Elwood 5566

Food to Put Hair on your Chest

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Gender by 노강호 on September 14, 2010

Klingon Gourmet – Food to put hair on your chest! Raw stomach and liver!

‘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.

Barfing up ectoplasm? No, but a great photo which captures the art of eating buckwheat noodles. Once you start you can’t stop!

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.

the vegetable-leaf wrap (쌈) typifies much of Korean eating

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.

Raw liver (생간) prettied up with sesame seeds…

acord curd (도투리묵) sprinkled with sesame seeds

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.

Chinese silk worm snacks – meaty!

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.

you can definitely taste the land in the flesh of a silk worm (Korean silk-worm)

Not my bag!

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.

How to ruin a good pizza. All the rage? I don’t think so.

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.

Chicken feet, (닭발), spend most of their life walking on shite and where’s the meat?

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.

Nakji (the small octopus) often eaten alive.

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.

Like northern English black-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…?

Creative Commons License© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.


Beating Boknal 2 (복날) Summer Foods

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Food and Drink, seasons by 노강호 on August 7, 2010

What do you eat when the memi are screaming and sweat is dribbling down your back and sides? There are numerous seasonal specials (보양식) which fall into the categories of either ‘hot’ or ‘cold.’  The ‘cold’ approach is probably the most popular with westerners and drinking cold drinks, eating ice cream and salads are the methods we are most likely to adopt to remain comfortable. Koreans however, stand this notion on its head when they consume ‘hot’ food to consume body heat hence fighting fire with fire. The ‘hot’ food is generally ‘hot’  in terms of temperature rather than chillies and would be similar to stuffing your face on the hottest English afternoon with a hearty casserole and dumplings; something we’d generally eat only in the depths of winter. In Korea, it isn’t a case of one or the other and most Koreans will mix the two extremes in an attempt to beat the heat. Bo-yang-shik (height of summer foods – 보양식) are seen as beneficial in either improving ones toleration of hot, muggy weather, or in cooling one down.

Boknal (복날)

Boknal (복날) is a period of around twenty days which are based on the lunar calendar and this year began on July 19th (ch’obok -초복). There are three days (sambok – 삼복) which Korean perceive as the hottest and they are ten days apart. This year, 2010, sambok are respectively, July 19th (ch’obok – 초복), July 29th (Jungbok – 중복), and August 8th (malbok – 말복). I hate the heat and especially dislike humidity but unfortunately I live in Daegu, the hottest part of Korea in the summer and the warmest in winter. This week the temperature has been as high as 37  and so the memi are particularly noisy.

Through Boknal, and on each of the consecutive sambok day it is a tradition to eat some form of special food, usually one of the ‘hot’ types such as sam-kye-tang (삼게탕 – chicken ginseng soup), or dog stew (po-shin-tang – 보신탕),  but cold meals, buckwheat noodle soup (냉면 – naengmyon), or soya bean milk noodles (콩국수 – kongkuksu), are also popular.

For some, mostly older men, dog stew is a favourite and in addition to the belief it fortifies one against hot weather, it is also one of the numerous foods which are supposed to enhance male sexual stamina. I recently spoke to a friend who is quite adamant that dog stew and dodok  (더덕 – codonopsis lanceolata) give him a harder erection. I eat dodok everyday and haven’t noticed anything but then I’m 54 and he’s 25.  As for the dog stew, I’ll pass. I  ate it for the first time with the aforementioned friend and his father, in 2000. I wasn’t enamored to it. First, I couldn’t get the image of little dogs out of my head and then there was the ‘starter,’ small bits of dog skin wrapped on a bone so that when barbecued they whirled around it. Trying to make a pouch on a platter look pretty seemed to make it more difficult to eat. I have no problem with eating any kind of animal yet have a dormant ethical problem with eating animals – per se! I would imagine many people share this weak-willed position. To be honest, I have to snigger at those waygukins who condemn Koreans for eating dog and yet raise no criticism of  their own culture where eating rabbit is accepted.  Koreans usually find the idea of eating rabbits distasteful. Tell  Koreans you’ve eaten rabbit and quite a few will insist, ‘it’s a pet!’ As Herodotus said, ‘nomos is King of all!’ The dog issue tends to inflame passions but what should be remembered is that it is not the eating of dog that  should be the offense, but the alleged manner in which they are slaughtered. And though some may argue dogs have a special relationship to humans, this is a culturally specific relationship and not one of universal, eternal properties. Personally, I’d rather have a pig for a pet than a dog. In 2001, my one room had no air conditioning and the dog stew did nothing noticeable to fortify my constituency against heat and humidity and certainly never stirred my passions.

This is my sam-kye-tang. (Click photo for link to the Queen of Korean cooking, Maangchi) )

Sam-kye-tang is one of my favourites though I prefer eating it in the winter. At lunch time that small chicken, the wadge of gluttonous rice and a gallon of broth, simply bloat my belly and start me sweating profusely.  But it is delicious in the Korean sense of the word.  I occasionally make sam-kye-tang if I feel tired or have a cold.

Wholesome (Maangchi link)

And I would find kong-kuk-su (콩국수)  mightily refreshing if not packed with noodles. I enjoy the icy soya milk broth, with its slightly salty tang but those noodles don’t do me any good. I don’t know why it is but kong-kuk-su always seems to be served in large portions while naengmyon (냉면), for example, is often served in a smaller portion.

Soya broth milk noodles (Link to Maangchi)

Mul-naeng-myon (물냉면) is my boknal baby! I can eat this on a hot lunch time and then walk on into work without breaking into an excessive sweat. I love the tangy combination of vinegar, salt and sugar and have a hard job keeping the broth in my freezer if I have made a batch. I can remember the first time I ate naengmyon; it was on a hot Sunday  afternoon, in early August, after a mountain hike in Song-So. I quite disliked it! What a freaking horrid combination; watery broth with a clump of sticky buckwheat noodles that are impervious to mastication and almost impossible to eat without sucking the whole clump up. And then there’s the slice of pear, and the ice cubes and as for the lonely, wafer thin slide of beef, you’d think it had fallen in the bowl from another meal – it’s appearance a mistake! Naengmyon is sweet, and salty, and tangy – is it a dessert or a savoury meal? And as for the vinegar and mustard which are added to it… Since then, mul-naeng-myon, and particularly Pyongyang mul-naeng-myon, have grown on me. If you have never eaten it, it must sound quite gross but when the weather is scorching hot and  your covered in sweat, it is one of the most delicious and refreshing meals. Even the sound of the ice cubes tinkling and jingling against the sides of the stainless steel bowl in which it is traditionally served, are refreshing.

Mul naengmyon (물냉면) 시원해요!

I suppose naengmyon is the sort of food you eat at a heightened sense of reality, especially if you’ve just come down from a mountain – a feat which always seems harder than going up, and at a point when you’re body and mind feel good, it’s scorching hot and humid and you’re sweating profusely. Enjoying naengmyon at this point is an integral part of the summer experience and so I never enjoy it, or feel a need to eat it, in the middle of winter.  To truly enjoy naengmyon it has to be hot, boknal hot, horribly humid, you have to be sweating and you have to be tired. Naengmyon shares a lot in common with Pimms No 1, that British summer drink, only ever drunk outside under the sun, and accompanied by ice, slices of cucumber, summer fruits and mint. One should never drink Pimm’s indoors or in winter and though this might be deemed snobbery, Pimm’s only really seems to ‘work’ when this is observed.

Finally, and wonderfully refreshing, is patpingsu (받빙수).  This is rice cake, sweetened tinned fruits, red beans, and condensed milk on a bed of flaked ice which is often topped with spray cream. There are many variations of this refreshing ‘dessert.’

Patpingsu – usually shared with friends (받빙수) (click photo link to Hangook Summer)

Green tea patpinsu (photo link to Hangook Summer)

Other means of beating boknal

sleep with a ‘wooden wife’

cereal teas

iced coffee

silver summer trousers

handkerchiefs and towels

ice rooms and cold pools

cold showers

hand fans

Creative Commons License
© Nick Elwood 2010. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.