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Classic Versus Cool

It was the end of May, 2015, and already swelteringly hot.  I was walking around the middle of Seoul with my son Jayden, his new bride Dahae, my brother and his Japanese wife.  We had had flown in together a few days before from Japan for the wedding.  Now the wedding was over, and we were being treated to a tour of Seoul, where none of us had ever been.  It was bewildering looking at all the things there were to see on the street.  I knew basically nothing about Korea, not even about the beauty culture. 

“Would you like to buy some cosmetics?”  Dahae asked me. 

“No thanks,” I replied, not knowing I was in the country where people reportedly have the best complexions in the world.  I didn’t know that Koreans were famous for taking exceptional care of their faces. “I have enough.”     

“How about something to drink, then?”

“That sounds great!” 

They led us to Osulloc, a trendy-looking café.  Dahae ordered for me.  “The crushed iced yuja green tea drinks are good.”  Not knowing what a crushed iced yuja green tea drink was, I consented. It looked nice in the photo.  We went upstairs with our drinks, admired the industrial chic décor and opened our drinks.  How stylish Seoul seems, I thought to myself.  As I was removing the paper from my straw, I asked, “What’s yuja?”

“It’s a kind of citrus fruit, kind of a cross between a mandarin orange and grapefruit.”

“Sounds good,” I said, took a sip, and was instantly transported to heaven.  This was the most sublime drink I had ever, ever had.  Truly.  It is the perhaps the main reason I keep coming back to Korea.  Well, maybe it is tied with my wish to see how Leon, my little grandson, is doing.  But this takes orange juice to celestial levels.  And it is, to me, the perfect combination of Korean traditional cuisine, concocted into something really hip – the coolest drink on earth.  Every time I go to Korea I have to have some crushed ice yuja green tea.  Yuja, called yuzu in Japan and in the Western world, is tangy and not sweet at all.  But when sweetened, it has a hauntingly delicious tart-sweet flavor.  And paired with green tea, it is stimulating and refreshing enough on a hot day to get you going again with a smile on your face and a spring to your stride.  Sadly, Osulloc doesn’t seem to sell this drink with yuja anymore, using a different citrus fruit now, hallabongHallabong is also delicious, but too close to orange in flavor to convince me.  For this drink they combine yuja, or hallabong, both traditional Korean/Asian fruits, and green tea, and then mix it with sugar and crushed ice like you might find at Starbucks or at a street fair when you ask for an orange slush.  But this Korean drink turns orange slush on its head.

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Iced hallabong green tea

One of the things that amazes me about Korea is that I am constantly confronted between ancient traditions and really cool innovations.  You would think there would be a conflict here, but if there is, I am not aware of it.  I see it everywhere, in fashion, architecture and music, but in this post I’m going to focus on how this seeming contradiction thrives in the culinary world.

I love food. And I love discovering food. New dishes, old dishes new to me, and trying out new things from old things. Of course, cooking can be a matter of just getting it over and done with. My mother’s church cookbook is full of recipes that tell you to add a can of cream of mushroom soup to some instant rice, add some chicken already chopped up for you at the supermarket, and a couple cups of water, maybe a little grated cheese from the supermarket. That, to me, is not cooking, and it is most definitely not creative. And, although I have cooked this way when really pinched for time, it somehow doesn’t feel very spiritual. Creativity is spiritual. We, like our Creator, are fashioned to also be creative. I believe this is true of everyone, because everyone is created in God’s image. I know that I crave creativity, especially in cooking. I love taking things that have been done one way for a long time, maybe even hundreds of years, and then sometimes tweaking them, maybe even ending up with something entirely different! But new things that really resonate with others often become tradition. I think traditions are birthed out of creativity. But please, let’s not end with tradition. Creativity needs to flow out of tradition. We need both! And Korea, much to my surprise and joy, has both.

The Korean culinary tradition reaches back to over 5,000 years ago, during the Stone Age, when the Maekjok, who settled in Korea, brought the tradition of eating rice as the center of the diet, and several side dishes to go along with the rice.  This is how Koreans still eat today.  In fact, when they ask if you have eaten yet, the word they use is “rice” – “Have you had your rice today?”  All Asians are fond of their rice and there many similarities between various Asian cuisines, but it is things that each culture does differently that makes it unique. In Korea, one of the differences is the widespread use of fermentation.  Other cultures, such as the Japanese and Chinese, also use fermentation widely, but from what I hear and have experienced, Koreans seem to be the fermentation specialists.  Fermentation is a method of preserving food. In addition to being a great preservative, however, there is another advantage to fermentation. Properly fermented foods have strong medicinal qualities.  They’re great gut foods, giving us healthy probiotic bacteria.  Kimchi, miso paste, known in Korea as doenjang, the famous Korean red chili pepper paste (gochujang), vinegar and soy sauce are all fermented. 

Koreans have always considered food to be medicinal.  They eat an amazing amount of roots and herbs.  Eating healthily has always been important to Koreans.  They are very sparing in their use of sugar and oil.  Dahae’s mother rarely uses sugar, turning instead to fruits such as nashi pears or apples, or homemade fruit vinegars to sweeten her food.   

For Koreans, whose culture is closely connected to thousands of years of contact with China, balancing yin and yang is crucial to this balanced life.  Part of a well-balanced life is eating a well-balanced diet.  Not too salty, not too sweet, not too fatty, etc.  I have heard the same said about Japanese food, but somehow the result is quite different.  Korean food turns out to be pretty extreme on the spicy side!  Koreans love their chili peppers so much, you can see random chili peppers laid out to dry just while walking down the street, as I did one day.

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Chili peppers on the sidewalk in front of a shop, drying out

But not always. Some dishes are very bland.  I learned that the five elements – metal, wood, earth, fire, and water, also fit into the cuisine.  Each element has its corresponding color – red, green, white, yellow and black.  You can see this in the architecture, and also in the food.

Colorful Korean food
Detail from the ceiling of one of the royal palaces in Seoul

One of the things I love about Hanna, Dahae’s mother, is that she always tries to introduce me to something new. It’s almost always traditional, and is always healthy. Thanks to her, I think I have eaten meals prepared from pretty much every cooking method known to the traditional Korean cuisine.  I didn’t know about all these categories until preparing to write this post, but I have sampled soups, various noodle dishes, fried rice, pancakes, stews, steamed meats, fried vegetables, pickled vegetables, and stir-fried dishes, all cooked by Hanna.  And of course the barbecued (grilled) dishes we always seem to eat for special occasions.  Whenever I used to go to a Korean restaurant in Germany, what was usually featured was the barbecue.  In a Korean barbecue, the meat is grilled, then cut into little pieces and eaten a bit like tacos.  Instead of taco shells, though, you use a no fat, one calorie lettuce leaf and put a bit of meat, maybe a grilled garlic clove, maybe some other leafy herb, maybe a bit of kimchi, maybe a tiny bit of rice and a barbecue sauce called sssamjang  on top, fold it all together and eat it in one bite.  You repeat this process until you are so full you can’t fit even one more stuffed lettuce leaf into your mouth!  Eating a Korean barbecue is a lot of fun and goes on for hours.  But there is so much more to the Korean cuisine than Korean barbecue.

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One of the meals Hanna cooked – white sundubu, a soup with tofu. The side dishes were various fried vegetables, omelet, and kimchi. And of course there was rice – the main course!

One of my memorable days this trip was a day spent with my young friend Beomsuk.  The day began in the morning, drinking coffee together at Paik’s, a Korean coffee chain.  Beomsuk tells me that Jongwon Paik is a famous Korean chef whose goal is to make food – and coffee – affordable for everyone.  He is thus known as the “Gordon Ramsay of Korea”.  Here we mixed tradition with innovation!  I had a dalgona coffee, the drink I first read about – not in Korea, but rather in the New York Times.  If you like creamy, sweet iced coffee, this is the drink for you!  I love it – it has crushed bits of a traditional Korean candy called dalgona, with frothy milk, coffee and ice.  Beomsuk had a fig latte.  I have no idea if that is traditional,  but I would guess it’s one of those concoctions Koreans come up with, using the figs so readily available in October.  And then, as we sipped our drinks, we shared some very traditional sweets that he had bought, similar to cookies.    

Bukchon Hanok village

And then, after a morning of sightseeing with both modern and traditional elements (a French bakery just down the street from a traditional food market, we strolled through the Bukchon Hanok village, a  neighborhood with only traditional Korean houses. These houses, because they are so old, are very expensive. In some of them you can find exclusive clothing boutiques or art galleries.

Then we walked over to Insadong, a neighborhood with tiny warrens jutting off from tiny warrens. 

A tiny “street” in Insadong

You could get lost here!  In Insadong you can get everything from bulgogi to Burger King, but Beomsuk wanted me to eat traditional Korean food.  He took me to a restaurant in a hanok, one of the traditional Korean houses. 

Looking inside a traditional Korean restaurant in a traditional Hanok house

This restaurant features only side dishes!  I suppose it would be comparable to eating a meal with twenty appetizers and a bowl of rice.  It was overwhelming.  We each got a big bowl of rice with some sort of herb mixed in.  We had seen these hanging to dry at a palace we had visited, and that gave Beomsuk the idea of visiting this kind of restaurant.  There were various soups, a ssamjang  sauce – that mixture of miso and chili pepper paste, all sorts of steamed vegetables, slices of fish cake, and steamed cabbage leaves you could stuff into your cabbage leaf.  All of this was delicious, and extremely low in fat and calories!  We drank makeoli – a kind of unfiltered rice wine – with our meal.    

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Our meal of only side dishes! This is traditional Korean cuisine.

The Korean cuisine is adapted from whatever culture Koreans have come into contact with.  In a way, you could say the same about Americans, who eat their own versions of Jewish bagels, Italian pizza and Mexican tacos.  But what the Koreans come up with is generally very different from what you’d find in the States.  They have “Chinese” restaurants with “Chinese” foods on the menu too, but for the most part with different items on the menu than you’d find in the States.  The most popular one in Korea is jajangmyeon, a very rich, creamy, gooey black bean sauce with loads of noodles and bits of pork  – invented in Korea, just as chow mein was invented in America!  If you look at the two words myeon and mein, they look very similar.  Ramen, Japanese noodles, also has the word men in it.   These similarities are because these dishes all feature noodles, pronounced like miantiao in Chinese  


Jajangmyeon from a take-out restaurant

Koreans eat fried chicken, their own version of KFC, but much crisper – and generally much hotter.  My mouth was burning a little from the chimaek I had in a restaurant.  By now going out for chimaek – chicken and beer – is a very Korean tradition.

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Chimaek – chicken and beer. This is the crispiest chicken ever!
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While in Korea, I sampled Korean versions of Vietnamese spring rolls, Mexican tacos, and pizza with a potato and ham topping and mayo drizzled over the top.  Delicious – and uniquely Korean. The sandwiches Koreans make are unique and fabulous.  I fell in love with potato sandwiches – basically egg salad sandwiches with potato mashed into the filling.  Another delicious one was chicken and cheese with lettuce, pickles,pepper, onion, and a delicious tangy dressing.

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When I see all the things Koreans come up with nowadays, most of them ultra high in calories and fat, I wonder how seriously Koreans still hold to this philosophy that food is supposed to be medicine.  Most people are still so slender I envy them.   But each time I visit, it seems there is a larger number of people with figures at least as rounded as mine.  Maybe it’s also because, especially during this pandemic, they have who knows how many meals delivered to them!  Maybe the extra pounds can be blamed on the pandemic, just as we in the West blame all our bad habits on the pandemic.

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A croffle stand, another Korean culinary innovation

I find it liberating, discovering all the many kinds of food there are in Korea, and watching how Koreans adapt recipes to make them their own.  It has freed me up in my cooking.  If I don’t have any Korean miso on hand, I don’t hesitate now to substitute it with the Japanese miso I bought last time at the Asian food mart.  If I can’t find minari to put into my kimchi, I don’t have any qualms any more about using watercress or cilantro (coriander leaves) instead.  Nowadays I feel free to add a little kimchi to my cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich, or to mix a bit of gochujang or ssamjang into a salad dressing.  We all learn from each other, and with each new twist of tradition, life becomes that much more interesting.