Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Christmas meal in Korea

One of the first things a Korean would ask on finding out you’ve been to their country is: “What did you eat?”

Enjoying food in a social environment is a national pastime in South Korea. I arrive in Seoul on Christmas day to a host of trees dressed in fairy lights and silly teenagers singing Christmas carols in the icy streets. After shopping at the fashion boutiques and cosmetic shops in Myeong-dong my colleagues and I are soon drawn to the warmth of the traditional restaurants.

While the do-it-yourself barbeque restaurants are very popular they can be expensive and although street food is cheap and good quality, it is –10 degrees outside which is way past my tolerance level. So we opt for something in between; a local spot that serves Korean stir-fried dishes with sticky rice, as well as spicy soups. I choose bibib-bap which arrives in a fiery hot clay bowl. There’s rice in the bottom of the bowl and on top lies sections of freshly chopped vegetables and spicy noodles with a raw egg in the middle. The idea is that you stir it yourself in the hot clay bowl until the veggies are cooked.

Usually I try to stay away from meat while travelling but in South Korea they are very fussy about meat quality. Remember the mass protests against US beef imports in mid-2008? I try a few bites of a dish called bulgogi, which is marinated barbequed beef in thin layers served with sticky rice and local veggies. The marinade tastes similar to teriyaki sauce.

Of course, kim-chi is served with every local dish you can think of. Somehow it’s not really to my taste although I really like the Korean spice paste which is used with dishes such as stir fries and omelettes.

What is unique about eating in Korea is that they use stainless steel chopsticks here. I make a mental note to buy some as souvenirs. What amazes me on this coldest Christmas I have ever experienced is that teenagers are walking around in short skirts with bare legs and singing Jingle Bells before stopping for some sausages and snacks from the street vendors.

Strangely enough I don't feel sad and lonely so far away from loved ones on this festive day. Perhaps the warmth of the people, the hot food and the Christmas spirit is enough to keep the cold at bay.


Me said...

My boss in Amsterdam/LA is Canadian-Japanese and has a thing for Asian food, so because he's really the only person I know there, he takes me out to eat almost every night. I've developed a thing for kim-chi, but I think it's probably the same thing I have for gerkins or olives. That and cold Udon noodles.

The raw egg cooking in the food thing though, I didn't go near that.

Anonymous said...

The Korean spice paste is great. I have it with (my own) omelettes or stir fries without egg :-).

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