Somehow, Christmas has come for another year and in all the fuss, bother and alcoholic excitement we decided to join forces and write an article about something very important to both of us. Something that may shock all of you, something that threatens the very boundaries of our existence: food and the various ways that Koreans sabotage some of their most delicious ideas.
The Korean attitude towards food can be defined as a “more is more” philosophy. More food, more flavours in more bowls. What we present here are some of our encounters with the restlessly inventive Korean culinary culture.
On our second weekend we went with our neighbours to Seoul Zoo and after hours of staring at animals, hunger drove us to the food stalls. Gleaming like a gem sandwiched between churros and corn dogs was a picture plucked from our own half-formed desires. Pizza cone. The base a soft, doughy conical cup for the steaming, glistening pizza filling stuffed inside like ice cream.
Similar to a Pizza Pocket and priced at about 2000 Won, the melted cheese and tomato sauce were most welcome in the autumn cold. Everything was fine. But then halfway down the taste changed, becoming weirdly, sickly sweet. We stopped chomping and started nibbling, growing slowly aware that, yes, nestled in the bottom inch like a slug in a drain was a stiff dollop of fluorescent grape paste. It was so wrong, so disappointing, so unnecessary and unwarranted that we threw the remainder in the zoo bins and resolved to never trust a country whose cuisine attempts to combine dinner and dessert into one. But we would be fooled again.
Here is a archetypal scene of the foreigner in Korea. The foreigner is hungry, and goes into a business that he seems to recognise – in this case, a bakery. He buys himself a sandwich and emboldened by the relative cheapness, he also buys a delicious looking bakery treat. The sandwich is good but the bread is a little sweet and he has to take the pickles out. He then takes a bite of the top of the crusty, nutty treat and goes “oh wow! This is great!” And then... the horror. The Horror.
What is 'marron'? According to wikipedia, marron is a name given to two closely-related species of crayfish in Western Australia. But as we found out, it may also refer to the French word for chestnuts as in “marron glace”. But the pieces of chestnut baked into these tiny, beautifully rich loafs of sweetbread are more akin to blanched sweet potato. Were they in it for the texture? The horribly mushy texture? Yet again, we found ourselves asking – WHY GOD WHY?
The Red Bean Phenomenon
Red bean is possibly one of the most forceful additions to food in the entire Korean peninsula. Made of boiled, mashed and then (sometimes) sweetened Azuki beans, the resulting paste is present at the centre of a huge number of pastries, cakes and sweets. Which in itself isn't really a problem as the taste is quite nice (though very strange to a western palate where 'bean' does not associate well with the 'sweet' category).
The issue lies in its sneakiness. You buy a dumpling, full of what you assume is shallot and meat flavoured goodness. But no. RED BEAN!
Is that a waffle with honey inside? Of course it's not you damn fool! RED BEAN!
What of the rice cakes that look like they've been rolled in flakes of dark chocolate and coconut? Put it this way: it's not chocolate. RED BEAN!
And don't even think about buying a savoury cheese roll. The savoury part ends very abruptly. RED BEAN!
Our last experience with red bean was at a train station on Sunday where we bought a pack of twelve walnut-shaped Walnut Cakes. Admiring the nutty grooves on its sides, East popped one in his mouth and then screeched loudly enough to alert old women on the street, 'IT'S RED BEAN!' (In its defence, there was a walnut swimming in the determined body of the paste.)
There's no way to ever be sure. If there was a way to put red bean inside another red bean, the Koreans would be eating the shit out of that shit. Or to put it another way, they'd be eating the red bean out of that red bean.
Which brings us to:
Lara was the lucky one to experience the might of the meta octopus. After work one day she went to dinner with a co-worker and ordered grilled octopus. Ten minutes later a plate with a single, cephalopoid mollusc was delivered to the table and Lara sat there wondering how on earth a pair of chopsticks would aid in the eating of an un-sliced octopus. The chef spirited himself from the kitchen to her side and sank a knife into the head, opening it with one long drag. Spilling from its insides came a swarm of tiny babies no bigger than a thumbnail and Lara found herself eating not one large octopus but one large octopus and eighteen tiny ones. And after eating the contents there was brilliantly convenient, edible packaging. It was, in a word, unbelievable. Such things haven't been seen since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and even then there was no delicious soju cocktail to wash it all down.
As you can see, not all our experiences with inventive Korean cuisine can be classified as bad. In fact, some could qualify as 'Epic Wins' but we here at the Great Affairs acknowledge that this term is constantly under debate.
But I think no-one but a vegan can really question the incredibleness of Pizza Cutlet, a pizza restaurant whose speciality is PIZZA TOPPING ON A CUTLET. You would think that this would be a logical extension of the Schnitzel Parmigiana but somewhere between conquering the Gauls and losing all the World Wars, Italy dropped the ball. But Korea picked up that bitch and RAN with it.
The one you see pictured below also had potato wedges and chunks of bacon on it.
The general idea Korea has about the food of other cultures is “Hey, that's great – but now we can Koreaify it”. Sometimes these decisions are fantastic (see above). And then, other times...
While we weren't the ones to order this lovely little mess, we did taste the leftovers just to verify it had actually happened. Nachos complete with cheese, tomato, onion, jalapenos, guacamole, salsa and chocolate sauce.
We thought we were imagining things. Was it an accident? Had someone put the barbecue sauce bottle next to the all to similar chocolate? Did the cook just stroke out for a minute there? Probably not. Probably this was a concerted effort of food abuse.
Despite the occasional horrors we have encountered since our relocation to Korea, one powerful impression has remained: Koreans are extremely inventive when it comes to eating. One flavour is never enough and more often than not, opposing foods are combined in a (hopeful) attempt to create something delicious. What baffles us is that when the result proves less than ideal, they continue selling it. The Korean food market is based on a series of lies and desperate delusions. It keeps you on your toes, that's for sure.
For your reading pleasure, here is a short list of some of the stranger combinations we've eaten and regretted.
Some Memorable Munchy Mentions
Squid and peanut flavoured wafers.
Dunkin Doughnuts “Bubble Tea” - black tea afloat with tapioca chunks.
Sugared garlic bread.
Acorn flavoured jelly. We were unaware that acorn even had a flavour. Explains why those squirrels go mad for them.
Real bunches of grapes that taste like fake lip balm.
Lara and East will eat your faces. And love it.