I Eat Lice

The first day I arrived in Korea, things were pretty bad.    I'd been on various planes for the best part of two days and I'd been dumped right out of the airport and into the classroom.    To make matters worse, around midday my boss decides to take me for lunch.    Normally that's OK of course, but just when I got to the restaurant there was an interesting little dilemma.    The guidebook had warned me to take off my shoes as I entered the dining area, and indeed, this is what my boss promptly did.    However, I'd been travelling for a while, I'd been wearing hiking boots that wouldn't fit in my luggage, and I hadn't had a chance to shower anytime recently.    So how to cause the most offence?    Leave the shoes on and drag dirt and who knows what else into the nice clean restaurant, (I've seen Koreans urinate in the street during the day), or take my boots off and stink up the place.    I decided to sneak over to the furthest corner of the place, take off my boots and then got the table furthest away from any other guests.    My boss is watching me, my feet are stinking, but it's OK.    Crisis averted, although I think my boss may have wondered why the hell I walked past so many empty tables just to get to another empty one.

The meal itself was pretty interesting.    I'm OK with chopsticks - but these were metal ones, and maybe because I was nervous, or maybe because of the type of food we ate, I just didn't seem able to use them satisfactorily.    My boss is watching me, my feet are stinking, and food is dripping all over my side of the table.    Since then I've come to like chopsticks a little bit more, and maybe even acquire some little skill with them.    Plus, I like using them.    No matter how skilled you are with them, there's a limit to how fast you can eat the food.    It slows a meal down to eat like the locals do... and there's something nice about taking your time over your food, rather than just gobbling it all down, shoveling heaped forkfulls of everything down your gullet.    So that's a plus for chopsticks, but aren't the knife and fork inherently superior?    Apparently not.   What you can do with a knife and fork, they can do just the same or better without.    The natives use chopsticks for everything except some soups, and can do impossible things with them.    One minute there's a fish on the plate, then there's some one-handed magic, and when the smoke clears the fish 'meat' is all on one side and the bones are somehow on the other.    I think you have to have seven headstones in a Korean graveyard before they show you this ancesteral secret. :-)    Meanwhile though, I've reached the stage where I won't embarrass myself in front of the boss, or at least not with the chopsticks anyway.

So bad and all as I was with the chopsticks the first day, at least I made an effort to try all the foods presented before me.    Korean restaurants are pretty different to what you'd find in mainstream western restaurants.    Firstly they don't bother with chairs.    You sit on the floor, and you can even have a wafer-thin cushion to soften things up, if you're a real wimp.    Worse though is that you cross your legs under you.    I can get one foot up on one thigh in that position, but doing both feet on opposite thighs at the same time?    Don't try this at home kids.    Of course, the first day I don't know about any of this, so my boss is watching me, my feet are stinking, there's a Hansel & Gretel trail of crumbs leading from every dish to my mouth, and I've chosen to place my feet in what turns out to be the Japanese seating style - but it's OK, I hope.

The main food we got that day was just strips of beef - but the super nice thing is that every table has an in-built barbecue, so you get to cook the meat whatever way you like it!    Aside from the beef and the inevitable bowls of rice, with most meals you get a variety of side dishes, from which each person at the table picks and chooses as they see fit.    This more than anything else has won me over to the way they eat here.    One restaurant I was in recently had 30 side dishes!    Sitting at a table about 1.5m x 1m in size and it's completely covered in little dishes of Korean delights - I felt like a child at Christmas, not knowing which present to open first. :-)    Back at that first dinner with my boss though I didn't have a clue what any of the foods were.

Try this, it's called Gimchi.
Is it spicy?
It's our national dish.
A reply certainly, but not exactly an answer.... what he presented to me was a bowl stuffed with some sort of dark green vegetable matter, with streaks of bright red running through it.    Not wanting to offend the boss (more than the weird table, smelly socks and chopstick skills necessitated), I decided I'd give it a try.    Some day my mouth will forgive me.    My boss started laughing.    I started crying.    My nose gushed    I tried to open my mouth to ask for more rice, or bread, or anything to combat the chemical warfare raging across the wasteland of my tastebuds.    I couldn't speak though.    Not a word would come out, not even a squeak, and certainly not the scream I felt like!    At this stage my boss is also crying, but these are tears of laughter.    It's a little spicy, yes. Excuse me?    It's a little spicy?    Would that be "little", as in the sentence: "My boss is a little bit of an asshole"?    That sort of little?

drying danger On the positive side though - it helped me formulate my first rule of eating in Korea.    Red Is For Danger.    Plus it motivated me to learn my first decent sentence of Korean - words to live by:

An maepgae haejuseyo.
Not too spicy, please.
Finally, it stopped me worrying about my behaviour with my boss, worrying that I was offending him.    Nice guy my boss.

It's hasn't turned me off Korean food though.    I love the stuff, and I'm going to try to learn how to make some of it for when I go home.    In this spirit, I thought about telling you how to make the aforementioned Gimchi... but I couldn't do that to you.    Instead let me just say that the main ingredient seems to be cabbage - but this is evil cabbage.   

Gimchi:    A food made from OK ingredients but tastes disgusting.
Bandaegi:    A food made from disgusting ingredients but tastes OK.   
My first encounter with this traditional Korean food (I hesitate to say 'grub'), was buying some in a cup from a street vendor.    I love buying food on the street.    OK, maybe it's not the cleaniest, healthiest, most nutritious food available, but it is often cheap and very often it's interesting.    From bread-you-can-wear in Warsaw, to pepper-stuffed-potato in Peru, it gives you a sense of the local fare... what's the Korean equivalent of our Fish'n'Chips?    That's what I attempted to find out...    Initially I'd thought it was some form of raisin, or sultana, maybe even a peanut that'd been through the wars.... but 'no'.    It's organic, it's brown, it's small, it's fired until it's crunchy.... and it was almost a beautiful insect.    What is it?    It's a chrysalis.    The thing that a caterpillar weaves itself into before it becomes a butterfly?    The Koreans eat it, and now I do too.    I can't describe the taste so well, but suffice it to say that it's like a roasted chesnut, stuffed with sawdust.    Bon appetite!

There's one more Korean food on my list though, and as yet, it's untried.    Normally I leap at the chance to try new foods, and this was top of my list when I arrived.    Koreans eat dogs.    Sounds a little disgusting at first, but why?   

There's nothing inherently wrong with eating dog, anymore than there is eating pig or cow, is there?    The thing that surprised me on arrival though is that the Koreans also keep dogs as pets.    Hmmm.... So remember kids - a dog's not just for Christmas, ... you can have dog sandwiches until New Year's!    It's actually a really clever idea when you think about it.    When I go hiking, I take crackers, raisins and tuna - but I have to carry them up the mountains myself.    Presumably the Koreans can get their food to trot on up the trail after them! ;-)    So, there I was all set to try it, and I didn't.    Why?

Well, the expats here did let me in on one thing which Lonely Planet didn't think to mention.    To get the meat at its best, to make it juicy and tender, it's good to have the dog's adrenaline flowing at the time it's killed.    In other words, they don't just kill the dogs - they beat them to death.    As a free bonus adrenaline-surger, the other doggies get to watch while they wait in line for their turn.    Now, that being said, some Koreans I asked about this said that sure, it used to happen, but the government has passed a bill outlawing that sort of thing and restaurants don't allow it anymore.    I'd really love to try dog meat, but bear in mind that these are the same Koreans who told me that there are no prostitutes, gays or orphans in Korea.    (Despite the fact that there are at least three streets of prostitutes in my little city and an orphanage down the road from my apartment.)    On the other hand, there does seem to be some harder evidence that eating the meat has some interesting effects on the body, and presumably the higher class restaurants do stick to the government rules.... yet I can't shake the image of some Korean slamming a sleegehammer into Lassie....    And on that pleasant note I'll leave you to go have some nice western food while I munch down some more chrysalis on seaweed.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that like the Japanese, the Koreans can't distinguish between the sounds of 'r' and 'l'.    I eat lice too. :-)


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