“How I learned to be a proper Korean wife” or….Kimchi 101

It all started with a craving.  Living in Germany for once in my life I was not without easily accessible quantities of kimchi.  This in and of itself was a serious hardship, but more alarming was that without kimchi, I couldn’t make – kimchi chigae.  Comfort food is a strange thing.  To some it’s mac & cheese or mashed potatoes.  The taste of home comes in a variety of packages.  For my German roommate it was spaghetti with butter and ketchup.  Comfort for me came wrapped up in the biggest clash of culinary sensibilities: a steaming, deliciously pungent bowl of kimchi chigae  and a Big Mac.

Food associations are strong and unshakable, as the brilliant marketers for good old McDonalds can attest.  As any one of my friends back in L.A. would confirm, I am not someone who has willingly eaten from the golden arches in years.  My organic, home-made, farmer’s market loving nature had some serious issues with the kind of processed garbage that Ronald McDonald thankfully was no longer super sizing, but thousands of miles from “home,” lost in a bewildering foreign land without strong social networks or close friends and having seriously OD’d on the notion of Abendbrot (I could not eat any more slices of schwarzbrot, cheese & wurst with the prerequisite cut up cucumber!), Ronald became a reminder of pleasant childhood memories.  Happy meals eaten during school field trips, deep fried apple pies and caramel sundaes, packages of the Hamburglar cookies…remember those?  Big Macs were a special treat not often allowed by my notoriously health conscious mother and they are still imbedded in some far recess of my brain to trigger inexplicable feelings of warmth and security desperately needed that first long winter spent alone in Deutschland.

It’s the same way I feel about kimchi chigae.  Call it my identity split.  My American side sometimes just needs a dose of that “special sauce” in the same way the Korean gal in me needs her kimchi chigae.  But although those cravings for Big Macs eventually dissipated as I acclimated to my new life situation, the desire for kimchi chigae refused to die.  It was always my favorite meal growing up.  So odoriferous my mother cooked it in the garage, the pungent fumes drifting out towards the sidewalk would make my American friends curl their noses in dismay…was that a dead animal in our garage?  I’d pretend I didn’t hear them and for once be back home right on time for dinner.

So, what was a girl to do?  The question of a Big Mac was easily solved.   Globalization makes it possible to find a McDonalds anytime you’re jonesing for the crap they offer, (I will concede that sometimes a fresh batch of their fries with ketchup is just…dare I say, deelish?) The kimchi chigae though, now that posed a big problem.  The few Korean establishments I’d found in Berlin rarely offered it, and when they did, it was a watered down, tasteless version lacking any of the penetrating zing of a proper chigae.  This was seriously unacceptable.  There was only one thing to do…make my own.

Since the only way to make a proper kimchi chigae is to first have suitably fermented kimchi, it meant that I needed to start from the very beginning, a very good place to start.  This fräulein needed to make herself some kimchi!  Now that was something I’d never needed to make before.  Why bother when a huge bottle could be had 24-7 at several large Korean markets in L.A. or a homemade version could be pinched off of my aunt or mother. Once I had an available amount, I’d just whip myself a batch of chigae once the cabbage had gotten a little too salacious for normal ingestion.  The precise timing in which to make the perfect chigae from fermented kimchi could be an art in and of itself.  A fresh batch of kimchi just doesn’t have the right toe curling power, but wait until it’s gone too far and even a blowhard has a hard time digesting the sour, spicy mass. It’s reached proper maturation when you open a jar and the ensuing odor makes your eyes smart just a tiny leeetle bit and you’re not sure if it’s the  kimchi or  if you just passed gas.

Missing Korean food was not something I had accounted for when moving to Berlin.  Sure it was something I ate back in L.A., but to be honest, I took it for granted.  I could eat it whenever I wanted, so why bother eating it all the time?  Those first endlessly grey months in Germany,  I would rue the day I ever casually drove past a BCD Tofu House.  My yearly visits back home now are filled with days of Korean bbq; accelerating inhalations of suhlung tang, daenjang chigae, kimbap, yookgejang, soon dubu, tansooyeuk, until my pants get uncomfortably snug and I consider slowing down consumption, only to think about the months and months of deprivation ahead and say- fuck it! and undo the button imprinting itself onto my increasing belly.   Ahhh mah-shee-da!

So there was only one thing to do.  I gave my mother a heart attack by asking her to teach me how to make kimchi my first visit back to the States.  “Have you met a good Korean man?” were the first words out of her mouth.  Apparently, the only thing that could possibly motivate me to want to make kimchi was in preparation of being a good Korean wife…*eye roll*… I had to set the record straight. (do you KNOW what its like dating in Germany where the notion of flirting is asking you how you made the gravy after waiting 3 months before even thinking about asking you on a date?!?! )  She tried to hide her disappointment, but chirked up with the idea that by teaching me kimchi, perhaps…perhaps…it would improve my chances of finding the perfect Korean doctor, lawyer or supremely successful business man, or if need be and under extreme duress (since I wasn’t getting any younger ; )) settling for the notion of a non-Korean, albeit only a non-Korean doctor, lawyer, or even more supremely successful business man, and as long as they were only white non-Korean men, preferably American because Europeans always have mistresses according to her friend who lived in Paris….Chinese was acceptable too, but under no circumstances Japanese!

Since getting into my color blind international dating choices would have given her a serious ulcer if not a real heart attack, we just moved onto the kimchi tutorial.  Now there are as many varieties of kimchi as there are types of bread in Germany, whether you crave mouth burning fierceness or just a touch of the piquant, to cool summertime refreshing.  Everyone will probably tell you their mother’s version is the best, and who am I to argue…it probably is.  Something that gets served with pretty much every meal, every Korean child has eaten kimchi from the moment they can handle solid food.  My mother would wash a piece off in a glass of water and cut it up into our rice porridge.  I think by the time I was 5 I stopped “washing” my kimchi and just ate it straight up from the jar.  The mouth of fire has had a long time to germinate!

This is my version of a basic nappa cabbage kimchi, tweaked after years of living in Berlin and also dealing with busy people and busy schedules that may not have the energy or time to do something 100% “traditional.”  I think cooking is a fluid representation of where and when you live and being in Germany has obviously presented some obstacles.  Ingredients are not always easily come by and sometimes impossible to find, so Fräulein Kimchi’s approach is to find what works in the environment you’re living in.  There are no rules!

Fräulein Kimchi’s Kimchi recipe, to be used liberally as you please.

1 Nappa Cabbage (Chinakohl),

chinakohl at a street market
chinakohl sold on the streets

cut into small pieces (I usually cut it into about 2”x 2” slices, but whatever size you want is fine)

2 carrots julienned

2 bunches of green onions, cut into about 2” strips

1 or 2 apples, peeled and thinly sliced (*optional- I like to add apples which adds a nice crisp contrast to the cabbage, but this is not a really “traditional” ingredient so be prepared to face the ire of some die hard Koreans who may eat your kimchi. Just send them to Fräulein Kimchi if they give you any cheek)

1/2 daikon radish, peeled and sliced into thin rounds and then quartered (I prefer to use the Korean radish, which is called “mu”and has a spicier taste than daikon, but it’s not available in Germany…yet)

freshly minced garlic

Garlic, 6-7 cloves, peeled and crushed

Ginger, 1 tablespoon finely minced

Sea salt, 2-5 tablespoons per cabbage (my aunt swears that the type of salt you use influences the taste of the kimchi.  Don’t use the super high end gourmet sea salt though since you will need a lot of salt.  Large bags of sea salt can usually be found fairly cheaply at most asian markets)

Korean chili powder “Kochugaru”  (while it’s best to use Korean chili powder, if it’s not available in your area, you “can” use a different kind of chili powder.

kochugaru at it's finest
kochugaru at it’s finest

Be sure to experiment with amounts though, as Korean chili powder has a more mellow heat to it that necessitates using quite a bit when making kimchi.  Other chili powders may pack more heat so take caution! Also, its best if you use Korean chili powder that has been produced in Korea and not China.  Look for a package that has a bright red color to it, which signifies freshness.  If it’s made in China and is neon bright though, it’s probably been dyed synthetically! Avoid!  To maintain freshness of the chili powder, keep it in your freezer).

Fish sauce, about 2-3 tablespoons (For the best flavor I suggest you don’t buy the Thai anchovy fish sauces, but a Korean version.  It’s called Sand Lance Sauce.  This is also something you should add to your taste.  More fish sauce will give it a stronger flavor so see what you prefer.  To be super hardcore traditional, use the tiny salted shrimps that come in a jar.  So far its been impossible for me to find in Germany, but easily found in Korean supermarkets in America)

Pair of plastic gloves

directions: In a large bowl heavily salt the cabbage pieces. For a large cabbage it will take about 4-5 tablespoons, for a smaller one 3-4.  Let it sit for a minimum of an hour and up to anywhere from 2-3 hours.  The longer it stays in the salt, the more the cabbage breaks down and releases its water.  It also absorbs more salt and gets saltier, so experiment and see which texture and seasoning you prefer.  If you use a whole cabbage without cutting it up  then it needs to salt overnight. (This is the traditional way of making kimchi, but also requires much larger jars which aren’t easily come by in Berlin.  Its also more of a mess to cut up and serve once its fermented)

Wash off the salt from the cabbage and squeeze it dry.  Taste a piece; it should be slightly salty.  Place the cabbage in a large bowl and add the garlic, ginger, carrots, apples and radish.   Add the kochugaru a bit at a time. This is to your taste, the more kochugaru you use, the spicier it will be.  Add the fish sauce and green onions and mix thoroughly with your hands (make sure to wear the plastic gloves if you don’t want your hands reeking of garlic and fish for days!)  The final mixture shouldn’t be too dry, the chili powder should start to expand slightly from the moisture.  If it seems too dry once you’ve added all the ingredients, then you can add a tiny bit of water to loosen it up.

Gather some clean empty jars and start to bottle.  As you spoon in the fresh kimchi make sure you press it down firmly into the bottom of the jar.  There should be no space or air between the layers and a little bit of liquid at the top of the jar just covering the cabbage.  Leave some space on top as the kimchi will expand and create more liquid as it starts to ferment (packing the kimchi too tightly to the top of the lid can create a juicy, smelly explosion when you first try to open it).

Leave a jar out on the counter so that you can eat it within a day or two.  The rest of the jars will last for weeks if not months if properly stored in the fridge.  After a few weeks have gone by and the kimchi has gone sour…it’s time to make some chigae!

Some pictures of the finished product as I found them in Korea…enjoy!

traditional ceramic urns where kimchi would be stored for months
the richer you were, the larger the urns..these humongoids were found next to the house of a rich yangban

day 16-19: A Hyosung & a penis fish

Jeju is Korea’s island paradise.  Known for its temperate climates and beautiful scenery it’s a favorite get away for Korean newlyweds and couples looking for a romantic getaway, or as the tourist brochure aptly puts it…

”With your lover! In a dreamy world! Create an unforgettable Memory!”

I wasn’t there with my lover, but we did find ourselves in a dreamy world, and some unforgettable memories were made involving a motorcycle, an empty gas tank, a pig farmer, some cannibal spiders, a fight, and a penis fish.

On our first day in Jeju, I had a huge fight with Julian somewhere around km 13 on our Olle hike that I was sure was going to put a prompt end to our friendship and the trip.  I’d been feeling stressed ever since arriving and having some weird exchanges with our B&B lady.  It isn’t really fair for me to expect an American to understand some of the subtle game play that goes on in Korean society but it irked me to no end when he suggested we change places.  Believe me…when a Korean mother arranges a place for you, and especially when it involves someone within that scary ahjuma network of her college grads, there is no way in hell you can try and go off on your own.  You keep your mouth shut; you smile politely, and be a good little Korean girl.  No late nights, no drinking, lots of smiling and talking about 4 pitches above your normal speaking voice.  It’s not a game I play very well.  So…I picked a fight. Words were exchanged.  The last kilometers of what should have been sheer beauty were barely noticed.

some cannibal spiders we came across on our path...scary!
and the giant arachnid waiting for us back at out b&b

Luckily for me, Julian’s a lot more levelheaded and forgiving and accepted my mea culpa later.  To be honest, I’d been battling with myself for quite a while and it was hard to accept feeling so “lost” here.  Being illiterate in Korean has been a major issue for me.  I’m so used to being self-sufficient that being that dependent on someone else for something as simple as reading a menu has been a complete mind fuck.  To also have my American friend speak better Korean than me was bringing up serious feelings of inadequacy that all contributed to my little melt down.  I think I had romantically imagined my trip as my own little “Joy Luck Club” experience.  I’d step off the plane; the musical soundtrack would swell dramatically as the screen dissolved into a little montage of my perfect Korean adventures.  Well, I should know by now, nothing is ever “perfect”… as the Rolling Stones aptly put it- “You can’t always get what you want…you get what you need!”

So it was determined…we had the need for speed.  The next day we rented a motorcycle and spent the next few days zipping around the island.  Now, I consider myself to be a big risk taker, not too many things scare me, but the thought of riding on the back of what I considered to be an organ donor maker was bringing up some interesting thoughts of mortality and my vanity was weighing the pros and cons of death or total bodily disfigurement from road rash.  I’d been such a bitch to Julian the day before though, that I knew I had to squelch my fears and just hop on and pray.

We went to Mr. Lee’s Bike shop (no, not my dad, or my brother, or related to Bruce Lee..), got a sassy little Hyosung and we were off…

hyosug & me

I nearly peed my pants the first time a produce truck nearly beaned us, but the Hyosung was agile, the horn effective, Julian’s maneuvering always seemed to avoid disaster so I learned to just sit back and enjoy the ride (which included a fair amount of closing my eyes whenever death seemed imminent.)

We found a great restaurant overlooking the ocean and stopped for an amazing lunch of one of Jeju’s specialties.  Heuk Dwaeji (literally means “dirt pig”) is a special pig that only grows on the island.

fatty "dirty" pig!

Black pigs that are fed a special diet, they’re prized for their meat which is chewier and more flavorful than regular pork. We ended up talking to the owner of the restaurant, a Korean bag manufacturer and exporter, now turned…pig farmer (can I just say he’s my hero!!)  As his wife proudly told us, they own 2,200 pigs. That’s a lot of pork!

all the delicious banchans that accompanied our meal
wrap in lettuce with some radish pickle..yum!
or eat with some spicy greens..auch yummie!

We had a pleasant time picking the brain of this successful entrepreneur and he gave us some good tips of places to visit on the island.  After our coffees were finished, he got up to leave. Time to feed the pigs!  I really admired their establishment.  It seemed a perfect marriage between business and sustainability.  Most of the food was grown locally on the island and you could taste the goodness in every dish.  The wife and waitresses all seemed to enjoy their work, sitting at a back table picking through bean sprouts and peeling garlic for the busy dinner rush.  I was glad to know that everything was handmade with no shortcuts.   A place to go back to the next time I’m on Jeju.

Next on the list was a visit to the OSulloc tea farms, another island specialty.  I was getting the hang of riding the motorcycle, and have to say- is anything better than that symbiotic feeling when you become one with the road and the bike?  It’s like a Zen meditation and roller coaster ride all at once. It was good to be reminded that I shouldn’t give in to my fears and plunge into unknown waters.  Still, I didn’t mind that the bike maxed out at 115km/hr. I want some serious leather duds if I’m going to get on anything faster!

Now while Mr. Lee’s English website was easily navigated, his speech was not.  It was a definite lost in translation moment between-“fill the gas tank” and “the gas tank is full” that led to us running out of gas somewhere along a tiny country road on the way to OSulloc.  If you want an interesting observation on human behavior, try hitching a ride on Jeju Island.

It was decided that we would have better luck if I were the one with the thumb up, but let me tell you…Korean tourists are a tough crowd.  The first problem was that it wasn’t a well-frequented road.  The second was that none of the fuckers would stop.  When I finally succeeded in hailing down an SUV here’s how the conversation went.

Me: “Hi, We’re out of gas.”

Blank stare

Me: “Umm, We’re out of gas”

Blank stare

Me: “Do you know where a gas station is?”

Them: (final responding after deciding I was not an ax murderer or carjacker?) “Oh…there isn’t anything nearby”

Me: “Do you know how far away it is?”

Them: “Far”

Me: “Can we walk there?”

Them: “Not really, it’s too far”

Me: “Ummm….” (looking pathetic and silently saying: please offer us a ride, please offer us a ride, please offer us a ride)

Blank stare, uncomfortable silence.

Them: “Ok, bye”

Rolling up of window and driving away.

Me: FUCCCCCKKKKK YOUUU!!!! (expressed silently although with eloquent shake of the fist skyward)

More cars either sped by, or slowed down to see me point to the bike, say “out of gas” and then violently shake their head and say…no can help, no can help. One man did stop, but said..”I use LPG gas” then drove away. (there are 2 different kinds of petrol used here for cars). I contemplated hiking up my pants and showing some leg, but while that tactic may work in California, I doubted it was going to give me any points in Jeju. A local farm boy was having a great old time zipping by on his bike and giving me amused stares.  This was the most exciting thing that happened  on this road since the Mt Hallasan exploded! (Hallasan last exploded on 1002). When Julian told him we ran out of gas, he gave a wise little nod of his head and said “uuuuh..geudeuk geu-na…” (translation: oh, so that happened, did it.…pretty cheeky for a little kid to speak that way to adults!)

I was silently cursing out my fellow Koreans for being selfish, fearful bastards when I succeeded in waving down a pick up truck with a farmer and his wife.  He gave us the same story everyone else did…the only gas station was kilometers away.  I seriously wanted to cry.  After giving me a long look, he got back in the truck and sped away…10 minutes later he arrived with a gas can. While topping us off he apologized, of all things, because there wasn’t that much gas left. We were just grateful for any help at all! He then refused to take money from us for his time and help, wished us luck and drove away, not only replenishing our fuel supply, but also restoring my faith in humanity.  (Although, why is it almost always those who have the least that give the most?  We would have gladly given him money for his help and kindness, and of all the nice cars that had driven by that afternoon…he probably could have used it the most.  Not to mention, he was probably also the busiest, being a working farmer, rather than a tourist there just for enjoyment!)

So once again we were off…until we ran out of gas…again! The amount the farmer had given us still left us 6 kilometers away from the closest gas station.  Luckily this time we sputtered out on a major road just a few feet away from a small business. our savior with the gas tank. there are a lot of things i could say about this picture...but i won'tThe man working there invited us in, gave us some juice and sent his associate off to the gas station with an empty gas tank.  I guess Julian and I had some serious good karma points stored up. The man seemed genuinely glad that we had taken the time to visit Jeju.  I’m guessing it’s not a big stopover for tourists from Europe or America, so the fact that someone came all the way from Germany was a source of island pride.  His associate came back and filled us up to the brim.  No chance of running out of gas this time!  They also refused any type of remuneration, and I was again thankful for the generosity of strangers, and determined to return the favor the next time I see someone in need of help.

beautiful Osulloc tea farms

Tea farms visited, and with a setting sun, we headed back to Seogwipo, the city we were staying at, for a dinner of fresh hwe, which is the Korean version of sashimi.

our platter of hwe

I gamely tried all raw versions from the sea clam to what we nicknamed the penis fish. (seriously, this poor creature alive looks kinda like the real thing…cut up, it still keeps its reflexes and kept squirming around on the plate!)  We found the perfect way to eat the poor bastard, soak liberally in soy/wasabi sauce, pop it into your mouth and chew…the first person to reach for their soju glass to wash down the chewy mass has to finish off the rest of the bottle. (I lost…what can I say, it was kind of gross).

the cut up penish fish...poor bastard
a bit scaly, but tasty little fish
a rather anemic tasting mouthful of spongy slime
hard, crunchy sea clam
delicious hot & spicy maewoon tang (korean fish soup).

I think Julian and I were genuinely having fun for the first time since I arrived.  Something broke loose after my breakdown. This tiny hard ball resentment I had been holding onto ever since the first generalized statement that had come out of his mouth “Koreans are so….” It’s hard for me to understand why I took everything he said about Koreans so personally.  To be honest, half the things he commented about were things I secretly thought myself.  I guess it’s that whole love-hate thing of identifying with your culture.  Love the food, hate the societal pressures, norms, rules, regulations that keep most Koreans in a tiny box of conformity, love the hospitality and kindness I was shown by random strangers, hate the societal pressures, norms, rules, regulations that keep most Koreans in a tiny box of conformity …

I had to think long and hard about my own generalizations. The times I am with expat friends in Berlin and we make jokes about the Auslanderbehörde or other parts of daily German life that drive us nuts.  I realized I probably sounded the same, but as most of my friends would attest, I really do love living in Berlin. It was probably the same for him.  If certain parts of Korean life drive me nuts, I can only imagine what it must be like trying to adjust to it as a westerner with no clue at all.  He has some serious cajones to keep living here.

lovely Udo island

Our last day in Jeju, we hopped on a ferry, Hyosung and all, to visit another tiny island that sits off the coast of Jeju.  A tiny island that is easily traversable by bicycle, Udo mainly consists of small garlic and onion farms, a few beautiful beaches and a thriving moped rental business.

white coral beach, hot sun, clear waters...ahhhh!

It was nice to have a lazy afternoon beachside before making the long haul back to Jeju-si to drop off the motorcycle.  Lunch and dinner were some simple summertime dishes.  Cold nengmyun noodles at a small diner on Udo, and Suhlung Tang soup enjoyed al fresco at an eatery somewhere on the road back to Mr. Lee’s.  We hopped on an early flight back to Seoul the next morning.

beautiful poppy lined path
a lone angler
lunch: cold nenymyun noodles
dinner: my childhood fave..suhlung tang soup

day 15: The “Hawaii” of Korea

Julian and I went to Jeju Island for 5 days.  Jeju is a sub tropical island that sits off the southern coast of Korea, a short 45 minute flight away from Seoul.  Korea loves to pitch it as the “Hawaii” of Korea.  I would just call it…Jeju Island.  It’s a popular honeymoon destination for Korean couples, and Julian bravely faced the potential flak from his girl for going there for the first time with me.

Jeju has been one of my favorite places to visit so far.  It combines all the things I love- hiking, mountains, beautiful beaches, farms and great Korean food.  It doesn’t seem like Korea.  The coasts are dramatic contrasts of black volcanic rocks and cerulean waters.

garlic drying in the fields

Farms are scattered from coastlines to mountains, small fields encased in walls built of the plentiful stones.  As a woman on the island told us- every time you dig, you find a rock.  The black walls and the lush greenery combined with palm trees and fragrant orange blossoms gives it an otherworldly feel.  A strange cross between Easter Island and Ireland, but housing Buddhist temples and shorter, darker, friendlier versions of Koreans than one finds on the mainland. (at least the real Jeju-ites…a lot of mainlanders have moved to the island to escape the pressures of city life too.)  This is a place I could seriously come back to and explore for a few more weeks.

My mother arranged for us to stay at a B&B that is run by a fellow alumnus of her college.  Korea is, if nothing else, all about networks.  Classmates from your middle school, high school, and college become close knit communities that help each other out.  I guess it could be comparable to the Greek system that we have in the U.S. except the rules are a bit different and the bonds may be even deeper.  As such, I no longer had the freedom to act like a “normal” tourist even though I was a paying guest in her home.  My mom strictly admonished me to be “polite” and always remember to bow, but once I got there I realized I was going to be in a bit of trouble.

blue skies, smiling at me

There are so many different layers to Korean culture and communication that I am now starting to truly recognize.  In a language where there are literally dozens of ways to say the same sentence, it becomes all about subtext and learning to recognize the hidden meanings under something that can seem as innocuous as- “Make sure you eat enough.”

Just to give you a clue- here are some of the vastly different interpretations of that same sentence dependant on a subtle difference of grammar and intonation.

1) Make sure you eat enough! – You are too thin, you need to eat more!

2) Make sure you eat enough! – You are too fat, you shouldn’t eat anymore!

3) Make sure you eat enough! – I don’t have that much food left in my fridge so you better really not eat at all.

4) Make sure you eat enough! –  I’m sorry I don’t really have that much food here but I hope that you get enough of what you need.

5) Make sure you eat enough! – You should have already eaten before you came here, but now that you haven’t you can have a package or 2 of  ramen but if you eat up all the kimchi I will know that  you are just a rude, ill-bred person and even though I told you to drink the juice, really you shouldn’t.

6) Make sure you eat enough! – Make sure that you eat enough. (very rarely will this meaning ever be meant…so just assume meanings 1-5 as you see fit)

I’ve learned some of the basic rules of courtesy – ie. how to talk to elders, etc, but the subtle differences are still somewhat beyond me and it was a bit stressful trying to decode all the things the ahjuma was saying.  In the case of eating enough- it was clear, from her usage of the adjective that she meant version 5.  Julian and I limited ourselves to a spare meal that night, despite the fact that we had just done a 20 kilometer hike that day along the Olle trail.

rock hopping along Olle Trail #8
beach, sun and clear skies. heaven after a rainy week in Seoul

It was also evident that she thought Julian and I were a couple and expressed faint disapproval when I told her it would be ok for us to share a room.  The concept of platonic male-female friendships seems a bit lost here…as is the idea that such friends could actually travel together and even share a room to save up on costs.  The hidden context seemed to be that she thought we were sleeping together, (even though my mother had told her that we were just friends) and that I was putting one over on my mom.  Since this wasn’t just about me, but now also involved my mother’s reputation as a fellow classmate of a prestigious woman’s college, I was seriously stressed about how to handle the situation….what would a proper Korean girl do?  Plus, as it wasn’t a direct relationship, but a secondary one…the rules also seemed different.  How to behave with a real friend of my mother’s is much different than with a secondary acquaintance…these are the times I seriously hate being Korean.  The elaborate social rules and back and forth dance of fake politeness.  I may have to write a guidebook on etiquette for other twinkies like me…once I’ve figured it all out.

Decoding Korea may be the theme for this trip.  It’s been more than just a culinary adventure, it’s been about learning to accept and understand Korea, a bewildering dichotomy of ideas and cultural norms taken from both it’s past and the new modern world it’s embracing.  Between Julian and myself, we may make up one full Korean. We each seem to get different parts of the culture that the other one doesn’t.  I have an instinctive feel for moods and feeling that are communicated through the language or rather NOT communicated through the language, since you’re never allowed to directly ask for anything or say what you really mean.  It’s a mind fuck.  I’m willing to bet that most Koreans would probably make excellent fake psychics since we all have to learn how to read between the lines from an early age.

Julian has a much better understanding of Korea as it is today.  The social norms have changed, as have men/women relationships.  There were certainly no “booking clubs” back in the days when my dad was a young college student!  He also has a better grasp of the history and political clime than myself (sehr peinlich für mich!). My concepts are definitely a bit dated, coming from ex-pat parents who clung to old world traditions and beliefs that are now as disposable as the many bowls of rice that get thrown out with each carelessly eaten meal.  It’s hard for me to reconcile.  I can still remember my father telling me how precious rice was when he was growing up, and as children he would admonish us severely for wasting food. I still feel guilty every time I throw away a wilted head of lettuce or rotting carrot from my fridge.  But for a country that is coming into it’s own power and wealth after a long history of occupation, I suppose it’s like the nouveau rich of any culture…there’s always a need to make a show of prosperity and affluence.  Why eat the rice when you can always buy more?

The first night in Jeju, our choices for food were limited.  The B&B, while on a very picturesque part of one of the many Olle hiking trails was not a very happening part of the island.  There was however an “Itaiy Chicken Hof.”  (was that a typo? Were they trying to be the Italy Hof??) Now my cousin had been telling me great things about Korean fried chicken so now seemed a good a time as any to give it a go.  A whole chicken was cut up into pieces with butcher scissors- this ain’t no KFC! and came in a sweet & spicy glaze. This one was more sweet than spicy, despite our request that they make it as hot as humanly possible. Guess she didn’t think a “wei-guk-in” and a twinkie could handle their kochukaru…little did this lady know that I’ve come in 2nd in a napalm wing eating contest. (cheated out of victory only because those wings were not, in fact, napalm strength, thus allowing a much bigger dude to outwing me.)  Satiated by grease and beer, our first night on the island paradise came to an early end.

Day 14 -From one gut to another

My last night in Daegu, the choice was clear.  Makchang had to be consumed.  I had cautiously enjoyed it my first night in Korea, so I thought, why not.  I’m a foodie…and Daegu is famous for its makchang.

my aunt calls this "man" food

Now if, you’ve forgotten, makchang is pig intestine.  In Daegu style, the innards are first boiled before being grilled on a barbecue and eaten with a spicy daenjang sauce.  I’m realizing that a lot of things are different without adequate amounts of pain medication, soju and jetlag to bolster the courage…This time around…my gut ain’t feeling it.  Me and makchang are destined to have a dysfunctional relationship.  Maybe with another bottle of the Andong soju I could have cleaned my plate, but after 4 good college tries of trying to enjoy the chewy fattiness, I guess I’m not bound to be a serious foodie after all.  The sauce however has possibilities that range far beyond it’s bowel usage, and I plan on making interesting forays into creative uses of makchang sauce.  My hat goes off to Julian and friends who genuinely seem to enjoy what even some Koreans can’t literally stomach.

Also on the menu was marinated eel.

edible eel

It was tastier, and something I’ve had quite a bit, but I was just not in an adventurous culinary mood that evening.  The steamed egg, cold soybeans and eternal side of kimchi made up the larger part of my last meal in Daegu.  On our walk towards finding a cab, Julian’s friend and I shared a surprising love for “My Fair Lady.”  After a rousing chorus of- “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” and “With a little bit o’luck” my blistering feet found it “loverly” when a taxi was finally hailed.  Since Julian and I had a long day of traveling the next morning, we all said early goodbyes.

korea has world cup fever...from t-shirts to beer bottles

Side note: I’ve been fascinated with all the signs I’ve seen in Korea.  Especially their use of cute animal cartoons to depict what kind of meat they serve in their restaurant!  Since most Americans want to pretend that their meat comes from a styrofoam package in the freezer section of the grocery store, I found it especially hilarious to get ushered into a beef restaurant by a blow up cow doll!  Apparently there was even a certain sam gyop sal restaurant that used to have baby pigs in the front window to attract the guests.  Nothing like staring at a bundle of pink baby pigginess when chowing down on your pork belly!

cow...this way
it's cute, it's pink, it's pork!
a cautionary depiction for soju consumers
mama chang serving up finger lickin' seoul food!

day 12-13: An-yeong Andong!

Julian and I decided to check out Andong.  One of the oldest surviving settlements in Korea, Andong flourished during the Joseon dynasty and became the center of Confucian studies.

farmer contemplating his rice seedlings

Today there are still many villages that maintain a traditional lifestyle and I was eager to experience “old” Korea after swimming in the large streets of Seoul.

Somewhere along the drive from Daegu to Andong, the vista changed from grimy cityscape into rural tranquility and I found myself tearing up looking out over rice fields and rolling mountains.  There was an ache in my heart that couldn’t seem to take in the beauty.   It’s not a sight I’ve ever seen before, but I felt like I finally found my place here.  This was the Korea I had dreamt about.  Traditional style houses were nestled at the foot of tree covered hills, overlooking wet rice paddies and flourishing gardens sown with onions, garlic and greens.  I could imagine myself living a quiet country life here and being quite happy puttering around with my kimchi bottles and daenchang.

Before we headed out to the Hahoemaeul- a small village where we planned to spend the night, we paid a visit to the Andong Soju and Food Museum.  It only seemed fitting.  Along with Confucianism, Andong is also famous for its potent soju.  At 45 proof, maybe those scholars needed something to make their studies more palatable.  We got a free shot at the end of the museum tour, which was a smart way to entice us to buy some bottles…not that any Koreans ever seem to need an excuse to buy more soju!  It did come in handy later that evening when we missed any chance for dinner.  Just as beer was a meal in a stein for German monks, the soju was our nourishment in a bottle for the evening (which led to tree hugging, standing on our heads and chasing after a full moon with camera and tripod).

Korea has charmingly seemed to embrace not only the autobahn system, but also the confusing road signage one encounters in Deutschland. (at least I seem to get to get turned around every time I set foot on the autobahn…place exit signs BEFORE the exit and not after, please!)  We got lost on our way to Hahoemaeul and ended up in another small village which led to an adventure with a minister, a sinner and a scribe.

I’ve always heard of Korean hospitality, and even encountered it firsthand, but this has usually been with family friends or acquaintances.

our eager host

To be honest, I’d been feeling a little cynical about my Korean experiences thus far as I’d already been ripped off a few times and looked down upon for my gyo-po inadequacies by strangers, so I was pleasantly surprised when Julian and I stepped into the courtyard of what I thought was a museum house (it was the home of a scribe from the Joseon dynasty) and was greeted by the man of the manor.  He insisted we sit down on his open veranda and plied us with drink and a history lesson.  I’d never seen a man so eager to entertain guests.

In another amusing turn of events, a local minister came up to the house to distribute the good word and…packets of tissue.  I guess it was free advertising for his ministry, (address, phone number and a rainbow clearly printed on each packet) and as I realized during the rest of the trip…tissues come in handy.  Ladies- when visiting Korea remember to always have tissues and hand sanitizer on hand as most of the public restrooms in smaller towns will supply you with neither tp nor soap!  Something that didn’t sink in until about the 3rd time I reached for an empty toilet paper dispenser, cursed profusely and did the little drip dry dance!  He was smart, that minister, as I did indeed thank god for the tissues the next time I walked into a bereft lavatory.

I guess not too many tourists make it up to this tiny village because our host insisted on giving us a little tour of another historical landmark and the minister tagged along, even though he was clearly displeased to be associating with a known sinner (our man was evidently not a churchgoer).  In a little competition of- dance for the foreigners, the two of them were a veritable Laurel & Hardy, shooting off facts and tidbits of information.  We made a curious group, a minister, the godless grandpa, the wei-guk-in and the gyo-po.

We had, what would be both our lunch and dinner, at this amazing restaurant on the way to Hahoemaeul.  Most people are familiar with Korean BBQ, and I am no stranger to a good piece of meat, but I guess Andong beef is another speciality of the region. Perfectly marbled, juicy, tender deliciousness, our lunch kind of ranked up there among one of the best meals I’ve ever had.  (These people really have a good thing going- good soju, good beef, fresh local produce and a tissue dispensing preacher)  The banchans were also fresh, and the daengang was perfectly potent.

some people call it weeds, koreans call it lunch!
our meat grilling away on the korean barbie
the restaurant's field of ceramic urns that are used to house kimchi and daengang...that's a lot of kimchi!!

Finally at Hahoemaeul we found a room at a minbak that overlooked the river.

the minbak

There was a peace and tranquility there that I had been looking for. I guess I’ve always been a country gal at heart.  The sight of farms just really turns me on, and I’ve always dreamed of having my own ecologically sound, environmentally friendly, self sustaining piece of heaven. This was a close approximation, with a chorus of frogs, cuckoo birds and endless stars.  In the morning our Minbak lady fed us a veritable buffet of local produce, including mackerel, pickled garlic stems, and soybean sprout soup. This woman was a true artisan or she was hooked up with some really good cooks.  I’ve never tasted such delicious banchans…it actually even puts my aunt’s cooking to shame.

our minbak lady showing us the tadpoles in her lilies
breakfast of champions
the wooden carvings of Andong

After a quick hike up to the cliff overlooking the village and a spin around one of the Confucian academies, we spent a lazy hour at a sandy riverside beach.  I was feeling the fatigue from a night of Andong soju and an early morning wake-up call when the ahjumas staying in the room next to us started chattering at 6am.  There’s nothing like standing on my head to get the blood and chi flowing.  Once upside down, I noticed that the two hilltops behind the Confucian academy looked exactly like a pair of of breasts-the only way I could convince Julian to get vertical.  He never saw the mountain boobage, but he got a good look at mine when I leaned down to take his pic. : P

After a quick lunch of cold nengmyun noodles and a hot galbi tang soup we were ready to say an-yeong to  Andong,  hello Jeju Island.

wei-guk-in: foreigner

gyo-po: someone ethnically korean that has grown up in another country.

banchan: the many different side dishes one gets when eating a traditional Korean meal

daengang: fermented soybean paste.  Can be eaten as a paste with veggies, is also used in stews and soups as a flavor base

minbak: rooms to rent in people’s home. Kind of like a B&B but infinitely more spare (you sleep on the floor with mats- korean style) and widely ranging in levels of cleanliness.  Our minbak at Hahoemauel was great.

ajhuma: korean word for an eldery lady..anyone ranging from as young as 40- grandmother..it’s more a mentality and way of behaving than an actual age thing…but beware those crowds of ahjumas with their sun visors and hiking sticks! they don’t let anything get in their way.

nengmyun: cold noodles eaten during the summer, served in a chilled meat broth with garnishes of cucumber, asian pear, pickled radish, boiled egg and slices of roast beef.  it’s seasoned with a spicy mustard and vinegar…delish!

galbi tang: soup made from beef bones and ribs that are sliced in a special way. it’s one of my favorite comfort foods! (the one at this restaurant was adequate but not amazing)

Daegu revisited

After a few days in Seoul, I headed back to Daegu to do some traveling with Julian.  I once again boarded the KTX and had a little giggle when the train conductor (a comely lass) gave a little bow to each passenger that passed her by. I’m not used to such formalities and wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bow back or just nod or ignore, so I sheepishly gave a half bow and hurried to my seat.  I’ve noticed that all the women who work for the KTX, as well as the airlines and hotels have a uniformly “attractive” look.  Porcelain skin, large eyes, perfectly groomed features and hair and slender figures.  I guess if you weren’t born pretty or lack the money to buy a plastic surgeoned face, a job in the hospitality sector is not in your future.  After spending a few days in glorious sun, I myself am now too “brown” to make the grade.  The girls here are seriously pale.   Only in Korea will you see women wearing long sleeve shirts, pants, a hat, and sitting under an umbrella at… the beach!

It felt good to be back in Daegu again.  It’s a much smaller city than Seoul and has a cosier feel to it.  Julian took me to some markets where I got great pictures of the local produce ranging from fresh peas, spring onions and….dog.  I hate having to face up to the actual proof, but its true.  Some people still eat dog meat.  Apparently it’s only a particular breed that is specifically bred for meat and it’s not that widely eaten.  I’d go as far as to say that it’s a little looked down upon as “country” food, at least that’s what I’ve always been told by my parents (maybe they were trying to shield me from a grosser part of Korea’s food history?)  But who am I to judge what has been a part of someone’s traditions.  They eat monkey paws in Africa, smoked bats in Indonesia and squirrel brains in the South, but this is one part of the culinary adventure I am going to pass on.  I might try the guinea pig one day if I’m in Peru and am starving on some mountaintop, but eating Lassie is just not in my future.

Organ meats alley- without ear medication to make me loopy...I have to admit I wasn't as brave this time to try some of the offal. It looked like it sounded...awful.
some of my favorite teas (barley, corn) being sold in bulk
come back little sheba...

I was however more than happy to try out “H.O.T. Kitchen.”  A great Korean-fusion restaurant owned by a friend of Julian’s.  In downtown Daegu, the restaurant had a clean, modern feel to it.  The food was fairly traditional flavors but cooked and presented with a precision unusual for Korean food.  It was a bit of fine dining meets the best meal your mom ever made.  It was also the first Korean restaurant I’ve been to where I didn’t think it would actually be appropriate to ask for a refill on the kimchi.  There was such a great variety of dishes though, that I never missed it.

its about now that i was glad my pants had some lycra in them...

And who could call it a night out on Daegu without copious amount of drinking.  After dinner, we went to a bar called the “Romantic Soul Lounge Bar.” If Julian didn’t already have a girlfriend I may have been a little suspicious of the place, haha.   The dirty martinis were not quite dirty enough for me, but the conversation was.  It was decided that an ex-pat bar visit needed to be had to round out my Daegu nightlife experience.  I had been toying with the idea of having fun with some gullible foreigners by playing up the- “no speak ingrish” card.  The other night I had a rather amusing run in with an American colleague of Julian’s roommate who assumed (perhaps rightly so) that I was “Korean,” and promptly trotted out his most polite and insidious Korean pick up lines.  I actually couldn’t stop laughing while also being horrified that some poor girls may actually fall for his shady little act.  I could sniff the yellow fever a mile away.  Ladies beware!!

After deciding the new flavor of the month ex-pat bar was a bit too frat boy/spring break horrible, we went into a basement bar next door called “Who’s Bob.”  I guess 6 months ago Bob’s was the “it” place to be for the fellas and ladies who wanted to find the English speaking contingency and the Koreans who love them, but trendy places here seem to have the same life span as the popular collagen injections.  Now it was a sad affair with less than a dozen patrons, including us.  Maybe they should have changed the name from “Who’s Bob” to “Where’s Bob.”  The highlight of the evening was finally, FINALLY beating Julian at a good ole beer chug.  I will never ever challenge him again.

The next morning, 3 coffees and 1 hangover later (his, not mine…Korea does seem to have an amazing effect on my alcohol tolerance) we were on the road to Andong.