I live in a large city in Korea, a hissing, crowded place, where the vertigo-inducing choice of eateries seems almost infinite: glance down most any street and you’ll see at least several brightly lit joints serving up pungent, pickled, red-slathered grub. This town is thick with restaurants and I’m convinced that it would take several lifetimes to sample them all. The array is not only dizzying, it’s in a constant state of flux: That great grilled beef place has now changed to marinated duck; what was once a Kimbap Chungook now sells freshly sliced sea creatures, picked from the aquariums installed out front and dispatched on the spot; the old steamed dumpling joint manned by the two grandmas has been gutted and turned into a garish, smart phone shop that perpetually blares K-pop at murderous volumes. Welcome to gentrification, Korean style.
Nothing rules the local streets more than my city’s specialty dish: dwaeji gukbap. This is a soup made from tender sliced pork, green onion and rice in a milky broth that can only be described as savory concentrate. It’s a big hit all over town, with an impossible amount of restaurants serving up steaming bows of the stuff. My neighborhood is host to one of the more famous gukbap restaurants in the city. The place is always crowded and rightly so: it’s damned good. The pork is perfectly cooked and served up in portions that are beyond generous. Sometimes you feel as if there is more meat that broth.
In Korea, a good thing is not allowed to stand alone. When I moved into the area, this well-known restaurant already had a copycat boiling up pork just a block away. She was smaller and decidedly more hardscrabble, but the soup was decent enough. Soon, a brand new gukbap house opened directly next door to the established place. Now there were three and guess what? The new joint was really good, good enough to be half full with customers most of the time–a proper spillover coup. We now had a little soup war raging, with three places competing for the almighty won of the neighborhood’s savvy, pork hungry customers. This brouhaha drew a new entrepreneur into the fray; he went all in, opening a veritable Gukbap Palace right across the street from the main two. This place was massive–three times the size of either of the other three–with a huge, gleaming kitchen and a full, at-the-ready staff of red-aproned ajummas. There was only one problem: No one came. The place was doomed to a lifetime of empty tables. Our neighborhood, set smack in the middle of Korea’s dwaeji gukbap metropolis, had finally reached market saturation. The first, shabby impostor shuttered its doors, followed by the big shiny new store some months later. This left just the two: The original, which is still always slammed with customers, and its less-busy next-door doppelganger, a fine place that also happens to serve up a damned good bowl of soup.
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Welcome to Sweet Pickles and Corn. We are a blog. An expat blog. In Korea. This should impress no one. Sometimes I think that Korea needs another expat blog like my neighborhood needs another dwaeji gukbap joint. Cyberspace is filled with foreigners–both fresh-faced and jaundiced–who vent forth their feelings about living life in a strange land with strange people and even stranger food. Haven’t we already read it all? The internet has turned so many expatriates into wannabe Hemingways, Londons, and Therouxs, with most failing to rise to the greatness of their heroes. This is fine, as not everyone is aiming for literary heights or vying for a book deal. Some folks blog about their expat adventures as a way to keep their friends and families in the loop; others use public writing as a kind of pressure-release valve. Sometimes it just feels good to rant.
So then, who are we?
We are a collective of foreigners living and working in South Korea. Most of us are experienced bloggers. A couple are new to the form. All of us are writers. Those of us who have solo blogged before realize that there is power in numbers, so we’ve decided to band together and concentrate our efforts in one happy venue. And here it is. Hoo-ray.
We are all using pseudonyms, though those of you who know us will easily find us out. Hell, one of us even uses his actual photo in his avatar, so secrecy isn’t really the point here. We just thought we’d each choose a nom-de-plum as a laugh, and to also keep the focus on the writing, instead of the person. Who knows, like KISS, we may one day appear without our makeup, shattering the mystery once and for all. But never did KISS suck worse than they did sans greasepaint, so for now, fake names it is.
Why Sweet Pickles & Corn?
I hate sweet pickles. They are detestable snacks soaked in rat piss and jarred in the swampy furnace of Satan’s kitchen. Koreans love them though, so much so that packets of the things are included with every pizza delivered throughout the country.
I like corn on the cob, but free kernels somehow fail to elicit my affection. Yet it’s all over here. Corn, like sweet pickles, shows up in strange places in Korea, often paired with dishes like donkasu, or as a topping on pizza, which itself always arrives with sweet pickles (see above paragraph).
Both sweet pickles and corn are an example of Korea embracing something Western and somehow failing, at least in the eyes of many of us. These vegetables are just weird, really–overly processed and canned. One is obscenely uniform and comically green, while the other is electrically yellow and passes undigested through our bodies, finally studding our shit like tiny nuggets of gold. There’s something about the sight and sound of them that’s just plain silly and it’s our aim to add a taste of this absurdity to this blog.
What do we hope to accomplish?
We are a Korea blog only by default. All of the writers live in Korea, so Korea will color most every word typed and posted. I don’t think we really need to worry about that. This, however, does not mean that all the pieces will literally be about Korea; often, prima facie, they will not. This is an anything-goes type of forum. I expect we will see a lot of memoir, some criticism, lists, rants, short stories, and above all, humor. We only have one aim: Like my neighborhood’s dwaeji gukbab, we want the writing featured here Sweet Pickles and Corn to be damned good. And I am confident that the cast of characters assembled for this endeavor is up to the muthafuckin’ task.
What you won’t see are pictures of temples, accounts of afternoons spent hiking, or enthusiastic reports of that life-changing day when we learned to make kimchee with our church group. Nor will photos of food be prominently featured for their own sake, though it could happen once or twice. While definitely eschewing the bright-eyed, Pollyanna, “Isn’t Korea amazing?” schtick, we also hope to never venture into the tired, played-out terrain of the bitter lifer, crapping on Korea and our fellow expats at every chance we get. Is there anything more tedious than a Westerner bemoaning the fact that he got elbowed in the subway, damning the local supermarket for discontinuing his favorite brand of soda, or hating on someone who has the audacity to have lived here for less than 7 years?
So, once again, welcome to Sweet Pickles and Corn. Come on in and set a spell. I know that the internet is big and the choices might be endless, but who knows? You might just like what we’re offering up. It just may be damned good. If not, you can always get your money back. This, we guarantee.