Saturday, August 17, 2013

Korean Food and why it is so Great - Part 1

I often label Korean food as one of the significant plus points to living in Korea in my posts, but I am regularly amazed how so many people come back to me asking me in puzzlement how I can justify this.  I have also had a number of people state that Korean food lacks variety.  I simply cannot understand this; in my opinion Korean food is delicious, varied, and super-healthy.  It is going to be difficult to list everything, so I am going to stick with some of the things I like best and hopefully some of you might be so kind to add your favourites to my comments section below (wait until I finish part 2 though!).

The Basics

These are the Korean foods that everybody should be well-aware of, even the newcomers.

Bibimbap (비빔밥) - is still one of my favourites as it is packed with lots of different vegetables so it is healthy, fairly cheap, quick to prepare, and delicious.  It is fast-food Korea style.  Bibimbap is also extremely varied and different ingredients are combined in different places.  Fresh seafood bibimbap is often enjoyed in coastal regions, which varies from place to place according to what is caught (I recently had Sea Urchin bibimbap in Geoje Island, for example).  It can also come sizzling in a stone bowl or on a flat plate and is generally a favourite with most foreign visitors.  If you want the best bibimbap in Korea, head to Jeonju in Jeollabukdo.

Kimchi Jiggae (김치찌개) - this has become a regular feature of my diet, even when I was back home in England, as it is actually very easy to cook at home (although a little tricky to cook really well).  All you basically need is Kimchi and water really and obviously other ingredients add to the flavour.  My father in-law always cooks this dish extremely well, often adding the cheapest and fattiest bits of pork to make the flavour even better.

Kimbap (김밥) - cheap, delicious, comes in a few different varieties, and it is portable; who doesn't like kimbap?  I used to make it for lunch in England and take it with me before the start of my cricket matches.  When I handed it to friends to try, they looked at me like I had given them a piece of dog poo to eat.  But once they tried it, they almost always liked it.  An older, wiser friend told me, "You know, I think you can't not like that."  I agree.

Doen Jang Jiggae (된장찌개) - there are a few key ingredients that pop-up in many Korean dishes; kimchi, gochu jang (chili paste), and doen jang (fermented soy bean paste).  Like miso soup in Japan, but with a stronger flavour, this soup is often served with or after some other foods at various restaurants.  Again, this is another easy one to cook at home and I personally like adding a little gochu jang when I make it for a little spicy flavour.  A very simple and delicious soup.

Korean Porridge () - is made with rice, not oats, in various varieties and different ingredients.  Doctors always prescribe this when you are feeling poorly as it is usually not spicy and doesn't have strong flavours or fermented ingredients, making it easy on your stomach.  As always, very healthy food.

Korean BBQ (갈비 Galbi) - I have hardly met anyone who doesn't like going out to eat at a Korean BBQ restaurant, whether it be pork or beef.  My personal favourite is Dakgalbi (chicken), which is not so much BBQ, but the cooking of chicken in a spicy sauce on a hot pan.  There are, however, many other varieties of Korean BBQ, as well.

The Non-Spicy Alternatives

Something that I hear often from many foreigners living in Korea is that Korean food is basically one flavour and that is spicy.  Therefore, if you don't like spicy food, you're screwed.  While many of my personal favourite foods in Korea are indeed spicy, I would have to disagree that this is all there is and I managed to find a great many alternatives for my very spicy food-shy mother to try when she visited last year.  I have in fact already listed a number of them in porridge, BBQ, doen jang jiggae, and kimbap, but here are a few more:

Samgyetang (삼계탕) - This is basically a whole chicken in a pot of warm soup and rice, stuffed with various things to add to the flavour.  It is supposed to be extremely healthy and is most widely eaten on the hottest days of summer.  Even though the meat almost falls off the bone, I do however, find it a bit of a drag to eat with chopsticks and a spoon, but it is very tasty and healthy nonetheless.

Miyeok Guk (미역국 Seaweed Soup) - also known as "Birthday Soup" because it is usually given as breakfast on many Korean people's birthdays.  I believe this is because mothers often eat this while carrying their child and after labour as it is thought to be very beneficial for mother and baby.  My wife often talks about making sure she is in Korea after giving birth so her mother can take care of her and cook her seaweed soup.  I would say that this soup is a bit of a grower in the taste department, however, and probably doesn't suit the foreign tongue straight-away.

Note: Not to be eaten before a big exam as the seaweed's slippery nature will cause your grade to slide downwards!

Kal Guk-Su (칼국수) - These are knife-cut wheat flour noodles, usually served in a soup, hence the name ("Kal" means knife in Korean).  Not usually spicy, and in many varieties to suit individual tastes, is especially famous in Myeongdong in Seoul.  Often served with Mandoo.

Mandoo (만두) - Korea's version of Dim Sum (Chinese Dumplings) are also not usually spicy, although Kimchi mandoo can be.  Good to snack on or as a bit of a side dish.  Personally, I like the huge mandoo that some shops specialise in that are really delicious dunked in soy sauce.

The Cheap and Delicious and Street-Foods

Korea doesn't quite match-up to somewhere like Thailand when it comes to street food, where you really can get anything from a snack to full meals with great variety that is cheap, healthy and tasty.  In Korea, I consider street food as more of a snack and I am sure Koreans do to.  Still, I really enjoy most of the street food and the small shops that sell a quick tasty bite to eat, especially in winter.  Let's start with my favourite:

Sweet and Spicy Chicken (닭강정) - usually found in small shops and sold in a cup.  Sometimes I feel like I could step over my own mother to get a cup of these crunchy chicken pieces.  They can be fiery hot, but also sweet at the same time, so I often have a small cup as kind of a dessert after a meal.  Occasionally, my school serve them for lunch and I become seriously excited - along with my students.  However, one day a teacher decided to load my tray with southern fried chicken instead (as he thinks I am a spicy food shy foreigner).  I thanked him for the sentiment, but actually felt like beating him to death with my food tray as I felt compelled to eat at least some of his fried chicken, which left less room for the 닭강정.

Spicy Rice Cakes (떡볶이) - easy to like and again is sweet and spicy.  Is a favourite with high school students, so if you really want to find the best places to eat this ask some students, they will know.  떡볶이 really comes into its own when you combine it with some deep-fried squid, sweet potato, and those little noodle rolls (I don't know what to call them in English).

Fish Cake (오뎅) - good for a quick snack and a winter-warmer with the fishy hot broth it is cooked and kept in.  Not spicy and dipped in soy sauce it is a favourite with many other foreigners I know.

Something Sweet... 

Red Bean Fish-Shaped Snack (붕어빵) - crispy sweet-battered coating with sweet red bean paste inside, really great in winter.

Sweet Korean Pancake (호떡) - sometimes comes with a few nuts in the middle, again really nice when the weather is a bit chilly.

Sweet Red Bean Dumpling (국화빵) - I have to admit, I was very sceptical of the widespread use of red bean in stuff when I first arrived here, but it has really warmed on me; it is a little healthier than just loading everything with sugar or jam and it is not too sweet.  This particular one is my favourite and is similar to 붕어빵 but less crunchy, a bit eggier and a bit doughier.

For a Great Lunch

Rice Soup (국밥) - having real difficulty getting a good translation of some of these foods into English, so this is not as bland as it sounds in English.  국밥 comes in many different varieties and, as always, is usually very healthy.  I like my local 콩나물국밥 restaurant (bean sprout rice soup, much better than it sounds) and 순대국밥 (noodles stuffed in pig intestine in rice soup, again this really tastes much better than it sounds).

Cold Noodles (냉면) - this can come in a few varieties, but the spicy one is my favourite (비빔냉면). This is mainly eaten in summer, for obvious reasons in that it is cold.

Koreanised Chinese Food Spicy Seafood Noodles and Black Sauce Noodles (짬뽕 and 짜장면)
Very popular in Korea and is often ordered as a delivery for lunch.  The former gets a real sweat on and the later tastes really good when you mix the left-over sauce with rice.

The Cheap Cuts that are so Delicious

In many countries in the world the history of some of the most popular foods has been intertwined with poverty.  People living in hard times tried to make the cheapest and most abundant ingredients go a long way and flavour them to make them taste good.  This is how many of Korea's most sought after and tasty dishes today came about.

Pork/Beef Spine Potato Soup (감자탕) - I have to admit that I find it more than a little fiddly and frustrating trying to scrap away the meagre amount of meat hiding between the vertebrae in this dish, but the broth is truly delicious.  Like a little boy, I usually let my wife take all the meat off the bone for me, but I could just as easily simply eat without bothering with the meat.

Pig Intestine - this was once very cheap but now, due to its popularity, not so much.  I have never been too keen on this as there is a definite flavour of poop in it that I just can't seem to like that much.

Chicken Feet (닭발) - again, like the pig intestine this was once very cheap but now is a little expensive, although still very affordable.  Spicy chicken feet is one of my favourites and has a chewy, crunchy texture that is quite unique.

Sundae (순대) - most commonly pig intestine on the outside with a filling, but when ordered at a street food stall, comes in a few different varieties, usually the leftover parts of a pig or cow, i.e. the heart, lungs, intestine, liver and kidneys.  Many people, especially foreign visitors can't stomach this, but although I am a vegetarian back in England I have no problem tucking into this as long as there is a little bit of samjang (common Korean table sauce 쌈장) to hand.

Pigs Trotters (족발) - often served sliced, I have to admit I have never tried it, but my wife assures me that it is amazing.

Again, you can see that all these foods are derived from the parts of animals that are normally thrown away. Also, even going back not that long ago Korean people could not afford to waste any food at all and this is where this admirable attitude of not wasting food comes from.  I have noticed that there is not much of a sense of humour about food wastage either in Korea.  On many occasions, Koreans I have known have turned their noses up at food fights on Western TV shows and films and festivals like La Tomatina in Spain. On the whole, Koreans certainly do take their food very seriously and appear to have a genuine love for it and this is something that I share with them.

Korean people also harvest and eat a wide variety of foods, many of which Westerners find repulsive, but again I think this is a admirable trait as we really can't afford to waste any sources of food in this day and age.  In part 2, I will start with some of the more ambitious Korean delicacies, yet another reason to enjoy Korean food culture, this time though, perhaps not for the flavour.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Freedom of Speech Threatened by Cultural Etiquette and Sensitivity

Last week, I wrote the longest post ever in reply to Ask a Korean's post on plane crashes and culturalism.  I felt compelled to do it because it touched a nerve with me.  You see, if there is one thing I cannot abide it is branding anyone who has honest concerns about aspects of another culture as a racist.  Now Ask a Korean didn't quite say this, but he did label Malcolm Gladwell's cockpit theory as "culturalism" and made pains to frequently compare this to racism.  He even went so far to say that Malcolm Gladwell was likely motivated by culturalism in a reply to me, as if he can really know what goes on inside his mind.

There was a message to the Korean's post, and this was that nobody should make generalisations or judgements about another culture, especially if they turn out to be negative, derogatory, or possibly offensive without the most thorough intellectual rigour and study.  Let's try and think about this for one second; is this lofty goal actually possible?  No, it isn't.  There is always going to be an internal dialogue going on inside people's heads; they will always be weighing up situations they find themselves in and trying to find reasons for other's behaviour.  Sometimes the way people behave will be purely down to their own personality or their own personal upbringing or DNA, but many times it will because of where they were brought-up in the world.  If we judge their behaviour to be down to their culture we can often be wrong, but we can almost equally often be right.

So, if we can't stop this inner-voice, we can at least make it difficult for people to write books and make it socially unacceptable for people to bring-up cultural explanations for sensitive topics in conversation.  We can punish them with name-calling, social ostracism, or make it impossible for them ever to get their book published or read.  Hang on a minute, this is starting to sound a bit scary; weren't we warned about all this by George Orwell in 1984?

It has become a poisonous theme in conversation in recent history that any controversial viewpoint about a group of people of any kind is quickly labeled as a racist, bigoted, or prejudiced one.  It is a conversation-ender because it puts the other person immediately on the defensive as they are desperate not to be known as a racist.

To be a racist has rightly become one of the most socially unacceptable things to be in modern times in the West, yet despite this racism is still rife in the West, we haven't put that dog down just yet.  The main reason for this is that human beings are naturally tribal.  We affiliate ourselves with a tribe and any outside of this can be treated with less consideration.  If someone's skin colour is different, it is as good a sign as any that they lie outside of our tribe.  There is, of course absolutely no reason why we should treat others differently only because they have different colour skin, but it has taken hundreds of years of argument and science to figure this out.  Now we know the truth; there is no reason to suspect the colour of someone's skin makes them behave any differently, whether it be morally, intellectually or in any other way.

People should be afraid of spouting racist nonsense, not just because of the social stigma attached to it, but because of the ridicule they receive from people who know they have no reason for it other than ignorance and prejudice.

Culture, however, is profoundly dissimilar to race.  The difference is so significant that I believe one should never make the comparison between racism and culturalism.  Our culture really can determine our individual personality, values, and behaviour.  If you doubt this, just step outside your door and travel; it need not be to the other side of the world, you can just visit your local Muslim, Hindu, Asian or African community (if you live in the West) and see if they generally go about things in a different way than you.  I bet that most of them do.

Of course, no one denies that culture can cause differences, but this is only stated when the differences are benign or simply matters of curiosity.  When these differences are judged right or wrong, good or bad, however, then we run into trouble; this, it seems, we cannot do and because who are we to judge what is right or wrong?  And do we judge right and wrong based on our own culture?  It all appears so relative, but it really need not be.  I believe there really are right and wrong answers to such questions that are objective, which sit outside of cultural relativism that can be sorted out, but only by sharing ideas and talking about them, regardless of any offence that might be caused.

There is another key difference between culture and race and it has to do with the ownership of it.  I cannot disown or deny my race; I will always be White-British.  I can, however, disown my culture or at least aspects of my culture.  Granted, this is difficult to do, but it is certainly possible.  Given that culture is about thoughts and ways of living, this therefore gives me the right to be treated as an individual and not judged as thinking how every other British person thinks.  I can accept or reject different parts of my own culture and others to varying degrees.  This means that everyone anywhere should be judged on how they act and what they say not by their culture as a whole.

Culture, however, can throw-up patterns that are difficult to ignore.  In the Western world, where we are taught that everyone is an individual and it is immoral to think otherwise, we have gone too far and are preventing ourselves from seeing meaningful commonalities in the way groups of people behave.  Generalising is not always a bad thing and, in fact, it is essential to actually finding out what is true in the world.  Scientists generalise and hypothesise about patterns all the time.  Think of a scatter-graph of data that reveals a trend; aren't there almost always anomalies that sit outside of the trend?  Does this mean that any judgement we make on the results is unjustified?

As long as we are all willing to be wrong and change our minds and not treat individuals with prejudice and discrimination based on what we think about their culture, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with making generalisations and having your own opinion about matters.

As a matter of fact, I get pretty offended by those who tell me I'm a racist for giving my opinion about an aspect of someone else's culture (and I have been called this name more than once), who the hell are they to advise me on what I can and can't say and then slander me with unjustified names?  So, just for the sake of it, let's make some generalisations about British and Korean culture, simply because I have the right to (some statements will be comparative):

Korean Culture (negative)

1. Most Koreans are too hierarchical
2. The general level of manners in Korea is not as good as back home in England
3. What the hell is going on with their use of air-conditioning?
4. I find Korean students less creative and less able to think for themselves.
5. I generally find there is less empathy in Korean people when someone or something sits outside of a recognised group, such as the family, the business, or friends.
6. Following on from the last point, standards of animal welfare and concern for animals seems less widespread.
7. Too many Korean people are too focused on their status, money, and how they look to others, sometimes above and beyond everything else.
8. Many Korean people have a nasty littering habit.
9. Xenophobic at times.
10. Often dangerous drivers.
11. Working conditions and worker's rights are poor (for Koreans and especially Korean women).

British Culture (negative)

1. Many British people have a terrible attitude to drinking and behave poorly when drunk.
2. Although general manners among the population are good, the worst of the worst are in large and growing numbers and are worse than in any other country I have visited or resided in.
3. British food is unhealthy and not especially delicious.
4. The British attitude towards food is generally poor and too many people are overweight and pass bad habits on to their children.
5. Many British are too focused on appearing "cool" and this is reinforced by the cultural trend on focusing on Britain as being a "cool" place, summed up by the ridiculous phrase "Cool Britannia".
6. Many British are too arrogant and snobby when it comes to our collective intellect.  This is shown by the stupidity and magnanimity of some British when we gleefully put down Americans as intellectually inferior.
7. Service, from all manner of businesses, in Britain is often mind-blowingly poor and regularly and flagrantly tries to fraud people.
8. Those that do have prejudice against others tend to be extremely outspoken, noisy, sometimes violent and threatening, and generally in your face about it, especially when drunk.
9. There are too many people who lack personal responsibility and are dependent on the state.

Korean Culture (Positive)

1. Food in Korea is varied, healthy, and delicious.
2. Many have prejudice against foreigners (which is understandable) but most do not express it in an especially in-your-face, violent, or threatening manner.
3. Service is usually very good.
4. Public transport is excellent.
5. Children are generally well behaved and respectful at school (compared tot he UK anyway).
6. There is less politically correct nonsense.
7. The people are more genuine than in the UK.
8. There is very little petty crime.

British Culture (Positive)

1. It is easier to be honest with people in disagreement and really understand each other.
2. You can be friends with older people.
3. In general, manners are good.
4. British tend to be kinder to animals and people they don't know.
5. Easier to be your own person and be accepted in Britain for your own personality.
6. Workers have more rights and are better treated.

These are simply my own personal opinions, of course, but I do think many of them have a great deal of truth to them.  My real point, however, is that as long as you treat everyone with equal respect and kindness and the benefit of the doubt of being their own person, what is wrong with having opinions about their certain parts of their culture or even their culture as a whole?  It really is a help to know what others think of your culture; it can help in changing the bad stuff and keeping the good stuff.

Actually, discovering truth, what is morally good and what works is the most important thing.  Making judgements about how other people live is one of the most important areas of life because it enables us to ask questions and delve further.  Sometimes our initial judgements will be wrong and other times they will be right, but we can never know until we form opinions and theories and put our minds together to discuss them.

We will never know about or discuss a subject until someone writes a book on it or speaks up about it.  Any attempt to silence them harms us all.  It is precisely the subjects that are controversial, offensive, and that differ to our own that we most need to hear.  This is the very principle of freedom of speech and why it is necessary now more than ever in such a globalised and inter-connected world where different cultures mingle like never before.

My final word has to do with lightening-up and having a sense of humour.  I have just added this paragraph due to a music video I saw this morning.  "Asian Girlz" by Day Above Ground is obviously just a silly song with plenty of satire about just about every classic Asian stereotype you can think of.  My ability to take the song too seriously was disabled in one of the first verses where the lead singer sings:
"I love your sticky rice... and fucking all night"
 As a man married to a Korean I should get upset, shouldn't I?  But only morons who already have these stereotypical views could ever take this music video seriously.  The rest of us with more than half a brain should realise that it is simply a bit of fun, designed to be a little controversial perhaps and get a reaction. And it has got one; I had never heard of the band until this morning.  This always happens when those offended try to ban things like this.  Banning free speech/expression is almost always counter-productive as a tactic anyway, as this quite clearly shows.

I guess you could say that the song and video are also not just culturalist, but racist.  He goes on to sing:
"I love your creamy yellow thighs... and your slanty eyes"
I don't see any particular harm in the aspects of the video related to race, though, most people have got upset by the cultural stereotyping present in it.  I would be open to the argument that the video was in bad taste, but I have seen more exploitation of women in almost every Hip Hop video I have seen and far worse messages in the lyrics.  I remember owning an Eminem album once where almost every song was about swearing, raping, abusing, assaulting and killing (and it was much less obvious he was being satirical).  An 18 certificate was slapped on it and that was that.  It is telling that a very mild song and video in comparison has caused such an uproar.  Want to ban all controversial, bad taste, or rude music, books and TV.  What a boring world we would live in.  I would gladly put up with the stupid stereotypes I receive sometimes when I am with my Korean wife to not live in a world like this.

If we can't have a laugh at each other and have a sense of humour about ourselves, what hope have we got of getting along?  You think banning this song is going to stop the genuine prejudice present in people?  You think not banning the song is really going to set us back fifty years in the public understanding of Asian women?  Fair enough it is not everyone's cup of tea, but if you don't like it don't watch it, it really is as simple as that.