Archives for posts with tag: Korean food

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I haven’t written about food in a long time, mostly because our meals in the Laohegou nature reserve get pretty monotonous after a while. I know I shouldn’t complain, since our food is actually quite good (not to mention free, plus I don’t have to cook it myself)…but I still find myself craving some variety now and then.

Luckily, last week I went to Seoul for my visa run (aka mandatory vacation)! Here are a few of the more noteworthy things I gorged on in South Korea:

1. Churros

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I am ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about South Korea when I bought my tickets to Seoul and set off on a visa run. So what was my first impression of the country when I poked my head out of the metro for the first time? Man, these people like churros. This wasn’t quite what I expected, but seriously—they sell churros everywhere! Street Churros, Mr. Churro, Churro 101…the streets are dotted with little shops selling long sticks of Mexican-style fried dough, coated in cinnamon sugar and accompanied by your choice of dipping sauces and toppings. Most of the churros were made to order, pulled hot from the fryer and handed to you in a paper cone. It took a lot of restraint for me not to order sixteen churros a day and never eat anything else. But I’m glad I saved room for some of Seoul’s other offerings, such as…

2. The Thunder Bomb

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Just look at this beauty! Sweet milk ice cream underneath a fluffy beard of interesting-colored cotton candy, topped with a little white chocolate lightening bolt. How could I resist? Served up by the science lab-themed ice cream shop Remicone, the Thunder Bomb is apparently super trendy right now. Do a quick Google search and you’ll see what I mean. Although it didn’t taste quite as good as it looked—the cotton candy had a weird minty flavor that wasn’t my favorite—the contrast of textures between the warm, fuzzy “thunder” and the smooth, cold ice cream was very satisfying.

3. Bingsu

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Continuing in the “cold sweet” category, this traditional Korean dessert consists of a massive pile of fluffy shaved ice served with sweet toppings such as red bean paste (patbingsu), mango, or other delectable things. These desserts are tasty and extremely photogenic—but often quite expensive, as I found out only after ordering the mango bingsu pictured above. It cost 10,800 won, or about $10.80! Oh well. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that experiencing new places is much more fun and relaxing when you don’t worry too much about money. Although this goes against my frugal nature, sometimes it’s better to just shrug your shoulders and fork over a few extra dollars for an experience you’ll remember forever. Since I spend very little money in my day-to-day life in Laohegou, I figure this bingsu was worth it!

4. Coffee

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Okay, this isn’t really food, but since I consumed more coffee than anything else during my time in Seoul, I’m going to count it anyway. Besides churros, one of my first impressions of South Korean culture was that people really like their coffee. They sell coffee everywhere! You can find it in subway stations, themed cafes, dessert shops, and even at the more traditional Korean restaurants. They’ve got American chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, Korean chains like Caffé Bene and Tom N Tom’s Coffee, plus adorable little independent coffee shops on every corner. Over my 3+ days in Seoul, I had coffee in several of the aforementioned chains, as well as in a traditional dessert shop, a cat café, a nature-themed café with live sheep outside, and a subway vending machine (it only cost forty cents!) Similar to China, I found that many of Seoul’s coffee shops did not open until 11am or even later; in both countries, it seems that coffee is seen more as an afternoon luxury than an early morning necessity. But I also noticed that some of the subway coffee shops were open during morning rush hour, and they seemed to be doing very steady business, so maybe this is changing in Korea.

5. Kimchi

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You didn’t think I’d forget about kimchi, did you? This pickly side dish is emblematic of Korean culture, and a great source of local pride. Seoul even has an entire museum dedicated to the many varieties and preparations of kimchi. While I did not make it to the museum, I did eat a fair amount of kimchi in the form of kimchi fried rice (bokumbap). It was so delicious I ate it two days in a row (from two different restaurants). Both times, the bokumbap came with several little side dishes containing…more kimchi! Woohoo!

Unfortunately, my time in Seoul was far too short for me to really explore the full range of Korean cuisine. I also sabotaged my chances by eating too many desserts (see: almost every item on this list), thus leaving little room for anything else. Maybe I was feeling sugar-deprived from spending so long in rural China! In any case, it’s back to spicy stir-fries and rice for me—at least until my next visa run.

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About a month ago in Nanjing, I had a bizarrely delicious lunch—kimchi pizza—and immediately thought to myself, this has to be a blog post. Now, sitting in a café in Burlington, Vermont, my blog covered in the internet version of dust, that kimchi pizza seems worlds away. I’m a terrible blogger. What had I wanted to write about again? Something about globalization and worldwide connections. I’d been hoping to write something about pizza’s journey from Italy to America to Korea to China, and how each incarnation reveals something essential about each consecutive culture. I’d been hoping to write something meaningful and profound. But as the weeks passed and I neglected my blog, I began to forget about my original intention. I began to think that it wasn’t a dish or a cultural icon that was spreading around the world, it was only a word: pizza. The farther “pizza” travels, the less specific its definition becomes.

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My kimchi pizza was a thick layer of chewy bread, topped with hefty portions of spicy cabbage and cheese, sprinkled with dried seaweed and generously drizzled with mayo. It didn’t taste like pizza. It tasted like the cheesy Korean-fusion franchise food that is super trendy in China right now. It tasted like the florescent mall filled with artificially fresh-faced shoppers in floral dresses, trying desperately to evoke a sunny, pastoral lifestyle that has never existed in Nanjing, and never will.

About a week later, I saw an intriguing advertisement in a different fluorescent mall: durian pizza. I ordered it, naturally. It was square, had a flaky pastry crust, and was filled deep-dish style with fresh durian and plenty of melted cheese. As a lover of stinky-sweet durian (some say it’s an acquired taste, although I never had to acquire it), I found it delicious. But it didn’t taste like pizza. It tasted like the Hong Kong-style durian dim sum I shared with my Chinese friend Fiona, who was eager to show me China’s fanciest desserts. It tasted like brocade tablecloths and traditional songs sung by pop stars and the caged peacocks in Kowloon Park.

Fast forward. I’m home. I’ve flown back to Vermont for a few weeks to escape the hordes of people and random explosions associated with Chinese New Year. My dad pulls a grocery store mushroom-and-basil pizza out of the oven and slices it into uneven triangles. It tastes like late night dinners with my hair still damp from hockey practice. It tastes like snowed-in evenings with The Simpsons on TV and the porch lights reflecting off each falling snowflake, and it tastes like the gleeful anticipation that school might be canceled tomorrow.

This, to me, is what “pizza” means. It’s completely different from bĭsà in China and pija in Korea. It’s completely different from the tomato pies sold by the first Neapolitan immigrants in New York and New Haven.

The word “pizza” no longer indicates a specific food; it indicates an entire category, more like “sandwich” or “dumpling” than “beef bourguignon.”

Nobody’s pizza is better than anybody else’s. I don’t think we can even say that one is more authentic than the others, since none bear any resemblance to the flatbreads that Wikipedia claims first appeared in the Neolithic age. Maybe everybody has “their own” pizza, the one that first taught them what the word should mean.

You say tomato, I say kimchi and seaweed.