food

Korea This Week (June 4 – June 10)

A selection of this week’s news and commentary on Korean culture


When I came to Busan in 2000, there were a few small chicken joints in my neighborhood with quirky names like Goopy Chicken, Chicken Syndrome, and my personal favorite, Smoper, which presented a rare case of a foreign word – “smurf” – being transliterated into Hangeul (스머프), which was then used as the basis of its transliteration back smoperinto the Roman alphabet. All of them were more or less interchangeable in what they offered, and they sat pretty much right on top of another. I often wondered how they stayed in business.

The answer of course is that they didn’t. According to statistics from the Fair Trade Commission reported by the Chosun Ilbo, though over 41,000 chicken restaurants opened last year, 24,000 thousand went out of business. In other words, a chicken restaurant fails every 22 minutes, while the market inches even further beyond saturation.

While some point to a copycat mentality in explaining the proliferation of chicken places, others have pointed out that the explosion has its roots in the 1997 Asian economic crisis, when many out-of-work salarymen were attracted to the business by its low entry fee and operating costs.


angry-raccoonI got a chuckle out of this short video by NPR reporter Elise Hu, who recently visited a few of Seoul’s animal cafes. As Hu notes, animal cafes have been popping up in many Asian cities, and are often popular because they provide a way for people who can’t have pets to get their regular fix of animal interaction. While she quickly takes a shine to the dog cafe, the raccoon cafe is another story.


I also came across this piece on kimchi juice, which is not referring to the liquid that pools at the bottom of your kimchi container, but a bottled “100% organic kimchi juice” that the manufacturer describes as “fresh, raw, and alive” and is selling for $16.99 per 32 ounce bottle.

It has an Amazon rating of 4.2 stars, but some of the reviews seem a bit, shall we say, overenthusiastic. One reviewer called it “the nectar of the gods”, while another had this to say:

My kids used to argue about who got the juice from the Kim Chi jar, now they can drink to their hearts content.

While I don’t see myself fighting my kids over who gets to guzzle the last drop, I will say

kimchi cocktail

Kimchi cocktails are another possibility

that I have found one use for kimchi juice – the old-fashioned, bottom-of-the-tub kind, that is: I drizzle it into my kimchi bokkeumbap to give it a bit of added moisture and flavor.

One of the other takeaways from the article is that the product contains a microbe that is named after kimchi: a species of lactobacillus called lactobacillus kimchii that was proposed as a distinct species in 2000 by JH Yoon et. al. Time will tell if the proposed classification holds up to peer review, but for now, our wide and wonderful world contains a living organism named for kimchi.


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Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans)

By John Bocskay

I came across in my news readings today a story about this survey by a group called the Corea Image Communication Institute, and the results are interesting for the little bit of light they shed on the gap that still exists between what Koreans think will interest foreigners and what foreigners actually find interesting about Korea. The survey “asked 308 Koreans what aspects of Korea they felt most pride in and 232 foreigners what they enjoyed most while visiting.”

This bit caught my eye:

seoul-street-market_9167_600x450

Personally I think this kicks the shit out of Skinfood and Tony Moly.

“For shopping spots, 45.8 percent of Koreans said they would introduce tourists to traditional marketplaces, while 42.67 percent of foreigners said they would prefer the more contemporary road shops and shopping streets, possibly due to the fact that English communication is easier in downtown areas.” 

It’s possible that English is more widely spoken in downtown areas, though the old folks at Kukjae Shijang or Dongdaemun Market seldom fail to get their point across with whatever level of English they have at their command. I couldn’t help but wonder whether one reason for the discrepancy is simply that many people are just more interested in contemporary Korea than they are in the traditional stuff.

HyundaiShipYard

Yeah, that’s great, but I don’t see anything that looks like a Pina Colada.

This finding also jibes with something I’ve often noted in the classroom. Over the years, I’ve had adult students plan an imaginary 2-day itinerary for a foreign friend who is visiting Korea for the first time. Some suggestions, like mask dances, temple tours, and palaces are common. You might be surprised at how many of them have included conference centers, shipyards, and automobile assembly plants on the must-see list. Who knows what our hypothetical tourist thinks about all that, but those are not really the things that leap to mind when I’m doing the 2-day tourist thing.

It’s natural to want to showcase great achievements and traditional heritage, but tourism planners do well to acknowledge things that travelers actually want to do (sauna, anyone?), as opposed to what the bigwigs would like them to experience. Surveys like this are certainly a step in the right direction, because as anyone who lives here knows, there are many features of modern Korea that are pretty cool.

Case in point: food. Regarding the popularity of fast food delivery service (over 50%), the article had this to say:

hitesoju

No thanks.

The fact that the singer Psy portrayed Korea’s delivery food culture in his internationally-watched music videos may have contributed to its popularity,” said the CICI in a press release.

Thanks Psy! And here I thought that was just because late-night food delivery is just utterly brilliant.

Actually, I do think it’s brilliant, which is why I like it. When I read things like this, I catch a faint whiff of the old insecurity that makes it hard for some Koreans to believe that without a spokesman or an aggressive (and occasionally hokey) ad campaign the world will be unaware that there’s a lot about modern Korea that’s not only cool but speaks for itself.

Maybe that’s reading too much into this (I’m sure you will correct me in the comments section), but I also note that Koreans are sometimes caught by surprise when something of theirs catches on. Psy’s viral hit was itself an example of Korean pop culture taking off in ways that no one could have anticipated, let alone packaged and pimped for global consumption. Watching this quirky Korean crooner skyrocket to global fame, it was hard to tell who was more surprised, the world or Korea.

spicy-sweet-ddukbokkie

Full disclosure: I purposely chose the least flattering photo of ddeokbokki I could find.

Not everything in the survey was unexpected: it showed strong agreement about food, with Korean restaurants being far and away the most popular food option among both Koreans and foreigners (76% and 77% percent respectively). However, a discrepancy in the second-place option shed light on another tendency: Korea’s chronic overestimation of foreigners’ enthusiasm for ddeok. For those of you who have somehow escaped it, Wikipedia describes ddeok as a rice cake made from rice flour and which has zero taste whatsoever until it is filled, sprinkled, drizzled or slathered with something that has some actual goddamn flavor (I’m paraphrasing). Anyway, survey said:

While 12.50 percent of Koreans guessed that tourists would seek out street food such as tteokbokki, 10.43 percent of foreigners replied that they prefer cuisine from other Asian regions such as pho noodles and sushi.

Glad I was sitting down for that. Your thoughts?

Innovation or Aberration? – Unpeeling the Costco Onion Salad

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 salad_downloadthe 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 uncharitable assessments of this practice, perhaps the most ironic and ridiculous is the notion that Korean shoppers are taking advantage of the generosity of Costco, a fantasy that would have us imagine Costco to be a defenseless multinational corporation which is either unaware that their staff are refilling the onion dispensers 30 times a day on weekends (I asked) or are somehow powerless to stop this hemorrhaging of onions; a fantasy which depends for its dramatic tension on the belief that despite giving away samples of ribeye steak, shrimp, wine, pork cutlets, sausage, noodles, cookies and dozens of other items every day at stations all over the store, the thing that’s going to finally bust them and ruin the party for everyone is the unfortunate habit of doling out a few sacks of one of the cheapest vegetables on the planet.

The onion guy fills it up for Nth time.

The onion guy fills it up for Nth time.

If that argument sounds lame, you may find yourself suspecting, as I do, that what’s more likely happening is that Costco Korea has lucked into an inadvertent but tolerable solution to their lack of side dishes in a country that everywhere expects them, and that management has decided to run with it as long as it doesn’t lose too much money.

A recent e-mail exchange with Edward Yoon Kim, the General Merchandise Manager for Costco Korea confirmed my hunch. Noting that the company believes that “real success comes from real member satisfaction,” Mr. Kim explained that as long as Costco can make a “reasonable profit” while making customers happy they would continue offering free onions, and that if it was no longer profitable to do so they would consider stopping it. Since the onion salad buffet has been going strong for several years, it seems safe to call it something other than abuse.


There’s a lot about these criticisms that has always struck me as strange. The first thing you might notice at Costco is that there is nothing posted on the onion dispenser itself to indicate that the onions are supposed to go on hot dogs or that they are not intended as a side dish. In other words, there was no ‘memo’ that Korean customers are not getting, and the habit that our worldly Western critic imagines to be a self-evident universal truth turns out to be nothing more than his own narrow cultural conditioning.

Nor is there anything intrinsic to the onion dispenser to suggest that the culturally-conditioned way that Americans use it – cranking steadily with one hand while catching an uneven flow of onions atop a narrow moving target with the other hand – is even the best way to use it. In the 20 minutes that I observed people serving 2014-11-08 14.39.55themselves onions on a recent Saturday afternoon, the only people who dropped onions onto the counter – apart from the one little kid who cranked it for fun until his mom told him to cut the shit – were the ones who used it the “right” way. Not surprisingly, nobody who used a dish to catch onions managed to miss any.

Ditto for the ketchup and mustard, which is actually harder to dispense directly onto a hot dog than the onions are, for the same reasons (uneven flow, occasional spurts, moving target, etc.), but with the added challenge of the changing distance of the hot dog to the spigot as it is pumped downward. Catching the condiments on a dish and mixing them later makes it easy and actually gives you a shot at recreating the model hot dog in the promotional photo above the food court, or failing that, just not making a total mess.

I also watched people eat for a while, and I noted that a quarter of the people (7 out of 28) who took onions were actually using them in the intended way: as a topping for hot dogs.  I realized then that mixing the onions with the condiments beforehand and spreading them on as a sticky mixture made them less likely to tumble out when you bite into the dog. I also observed another 7 people put the onions on bulgogi bakes, which I mentally noted as something I definitely had to try later.

The rest treated the onions exactly the same way Koreans treat them everywhere else: as a side dish, and in order to understand that, you need posit nothing stranger or more terrible than a small cluster of reasonable assumptions based on long-standing cultural practice.


The more I think about the Costco onion salad, the tougher question for me to answer is not why Koreans do it or why Costco allows it, but why Westerners almost never see it as innovation or a clever adaptation and instead tend to paint it as a failed attempt at cultural appropriation. And it’s a very selective tendency. Chop up a hot dog into pieces so that the family can share it and you have a charming example of Korean togetherness; but eat onions from a dish with mustard and you’re a culturally-confounded freeloader. Bump into someone in a traditional market and it’s an instantly forgettable part of the rough-and-tumble charm of the old Asia, but nudge someone with a shopping cart at an American supermarket chain and you’re destined to be the clueless antagonist in an upcoming facebook rant or K-blog screed.

I’ve long suspected that the reason we think like this (I confess to it as well) is that when you go to a place like Costco you feel you are stepping into a piece of America, so you consciously or unconsciously feel that the same norms apply. When they don’t, it’s more jarring than if the setting had been radically different and had carried no such expectations. This may be why it often seems that the hardest things for Western expats to accept are ironically not the things that are most different from our home countries but the things that are most similar. We enjoy the mad rush of a tuk-tuk ride through Bangkok’s shifty alleys yet curse the Korean driver who fails to indicate a lane change on Seoul’s modern roads. Being nudged at a street food cart is a minor annoyance, but cutting the line at a Busan Burger King inspires an aggrieved lecture. Shoot soju on a raised wooden platform in front of a bodega and you channel old-world insouciance; do the same thing on a new sidewalk and you’re an obstacle. A savage. An idiot.

79-make-blts

Re-purposing familiar devices is often considered clever.

It’s fun to point out cultural quirks and oddities, but it’s ironic that the cultural heirs of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers so often insist that Koreans should think inside the box and see onion dispensers as having only one conceivable use. You can learn something about familiar things by observing how they are used by people who have no culturally conditioned ways of using them – there’s a whole genre of internet memes which fascinates millions of people for precisely this reason. It’s weird that we applaud the ingenuity of the American yokel who figured out that he can use toothpaste to clean the headlights of his pickup truck, and we dignify his achievement with the label “life hack”; but when some anonymous Korean shopper figured out that catching condiments on a dish was actually a decent idea, or that mixing them together would result in a dish that millions of people apparently enjoy, we deride it as a cultural hack job.

Perhaps the final irony is that if we insist on being purists and on recreating ethnic dishes either authentically or not at all, then we’re simply being difficult, but the more immediate problem with that is that a lot of my favorite foods – General Tso’s Chicken and New York-style pizza come to mind – would never have been created in the first place. You’d also have to say goodbye to the American hot dog, which is itself a bastardization of European sausage that could not have held onions at all if Americans hadn’t added the bun. When you really get down to unpeeling the layers of assumptions surrounding the Costco onion salad, it becomes hard to know which is piled higher: the onions, or the irony.


The only real question remaining for me concerning the onion salad is, “How does it taste?” so in the interest of the advancement of knowledge I tried it. I admit to feeling a pang of vestigial guilt when I piled the onions on my plate, plopped some mustard and ketchup down next to it, and swirled it all together. I’ll also be the first to admit that the resulting mixture really does look gross, perhaps because it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the fake plastic vomit that was sold in the backs of comic books when I was kid.

Once I got past that, however, I found the onion salad to be surprisingly bland, not nearly as tart as I expected, but my curiosity was still only half satisfied. Fulfilling an earlier promise to myself, I cut open a bulgogi bake, loaded the onion salad on top and had a genuine Eureka moment as the flavors hit me: the combination of the breaded crust, marinated beef, cheese, onions, mustard, and ketchup transformed the ho-hum bulgogi bake into a very respectable cheeseburger, and I assume, fair reader, that you don’t need me to tell you exactly how weird and terrible that was.

Tube burger? It's hard thinking of names for this that don't have unintended sexual connotations.

Boom!

The Good, The Bad, and The Hagfish

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 life than the hagfish. Though hagfish are found all over the world and have been known for centuries, they are only eaten in Korea and by the Korean diaspora in Japan and the United States. Even the Chinese – about whom Koreans joke will eat every four-legged thing except the table – lay off the hagfish.

You may have seen them in the tanks at Jagalchi market , these pinkish eel-like creatures the Koreans call ggomjangeo resting in a knotted oimg_CA00195741mass awaiting the fillet knife. You may have eaten them there, seen them skinned alive, chopped up and thrown still writhing onto a grill with red pepper sauce and onions and served with sesame leaves and garlic. Once you get past the idea of food squirming on the grill, ggomjangeo bokkeum is actually quite tasty. It has a firm, springy texture, and presents some odd shapes as the intestines curl like shirtsleeves, but it ends up tasting more like the same yangnyeom sauce you enjoy with your fried chicken. Some eat it because, like all things vaguely penis-shaped, the hagfish is thought to be a male “stamina food”. Whether you get a rise out of it or not, grilled hagfish is far from the strangest-tasting food you will ever put in your mouth, but considered as an animal, it is arguably one of the biggest oddballs you will encounter on the Korean menu.

Total Weirdo

For starters, the name is misleading. The jangeo part of the name means ‘eel’, though hagfish are not even remotely related to eels and bear only a superficial resemblance to them. The English name hagfish isn’t much better, because as it turns out, they’re not true fish either: they have no jaws, stomach or true fins, and have primitive eyes that sense light but can’t resolve images. Scientists are not even unanimous on whether to classify the hagfish as a vertebrate – an ostensibly unambiguous category – because it is the only known creature to have a bony skull but a spine made entirely of cartilage. The hagfish is so hard to classify that when Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, first encountered one in 1754, he declared it to be a worm, a classification which managed to stand for nearly four decades until it was corrected.

Today we know that the hagfish is an ancient animal – a so-called living fossil that has changed little in over 300 million years and is more closely related to the common ancestor of all vertebrates than it is to any other animal living today except the lamprey (another total weirdo). While scientists continue to debate its place in the evolutionary tree, current opinion strongly suggests that the creature on your dinner plate is a charter member of the proud lineage that gave the animal kingdom its very first spinal column.

Ain’t Got No Alibi

hagfishmouth

Say cheese!

While “fish” may miss the mark, “hag” is not unfair. The hagfish is widely considered to be one of the ugliest animals in the world, because it manages to combine nearly every quality we find repulsive in animals. It looks harmless enough sitting there on the bottom of the tank with its little whiskers (called ‘barbels’) reminiscent of catfish, but just below them, tucked out of sight, is a mouth so creepy that fans of H.R. Giger have wondered whether the retractable mouths of his cinematic aliens were inspired by the hagfish’s ‘rasping tongue‘: four rows of tooth-like “rasps” that project from the mouth (which opens horizontally, by the way), grasp the flesh of its prey and haul it toward the gullet.

The hagfish’s diet doesn’t win it any admirers either. Once thought to be exclusively a scavenger – another class of animal that no one loves – it is now known to subsist mainly on large, deep-sea worms, a revelation which merely elevated it from a revolting opportunist to a revolting predator. It does scavenge part-time, however: when the carcass of a dead whale or other creature settles on the bottom, thousands of hagfish follow their single nostril to the buffet. Using their rasping tongues, they burrow into the carcass and eat it from the inside out, thus combining the most gag-inducing features of vultures and maggots into one charming package. They’ve also been known to use their unique skill set to infest the bodies of fish trapped in nets, which naturally has done little to endear them to fisherman around the world. Though they certainly chow down like vertebrates, they have the distinctly invertebrate ability to absorb nutrients directly through their skin, which comes in handy when you are literally tucked in to your meal.

“He slimed me”

Despite all that, one of the most remarkable and literally repulsive features of the hagfish is not the way it eats but the way it defends itself from being eaten. If you’ve taken a close look inside a tank full of hagfish, you may have noticed strands of milky filaments swirling around the tank he-slimed-melike old cobwebs.  When a hagfish is bitten by a predator (or seized by a middle-aged woman in pink rubber boots) it quickly emits a copious amount of slimy mucus which instantly reacts with water to become a tough, stretchy glob that envelops its body like a cocoon. This slime clogs the gills of would-be predators, who gag on it and spit out the hagfish unharmed thanks to its tough skin (belts, wallets and other accessories are made from it and sold as “eel leather”). Once the danger has passed, the hagfish twists into a knot and slides the knot down the length of its body, whisking off the slime in one motion. This defense strategy is extremely effective; the hagfish has no known aquatic predators because it has evolved over hundreds of millions of years – not to be smarter or faster – but to be chewed on, found repulsive, and spit out intact.

The slime has also acted as a turn-off to all but the most determined human diners, and is the source of its genus name Myxine (from the Greek word for slime) as well as its more colorful nicknames slime eel and snot eel. It turns out, however, that hagfish slime is edible. Because it’s composed of protein, it is said to be used as a substitute for egg whites, though I’ve yet to find a restaurant anywhere that uses it. Who knows: maybe with a slightly catchier name and a kickass marketing strategy, hagfish slime omelets could be finding their way to a breakfast menu near you.

hagfishslime1A less far-fetched scenario would be finding a use for it as a fabric. A team of researchers at the University of Guelph, Ontario is looking for ways to replicate the tough, stretchy fibers in hagfish slime and spin them into a renewable fabric that could one day replace non-renewable oil-based fabrics like lycra, spandex, and nylon. They’re not there yet, but hagfish hotpants remain a theoretical possibility.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the hagfish, like the size and health of their populations, how they reproduce, how to tell their approximate age, and their precise role in ocean ecosystems. Information like this is critical for managing hagfish fisheries, which are currently unregulated in the United States (which is actually where most of the hagfish in Korea now come from). If there is a less likely candidate for overfishing than the hagfish I hope I never meet it (or eat it), but it’s worth looking after them all the same. After all, they may be weird, but they’re family.

Author’s Note: October 15th is Hagfish Day, a holiday created by WhaleTimes.org to remind people that even the ugliest creatures need our conservation efforts. Whether you decide that the best way to celebrate Hagfish Day is by eating a hagfish or by not eating one is up to you. I won’t judge.