korean 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.

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:


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.


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:


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.


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?

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


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.

NY Times on Spam in Korea: The ‘Glamour of Pink Bricks of Pork Shoulder’

Spam in Korea

For those who have spent an extended time in South Korea, all will know (and likely joke) about the giving of Spam as a present to loved ones on special occasions such as this weekend’s Lunar New Year celebration —a holiday that has seen 1.6 million Spam gift packs dispersed at homes across the country.

I wasn’t a big fan of Spam back in the States, and when I first arrived in Korea I thought it odd that people would give it as a gift to someone they actually loved. Though I have yet to break the gift barrier in my Spam ventures, I would later learn of its interesting history here and come to appreciate what we, as kids, called “mystery meat.”

The New York Times has taken up the topic of Spam in Korea and gives a nice bit of history behind its ongoing popularity on the peninsula, the second largest Spam market in the world after the U.S.

In the United States, the gelatinous meat product in the familiar blue and yellow cans has held a place as thrifty pantry staple, culinary joke and kitschy fare for hipsters without ever losing its low-rent reputation. But in economically vibrant South Korea, the pink bricks of pork shoulder and ham have taken on a bit of glamour as they have worked their way into people’s affections.

“Here, Spam is a classy gift you can give to people you care about during the holiday,” said Im So-ra, a saleswoman at the high-end Lotte Department Store in downtown Seoul who proudly displayed stylish boxes with cans of Spam nestled inside.

And hey, when economic imperialism is done right, you’ve gotta give credit where credit is due.

Spam’s journey from surplus pork shoulder in Minnesota to the center of the South Korean dining table began at a time of privation — hitching a ride with the American military during the Korean War and becoming a longed-for luxury in the desperate years afterward, when American troops stayed to keep the peace.

“PX food was the only way you could get meat,” said Kim Jong-sik, 79, a South Korean veteran, referring to the American Army’s post exchange stores. “Spam was a luxury available only to the rich and well-connected.”

My first Spam foray in Korea was when, in a pinch, I bought a can at the convenience store to throw in with some soup. I must admit, my middle-class American upbringing wreaked havoc on my conscious as I walked towards the checkout counter: Am I really going to buy and cook a can of Spam? What’s next, using the leftover tin for panhandling in subway?

In retrospect, these notions were all the more ridiculous considering that it cost me nearly five bucks for one can.

I have since come to thoroughly enjoy frying it up with eggs and given it a home on my list of occasional dietary staples. For me, the consistency of Spam makes it kind of like ham flavored tofu—it offers the illusion of health without the nasty side effects of eating healthy. What more could I ask for?

You can read the rest of the piece for yourself at The New York Times.

Spam Love Korea