Apr 6, 2007

just a taste

Koreans live off a pretty diverse diet. Soy, sesame, beans, nuts, roots, green vegetables - the most notable being cabbage, short-grain rice, noodles, pork, seafood, chicken, tofu, kimchi, a smattering of Asian fruit, and, of course, alcohol make appearances. Not to mention their vast menu of knock-your-socks-off Asian spices, and garlic, which they tend to eat raw and dipped into a vinegared hot pepper paste that's similar to sriracha without the sweet side.

At any sit-down meal (literally, since here you mostly sit on the floor) waiters bring a variety of regional, seasonal banchan - little side-dishes that accompany the main meal or act as appetizers that we pick at with stainless steel chopsticks and wide-set spoons (forks as we know them, or 'porks' as the Koreans say since there's no 'f' in their language, just don't exist here).

The banchan are like little mealtime Christmas gifts - you never know what you're going to get; sometimes you're elated, sometimes you have break out the fake smile. I've loved the little strips of raw squid, raw green onion in a heavy-handed smoky red sauce and pickled chilies among others, but balked at corn niblets tossed in sweet mayo, stringy cucumber bathed in ketchup (ketchup serves as a salad dressing over here) and raw soft-shelled crab. I've been told I could be here for a full year and still see a new type of banchan whenever I eat out. Jeongseon is known nationally for its banchan specialty: heady green grass picked off the mountainside.

There may always be new banchan to discover, but kimchi's the national dish and is a usual suspect every time. Throw some cabbage or radish in a bag with some hot sauce, let it spoil for a week and then you've got kimchi. But spicy fermented cabbage/radish is still a hit-or-miss taste for me, sometimes I get some that's still fizzing.

My preference is duck, chicken or beef barbecued over charcoal or propane in the middle of the table, stuffed into lettuce with halved garlic cloves, hot pepper paste and soy-horseradish sauce, with a slew of banchan on the side. Add beer to the mix and you've got what I'm living off. I eat about 3 to 4 cloves of garlic to myself almost every meal, and cupfuls of hot sauce. My tongue hates me in the evening and my guts loathe me in the morning, but apparently I'm doing my heart a favor, since the hot stuff gives Koreans the advantage of not only high metabolisms, but some of the lowest instances of heart problems in the world.

Never thought I'd curse having long legs, though - sitting cross-legged is killing me.

Standard kimchi - the yellow is the radish and the white the cabbage. This is about the smallest serving of banchan I've gotten yet.

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