Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Food Stuff

After a year of glutting on Korean dramas, one of the things I’ve gotten used to is how differently food is perceived there. My country is full of food-porny entertainments: there are multiple 24-hour TV channels devoted to food, and every bookstore is full to the rafters with glossy, gorgeously photographed cookbooks and culinary magazines. But when it comes to storytelling, food is largely on the back burner here. It’s literally possible to watch entire seasons of a American television shows without ever seeing a character eat a full meal.

In Korea, it’s a different story. Sure, foodie-specific shows like Kimchi Family dwell on eating. But good luck finding a single episode of any show—from family melodramas to action adventures to trendy romantic comedies—that doesn’t feature at least one dinner-table conversation.

The whole attitude toward food in Korea dramas is completely different from what I see everyday at home—here, eating is a complicated love-hate experience for most people, a reductive game of “I can’t eat that because it has nitrates” or “I only eat locally sourced, fair-trade organic ketchup.” Instead of loving food, we live in a culture that has taught us to fear it, and maybe even turned it into Frankenfoods that we really should fear.

On the other hand, in a Korean dramas, “eating well” is a compliment. People say things like “eat lots!” (and seem to genuinely mean it). Food is praised for its health benefits, and a sign of true love is harping the object of your affection about the evils of skipping meals. At the end of the day, when an American television show might feature a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, good little Korean daughters-in-law cut up platters of fruit to be shared by the whole family.

Maybe it’s because food insecurity is a more endemic and recent (or current) concern in much of Asia. Maybe it’s because the earthly, identifiable ingredients used in traditional Asian medicine predispose Asian cultures to see food for its curative properties. For whatever reason, it’s clear that Korea is in the throes of a serious love affair with food—long may it last, in spite of the terrors of Western eating habits, globalization, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin’ Donuts, and TGI Friday’s.

As someone who once had to call her mother for advice about how to make the kind of crescent rolls sold in tubes at the grocery store, I don’t have a lot to offer as a blogger on this front. I don’t cook much that requires more than three or four ingredients, and the full gamut of my experience with Korean food involves about ten trips to the local Korean restaurant. (All very yummy, might I add.) What I do have, however, are mad Google skills and a desire to understand just those Kdrama folks are eating. So I give you a brief collection of foodie links, all inspired by memorable dishes I’ve seen in Korean dramas.

Black Bean Noodles (jjajangmyun)
As seen Coffee Prince (and every other drama ever)

In spite of looking outrageously gross, this is probably the Kdrama staple I’d most like to try. I’m told that it’s gooey, salty, noodley goodness, which sounds like my dream dish.

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Live octopus (Sannakji)
As seen in My Lovely Sam Soon

Go figure, but this dish hasn’t come up much in my drama watching. But even six years after the first time I watched My Lovely Sam Soon, I couldn’t quite forget it. The octopus isn’t actually alive—just wiggly thanks to a nervous system on the fritz. (The first link below includes a related video that made me want to die, quite frankly.)  And lest any Westerner get too grossed out by this, may I remind you that we traditionally eat something that really is alive? Raw oysters are actually considered inedible if they’re dead. (As a good New Englander, I personally prefer my oysters in chowder...or maybe as crackers.)

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Shaved Ice (Patbingsu)
As seen in Coffee Prince

This reminds me of the Snoopy snow cone doghouse of my childhood, only on crack. It’s full of random ingredients ranging from condensed milk to fruit cocktail to beans.  I’m not a big fan of sweets, but I’d go there.

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Seaweed Rice Rolls (kimbap)
As seen in City Hunter (and every drama ever)

Greatest Love was one of the first Korean dramas I watched, and my mind was slightly blown by the scene in which the heroine sat on her living room floor, casually making the kimbap she’d bring to work for lunch the next day. My instant, I’m-so-stupid-it-hurts response: “She’s making that like it’s no big deal, like it’s a peanut butter sandwich or something.” Which, of course, it is—to her. I once went to a sushi making party with some American friends, and it involved a lot of torn seaweed and the eventual eating of rice out of bowls (with spoons). But to someone from Korea, making this standard lunch item probably really is like me making peanut butter and jelly: so familiar it involves more muscle memory than actual thought.

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As seen in…every drama ever. Literally.

Clearly, kimchi is the equivalent of the male lead in Korea’s love affair with food. A traditional dish eaten three meals a day, it still seems to be primarily made at home. (If dramas are anything to judge by, anyway—I can only think of one instance when a sad little drama character said his mom had the audacity to buy kimchi instead of make it herself.)

I’m a wuss when it comes to spicy food, so I’ve only had kimchi once or twice. Dramas like Kimchi Family have made me want to change that, though.

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Spicy rice cakes (dukbokie)
As seen in Baby-Face Beauty (and every other drama ever)

This was one of the first kdrama dishes that I really took notice of—at least partially because I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was. In America, rice cakes are utterly flavorless dried pucks of puffed rice people eat when they’re dieting, and look absolutely nothing like dukbokie. At first I thought something was mistranslated and the characters were actually eating squid, which is something of a dead wringer for the cylindrical rods of jiggly rice cake usually shown in this dish.

When I finally tried dukbokie myself I liked the chewy rice cakes a lot, but the sauce was so spicy it made smoke come out of my ears, cartoon-style. The world is apparently full of people who like this sensation, but I’m not one of them.

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Spicy Chicken Feet (dalk bal)
As seen in Coffee Prince (and every other drama ever)

Call me faint of heart, but I know where those feet have been. Why would I ever want to put them in my mouth? And did I mention that they’re so hot people usually wear plastic gloves before even touching them?

Yet…why did some Westerner decide a thousand years ago that we don’t eat chicken feet? Or fish with heads still attached? Or larvae? (Okay. Whoever decided that last one is cool with me.)

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  1. I can't believe you forgot ramyun/instant noodles! As seen in City Hunter, SUFBB, etc...

    I adore Korean food. So good and cheap at the same time, and I love the side dishes. I can handle up to medium leveled spiciness so it's not a problem.

    Have you tried Korean pork bone soup or tofu soup? Those are two of my favorite Korean dishes.

  2. I didn't forget ramyun, per say...if kimchi is the male lead in Korea's food love triangle, I suspect ramen is the second lead. (And I always love the second lead best, you know.) I just ran out of time to work on this post—meaning ramyun and seaweed soup got kicked to the curb. They‘ll have to wait for Food Stuff: The Sequel ;)

    (On two separate occasions, I've been with otherwise smart people who ordered ramyun at our Korean restaurant, only to say "Huh. This is kind of like ramen" when their dish arrived. ::face palm::)

    I haven't had either pork bone soup or tofu soup yet. I have to get over my japchae and scallion pancake obsession first. ::drools::

  3. The only thing I've tried on here is the kimbap, which I made at home somewhat successfully. I've been wanting to try some of the spicier fare. I'm from Louisiana so I like the spice, but I just haven't gotten around to it yet. Here, when we eat crawfish, if it doesn't make your eyes water and your nose run then it's not hot enough. We don't have any Korean restaurants close by but I've recently found out about a small Korean market in the area. I'm planning on checking it out soon. :)

    1. Enjoy your trip to the Korean market! Although I live in a rural area, I'm lucky enough to be close to an ritzy private college that brings all sorts of interesting things to town—including no fewer than 4 Asian markets. I love just wandering around in them and peering at things. This post inspired me to order a couple of Korean cookbooks from Amazon, though, so I might just actually *buy* something on my next trip. (Won't the owners be pleased?)

      I hear that spicy food really is something you grow to love if you're used to it, like coffee or wine. (Both of which I hated the first time I had them.) I just can't imagine it wanting to eat something to hot for my hands to touch, though =X

  4. And Kimchi Jjigae! For when you have too much kimchi stinking up your fridge so you stick it in a pot with pork belly and watch it all get juiced up. YUM.

    People say things like “eat lots!” (and seem to genuinely mean it).
    TOO TRUE! Here it's "Eat up!" (OMG, if she rrreally going to eat the entire bowl.. AND go back for seconds??.. hope your metabolism can handle it! *eyes your own waistline* Dammit.)

    I've had everything on this list except for the octopus and chicken feet - those are just a little hard to come by when you're not close to a major hub. And yeah, kimbap.. a major pain to make... I had every surface covered. Sesame oil bathing just about everything in my house, including my hair.. And you get stuffed just trying to eat the ugly rolls that don't come out right.. Lol

    BTW, Jjajangmyun: It took me several tries to make it just right (or at least as close to what I think should be right).. Wow that is some weird stuff. First bite: Hmmm.. is this really what I've been waiting months to try? *Eat some more with your nose closed* 5th Bite: This is strange... WHAT IS IT?? *Keep plugging through - just remember Coffee Prince. Just remember Coffee Prince* Last Bite: YES! Finished! Don't have to eat that again... 2 Days later: Man, I could really go for some jjajangmyun..

    1. Well, now I'm officially insane with curiosity about what jjajangmyun is like. I think I'd rather *not* think about Coffee Prince while eating it, though—that scene almost made me ralph. ("Excess oil from your nose"? ::gags::)

      I'm definitely going to try cooking some Korean foods soon...probably starting with this sprout recipe, which is super tasty and seems to be so easy even I (probably) couldn't screw it up. I also dream of owning my own rice cooker, which is sort of laughable considering how much use I'd get out of it.

    2. Sprouts are good. Sadly, I can't buy them in any normal grocery store. Even when I can make the excursion, Whole Foods doesn't even sell them! Brats.

      It's amazing how much you use your rice cooker when A) you realize how cheap 10 lb bags of rice are, B) you get addicted to the sticky quality only Asian pressure cookers can make, and c) you decide your family just needs to pretend to be completely Korean, and the rice cooker becomes a permanent fixture on the kitchen counter.

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