Self-serve kimchi jjigae.
Photo: Lauryn Ishak
City of willowy women
In Seoul, no one spoke to me in Korean; apparently they knew by glancing at me that I was not one of them. This was a bit of a disappointment. I decided that, at 5 feet 8 inches tall, I am simply American-sized.
Seoul: Flanked on all sides by mountains (Korea is 70% mountainous), its impressive business and apartment towers are interrupted by an occasional old temple or palace. It's home to 10 million people, and to Samsung, LG, Kia, and Hyundai, who ship cars and smart phones and flat-screens and refrigerators to us, while we ship our fast-food franchises to them: Dunkin' Donuts, Pizza Hut, McDonald's. I found four Starbucks within a one-block radius of my hotel.
Seoul's energy is not so unlike that of New York; imagine a Manhattan where your iPhone doesn't drop its calls and the Internet runs a lot faster. What struck me the most, though, was the beauty of the 10 million: willowy women with luminous, clear complexions, dressed in flowing chiffon and exquisitely tailored dresses (no décolletage, but the shortness of some women's short-shorts scandalized me). Men were equally beautiful and well outfitted. And everyone seemed to be skinny. Yet, to my delight, I learned that these thin people eat like horses and drink like fish.
The Seoul citizen's obsession with technology outdoes our own, yet her food is surprisingly traditional. With a few exceptions, experimentation and fusion do not seem to interest many chefs or their customers. The cuisine involves a set of repeating flavors: variation and themes, narrowly framed, not unlike the food of Tuscany in that regard. "This framing makes Korean food special," says expat food writer and Korean food academician Jennifer Flinn, who showed me around the city, "and the Koreans who eat it special by extension." Those of us who eat Thai one day and gumbo the next may find that dull, but Koreans don't, and I detected a deep pride about the cooking from the locals. The flavors are anything but subtle: fiery, salty, sweet, pungent, and sometimes very fishy.
At the center of it all are the pickles, and at the center of the pickles, baechu kimchi, cabbage fermented with chili and garlic and often referred to simply as kimchi (though the term refers to hundreds of varieties of pickle). As important as sauerkraut may be to a German, it's reasonably certain that no culture reveres pickled cabbage (in this case, napa cabbage) quite like Koreans. "You know," a cooking teacher named Ellie Hyewon Lee told me when I visited her at the Food and Culture Korea Company in the Jongno-gu district to learn how to make kimchi jjigae, a pickle-based soup, "Koreans cannot live without kimchi. We eat kimchi every day." The quality of her soup, she noted, entirely depends on the quality of her kimchi: "For the best taste, use sour kimchi, the more fermented one." With this superpotent cabbage (whose smell can fill a house), Ellie likes to make kimchi fried rice and kimchi pancakes, too.
"There is a typical debate," says Joe McPherson, an expat food writer from Alabama and president of ZenKimchi International, Korea's longest-running food blog, "about whether all Koreans eat kimchi because they like it or because they feel obligated by culture. It's so closely tied [into the culture] that I still occasionally get gasps of surprise from some Koreans when I eat Korean food. It's as if one can only be born a Korean to eat Korean food."
My father had no acquired a taste for kimchi in Korea. "I do not care for the smell of garlic," he says now. "I never did like kimchi. I would not eat those things, so you and your brother wouldn't, either." My mother still acts surprised when she sees me eat it now, though I love its tangy pong: "You really like it?" she'll ask in disbelief. I think now of her there, alone, eating this touchstone of her world, this apple pie of Korea—and us refusing.
Dining out is social sport in Seoul, and the eating is lively. All food is shared at the table and often cooked on the table. A wave of banchan (side dishes) arrives, and just when you've rearranged your drink and your chopsticks and think the table can't accommodate another thing, the main dishes arrive. Banchan typically include kimchi and variations, plus other dishes like seasoned bean sprouts, cold radish soup (actually "water kimchi"), scallion pancakes, and various wilted and seasoned vegetables. Everyone chopsticks little bits out of the communal plates and bowls (one does not order à la carte). It's both intimate and social, and it's how you eat in Korea—many restaurants aren't even equipped to serve single diners.