I never thought I’d have have a reason to visit South Korea, but there I was, wedged into the back row middle seat of a Korean Air flight to Seoul to visit a family member working and living there. The heart of a culture may be its food, and Korea is no exception. Now, I wouldn’t exactly call myself an adventurous eater. If you’ve read prior “Foodie Friday” posts, you’ll see that I nearly always choose the sweet option, even in savory dishes, and while I do enjoy occasional fish and shellfish, other ocean crawlies and seaweed are pretty much never on my menu. It’s not that I don’t want to like these things. My palate does not really enjoy strongly salty, vinegary tastes. The shellfish may be a texture thing. It’s not for lack of opportunity. Raw oysters and lobster rolls are an integral part of my family’s summer shopping list. I’ve just been the odd man out. I look at gorgeous pink shrimp or colorful sushi rolls and WANT to like them. Maybe if I keep trying it one day I will.
Anyway, back to Korea. I was a little nervous about my food options, given the very seafood-centric diet and the ubiquitous spicy fermented vegetables, kimchi. In my travels around the city I saw lots of this:
I didn’t want to be that person. That American who turns up her nose at the local delicacies. That’s no way to visit a place and no way to act when going out to eat with locals. Fortunately, I found plenty of things I LOVED. Big pots of steaming chicken and noodle soups, the barbequed beef you roll up in a huge leaf (not lettuce, I forget what kind now) with some of the kimchi and sauces, porridge called juk (may also be known as congee) of many flavors. We found it interesting that many restaurants are known for one single type of food. For example, there may be a restaurant that just does soups, or just does barbequed duck. It’s that specific. I also had to get used to the fact that sweets are markedly less sweet than we are used to and, in fact, dessert is most often a small cup of some warm fruit tea or maybe orange slices. Overall quite a healthy diet. Aside from, I think, once to a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, we didn’t go to any chain or fast food places.
I am brought back to the tastes, sights and smells of that trip each time I visit one of the local Korean restaurants around greater Boston. Last weekend I dined on dolsotbibimbap, or rice and vegetables served in a sizziling hot pot. I usually have mine vegetarian with tofu and I’m a wimp, adding only in a few drops of chili paste. We had a scallion pancake just like the ones I ate from street vendors in Seoul. I missed the acorn jelly side dish, but some sweet and spicy cucumber was amazing. It’s always a nice way to bring back a memory. I’d love to hear your favorite Korean menu options!