been to a Costco in Korea has witnessed what Koreans do with the onions. In the U.S. you turn the crank on the dispenser and catch the tumbling onions on the hot dog, the whole hot dog, and nothing but the hot dog, but that’s not how the Koreans roll. Most of them pile the onions on a dish or a patch of foil, dump globs of ketchup and mustard over them, mix it all into a lumpy orangey mash, and tuck straight into it with fork and spoon as an improvised side dish to their pizza, clam chowder, or Caesar salad.
Expat critics react with a mix of condescension, bemusement, derision, and disgust. Didn’t Koreans get the memo? Onions are supposed to go on the hot dogs! And look how many onions they’re piling on! Have they no shame?
Among the many unfair and…
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The hagfish has been called the nastiest and most disgusting creature in the sea. In South Korea, it’s called dinner. Check it out:
by John Bocskay
Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly lives in mud 150 meters under the sea.
I ’ve always loved the Korean word for fish: “mulgogi”, a compound formed from the words “water” (mul) and “meat” (gogi). More than simply labeling a common class of aquatic creatures, “mulgogi” suggests a way of looking at the world, a very East Asian orientation that assumes all things that swim to be edible unless proven otherwise.
Much of Korean seafood strikes the average Westerner as very different, and some of it as downright bizarre: fermented skate, with its powerful ammonia smell; sea cucumbers, whose similarity to an actual cucumber begins and ends with its oblong shape; and live octopus, which is both alive and an octopus. The list goes on, but perhaps no other creature better exemplifies the Korean commitment to sampling the totality of the world’s sea…
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I’ve always been rather open-minded when it comes to food, and my eating habits have changed accordingly since moving to Korea. Marrying a Korean woman has added an extra dose of evolutionary pressure to my eating habits these past few years; likewise, my wife and stepkids have incorporated a lot of foreign foods into their gastronomical universe since I entered their lives. I was recently reflecting on what has changed for them and what has stayed the same as we strive to put a mutually agreeable meal on the table.
One of the biggest mealtime changes for my wife since marrying me concerns breakfast. A typical Korean breakfast might consist of some rice, kimchi, a little soup, and maybe some fish or meat. This is still what my kids eat on school days when my wife prepares their breakfast, but my wife now exclusively eats breakfast cereal (pumpkin and flax seed from Costco) topped with plain yogurt, honey, and seasonal fruit (usually strawberries or blueberries). She has loved this since the first time I whipped it up for her, and she is now convinced that she has to eat this stuff every day because it is the key to avoiding constipation, which she used to suffer from periodically before we met.
Our kids don’t eat American-style breakfast cereals, even the sweeter ones like Honey-nut Cheerios, which I loved as a kid and tried to introduce to them. I found that they don’t like sweet foods for breakfast in general, which is weird, because that is literally the only time that they will turn their noses up at a sugar-laden anything. The only big alteration to their breakfast menu are my Sunday brunches (scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, baked beans) and my toasted bagel sandwiches (egg, cheese, sausage or bacon, salt, pepper, ketchup), both of which they love.
Their individual tastes differ quite widely in other ways though. For example, Daughter One loves baked beans on toast; Daughter Three (aka The Eating Machine) will eat them if that’s what’s in front of her; and Daughter Two would sooner starve to death than put a single bean in her mouth.
Another thing the girls eat now that they didn’t much eat before are sandwiches. Apart from my aforementioned breakfast sandwiches, there are a few others that they have come to love. Simple staples like grilled cheese and tuna melts are the runaway favorites, though Daughter One has frequently been observed slapping together a PB&J or a ham and cheese on toast when no one was looking.
The kids often ask me to make sandwiches for them to take on school trips, partly because they like them, but also because they like the attention they inevitably receive for bringing along such an exotic meal. It’s always a great reminder to me how strange and wonderful are the utterly mundane aspects of our native culture when I see peanut butter through the eyes of their awestruck Korean classmates. I try to imagine the cultural spectacle that would have ensued if a kid at my elementary school had pulled out dried squid, rice, seaweed, and a bowl of spicy kimchi for lunch. Total freakout.
Bread itself was something my wife didn’t keep around the house before she married me. To a lot of Koreans bread is still just something you eat as a snack, not a sometimes integral component of a meal (The Western proverb “Man cannot live on bread alone” would make very little sense here, partly because no one was ever under the opposite impression). To be fair, it was very hard to buy decent bread in Busan not very long ago. Now it’s much easier, and bread is steadily working its way deeper into the Korean food consciousness. It will never dethrone rice as the premier carbohydrate, but my family now understands what all the fuss is about.
Pasta and assorted Italian-inspired foods
Something like a pizza/pasta revolution has swept Korea in the past decade or so. When I lived in Ulsan in 1998-99, there was exactly one place to get pasta in a city of one million people, and it sucked. Now it seems like every street in Busan has a place selling pasta; some of course are better than others. Pasta has become so ubiquitous that it’s not unusual to see coffee shops with some sort of pasta on the menu. It seems that the Italians, along with the Chinese, have gastronomically colonized just about every country in the world. What’s not to like about that?
I love pasta and I cook it at home a lot, and to my great pleasure and relief, all of the girls have developed a taste for it: penne with pesto and vegetables, Spaghetti with chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, baked ziti, lasagna, spinach ravioli buried in parmesan cheese – they love it all. The most popular dinner request I get from the kids: chicken parmigiana with spaghetti. None of the restaurants in Busan can do that, as far as I know, and every time I make it I bask in major kudos, compliments, and karma.
You will never find Korean beer in my fridge. The best Korean beer makes Bud Light seem bold and original by comparison, and a lot of Koreans are frankly admitting that Korean beer sucks as more and better imported beers become cheaper and more widely available. The convenience store downstairs now stocks at least ten beers that blow away the finest Korean swill, and the vastly greater variety of the beer aisle at the Home Plus down the street makes the thought of drinking Hite, Cass, or OB Lager seem downright masochistic. Call me a snob, but the plain truth is that in the year 2013 in Busan, South Korea, there is simply no longer any reason to drink Korean beer if you don’t want to, and I don’t want to.
Neither does my wife. She usually comes home late from work, and we often enjoy a beer or two and a snack before bed. Asahi is our home staple, though a peek in our fridge will often reveal a few bottles of Samuel Adams lager, Hitachino Pale Ale, Anderson Valley amber, or a bottle or two of Hoegaarden. To anyone who has asked me how I manage to stay in Korea so long and so happily, I submit to you Exhibit B.
…and a few misses
My family hasn’t taken to everything I’ve put in front of them. Oatmeal leaps to mind. Only Daughter One will occasionally eat it, and even then only one particular type (Quaker Instant, maple and sugar flavored. Go figure.) The Eating Machine tried oatmeal exactly once and hated it, though she found it more tolerable after she added a few pieces of kimchi. To be honest, I’m not really crazy about oatmeal either. These days I eat it mainly because it’s healthy, it’s warm, and it’s different.
Baked clams were also a major dud, though the kids are funny about any kind of shellfish to begin with. They think the meat looks like a giant booger, though it’s not clear to me why that alone would necessarily stop a young kid from putting one in her mouth.
The one food that probably pains me the most to see them reject is blueberry pancakes. They’ll nibble on one – one – if it’s drenched in syrup, but that’s about it. And they never ask me to make them, ever. When I do suggest it, I’m unanimously vetoed. It’s still a bit baffling to me how any human being could fail to love pancakes, which serves as yet another useful reminder that the things we imagine to be human universals often turn out to be just one more instance of our cultural conditioning.
I still make pancakes, though not often, and we all understand if I eat mostly by myself. Now if I can just convince them that eating giant stacks of them are actually how we do it where I come from…