Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Supermarkets, Kimchi and Tea: Spending Time in Seoul, South Korea

All of these new things you would not find in supermarkets in your home country, but they are popular and part of the diet in Korea. In the fruit and vegetable section you see types of fruit that are unfamiliar to you and a few vegetables that you do not recognise. Pig's heads and types of fish you have not seen before for example, become noticeable. Certain things such as yoghurts, washing powders and soft drinks may be pretty much the same worldwide, but a stroll down the meat section in England or America.

I have always felt that visiting a supermarket in a new country is a good way to get an initial insight into the new culture. Before talking more about Kimchi, which I am sure most Koreans have looked for in the index of this book (before considering if this book was worth buying) let's talk first talk about supermarkets in Korea.
In Korea, Chinese medicine seems to be very popular and as a result, supermarkets often stack traditional remedies such as deer antlers, which are thought to be able to give energy and strength. On first seeing them, I thought they looked unappetising, particularly with them being cut into thin bloody slices. They are nevertheless very popular as a remedy and are also quite expensive. I tried a medicine that contained deer antlers extract, ginseng and other herbs and my taste buds did not quite agree with the taste BUT I felt more energetic. I think though that the way in which the taste made me almost jump out of my skin had something to do with the sudden burst of energy I felt. I get the same feeling from drinking a full bottle of Soju!
As well as certain types of meat, Korean supermarkets often offer a great selection of items such as 'Tofu' (dubu) and 'Kimchi'. Tofu comes in many different types in Korea, usually varying according to the consistency. Tofu tastes great in soups, especially in one of my favourite soups 'Sun-Dubu'. I prefer the soft tofu of 'Sun-Dubu', more than the hard Dubu which I also experienced in soups - but cut into slices or diced, and fried.
The speciality of Korea, which I had expected to find everywhere and which was everywhere, is 'Kimchi'. Kimchi may be mentioned many times in this book and it is unavoidable. It is like writing a book about England without mentioning football, pubs and London; or writing about America and not mentioning the 'B' word - Bush or baseball; or writing about the French and not mentioning how much they hate visitors speaking English rather than French in their country.
The importance of Kimchi became clear almost as soon as I arrived in Korea. Not only did the subject of this phenomenon in Korea come up in conversations in classes, but there are also dozens of variations of Kimchi on display in the many supermarkets. It was clear early on from my students, that Kimchi is more than just a food. It is a necessity. A passion. An essential ingredient of Korean culture! Many students told me off how when they go abroad, they miss Kimchi more than anything else. One student said that he missed Kimchi even more than his own family and friends, when abroad.
Ch'ungch'ong Provinces have Gul Ggaktugi (oyster and sliced radishes) and Hobak (pumpkin) Kimchi. Kangwon Province has Chanran (fish paste and sliced radish) Kimchi and Ojingeo Mu-u (squid radish) Kimchi. Cheju island for example, have Haemul (seafood) Kimchi and Nabak (square cut radish). I learned after a few months in Korea that there thought to be over 100 different types of Kimchi and different types of Kimchi according to the area of Korea.
I actually like Kimchi quite a lot and I never hesitated to eat Kimchi when this cabbage, garlic and chilli based food was on the table in front of me. My own favourite is Myeolchi Kimchi - made with a dried fish base and strong seafood taste. Many English teachers in Korea love it as well. I could never eat it for breakfast though. Many people from Anglo countries dislike Myeolchi Kimchi, but they do often like other types of Kimchi. The fact that many Koreans eat Kimchi at every meal including breakfast shows the depth of passion for what is considered a National treasure.
In addition to an amazing colourful display of different varieties of Kimchi, ready-made Korean specialities such as Korean pancakes, cold glass noodles, cooked vegetables and sautéed mushrooms can be found. A warning though! Be careful of Korean bread, as things are not always as they seem. What looks like a normal Western loaf of bread, can when you bite into it, leave you with a mouthful of cream. The centre of the bread is often full of cream and it can be quite a surprise the first time: not because there is anything wrong with cream, but just because you are not expecting it, and you are caught off guard. I do not know why there is cream inside the bread, but there is. It could be because Koreans usually eat rice at every meal, rather than bread, hence bread for Koreans is more like a dessert. Maybe it is a new thing in Korea just to keep the Westerners on their toes!
As an Englishman, the tea section in a supermarket can be very important. Green tea and barley tea are common in many Korean supermarkets and the quality is always good. The problem for an English person though, is that black tea is the most common type of tea drank and in Korea, the only black tea you can normally find is Twinings. Twinings and all other black teas I found in Seoul, were less than half the strength of black teas on sale in England. When I visited the U.S., I always had the same problem finding a good quality cup of black tea so these days when travelling, I usually take some good tea bags (a good brand of Indian tea on sale in England) and a travel kettle. I even have to send it to my English, Australian and South African friends who work in Korea. Tea is probably as important to many British as Kimchi is to Koreans. In the English language there are even expressions which use tea in the expression; such is the importance of tea in British culture. A typical expression is: "I wouldn't visit the South Pole for all the tea in China". Not "(to do something) for all the tea in China" is a common expression in British English to express when there is no way you would do something. Maybe there is a proverb or expression in Korean involving Kimchi.
Travel diary of living in Seoul, South Korea


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