Food to Put Hair on your Chest
‘Klingon’ was how I used to describe Korean food in my first six months of living in Korea. I’m sure many of the first Koreans I met, and probably everyone meets on their initiation into Korean culture, enjoyed taking me to places where eating was either a trial or simply difficult. Everything seemed to be either raw, alive, recently butchered, or some part of the animal associated with intestines or anuses. Even the infamous dog stew is almost an English Sunday dinner in comparison to some of the ‘Klingon’ menu. I’ve eaten dog meat twice under the assumption it was another meat and masked by copious soju, was unaware. Not the same can be said for some of the other foods which would chill your spine in all but the most extreme states of intoxication. And if the initiation to Korean cuisine isn’t focused on eating as a test of will power, basically of suppressing revulsion, getting it into your mouth is problematic.
No matter how good a westerner’s chopstick skills are, eating a bowl of noodles without a splash zone encompassing anyone sat at adjacent tables, is difficult. Usually, it’s the final little suck that whips them into the mouth and flips soup broth over yourself and your neighbours. Eating noodles is an art and Koreans only have to purse their lips as if kissing, for the noodles to levitate into their mouths. Only Koreans seem able to eat noodles so effortlessly and without actually sucking and hoovering them. Eating buckwheat noodles, traditionally eaten chilled in a broth, in the summer, is weird. If I didn’t cook naengmyon (냉면) myself, I would assume the noodles were several meters long because as you start to suck them up, more and more are dragged up into your mouth. Naengmyon must be the only food where one end arrives in your stomach as the other end is leaving your bowl.
But there are stranger foods for the ‘gourmet’ and the naive to ‘stumble’ upon: Sea squirt (멍개), the Jekyll and Hyde of Fruit de la mare, has flesh which is beautifully orange and inviting, resembling a juicy peach but the outside looks more like a biological hand grenade genetically modified from a bloated tumour. The detergent taste of its flesh certainly cleanses your palate as does the watery bile from the innards of the closely related, styela clava, midoedoek ((미더덕), which I’d trade for a silkworm cocoon or spoonful of dog-stew, any day. Then there’s ‘dog dick’ (개불 – Urechis unicinctus), which resemble large pink worms and which you’ll enjoy far more if you haven’t witnessed them in their living state. The rubbery bodies are tasteless but coated in sesame oil, they slip down the gullet with ease.
Raw fish, often killed at your table or within sight, is a mild experience, though I have to put a tissue over the heads of fish when their eyes twitch manically as they are being slowly sliced to death. And raw meat thinly sliced and eaten in a similar style to the fish, that is wrapped in various leaves (쌈) with kimchis, garlic and chili, is fairly tolerable; at least you haven’t watched the cow being slaughtered but raw liver and stomach are certainly not my choice for a delicious meal. I ate raw stomach pissed and nearly gagged and the liver I mistakenly took for acorn curd (도투리묵). In the restaurant’s lighting the colours weren’t so distinguishable.
If you like healthy snacks, nothing could be more natural and packed with protein than silk worm cocoon (번데기). Indeed, the silk worm was an important food along the silk routes though Chinese silk worm is generally much larger than the type eaten in Korea.
Being pissed helps swallow this delicacy and a chaser of soju or beer will purge the mouth of the muddy flesh but will do little to remove the aftertaste which incidentally, tastes exactly like the smell they exude while being steamed. A toothpick is a necessary to dig out the numerous shards of exoskeleton that lodge between the teeth. In reality, eating this should be no different from eating a prawn or shrimp but of course the dislike is cultural and as Herodotus said, Nomos is king of all.
Grasshopper (메뚜기), coated in red pepper paste (고추장) is another crunchy, healthy snack and I know a few students, usually boys, who eat these and silk with as much enthusiasm as many kids eat candy. However, cultural chasms are narrowing and this year a London pizza restaurant started serving a grasshopper topping.
After a line up of insects, barbecued intestines (막창) are un-adventurous, especially after a soju and even the infamous chicken’s arse hole (똥집), in reality the gizzard which functions as a secondary stomach, or chicken feet (닭발), are palatable.
For a real experience, you can try saeng-nakji (생낙지), small octopuses swimming in a sea of sesame oil and swimming they are as they are still alive. Whether it is urban myth I am unsure, but apparently, a small number of people choke to death every year from octopi which refuse to go down without a fight.
I love black pudding but some cultural obstacle stops me enjoying, sun-ji-guk (선지국) which is basically soup made with blood. Sundae (순대), is pig intestine sausage stuffed with noodle and vegetables but I find it difficult to eat perhaps because it often appears in small road side stalls accompanied by pigs intestines, and boiled lung. Most of the food you’d class as ‘Klingon’ are the types of food Koreans believe increase a man’s virility, ‘put hair on your chest,’ and are usually predominantly eaten by men (and in some cases boys). Korean food tends to leave you either in a cold sweat or totally impartial and so many examples are simply – ‘okay,’ or as Koreans might say, ‘just’ (그냥). Personally, I don’t think Korean food rates alongside Cantonese, Thai, Indian or Mexican, but there is nonetheless something alluring and fascinating about it. However, one shouldn’t think their culture aloof, I can remember, as a boy, eating pig feet and distinctly recall the bristly hairs on the shins that tickled your chin as you gnawed the meat. I can remember my mum cooking tripe, probably the only meal she cooked which I couldn’t eat and occasionally, I’d arrive home on Saturday afternoon to the welcome of a pig’s head bobbling in a pot as my father prepared brawn. When I was still a teenager I can remember traversing Limassol, Cyprus, trying to find a restaurant that served cow brain, a supposed local delicacy. Thank-god I never ate it! Most of the food we would class as ‘gross,’ we unwittingly eat, pulverised to a paste in potted meats, formed into patties or luncheon meats or destined to appear in those famous anatomical dumping grounds, the pork pie and the sausage.
But don’t worry, alongside the foods fit for a full-blooded Klingon, are the burgers, pizza and fried chicken we waygukin love so much. Burgers, I can leave; I don’t trust them and the patties just don’t look like meat. At least with Korean ‘horror food’ you know exactly what you are eating, a silk worm is a silk worm but in the modern food industry, typified by the USA and Europe, knowing exactly what your food consists of is becoming both a secret and a rapidly disappearing right. And have you noticed when eating Korean pork, that it doesn’t drown the barbecue in water…?
© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.