From the tone of my first post, you would be forgiven for thinking that Korea isn't that great. Now this would be true, but it's not that bad either. I think this is a statement that could very well be true for most countries. Korea is just different, wonderfully and interestingly different. I am not a relativist, which means that I do think some cultures are better than others and that some parts of different cultures are also better than our own. I am English, but I think the ideal, and currently the best plan for culture made by any country is the US constitution. I am going to be brief, but broadly this is because it is essentially secular, allows freedom and rights for everyone, and in common with my own country a respect for freedom of speech. Unfortunately, the US constitution is not always followed in the US, and in my own country (where arguably the great tradition of, at least modern day, freedom of speech originated), the best values are constantly under attack and not well understood by the large majority of the public and even worse the governments and politicians themselves. This leads me onto the point I was beginning to make in my last post, the continuum of East and West. If only we could pick and choose things from the East and West and have a happy medium, but it's never that simple, egos and traditions always get in the way.
In this blog I am going to attempt to explain what I think is great about Korea and how perhaps western cultures could learn from it. There are some bad things too but if anyone who reads this likes a bit of a moan, please wait for a later blog. I am sure I will forget some of the things but I will attempt to explain the ones that strike a particular chord with me. For this part of my blog I am going to concentrate on food and health.
Since I was very young I have always been heavily into exercise and in my early twenties spent a lot of time with professional squash players in England, and wasn't too bad myself. For this reason health and fitness have always been important to me. Coupled with this, is the fact that I have the worst constitution known to man; everything makes me sick, I get a lot of colds (in England), hay-fever, and I am an extreme lightweight when it comes to drinking. I never imagined though just how bad my diet was in the UK and how difficult it is to eat well. The attitude towards food and health in Korea is markedly better than in the west. They eat for health and they exercise also for this reason. Parents instill this into their children (generally) and do not tolerate and accept overweight children or obese people in general. This can sometimes be taken to extremes of unkindness, however, and some balance of these attitudes needs to be achieved (note the continuum). In the west we eat for pleasure, rarely for health, and our societies count the cost of this. Just this morning on my YahooUK news feed there was an article about an american who had a cardiac arrest in a restaurant eating a colossal hamburger called 'the cardiac arrest burger'. I know american people famously don't get irony, but this is a fairly obvious case. My own country can ill afford to be smug either, as on the same news feed the was a story about England currently being home to the worlds heaviest man, as the previous, rather unwanted record holder of this position, had just died in Mexico The west is in a huge rut of bad eating and bad thinking when it comes to food and health. I am going to argue that, on the Korean model of eating you can quite literally have your cake and eat it. The food in Korea is delicious, it makes you feel good after eating it, and it makes you healthier. In the west, the food is just as delicious, but makes you feel terrible, lethargic and sleepy after eating it, and most of it is rarely beneficial and often detrimental to health. Western food is, more often than not, about the here and now, it says 'I want to be satisfied now, I want that good feeling now, and who cares about later'. Korea says, 'I want to be satisfied now, I want that good feeling now, and I want to feel good later too.' Which is better? The argument is over before it has started, Korea wins. Japan shares this ethic about food, and maybe slightly less so in China.
Now I can begin to hear the murmurings of an argument from the other side in my ear, of those of you in the west that have never been to Korea and those also living in Korea, that either have never heard of Korean food, can't get it, or just hate it. My argument, however, is not that we should all be eating Korean food, but that we understand why Korean food is beneficial and therefore can re-model our own foods and habits. Koreans do in fact eat some crazy things, and trust me I wouldn't be advocating eating a small live octopus that can kill you by sucking on the inside of your throat if you don't chew it properly, or, quite probably the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten 홍어(pronounced hong-oh), which is fermented and rotten fish, usually served with heavily fermented kimchi and very gristly pork. The one and only time I have ever gagged at the dinner table. The trouble is, it is usually such a large piece that you have to put in your mouth, that getting it down takes a long time, it has to be chewed and pieces of gristle, cartilage, and bone have to be frequently spat out. All this with a number of Koreans staring at you, and trying not to offend them with poor table etiquette. On top of this Koreans have a nasty habit of ruining all the good work they do throughout the day, when it comes to their health, by drinking gallons of soju (like a weak paint stripper type alcohol) with their meals. I am positive that this is the reason that Korea falls behind Japan in life expectancy, and figures in Korea showing high levels of bowel cancer and liver disease might back up my point on this.
It's not just what Koreans eat but their methods. Back in England, I readily admit that cooking is somewhat of a chore and I really don't enjoy it. The problem is that in England the only real way to be healthy is to buy and cook your own food. I genuinely believe that there are not a great number of healthy restaurants around, certainly not a great number of affordable healthy restaurants, and it is still too expensive to go to cheaper restaurants regularly in England anyway. In Korea, I have lived in three different apartments and at each one there has been a restaurant about a two minute walk from my house. At these restaurants, called Kimbap shops, I can buy an extremely healthy meal, with side dishes, and be well satisfied for less than £2.50 or $4 in the US. These places are the McDonald's of Korea when it comes to cheap and quick food, but the quality and nutrition of the food in the Kimbap shops is astounding, it might as well be from another planet. The vegetables are plentiful and fresh, very fresh, you can taste the goodness with every bite, and when you are finished eating you are, full, well nourished, and not feeling like a stuffed turkey. My energy levels in Korea are incredibly good, and I rarely get colds here, something which happens regularly in England. I am positive that this is the effect of the food. You might well say that this is just my assertion and that I have nothing to back this up, and you'd be right. I am a bit of a skeptic myself and I like good hard evidence that what one person claims to be true is, in fact, true. I would love to see some studies done by dietitians, but I suspect many have been done already, perhaps mainly on Japanese food, that I am unaware of. The higher life expectancy of people in this part of the world may well provide some immediate evidence, if you need any. But long life is not necessarily the best measure of quality of life, so I would like to see the effect of a western vs a far eastern diet on mood, happiness, energy levels, etc. Again I suspect that some research may already have been done on the effect of processed food, and high glycaemic index foods on moods, attention spans, and happiness. It should be noted that there are far less processed foods in Korea, and very few ready meals with added salt and sugar, and their penchant for sugary foods in general is not particularly high. In fact they rarely do dessert, for example, and if they do it is usually fruit.
The Kimbap shops, provide proof that it is possible to make quick, healthy, and cheap food for the convenience of the people, and these places are one of the things I miss most when I am at home in England. The fact that food generally is as expensive in Korea, and more expensive in supermarkets than in England, backs up my point that convenient and healthy food is possible to produce for profit in a restaurant, if one so desires, and if the population want to eat it. The Kimbap shops even provide a take-away service, but it is not sandwiches that are the order of the day, but Kimbap (김밥), hence the name of the shop. Kimbap, for those of you who are unfamiliar, are rolls of rice (밥) with vegetables, egg, and sometimes meat or fish in the middle, wrapped in dried seaweed (김). When I made them in England and showed them to my friends, they all said they were sushi, which is technically not true, but that is how they would be viewed to those that are unfamiliar with it all. They are nutritious and delicious, they are also inexpensive, and quick to make. I regularly take a couple of rolls with me when I go hiking, which they seem to be the perfect food for. It is also possible to take-away almost anything from the menu. When it comes to food and eating healthily, everything is made as easy and convenient as possible. On a side note (you know when it is possible to get all excited about silly little purchases), my wife has recently bought a set of thermos flasks, and she has said that it is OK to ask these shops to make some soup and then pour it straight into the flask to take-away. I am therefore now possibly overexcited about buying soup the next time I go hiking. The quality of the thermos flasks my wife has bought brings me nicely into another great area of Korea's culture of food, their equipment.
Korea is home to the biggest fridges in the world, of that I have no doubt. The reason for this is that they make a string of side dishes, soups, and main dishes in one go and then refrigerate them for later. Their food is often partly fermented and spicy, like kimchi, and it can keep for months and sometimes even years. This habit is one that was formed in their poorer history, when the people had to make times of plenty last and store their food over a harsh winter, which I can assure you is freezing cold and very dry. They made kimchi (there are many different kinds), as well as different sauces used in cooking, and they were stored in huge pots and left to ferment. This made the contents of the pot edible all through the long hard winter. The history of kimchi, in particular, may well be over 2000 years old. I have if fact eaten 15 year old kimchi, and I can safely say that it has been the best kimchi I have eaten to date. Fermented and spicy foods like kimchi do take some getting used to, however, and I confess to disliking kimchi when I first arrived in korea. But, as is true with a lot of acquired tastes, I can no longer do without the stuff. As I was saying they keep stuff for a long time in massive fridges with a lot of Tupperware. This method actually makes it quite easy to come home and prepare yourself a meal, and is also coupled with the fact that their staple diet is rice, which can be cooked easily in rice cookers (terrific little devices) and the rice is also kept warm in the rice cooker for up to a couple of days. These rice cookers are incredibly easy to clean after finishing with them, as is all Korean cooking equipment. I heard a rumor that Tefal test all their new products on Korean housewives, and that would not surprise me in the least bit, these women from my experience do not tolerate sub-standard products. The products that they sell are fantastic, and back to the (rather pathetic, I know) excitement over my new thermos flasks, they are like no thermos flasks I have ever seen. I don't know how they keep the heat in, but they do, without the need for thick walls with just a small space in the middle, the space is massive and the walls are thin. There is some ingenious stuff in this country when it comes to food at least.
That's probably enough of me droning on like an old Korean housewife, so I am going to move onto an issue that was a hot topic a few years ago in England and also in America, brought to the attention of the wider public by a British chef (from my neck of the woods in Essex) named Jamie Oliver. This issue is school dinners. I think a lot has changed for the better because of this man, in England at least, but I wonder if most schools and parents are still committed to the healthy eating of their students. I think I might have to do some research on this one, and see what school dinners in England are currently like, but I am pretty sure that in America things haven't changed all that much. I am guessing that things in America, and my suspicion about much of the UK too, is that school dinners are still mostly comprised of cheap junk food brought into schools by the government to save money. Basically the cheapest, unhealthiest food it possible to imagine. I always remember watching one of these programmes and chuckling about how school administrators counted the tomato topping on a slice of horrible pizza and chips (french fries) as a portion of vegetables essential for the child's diet. Actually, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry with disbelief at just how willfully ignorant some people can be. The claim by Jamie Oliver, backed up by a lot of research on children's attention spans after eating processed food, and childhood obesity rates in England, was that we as a country are doing a disservice to our young people, promoting unhealthy eating, and by this contributing to behaviour problems in schools, and general bad health in the population as a whole. I think anyone with any sense whatsoever agreed with him wholeheartedly. But the trouble he caused seemed to be significant both in England and in the US. There are many reasons for this based on the power of money in government policy and just plain laziness and bloody-mindedness that I will not go into here. So, what about Korean school dinners? Talking with my other school teacher friends in Korea it seems like school dinners are pretty similar all over Korea, and without knowing too much about government policy, I will tell you what I think of them. School dinners here are amazing. Korean people do realise the importance of children getting a good meal at school, and parents have no worries about the quality of food available at lunchtime, it is spectacularly good. I have compared it myself to going to my favourite 'all you can eat' restaurant everyday. There is always enough food and it is very healthy. Just one school meal in Korea would get a student their '5 a-day' (portions of fruit and vegetables) as we like to say in England. A typical meal would be something like this; rice, a portion of meat and/or fish, 3 vegetable side dishes (kimchi usually being one of these), and there is always a very nutritious soup also. The menu changes everyday, so you usually don't get the same meal twice in a two week period. Lunchtime is genuinely my favourite time of day. The students like this food and they eat it, and they don't know how lucky they are. Sometimes I mention the average school meal in England to them and they are envious of what we eat. But if they knew about the low-grade nature of our school food they might think again. I don't know this for a fact but I suspect the food, especially the fruits and vegetables are all locally produced, it certainly tastes that way.
There really are so many nice things to say about Korean food culture, that I almost forgot to mention about the proper restaurants here. Almost all of them are based around the theme that the food is cooked on the table. In the case of meat restaurants this is like a barbecue style restaurant. Meat is cooked in the centre of the table on a grill (without oil). The meat is usually marinated in a delicious sauce, which really enhances the flavour of the meat. There are a couple of methods of getting the heat, to cook the food, to the table. Some restaurants have gas pipes running on the floor throughout the restaurant, and others actually bring a bucket of hot coals and place it in a well in the table. Some restaurants, usually those where a hot fish soup is at the centre of the table, just use a portable gas stove with a removable gas canister. I have yet to meet a foreigner living in Korea who doesn't love these restaurants, everyone likes them and even vegetarians usually come along and enjoy the authentic experience and atmosphere that eating this way creates. The food is also rather good and not overly expensive. Sometimes I think that these restaurants would be a great idea in the England and how popular they could be, given how popular they are with foreigners in Korea. So why can't we have this in England? Any guesses? The Health and Safety police! They would have a field day pointing out all the health and safety implications of eating in this way. All the gas tubes running through the restaurants, 'what if there was an explosion?!' The hot coals, 'what if they burn someone? And heaven forbid a child might put it's hand on the grill or try to play with coals!' The cooked meat being next to some raw meat being cooked on the same grill, 'what if someone gets E-coli, Listeria, or Salmonella?! With this in mind, I seriously doubt if you ever see restaurants like this in England, and probably not in the USA, Canada, Europe, etc, either. And what a senseless pity. The tedious business of health and safety is another thing I will talk about in a later blog, which is not so prevalent in Korea. I have been in Korea for almost 3 years at the date of writing this, and I have yet to get sick from one of these restaurants, I have never seen anyone burned by hot coals, and I haven't seen a restaurant go up in flames either, neither have I heard any news of it.
Food to Korean people has a great deal of importance and is embedded in their culture, so you would expect them to hold a high regard for all things culinary. They really love it when foreigners eat their food and enjoy it, and it has been an easy way for me to impress lots of Korean people and make up for my deficiencies in the Korean language and etiquette. Their attitude towards food is exactly how it should be, a lesson that everyone in the west should learn, but alas we are still not listening. Japanese food is starting to get very popular around the world, maybe Korean food is next. It's the Korean and Japanese attitude towards food that is what really needs to sink into western culture, though, and not necessarily just the odd foray into a strange food from the other side of the globe for something a little different on a Friday night with friends. To put it simply the way that the Japanese and the Koreans eat is fantastic, the way we in the west eat is terrible. It's time to change our ways.