Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Eating in Korea

If I might jog your memory, last year I helped organize an entrepreneurship conference, which was held in Iceland. I got to meet the President of Iceland, visit the Blue Lagoon, and snowmobile out to the erupting volcano. Oh, and of course, run the conference...

This year I was also involved in running the same conference, held in Seoul, South Korea during the last week of March. I will have another post about the sightseeing I did in Korea, but for today I want to talk about the food in Korea. (all tongue-in-cheek of course, no disrespect intended anywhere...)

One of the first things I noticed when walking around the city was that all the people over there (the women especially) are much smaller than in America. A little shorter, maybe, but that's not the main thing - mostly they are just skinny! This is partly because a large portion of people in the US are overweight, so I'm not used to seeing a population that is a healthy weight.

But even accounting for my perception bias, I mean - come on. Those women had hips that were as big around as one of my legs. How is that possible? Are they missing organs?

But then, dear friends, I discovered the answer. After a week of eating in Korea, it is quite simple - it's the food!

Consider the Korean Barbeque. Many people even in the states have had Korean food in this style. You order a meat (beef, chicken, whatever your fancy) which is brought to you - for you to cook yourself. It falls unfortunately to the youngest person in the group to cook for the rest of the group, out of respect. So already you have one person who has no time to eat.

Figure: See the guy on the far right? No smile. He's the youngest, and has spent all his time cooking, and hasn't eaten any of it.

And the rest of the group? Well while you wait for the raw food you paid good money to cook, they bring you endless sides to munch on. Endless sides, you say? Fantastic! Well, not really. All the side dishes come on tiny little saucers, with only a couple bites worth of food. But they are refillable, you say, so who cares how much is on each plate? Ah yes, excellent point. The reason they only give you that much turns out to be because nobody wants to eat more than those couple bites.

Figure: At the VIP dinner on Thursday night

Either the side dish is ridiculously spicy (whole peppers on a plate? entire cloves of garlic? really?), or pickled (the favorite preparation method for perfectly good vegetables is to add vinegar), or - wait for it - ROTTEN. Yes. Spoiled, fermented, whatever you call it, that food is no good. What am I talking about? Oh, you know it. Kimchi. YES, kimchi, a food which is inexplicably a favorite dish for many people. The way you make kimchi is to put cabbage in a jar and LEAVE IT, possibly for years, and then hope all the spices you dumped in cover the smell and taste. When recipes have to warn you that "film may develop at the top of the jar," or "may bubble over time," then I think you need to step back and re-evaluate...

And what if you don't eat meat? Well, you can try ordering a vegetarian dish. But the problem is that fish and seafood are considered vegetarian. We've already established that most foods are prepared way beyond their original recognizable state, so it's already a gamble what you are eating. The one dish which is always vegetarian is "bibimbap" which is actually my favorite food in Korea. Everybody else liked it too, (had no kimchi, so already you are starting off well), so we all ended up running around yelling, "Bibimbap! Bibimbap!" when trying to get a decent meal. Fortunately all the vegetarians on our team were that way out of choice, and not allergic, so if they ended up eating any "vegetarian" meats, we just chalked it up to life experience and kept going...

At the end of the conference, we decided we could all use a drink, so we took ourselves out to celebrate.

All of the team ordered a beer, except for one guy. He ordered a cocktail, which (he claims) is a "manly" drink in the US, and usually comes in a highball glass with ice, like a Scotch.

Figure: hello fruity girl drink

Well, not in Korea.  Apparently here, that cocktail is a bright pink frothy drink that comes in a girl glass. With a cherry on top!

To end the night on a proper manly note, then, the gentlemen decided to relax with a couple Cuban cigars. (Available in Korea, but not the US. I am however skeptical that they could tell the difference; I view this in the same category with people who claim to tell the difference between a $40 and a $200 wine. I say after you crack $25, to the majority of people the wine's about the same...) Problem was, it was really cold in March when you are on a windy 17th floor balcony.

So here are our manly gentlemen, bundled up in bathrobes and a bedspread. Except the guy on the left, who you will note is the same one who ended up with the fruity drink. I think he was trying to redeem himself. That, and there were no more bathrobes... :)

On our last day in Korea, we went to a highly recommended spot for a traditional dish, ginseng chicken soup. Finally, I thought - chicken soup! Not spicy, not fermented. This I can handle. But when the dish arrived at our table, imagine my surprise to learn that chicken soup means that a whole baby chicken is stuffed into a bowl of chicken broth, and handed to you with chopsticks.

Do you remember my argument that the reason Korean women are gorgeous and skinny is because of the food? People, the traditional dish is a whole bird in a broth, with CHOPSTICKS for the complicated de-boning process and for eating a liquid.

I rest my case.


  1. Ha! Maybe you should start a new weight loss program: eating food with strange implements. Use a wrench to eat grilled cheese, a spoonula to eat peas, a for to eat soup... "You'll be so frustrated you'll lose your appetite!"

  2. Did you eat any Kimche (spelling?)? That stuff is great.