Thursday, June 11, 2015

6 Things About Korean Food Culture (w/ Video)

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In my 5 day trip to Korea, I learned new things about this country that I wouldn't have learned if I didn't have a local travelling with me. My favorite part is hearing the local's perspective on the city of Seoul and their way of life, other than reading about it from a tour book. This is a piece not about great food in Korea (I don't need to explain that any further, it's good!) but about the interesting things I noticed about food culture in Korea. Here are six (not five!) fun things about food in Korea.

1. Koreans share everything during a meal...your spoon, my spoon, our soup.

I'm Chinese, so I am familiar with sharing food since in Chinese cuisine you also order not for yourself but for the table. Unlike "Western" dining where you would never touch another's food with your utensils, Koreans share all the food, so your chopsticks, your friends' spoons, they go in all the soups, dishes, veggies, chicken...But what makes my Korean dining experience different from my food experience in Taiwan is that we would often have "public utensils" for many of the dishes so our own chopsticks don't go into the food in the middle. Some foods, say veggies, may not have public utensils because the idea was you take away the part that your chopsticks touched so it doesn't matter.

But in Korea, for me the biggest surprise was that we used our spoons for all the soups and broth. Instead of taking some with a big public spoon to your own little bowl, you'd dip your own spoon to take a direct sip of the yummy Korean broth. Depending on how you eat food with other people, this may sound really weird to you, and you may not find yourself comfortable eating this way, but I didn't mind at all. At first I wasn't sure if I could just put my spoon into the soup, but when I saw that my friends were doing so, I followed along. To me, this way of eating really connects everyone at the table, and there's a lot of trust and sharing.
Let's share all this lovely food together! By the way, the white drink in the pot is makkoli (rice wine)
2. There are always so many dishes on the table!

My understanding of Korean food before I visited the country was that there were always many small dishes on the table, but I thought that was a Korean restaurant abroad kind of thing, but it really was so when I was in Seoul. In Seoul, before the food we ordered arrived, several (around 4-6) small cold dishes would come up first, kind of like appetizers but not quite because you can eat these small dishes along the main course too. These small cold dishes were all sorts of  veggie dishes, mostly marinated; and yes, kimchi was available every meal along with the other cold dishes. I don't think we ever finished all the small dishes in a meal.
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Observe all the cold dishes around our main dish.

From my understanding, kimchi seems more like a condiment than a food item, you'd add it to your food to add flavor. My friend was adding it to dumplings and noodles, so of course, I followed along. For me there was already a lot of flavor for the food, but why not add more kimchi flavor to it? Mmmm....
You can have kimchee with everything

3. There really is a drinking culture...more than Taiwan anyways.

Every country has a drinking culture, but when my friend said Koreans like to drink, I was thinking that he didn't mean all Koreans, until I saw the drinking places for myself. There are zero drinking places around my university in Taipei, and as far as I know there aren't that many drinking places around other universities in Taipei either. At least, not as many as Hongik University does. As we walked around the area looking for lunch, I asked why none of the restaurants were open in that area, and I was told they were drinking places. From the litter around the streets, I could tell a lot of people had a great time there last night.

Making new friends and hanging out at Gangnam.
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I got a bruise from trying the soju opening ritual.
And there are so many types of alcoholic drinks there were, of course beer, but also soju, makkoli (rice wine) and yuza (pomelo) flavored soju, which was so fruity and sweet that it was a "dangerous" drink; if you weren't careful you just might drink too much! Makkoli (sweet rice wine) would be served in a big ceramic bowl with a ladel, there was another drink which you could make by mixing beer and soju (called a somac, from a mixture of the words "soju" and "mekju (beer)"), and the wet tissue covering the mixed drink could be flinged to the wall so you could keep track of how many drinks you had. And there was this mixing action that would happen before opening the soju, which is to mix the stuff settling on the bottom. Modern days there isn't really settling at the bottom of the bottle, but my friend does it anyways, it's part of the soju ritual. He makes a loud, crisp "whack, whack, whack" sound when he hits it against his elbow. When I tried, I got "whammmp" and a bruise the next day. You really need practice.

In the back is the dangerous and delicious new soju flavor--Yuza

And the popular "chimek", which is a word putting "chi" for chicken with "mek-gu" for beer. It's the pairing of crispy fried chicken with beer, Koreans love it so that there's a word just for this combo. The crispy chicken is baked but just as crunchy as friend chicken, and sometimes you can have the crispy chicken covered in a spicy sauce, which I think is a Korean style.
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Chimek--Chicken and beer
There's always a pairing for this and that; I'm afraid I can't tell you what drink to have with what food, but my friends knew so they paired everything well. I also had pine nut flavored soju, which left my mouth tasting pine fresh after the meal.

Pine nut makkoli
Here's a video of my Korean friends explaining all the dishes. These dishes are "anju", which literally means booze food. They explained things very well.

4. Order delivery food to about your chill out tent by the river?

It's normal to order delivery food to your apartment, but a Seoul thing to order it to your chill out spot by the river. The Han river (Hanggang) divides the city, and that's where "Gangnam" came from, which literally means south of river. At the Yeouido area of the Han River, which is a really nice park with a lovely bike trail and water splash areas, there were tents along the river and under the bridge where people were chilling out and eating take out. There were parents chilling in the tent as their kids played, or young people in a bunch. They were eating take out food, and you could see them sitting in a circle going through takeout menus deciding what to order. Restaurants saw the delivery food potential in the area and left their menu pamphlets laying around so you could give them a call. I was fascinated at the number of tents in the park, and how ordering food to your chill out spot was a thing in Seoul. But if I were in Seoul, I would see myself using that service too.
Kids were splashing around and adults cooled their feet in this little artificial stream by the Han River.

See all those tents? People are chilling out and ordering food. This pic doesn't really show how nice the park is...
You can rent bikes and ride around, it was really nice :)
While I personally did not have a chance to use takeout, my friend confirmed for me that some food deliveries actually used real plates and dishes and not the disposable kind. After you're done with your food you'd leave the empty dishes outside your apartment and the delivery person would come pick them up. It sounds like a lot of  trouble, but I guess it isn't. I never liked disposable dinnerware anyways.

5. Banana milk is lovely <3 No one knows about the ice cream I read on travel blogs.

Let me start by explaining this ice cream. In my understanding from my friends, books, and blogs in Taiwan, Korea has lots of nice cafes. We're talking Asian cafes where there are many visually appealing desserts and fancy drinks (yam latte, anyone?) And there's this dessert that caught my eye in other people's blogs; I've seen it in Taiwan too and I knew it was a trendy thing from Korea. It's ice cream covered with cotton candy, and they shape it so that it looks like you are eating a cloud. I asked my cultural ambassador, who said he had no idea what I was talking about, then he asked two other people who had been in Seoul longer than he, and they didn't know either. Not even the female friend, who would be more of a target audience for pretty cloud ice cream. So that tells us, what tourist/bloggers eat, is eaten only by tourists and bloggers. I had my local friend who gave me a taste of a more real Seoul.

I love banana milk so much I bought it on my way to the airport to go back to Taipei.
Now about banana milk, it's sold at convenience stores and supermarkets, and is like a childhood drink. It's been around for ages and every Korean knows it and recognizes its packaging. A few years ago banana milk was a trendy thing from Taiwan. It got really popular, many people have heard of it, it got imported to Taiwan and was really expensive. I think it was because a Korean super star drank it during a drama series and then everyone who watched that series now want some of it too. It's not a trendy drink in Korea, it's a classic that you would have had as a kid, and maybe sometimes when you feel like it as an adult. I had four of them I think, because I liked that small packaging and I like the taste of it. Banana milk and cotton candy ice cream tells us what is seen trendy abroad is probably not that trendy in Korea.
I'm enjoying banana milk on the train, next to me my Korean friend who has been sharing his culture and country with me.
6. Korean chopsticks are flat...only in Korea

I use chopsticks regularly, and mine are round or square in shape. I have never seen flat chopsticks outside of a Korean setting. Interestingly, Koreans aren't aware that flat chopsticks are a Korean thing and they don't know why they're flat. After some research, there's no one set answer of why Korean chopsticks are shaped so, but I did find two possible answers.  First possible reason is so that they don't roll around on the tray. In the past, Korean women would serve food on a tray to her family, and imagine how annoying it is when you've set everything nicely and the chopsticks just roll around as you take the tray to your family. So the flat shape helps them stay in place, and save the lady's trouble. Second possible reason, unlike chopsticks in China, Japan, or Vietnam, or basically the chopstick using countries I've been to, only Korean chopsticks are always made from metal. In the early days, metal smiths would shape the metal into a long even shape, and in the process it's just easier to make them flat, I guess when you hit the metal. So, the shape just stayed into modern days. Either way, I found them rather strange, but it wasn't harder to use so why not.

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See how the chopsticks are flat? (Image: Wikipedia)

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