Chapter 3: Culinary Adventures

As any traveler knows, a big part of visiting a foreign land is trying exotic food. Judging by my grandmother’s typewritten notes on her June 1979 Korea trip, she enjoyed practically every aspect of life with her host family in Seoul, including the food:

Food and eating were a riot the first few meals. … After the first couple meals I decided that with their style of eating I was going to get whatever they had, anyway, and so threw timidity to the winds and crossed my fingers that the diarrhea wouldn’t be too terrible.

No word on whether her fear of illness was realized, but I’m guessing it wasn’t. After all, conditions in Korea were, and are, relatively sanitary, and the food can be a bit spicy, but not extremely so.

A typical Korean meal consists of rice, soup, kimchi, and side dishes of meat, fish, and vegetables, and my grandma seemed to like or at least tolerate most of what she was served:

Kimchi isn’t all that bad although the chili spice is different from the New Mexico flavor — but having it three times a day, every day, is hard on the American’s love of variety. … The famous shredded beef cooked over open flame is OK — but all their beef is pretty old cow and somehow the mangled stuff being pushed around on the broiler didn’t improve my appetite. … Most of the vege were cold and spiced until I wondered what  I was eating — I liked the seaweed.

However, she did not like the communal style of eating. I must admit, it was a bit shocking to me as well when I first arrived in Korea. Even with so-called family style dining in the U.S., you still have your own plate, so it was a little hard to adjust to not having a plate of my own. Aside from a somewhat irrational fear of germs, on a practical level I found it hard at first to reach and grab food that was spread across the entire table using just my chopsticks and spoon, but I got better at it eventually.

My grandma could use chopsticks, but I’m not sure how well. According to her notes, though, her travel companion, a much younger woman named Joby, could not. Either way, my grandma was not having the communal eating:

I soon learned what to do to avoid having to eat out of the same dish into which everyone else’s chopsticks dipped and to politely refuse the tidbits offered to me on the ends of another’s chopsticks. I simply took one of the very small dishes on which the glass of warm milk (with sugar) was served (never had tea or coffee) and used it to gather (first, if possible) from all the various dishes that I intended to mix with my bowl of rice — then I had enough and the rest could dip and swoop to their hearts’ content and I wouldn’t be licking any chopsticks except my own.

It must have been an interesting sight for her hosts, watching my grandma trying to get at all the food before anyone else did, and then eating off a saucer. No doubt they were also surprised and perhaps inspired by some of the different methods of preparing food my grandma demonstrated:

… the day I poured the warm milk over my rice and added more sugar and some cinnamon gave them stomach curl (turned their stomachs). I explained one of our breakfast favorites of French toast — and the next morning they tried it — and liked it, I guess, for we had it a number of times later.

My grandma seemed to be expressing the American penchant for sweet food at breakfast. But as she soon discovered, traditional Korean food is mostly lacking of sweets in general, whether at breakfast or dessert:

Desserts of pie/cakes/pastries are rare and few between. Usually we were served a small melon — oval shaped, light green-white like a honeydew and fluted like an acorn squash — good but not as sweet as we usually have. Matter of fact sweets as we know them just aren’t. We had a very sweet dessert of one dried persimmon — which had been reconstituted and you drank the very sweet syrup, in which pinon nuts were floating — and then you ate the little cooked persimmon.

Of course, in today’s Korea you can find all the Western-style breakfast foods and desserts you could want, not to mention mountains of candy and chocolate. But the traditional, more subtly flavored treats are still popular. One such treat is rice cake, which, like many Korean delicacies, I didn’t like at first but eventually came to love.

Unfortunately, my grandma did not have time to develop such an affection for rice cakes, and was put off by the fact that the ones she tried came from an outdoor street stall, calling them “terribly tasteless besides being potential poison.”

Overall, I think my grandma was pretty adventurous with her eating in Korea, and although she formed strong opinions, she kept an open mind, and tried everything at least once.

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