Monday, March 29, 2010

Street Vender Food

Korea has so many people and yet it is so small. So it really shouldn't come as a surprise that much of the food from one end of the country to another is basically the same.

By far, one of joys of living in Korea is the food. One of the staple places to get food is from a tok-bo-ki stand.

These stands never fail to amaze me for a variety of reasons. First, there are so many of them. Yet, they all serve basically the same food. This makes them more common than Starbucks in Seattle (barely)!

In the picture you can see 5 stands. Every day, these carts (or sometimes the back of small pickup trucks) move out along the street corner and hawk their wares. At the end of the night, they close up, pack up, and move their restaurant away to do it all over again the next day.

While their is some variety to what they sell from booth to booth...almost all of them have 2 dishes in common. The first is fish paste on a stick. The fish paste (called u-dang) cut into long, strips, skewered like a kabab, and boiled. The broth is later served with onions and pepper as a kind soup.

The other common dish is staple of Korean life called ttok- boki. The ttok is actually just rice cake. When served in ttok-boki, it is served in pieces that size of water chestnuts slices, or maybe sections the size of rigatoni. Sometimes Koreans will make ttok into just that...cakes. It will come in sections the same size as a cake pan. It will be loaded with various nuts, corn, and onions. But that's not their favorite way to enjoy it!

What gives it the name boki is the sauce. At the base of the sause is the chili paste called go-chu-jang. This red, spicy paste is a common as ketchup in Korea. With most Korean meals, there will be wide variety dishes...and always a side of go-chu-jang

The spice is a bit too spicy for most Koreans taste (mine too for that matter) to be eaten in bulk. Instead, they cut it with another less spicy sauce you may have heard of called "ketchup." Once the two are combined in the proper ratio, they are heated with u-dang (that pesky fish paste again) and served. This is basically what you find on every street corner in Korea.

As with all common dishes, there is room for improvements. In fact, most Koreans believe that they have a secret, family recipe. Think like Americans and their chocolate chip cookie recipes. The one time I've been fortunate enough to watch the cooking process. She added onions, tini-weenies, carrots, and cheese. It was ok...but nothing to write home about.

But back to street vendors...other things you may find include deep fried vegetables, mandu (think won-tons) filled with either meat or kimchi (spicy sauerkraut) and various types of meat kababs (chicken or some form of sausage with or without spice)

But they all have ttoki-boki. And by far, whenever I ask my kids what their favorite food is...they always mentoin ttok-boki.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I can't breathe!

It has begun!

Koreans don't have an expression for "spring is in the air" You see in between the white and brown dreary, beauty of the winter season and the green regeneration of life that is the spring season, Korea has another "special" season. They call it yellow dust season.

To the west of Korea, is a little country you may of heard of called China. In the north west of China is a great desert called the Gobi. A giant dust storm builds over the Gobi and travels over Beijing, across the Yellow Sea and showers the land with a blanket thick yellow air.

Many moonies ago, the Koreans believed that the gods were displeased with them. Now, they know it comes from the deforestation in northern China. The bigger problem is not the dust from the desert per say, but rather the dust it picks up over one of the world's most polluted countries. So instead of sand those 2.5 parts per thousand (please note that air pollution is normally measured in parts per million...) now carries all sorts of goods that you would normally expect to find in a Chinese made toy. According to my good friend wikipedia...the air I breath is now laced with "sulfur , soot, ash, carbon monoxide, mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic , lead, zinc, copper fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, and herbicides. "

So I probably shouldn't be surprised by the fact that I feel like I have a cold. My throat is sore, my nose runs and my lungs feel tight. In other words, I feel like I have a cold. But from the sound of it, so do all my students. They are constantly hacking up a lung in class.

When I first came to Korea, I could never quite understand why 10% of the population wore surgical masks outside. Now I know!

I also better understand the Korean concept of dirty outside, clean inside. Koreans don't really shower in the morning. When they get home from work (and a long day at that...Koreans work more hours than anyone else in the world) , they immediately take their shoes off. Then and only then do they take their big shower for the day.

They may not be able to control what the air is like. (even though the Koreans are currently planting trees in China the attempt to mitigate the effect) But they can control what their apartment is like. Most Korean apartments have air purifiers. They may not be able to control want comes out of the tap (a suspiciously high concentration of heavy metals) but they can control what they drink. Most Korean apartments have water purifies, too.

Sadly, as a transient foreigner...I never quite got around to investing in an air filter or water filter. Instead I make due with bottled water and a struggling little plant...that doesn't seem to feel any better than I do.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


It snowed today. It wasn't the 70 year storm of January. But there was a pleasant couple of centimeters that makes everything white, beautiful, and a bit chilly.

What better weather to stay inside and watch a movie.

What an inspired movie it was! It was inspired by true events that were in turn inspired by a movie.

OK...let's play a little game...if you could pick any American war movie to base an expedition on...what would it be?

Today, Korea is "technically" at war with itself. While the North and the South declared an armistice 50 some odd years ago, they are not officially at peace. Occasionally this will lead to minor clashes at sea, tunnels dug across the border or the random launching of rockets.

But it wasn't always this calm. Back in 1968, the North Koreans sent a commando unit into Seoul in order to assassinate then dictator/president of South Korea Park Chung Hee. The South Koreans decided to respond in kind.

Did you think of a movie yet? I gave you a hint...the movie came out before 1968...

The South Korean government selected about 3 dozen death row inmates, staged mock executions, and shipped them off to an uninhabited island (which is near the world's most highly rated airport: Incheon Airport) called Silmido.

Under the watchful eye of a hardened commander, these hardened criminals became hardened soldiers under dangerous conditions. How extreme...if 20% of your recruits don't survive...the training might be considered slightly lethal.

These death-row-soldiers had one purpose. They were to assassinate North Korea's leader Kim Il Sung. After which, they would receive their freedom.

This is where the similarities between Unit 684 and the movie "The Dirty Dozen" end. (Was that your movie?) You see, the Dirty Dozen got to kill many Nazis and some members of the unit actually survived.

Unit 684 started their mission, but their mission was stopped en route after the top brass got cold feet. In the years between the assassination attempt, the tensions had eased between the Koreas. The countries wanted to work towards peaceful reconciliation.

So the project was ordered terminated.

And by terminated I mean, the orders were to kill everyone in Unit 684 and erase all traces of the project.

Instead of being slaughtered like sheep, these honed assassins, overwhelmed their guards, and commandeered a bus headed towards the Blue House in Seoul (home of the president...think the White House...with different paint...)

The South Korean army eventually managed to successfully barricade them. Outnumbered and surrounded, the surviving member of 684 committed suicide...

The official press releases from 1971 indicate a death squad unleashed by the North. It wasn't until very recently that the documents surrounding the incident were declassified. Which promptly spawned a movie.

Which promptly spawned a blog post...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Olympics

When I first came to Korea...I would stop in the various stores and gizmo shops looking for various amenities for my home. (Initially it was a coffee grinder)

While I would peruse the aisles...the TVs would have commercials for various Korean products. Sometimes it would be a guy selling a kimchi fridge (at university we called it a "beer fridge") But other times it would be a 12 year old in a blue tutu selling A/C units.

Little did I know that little little girl wasn't 12...she was the darling of Korea...Kim Yu Na (rhymes with gun-a and bun-a NOT tuna)

You see around here she's more on more billboards than Tiger Woods. Coincidentally, both are sponsored by Nike...from A/C (or as they called them here "aircon") to cars for Hyundai and banking products for a Kookmin Bank.

But why wouldn't they celebrate a record setting world champion? Well...I guess my question is...why doesn't Nike pick up Jang Mi Ran?

I mean she is a gold medalist....

She is the world record holder...

She is South Korean...

Wouldn't you buy a car being pushed by her?


Well maybe Kim Yu Na's looks may compound her fame...just a bit.

Almost all of my students watched her skate...all except a 6th grader with the English name of Jennifer. You see, Jennifer didn't complete her homework before Yu Na began her first performance. As such, her mother didn't let her watch it. Let that be a lesson for you, never get between a Korean mother and her child's education...

The obsession with her is so great, the only that could make them more obsessed with is if Japan were somehow involved...low and behold the silver medalist behind Yu Na was Mao Asada...Japan's number one skater. If there's one thing I've learned while living's don't get between a Korean mother and her child's education. If its 2 things...its that Korea will never turn down a chance to one up Japan...ever!

While Korea didn't do well in any of the skiing events....they did have a phenomenal short track team. They dominate the world in this sport!

I have to wonder about the short track. I mean I understand long distance speed skating. It's like running a race in track...all the runners have their lane (generally) and they go as fast as they can. But the short track races remind me of the Figure 8 race at a demolition derby. They cross lanes so much that collisions are not only inevitable...they are the idea.

The same goes for short track...why have so much weaving in and out of lanes if you didn't want them to run into one another. Only, this is an Olympic Sport with 45 cm (18 inches for those Neanderthals still on the Imperial System) razor blades attached to their feet. Collisions are frowned on as a gashed leg just doesn't have the same appeal as a car wreck.

The reality is disqualifications are an integral aspect of the sport. And no one has reaped the rewards of South Korea's mistakes more than Seattlite Apolo Ohno.

Over the course of the past 3 Olympics, he has succeeded in being a thorn in Korea's side. When the 1500 meter (that's right...the Olympics uses METERS) short track race went into the final lap and the rankings were Korea, Korea, Korea, and Ohno. But the 2nd and 3rd place Koreans couldn't play nice with one another ...they collided leaving lonely Apolo an unearned silver medal.

This is just one of many examples in which a slip, crash, or disqualification helped little Ohno.

The South Korean became obsessed with him in a way that could only be enhanced by this American's relationship with Japan.

Oh wait...his father is Japanese...

Yeah....they REALLY hate him over here. He is the MOST hated athlete in South Korea

So much so that when the South Korean received the gold (and Ohno the silver) in the above mentioned 1500 meter short track race....the South Korean later expressed to the newspaper that "Ohno didn't deserve to stand on the same medal platform as me. I was so enraged that it was hard for me to contain myself during the victory ceremony"

I would like to point out that he is the most decorated winter athlete in American sharing the stage with him...might be an honor.

Not here in Korea and certainly not for any Korean in the Olympics...

If you want, I can pick you up a roll of Ohno printed toilet paper.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Migeum Yeok

I live in a strange neighborhood...well at least strange to me...

It's not quite the richest neighborhood of Seoul...just the second largest. Around me are a disproportionate number of well-to-do individuals that make up the upper caste in any society. The "Beverly Hills " of Korea is located in Seoul at a place called "Gangnam" It is a VERY nice area...and the way you can tell is the excessive number of BMWs and BENZs that I'm able to spot in the area. I live in the second yuppiest area of Seoul (and therefore Korea itself) a place call Sungnam City. While the US would call Sungnam a suburb...I find it slightly more complicated than that...

When I think suburb...I think the Seattle suburbs in which I was raised....houses, culs-de-sacs, gardens and a few too many SUVs

In Korea, it's slightly different. It's the fifth most densely populated country in the unless you're on a farm you live in an apartment. Not just any apartment...a Korean style apartment.

These cookie-cuttered monstrosities shoot up at a blinding speed that boggles the mind. They come in complexes of 12-20 and average 20 stories high (but can easily double that in the denser areas of Seoul.)

I live just south of Seoul where the subway snakes south between the hills. The square block immediately surrounding the subway stop is a mecca of restaurants, bars, private academies (like mine) doctors, dentists, spas, hair name it...and there are 2 of them. There are 2 Baskin Robbins...2 Lotterias (the Korean McDonalds)...2 Dunkin Donuts...and many, many other Korean shops. (but no Love Motels...which speaks to the reputability of area in which I live)

But after that first block around the station....there are those Korean apartments...rising up in every direction for a kilometer. Anytime the people living there want to eat, drink, and shop...they congregate around where I live.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I have come full circle....

It was one year and one week ago that I came to Korea. I had a friend that I hadn't seen in a long time flying to Japan a day before I, so I arranged with my previous employer to fly in a day early. In stead of spending 10 hours flying next to a stranger, I spent 10 hours catching up with an old friend.

We took off from Seattle on the morning of Friday the 13th of February (there will be a test on dates later in this post), but due to the international date line's location in the Pacific Ocean, we landed in Tokyo on Saturday night and caught our respective connecting flights.

After a brief connecting flight across the East Sea (do NOT call it the "Sea of Japan" around a Korean if you value your life!) I arrived in Korea...well...the rest is written about elsewhere.

Due to the fact that arrived a day early, my apartment wasn't quite ready. My boss set me up in a motel room for the night.

Pop Quiz: I arrived in Korea on what holiday?

I you guessed Valentine's win a metal chop stick.

This was my first introduction to what the Koreans call "Love Motels."

I don't WHAT was going on in the surrounding rooms...but it sounded suspiciously like a bed jumping competition.

Now to us foreigners, these hotels serve as staple for traveling. When I visited my friends in various cities around Korea and I needed a place to stay...that was the place...and every foreigner I know does the same. For the following reasons: they are clean, cheap, and you get your own bed.

They have a WILDLY different reputations among the Koreans. Just the as the expression "sleeping with someone" connotes anything but Korean "visiting a Love Motel" implies anything but sleeping.

So much so that last week led to a bit of a tug of war. You see on Sunday, the 5 sisters and the general were all sleeping on the floor of the general's one room apartment. They slept on thin pads on the heated floor...aka Korean style.

I, unfortunately, am a spoiled foreigner that hadn't had a good night's sleep in 3 days and I desperately wanted to sleep in a real bed that night. It took a while, but I finally manged to convince my much scandalized friends to show me where a local motel was.

You see, my friends had never stayed, nor do they ever have any intention of staying at such a place of ill repute. But they did show me across the street where a cluster motels was conveniently located.

I could see the disgusted curiosity shining in their eyes as they escorted me to my room. They know these places as dirty and vial. They were impressed by its cleanliness and awed at the size of the bathtub (big enough to fit 2 people) With their curiosity satisfied, the reputation of type of building they were in came back to them...and they promptly said goodbye.

Pop Quiz: Lunar New Years corresponded with what Western holiday this year.

If you guessed Valentine's Day, you win another metal chop stick.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A seven sister army

So I caught the sleeper bus Friday night. As every Korean is obligated to go home this weekend...the traffic reminded me of those modern engineering marvels that span Lake Washington...

Oddly enough, the traffic doubled as a mixed blessing. Yes, the
traffic was stop and go, the seats were uncomfortable, and sleep was little and far between. But my friend, her sister, and I arrived in Busan at 7:00 in the morning. Early enough that the day was still young, yet late enough that the subways were up and running and the army was wide awake.

You see, there is more to to the family than just the 2 sisters that I know. There are 7 sisters...they call themselves an army...and the mother the general.

The Korean/Confucian ideal reveres men. In order to honor the ancestors at the traditional holidays (Lunar New Years and Harvest) you need a male descendant...if you have a keep on trying.

The women traditionally spend the entire day preparing many dishes to offer their ancestors ... and lucky me I just happened to visit on a cooking/feasting holiday. I thought I was fortunate to visit on such a holiday...until I sat down to dinner.

You see the matriarch-general grew up poor and hungry. A traditional Korean greeting might inquire if you ate yesterday...because literally the entire country was starving and it was a legitimate question for her when she was a child. Where in America this might translate into a tradition of cleaning your Korea in involves providing more food than your can possibly eat. In Korea, it is considered polite to leave some food on your plate (no matter how delicious it is) in order to show that you were provided too much food and couldn't possibly eat another bite.

I tried that with the matriarch...but it didn't work. You see she prepared enough food for 10 people...5 of her daughters ate peckishly...and I was expected to take up the slack. When I was full...she insisted I eat more...when I was ready to burst, she insisted I eat more...

I began dreading eating meal with her. Not because the food wasn't was
amazing...but because because I felt like a cow being feed in preparation for slaughter...

That and the sixth sister's constant (seen above in pink) mention of making Philip Bone Soup...