Last week I found myself in the land of the metal chopstick.
I used to think of South Korea as a sort of Singapore-style city state stuck between dim sum land and sushi heaven; it was somewhat of a surprise to discover a fairly big country stashed away beneath the kimchi. The CIA (who tend to know these things) tells me that 48 million people live on the peninsula, ranking #25, more than worthies such as Argentina or South Africa and nearly twice that of Australia. Geographic size is somewhat less - flying one end of the country to the other isn't enough even for an episode of Friends.
In one sense, though, the country is not unlike a city-state. Some 49% of the population is squashed into the Seoul Metropolitan Area – making it the second largest metropolitan area in the world (only Tokyo is bigger). Its metro system is only marginally smaller than Mumbai's massive suburban rail – daily carrying Singapore's entire adult population a couple of times over. By all accounts, it a gargantuan urban mass. See the whole city and you're half Korean already.
This is what I set out to do in right earnest, starting with breakfast at Incheon airport - I was soon in front of a long Korean menu, of which only bibimbap seemed familiar. Or so I thought - a large bowl with various vegetables arranged neatly in sections, accompanied by a soup, a red paste of some kind, a few types kimchi and a cup of sticky rice landed up on a tray. My bibimbap memories were a little rusty but I did not remember anything that looked like this – to me it had always been some kind of fried rice, not the ghas-phoos mix of salads and sides that this looked like. I racked my brains about how exactly to eat it and finally settled for taking a bit of each separate ingredient with some rice, fumbling away all the while with those flat, slippery steel chopsticks. Depending on the bite involved, it lay somewhere between barely edible and outright bizarre.
Much to my puzzlement, this continued. Dish after dish danced between bizarre and inedible. I used to think of Korean food as quite nice, what was I missing here? I staved off hunger with frozen 7-Eleven sausages while desperately trying to appreciate the boatloads of kimchi being put out in front of me. The spreads whenever I ordered anything were generous (at least six plates landed up at the slightest excuse) but even my very adventurous palate could barely stand more than a couple of bites of each. Finally, exhausted by the day's searching, I staggered into a food walk conducted by a local foodblogger and rediscovered edibility.
The problem (I discovered) was that Koreans don't serve food – they serve cooking classes. Unlike other cuisines, you cannot simply up and eat what they put in front of you. In nearly every case, some assembly is needed. Stir, mix, chop, cut, fry, roast, steam – the full range of skills have to come into play (all with those damned steel chopsticks) before any semblance of food emerges. Even basics like salt and pepper need to be added (not just touched up, mind you – all the salt needs to be added). I wouldn't be surprised if more rustic places made you slice veggies and pluck chickens.
This cooking business seems an article of faith than any genuine necessity. Bibimbap, for instance, just required me to add the ingredients and stir – it is still a mystery why the mixing could not have been done behind the counter. I'm guessing the Koreans, with the hardest toiling students and the longest working hours in the world, are just used to rolling their sleeves up and doing stuff. In the convention centre canteen the counter lady excitedly served me "special" seaweed sheets – it turned out to be for roll-your-own-sushi. Even convenience store coffee can be complicated. The shrink-wrapped coffee you buy does isn't just flip and drink – no no no. There is a filter, some coffee-grounds and milk/sugar packets in the package - put the filter in the cup, the grounds in the filter, head to the hot water dispenser, add milk and sugar and make your own coffee. And all this at a "convenience" store; think of what the inconvenient version would be. It is rumoured that McDonalds in Korea asks you to fry your own fries.
Armed with this revelation, I did finally end up with actual dishes and started to enjoy the experience. The occasional waiter helped things along, doing the cooking for me after observing my obviously idiotic attempts at the process. A few meals later, I got the hang of at least the basic dishes – what to chop, what to cook, what to mix with what. Properly done, a Korean meal can be quite a delight of taste and textures – and spicy enough to make my grandmother happy. The barbecued meats (usually rolled up paan-style in lettuce or sesame leaf) were fantastic, the bibimbap changed my opinion of salad, while their soups - Chinese in look but very different in taste – managed to load enough flavour to cure most hangovers.
The kimchi, though, was still as unexciting. Koreans treat kimchi like fine wine, passionately discussing the merits of each eatery's version; indeed the quality of the kimchi often decides the rating of the food. Unfortunately, how rotting improves an already dull cabbage is beyond me. A decade ago, Germans had vainly tried sausage bribes to feed me sauerkraut, Koreans fared little better. A few options I did find edible – sesame leaf, soya sprout – but most I would leave inconspicuously alone.
I will certainly eat better on my next visit.