04 August 2008

Eating in Korea

At every meal in Korea, no matter the style, you are closer to the food. The marketplace style of eating here is a sharp contrast to the American food culture, which in comparison seems more like a factory than anything else.

The difference is most clear when it comes to dining out. At a typical meal, you have set before you not just your main dish, but a half-dozen small side dishes as well. The side dishes vary widely, but they contain small amounts of potent consumables – dried squid, red bean paste, seasoned shredded spinach, pickled radish, and so on. Chief among these side dishes is the ubiquitous kimchi: fermented Chinese vegetables. All of these side dishes are there for sampling and combining with your main dish.

The main course, additionally, is often prepared by you at the table. Many tables come with inset gas grills, upon which the diner places their strips of pork or chicken or mushrooms. On other occasions, a large bowl of water will be put to boil on a grill, with herbs and spices inside, and you will place chunks of seafood into it for a few moments to cook (and later, the water becomes a soup from which many will sample).

Other main dishes involve taking pre-cooked ingredients and assembling them together into handheld bundles to eat. Vaguely similar to fajitas, meals like samgyupsal have you taking pieces of cooked meat, garlic, vegetables, and other items and wrapping them with different kinds of lettuce leaves.

There are many other examples, but the common element is that when dining out, the diner is always a large part in the preparation of the meal.

Less dramatic but still significant is the way in which food is prepared in homes. While supermarkets exist, they are nowhere near as frequented as the streetside markets that offer a wide variety of vegetables, meats, and spices. These items are incredibly fresh, usually gathered only a few hours ago and prepared right there for purchase. Produced from the many small farms and gardens that are carefully tended in the misty mornings, the marketplace goods are astonishingly vibrant and rich. Some of them are much larger than their American cousins: Korean pears and leeks are easily three times the size to which I am accustomed. Some of them are much smaller, like the scallions, but possess a potent flavor that belies their size.

Given the price difference between the market foods and the supermarket foods (a markup of 100% or more), it is not surprising that almost all people get their meat and vegetables from the street vendors. In preparing a batch of kimchi chigae (kimchi soup) this evening, I was able to obtain all of the fresh ingredients for under a dollar. An enormous leek was ten cents, a big handful of scallions were twenty cents, an onion was a nickel, and a large sack of kimchi was fifty cents. Add in the price of red pepper, some sesame oil, salt, and some tofu (all of which I already had) and an enormous pot of thick and spicy soup cost me three dollars. And the ingredients were fresh and tasty and obtained literally right downstairs from some smiling women who gave me a handful of peeled garlic gratis.

The food isn’t sealed in plastic and set on a shelf, or stocked in metal bins to be sprinkled with tap water every half hour. When I’m done cooking, I don’t have handfuls of Styrofoam or empty wrappers, from which I have pried the food. The sacrifices made by American supermarkets to ensure consistent mediocrity have turned American food preparation into just another factory enterprise. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – there is much to be said for the resulting cleanliness and safety, and some people value the convenience above all else. There certainly is no “solution” to the matter... such productions as the laboriously staged “farmer’s markets” of many cities are not the way back to an intimate connection with our daily bread. But it is wonderful to me now to be close to the food. There is something visceral and necessary about dark-eyed prawns coming to the table pinkly piled on the platter, when you must pull off the heads and watch the faint blush of blood on your thumb before you eat them.

It is valuable to reconnect with the first and best of luxuries so deeply.


  1. does this mean you'll be starting a garden when you get back?

  2. A garden seems like it would require tending and work and that sort of thing. Not much fun. But maybe I will try to convince a neighbor to start gardening or something.