The Sounds of Silence – Noisy Eating
I was watching the kids in my school eating around a table. The usual format presided with bouts of animated talking and then silence. Koreans talk much less than westerners during a meal as it suggests enjoyment but the silent periods are never really silent because another means of expressing pleasure with food is to produce little noises of contentment as you eat. I was reminded of a friend back home who cringes whenever I eat toast in his presence. Eating toast silently is impossible, unless you’re into that Americanism of dipping it into your coffee the same way we British dunk their biscuits. Even with the moistest mouth, or lavishly lagged in rich butter, toast crunches and it so happens such noises seriously disturb my friend, so much so that I can only ever eat it comfortably when he’s in another room.
I love butter and in England melt a fat wadge of it into mashed potatoes, along with some milk and occasionally a raw egg, and always melt a knob or two on carrots, brussel sprouts or peas. I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight in Korea as milk, bread and butter, basically diary products, no longer form a staple part of my diet. At one time all three kick started my day along with oil, bacon and egg and there were probably as many calories in my English breakfast as there are in my current, daily Korean menu. My weekly shopping in England included a pack of butter, a pint of milk a day, a large loaf and about 1 litre of oil a month. And then there was the meat! Nothing less than two big pork chops for dinner, or a large piece of chicken. I rarely fry any food so oil, only ever sesame, is reduced to about a litre a year. My consumption of meat, without any exaggeration is at least 5 times lower than it was back home while my consumption of vegetables is significantly up. Currently, I will eat an entire large carrier bag of spinach a week and one enormous water melon; the water melon alone takes more calories to carry to my apartment than will be contained within it. Most surprisingly of all is that my consumption of rice, the staple food in Korea, is much lower than when I lived in England. A portion of rice in Korea is not much more than a handful, the amount contained within one of those small stainless steel dishes. Whenever I’m served rice back home the amount can be as much as 4 times greater than this and the quality is poor. For most of my life rice has simply been rice with a few major divergences: pudding rice and sushi rice being the most obvious. But when you live on good quality rice for a few years you really notice how tasteless ‘British’ rice is. Even the upmarket brands are bland but in fairness Koreans probably see a potato as a potato and for most Koreans the epitome of french fries are the shit served by Macdonald’s. Jersey new potatoes with a sprig of mint and coated in creamy butter! Now there’s an orgasm!
Shopping in a Korean supermarket, even the big ones like Home Plus (Tesco) or E-Marte is boring and totally functional. There are few microwave meals, no meat pies, few jars or cans of cook-in sauces padded out with soya and corn by-products, little but fish, fruit and spam existing in cans, an absence of almost anything but yogurt and ice cream in the form of deserts and frozen goodies are limited. Only in Korea can I go shopping for an item and leave the premises only having bought that item. In the UK, if you enter a supermarket the chances are you will leave with far more than you originally planned to buy. Of course, there are ample goodies in a Korean supermarket, probably of more appeal if you are Korean, but as a westerner with a penchant for pastry, dairy and meat products, the choices are limited.
My greatest weakness is butter and by that I mean real butter and not that fake crap verging on margarine that for over a decade we were hoodwinked into believing was healthy until it transpired the trans-fatty acids they contained were just as bad for you as real creamy fat. Thankfully, Like Korean cheese, Korean butter, if you can get hold of it, is generally shite. I was at a buffet restaurant a year ago and tucked in a corner was a toaster and butter; indeed two types of butter, herb and garlic. I almost wet myself I was so excited. There I was, surrounded by barbecued meats, smoked duck, smoked salmon, fried rice and even fried chicken, and the first thing I go for is some toast and butter. The butter was rather pale, not deep yellow like Irish butter tends to be but more like French butter but this is no bad sign as pale butter can be extremely creamy. You can imagine my disappointment when after attaching a fat slice of butter to my hot toast, I discover its ‘well being shit’, butter made with water or some fat-free substitute that turned the toast to exactly the same consistency you get dunking it in coffee and which is ideal for the elderly and those whose mouths are predominantly gum. It made no toast crunching sound and disgusted, I discarded it next to the toaster and headed straight for some fried chicken.
In the last three years I have eaten one pack of butter! Imagine my glee when I discovered a pack of Danish Lurpak butter in the cooler cabinet at my local E-Marte! It was expensive, 6000 Won (£3) but I was in need of a little comfort and reminiscing and after putting it in my basket bought a loaf of bread. I’d been given a toaster by a friend in Ch’eonan and 18 months later, it still lay packed in a box in a corner of my veranda. Lurpak is almost white in colour and is unsalted but is deliciously creamy. The pack was consumed within 36 hours, a frightfully naughty luxury and I haven’t bought one since and the toaster, boxed up, has gone back to the veranda.
Sat at the table with my students, who have just made spicy cabbage stew (떡볶이), I suddenly become aware of their noisy eating, a symphony of sucking, smacking, slurping, sighing, clicking, and chewing. When I first arrived in Korea, I didn’t particularly enjoy eating with Koreans because they tend to make the eating noises you hear in documentaries where some micro camera is inserted deep into a nest of ants or termites and the sounds subsequently amplified. When eating with gusto, Koreans parade the entire gamut of possible eating noises some of which are so juicy and over excited, they are almost sexual. Ten years ago I hated those noises in the same way my friend hated the unavoidable sound of munching toast. Sitting there watching their happy faces as they sigh loudly, because they’ve eaten too much, or fanning their mouths because they’ve deliberately made the stew too spicy, I realise I now find their noises both consoling and cute. I spent years scolding my nephew because he tends to eat in a manner somewhere between a salamander and an insect. Maybe it’s time to cut him some slack!
© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.