Friday, April 08, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 8: Korean Food and Pizza

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


There’s no avoiding it – I’m finally going to talk about some of my food experiences in Korea. So today’s topic is Korean food... and pizza.


While I’ve been here I might have eaten Korean food, but I’ve also been on a quest to find good pizza – and it’s difficult. Basically pizza is meant to be like the three colours of the Italian flag – white cheese, red sauce, and green herbs. Most of the pizzas I seem to get are just the white cheese with toppings – the sauce is this millimetre thick layer of watery liquid, if it exists at all, and forget about the herbs.

My wife explained to me that this is how Koreans like it, but it’s a shame for me. It’s like garlic bread from shops – it’s not really real garlic bread, but the Korean version of it – which is always sweet and surgery. I think for some foreigners like me pizza is quite important – it’s our equivalent of kimchi. Well, my equivalent anyway.


I’m going to be honest about this, even if they take my visa away. I don’t really like kimchi. I’ll tell you what it is. When I was really young, we had school dinners. Times were pretty hard – the UK had just had an IMF bailout and people were only working three days a week. So they fed us a lot of cabbage, which I guess was cheap. I got really sick of it, and the smell. Now I know that kimchi made with cabbage is only one type, but every time I see it, it reminds me of those awful lunches at school.

In fact I find Korean food smells radically different to what I’m used to in England. Sometimes I just hide in my room. The first time my wife bought kimchi back in England from a Korean store... well, I opened the fridge the next day and it just hit me – I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe anything could smell that strongly. That was my first introduction to Korean food. But I learned that, compared to food in England, people in Korea like strong smells and flavours.

Versus bland English food

English food is traditionally blander, but food in England has become quite multicultural, especially in the last thirty years. We have a lot of Italian influences in our diet such as pizza, pasta and risotto, Chinese food is very common, and the city where I grew up is famous for its curries because of the large South Asian population. Not all of it is bland, but often it’s about appreciating more subtle flavours.

I’ve found that when a lot of Koreans try that sort of food, they say it has no taste at all. I think that’s why almost every pizza restaurant I’ve ever been to in Korea feels the need to have Tobasco Sauce on their tables. I love ham and pineapple pizza, but when my brother-in-law tried it he said it had no taste. There are some Korean noodles in a packet, and they are just about the hottest things I can eat, but my brother-in-law says they aren’t hot or spicy at all.

Versus Mike

I eat some Korean food. I think that for me it’s an acquired taste, and I’m still acquiring it. But in one way Korean food is always going to be difficult for me, because I have a medical condition – Meniere’s Disease – which means I have to eat a low-sodium diet. In other words, I can’t really eat too many salty foods.

I just read in the 조선일보 [Chosun Ilbo] the other day that according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Koreans consume three times more salt in their diets than is recommended. Of course, you have to have some salt in your diet, but if I were eating that much, the chances are I’d be really unwell a lot of the time. So the reality is, I’ll never really have a typical Korean diet, if that means eating a lot of salt.

So what I eat here is a fusion of Western, Korean, Chinese and other food. When we go out I’ll usually eat at one of those large foreign restaurant chains, American fast-food places, Korean 식당 [small diners/restaurants] like Gimbab Nara, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, that sort of thing - but not so much those big Korean family restaurants, which serve more traditional food, because I still find those difficult.

Eating culture

The eating culture here is quite different from England. I was quite surprised at first by the shared dishes in the middle of the table, because it didn’t seem that hygienic. As a foreigner, I’m more used to just having my food on one plate in front of me. And I find there’s a lot of etiquette involved with food too. For example, once I made a terrible cultural mistake with chicken.

You see, English people really value chicken breasts – the darker meat on the legs and elsewhere is less valued. So when I was eating chicken with friends a few months after I came here, I kept picking out the legs thinking I was leaving the best meat for everyone else. Then, afterwards, I found out that it’s the other way round with Koreans. So there I was, taking all the best meat, which must have seemed very rude. It’s a shame I didn’t become a vegetarian before coming here, which I was thinking of, but it just seems impossible in Korea.

Fish heads and live food

I’m not really a big fan of eating meat these days, and like a lot of English people I don’t really like food that looks obviously dead either, and really not things that are so fresh they are still moving on the table. Actually, even if there are just fish-heads staring at me on the table, or a food smell I find unpleasant, I find it difficult to eat my own food, which is a problem here.

I find dead fish staring at me all the time – in the sink, in pans, in the freezer. Once I even found them in some nuts I was eating in the dark. I was pretty horrified that I’d been eating them. I thought now that we’ve got lots of pet fish it might be different, but when I asked my wife about the little dead fish on the dinner table and their similarity to the the contents of our aqariums she was horrified - “But this is food and those are pets!” she said. I’m kind of surprised at the ethical side of eating food here.

You see, a lot of people – like my wife and mother-in-law – are Buddhists. I suppose I was strong, but I always believed that meant not harming living things. But, for example, when my brother-in-law caught a big fish and brought it home, my mother-in-law was going to cook it alive, and I can’t understand that. As it happens, she eventually decided not to because she was going to a big temple the next day, so she just let it died in the bowl instead. I suppose that’s better, but it’s not what I expected of Buddhists when I came here. I see these fish and crabs packed into these little bowls or tanks on the street, and that makes me sad, although at least I’ve seen the crabs defend themselves.

The food fights back

I haven’t been the victim of an aggressive crab attack. But my mother-in-law had bought crabs so fresh that they were still moving in the sink as she was pulling them apart. Then she shouted for me in a panic – one of the crabs bit her finger and wouldn’t let go. I’m afraid I looked at her as if to say “Well, what do you expect me to do about it?”; I have no experience with crabs. She managed to get it off and the cut wasn’t too bad, but yes, I learned in Korea you have to be careful, because sometimes the food fights back...

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2010-12-15 @ ~19:30


Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog for several weeks now, somehow I dont think you are being completely honest. For all your complaints about Korea, you have not left yet. Whether or not this is due to your wife being from Busan or that your job may be based out of there, regardless you are still there although you continue to portray Korea in a one sided fashion.
You already know that Koreans are unstable mentally, I am second generation Korean and even though I did not have a ultra-traditional upbringing in the states, I am told by my native Korean friends and native Korean wife that I act exactly as if I was born and raised in Korea. That is, crazy, insane, illogical and uncouth.
As you have already tasted Korean life, I will say you are living in an area of Korea that is VERY laid back compared to the likes of Seoul. My wife is from Busan and she cant stand Seoul, heck most Koreans cant stand each other. Which brings me to my last point, Koreans are just a different breed, we do things that benefit ourselves, we point to tradition when it suits the moment. We do things that boggle the mind. But its something you will have to deal with, or...just move.

Mike said...

Hello Anonymous,

If you think Koreans are "unstable mentally", maybe you've never met any English people to compare them to :-)

But seriously, you've highlighted an important point I'd like to address. It's the nature of my remit on Busan e-fm that I'm highlghting differences and difficulties I've encountered. And that's what the listeners want to know. I think that's quite a positive refelection of changes in Korea, that the more defensive attitudes of the past are being replaced by a confidence which allows foreigners such as myself to speak about some of the problems they've encountered without an automatically ensuing nationalistic backlash.

But I can see it might be easy to read my blog one-sidedly, so let me be perfectly clear for the avoidance of doubt. If I talk about my problems here, it doesn't automatically follow that this is criticism of Korea. Issues such as vegetarianism in Korea, my difficulty trying to adapt to Korean food, and the negative feeling seeing the eyeballs of dead fish staring at me from a plate or having food that's still moving placed on the table in front of me, is based on a cultural upbringing where such things are readily accepted (in the case of vegetarianism) or don't exist (in the case of the moving food). Nothing makes my cultural perspective any more valid than the Korean perspective, but obviously in the end I am going to bring my cultural perspective to my blog and radio segments.

At some point on one of the radio shows - forgive me for not remembering where off-hand, and it might have been somewhere the host and I went 'off-script' on a tangent, I highlighted the fact that, as a foreigner in Korea, it's my job to adapt as best I can. It's not for Korea to change to accommodate me, and if I have problems, they are my problems, and I must deal with them. Later, in week 24, I talk about Korean English. Now this is a subject many foreigners make fun of, but instead I pose the question "Who is to say Korean English - which has its own unique style - isn't a new dialect in the same way American English is, or even regional English is in my own country?" It's a given you wouldn't understand the kind of English the people from my home town speak.

Mike said...

But do I think everything is good here? No. Do my Korean friends? No. Look at what has been in the news here recently - high levels of stress causing a growing number of people to lose their hair in their 20s and 30s, student suicides which are a microcosm of wider educational pressure in Korea, job problems, graduate unemployment, youth unemployment, low wages, ballooning household debt levels, childcare problems, parenting problems, infertility, and generally the 'unfair society', to mention just some of the media stories from the last few weeks alone.

Have I experienced any of the problems above? No. And that's the difference between me and my Korean friends. We're all having difficulties - to an extent it's the human condition - but because of my different background my difficulties are somewhat different to theirs. Take your comment about believing that Busan must be more laid-back than Seoul. Perhaps - but it's also more socially conservative, and my parents-in-law are no liberals - my father-in-law was a Korean marine and then a murder detective and he's pretty much what you'd expect from that. I have never told the story, but suffice to say I was not a popular initial choice for their only daughter to date, let alone marry. I think it only happened because we met in England. A Korean would not have encountered the same issues, but it's part of my different experience here.

Why don't I leave Korea? Because there's a lot to like here and England is worse. Re-read my recent post about Festivals here - this can be a culturally wonderful place, with all the gangs and guns back in my home town in England we stay off the streets at night for fear of violent attacks. I think my Korean friends are a lot unhappier than me. Why don't they leave? Maybe for the same reason as me now, because for better or worse, it's home.

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