Monday, September 24, 2012

What You Actually Eat in Korea, Part 1

 Part 1: At the Supermarket

I'm always taken aback when Koreans ask me, "You actually like Korean food?" This question comes up a surprising amount and of course the answer is yes! I can't tell if they are genuinely incredulous at my tastes or if they just think they are supposed to act that way with foreigners. For example, the following is an almost exact transcript of a conversation that took place between me and a random Korean guy on the subway:

Guy: So do you like Korean food?
Me: Yeah I really like it! Gamgyetang* is my favorite!
Guy: Oh wow, really? Do you eat Chinese food?
Me: Yeah all the time. I eat pretty much all Asian cuisines. Chinese, Japanese, Thai...
Guy: You eat sushi?
Me: I love sushi! Actually I would love to eat some sushi right now.
Guy: You eat sushi?! You must be Asian...

*Yes...I was just trying to impress him.

Granted, I eat the Americanized version of these foods, but I explained that I couldn't think of anything more American than eating Chinese food out of the carton, or going out to a sushi dinner with friends. Koreans don't usually eat sushi rolls though, just fish and rice, but I eat that too.

Point being, I considered writing about my favorite traditional Korean cuisine, but since there are enough foodies out there with blogs espousing the beauty and wonder of every new dish, complete with flowery descriptions and D-SLR quality photos, I've decided to write about the other food...the on-the-go, I'm broke, or don't-have-enough-time-to-get-a-real-meal food. Personally I find this stuff much more interesting, especially when you see familiar brands touting products that wouldn't go over so well in the United States.

I'm going to skip a lengthy discussion of ramen (ramyeon in Korean) since the answer is yes, there is ramen for days and it comes of a variety of unfamiliar flavors. Though I'm not the world's healthiest eater, in general I try to stay away from it since it's very high in sodium and mystery ingredients.

One of the things most foreigners notice when they first enter Korean supermarkets are gift sets like these:

Tuna? Spam? I think most people would prefer an ugly sweater, so I shall enlighten you on two cultural notes. First, Spam is popular in Korea not because of some weird genetic affinity to synthetic meat, but because the Americans distributed it in high quantities as part of food rations during the Korean War and the rebuilding period afterwards.

I think some people have moved on from Spam due to current economic prosperity (my co-teacher has acknowledged that it isn't good for you), but it's also deeply ingrained in modern Korean food culture. My school cafeteria occasionally serves rice with vegetables and small cubes of spam. I've even heard of restaurants that still serve "army soup", soup containing Spam and other foods you probably wouldn't choose to eat during times of peace...or an armistice.

Okay, so Koreans like Spam, but why in such large gift sets? The second note is that in Korean culture, gifts are supposed to be practical. Things like food, vitamins, toothpaste, etc, are perfectly acceptable gifts. For my birthday I received two boxes of these guys which I love:

These little packaged cakes probably have a similar shelf life to Twinkies and would be right at home with an array of Hostess products (assuming Hostess hasn't gone under yet). For the most part Koreans really love sweets. How much you ask? My current public enemy no.1 in Korea is sugared garlic bread, the travesty that it is...but we'll get that in Part 2: Food On the Go, and on the Cheap.

Moving to the chip aisle. Chip flavors have gotten pretty wacky in the States, but in Korea  chips come in flavors of food that you can hardly find here. For example: these taco flavored chips advertise two large pieces of you know how hard it is to find a legitimate taco in Korea? Let alone one with cheese? Even in Seoul it's hard to come by a decent taco. So you can't get the real thing, but you can eat the chip flavor! Makes Taco Bell look gourmet.

Although we typically associate chips with salty foods in America, chips in Korea also come in a wide variety of sweet flavors. Yesterday my co-teacher handed me what I thought was a cheese puff (silly), but it tasted like pineapple...broke my taste buds' little tiny hearts (note: I much prefer salty snacks to sweet ones...and I LOVE cheese puffs...please send some).

Sweet and Delicious...I'm mildly curious as to what "Delicious" tastes like in chip form...a lot like honey it seems.
The one thing most foreigners would agree Korea flavors well is milk. I'm not a huge fan of these things, but many foreigners go crazy for these banana and strawberry flavored milk drinks (I going to go ahead and say  "milk drink" since I think the percentage of actual milk in there is a little questionable).

Foreigners however are in disagreement over a drink called Pocari Sweat. Some people love it, some people hate it. It's like the Korean Gatorade...except the flavor has been described to me as "actually tasting like sweat"...or even less flattering, "tastes like urine." Truthfully I haven't been brave enough to try it. Apparently it's pretty good for you and can actually be helpful if you're dehydrated (or hung over). I'll try to work up the courage some day soon and report back on the taste (still in recovery from the beondegi episode).

In terms of healthy snacks, outside of nuts, fruit, and vegetables (which can get rather pricey) the options feel pretty limited. I love granola bars at home, but the only brand I've seen here that makes them is Dr. You. They satisfy the craving, but just barely. I've grown to love Dr. You's flaxseed cookies (though I think they are more like sugar cookies with flaxseed). In the past cashews and almonds have been my go to healthy, yet filling snack, but they are very expensive here!

This little container cost me the equivalent of $6! I also eat a lot of yogurt at home, but here most of it comes in liquid form. You drink rather than spoon it, which for some reason does not wet my appetite. If you go to Costco in Seoul you can get almost anything you're missing from home, but it might be expensive and for me it is quite the trek for weekly groceries. Since I've only been here three months my cravings haven't been dire, but we'll see how long I can go without Kraft Mac n' Cheese and avocados before things get dicey...

For your entertainment, here's what they think of American food at Emart, a Target type chain with a full grocery section:

Actually America and Mexico are grouped together in this aisle, so I guess it's really "North American food"...apparently we subsist mostly on tomato based condiments and marshmallow Fluff. 

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