On Cultural Encounters and Tangents

By Maggie Velasquez-Choi

Foodstuff – I've never been very picky about food. Maybe it's because when I was young (in Mexico ) we were just thankful to have beans and tortillas to eat. Later, in elementary school, I didn't understand why the kids in Boise City would criticize the school cafeteria. I thought the food was great, especially their hot rolls. Thank you, ladies! In my last year of college, when in missionary training, our motto wasn't hard for me to accept: “Lord, where you lead me I will follow, what you feed me I will swallow”. I didn't have the yuckies about eating foreign food as some of my classmates did.

Korean food is not a favorite global cuisine. About the only people that desire Korean food are Koreans or those who have lived here and acquired a taste for it.

Before refrigerators became common in the world, people learned to preserve their food. Koreans pickled their vegetables in late November with salt, garlic and dried-then-ground red pepper powder and sometimes little chunks of seafood. Then they put the pickled veggies, now called “kimchi”, in clay jars outside to ferment during the winter. The majority of the kimchi is pickled Chinese cabbage. Nowadays, with refrigerators, Koreans can have it all year round. Rice and kimchi are a staple at every meal. Most foreigners don't like the taste. The garlic and fermentation give it a bad smell and leave one with bad breath. The red hot pepper makes everything hot and spicy.

Usually, when we go out to eat we like to sit on the floor. It's very uncomfortable for newly-arrived foreigners but after months of practice we limber up and can finally enjoy it. Most restaurants have a cook-it-yourself menu. We order whatever, they bring us the ingredients, we put it in the pan or pot and watch it sizzle, steam or boil. We turn the meat or stir the soup while eating from the side dishes. Finally, when it's done we dip in. Koreans also don't use big plates. They cover the table with about 20 little bitty plates of different kimchis and other foods. Everybody double-dips their chopsticks during the meal (another yucky turnoff to foreigners). Only the rice and soup bowls are individual, everything else is shared.

Certainly I can't write on Korean cuisine without mentioning the delicacy enjoyed by old men in the “dog days” of summer: dog-flesh soup. It became technically illegal to sell or eat after Korea hosted the “88 Olympics”. Korea tried to clean up its international image after many foreigners voiced their disgust by it. But it's still here. The dog farms are everywhere and most of those types of restaurants are in old-time markets. Some advertise the soup; others are word-of-mouth. Either way, the law doesn't touch them. I think it's because it's mostly the old men that eat it and you can't tell old people nothin' in this society. Society is just waiting for them to die off and take their dog-eating culture with them. The dog-eater's logic is: A. dog's flesh looks very similar to human flesh so it must be very healthful for nourishing our flesh. B. Dogs do well in staying cool through the summertime so their ability will help me stay cool too. C. It's good for sexual stamina. When slaughtering the dogs they torture them before their death so the adrenaline can run through the dog's flesh. Adrenaline is energy, thus, adrenaline will give energy to the human body. This is what angrily motivates anti-dog-eating advocates the most.

But that's the negative aspect of the food culture. There's a lot of good to be said of the Korean diet. Most Koreans are thin and healthy and it's not because of a magic oriental tea. Most young Koreans believe and follow the logic of western medicine. Meals are mostly vegetarian and usually include a water-based soup (not creams and meats) to fill you up. Soda at mealtimes, or any other time, is unheard of. Butters, creams and sauces aren't part of the daily recipes. Meats are for rare special occasions. Most households have a stay-at-home mom so as to give her time to prepare the food from scratch. Not much canned, or boxed foods around here. About the only thing those younger than 45 don't do anymore is make kimchi. They'll either buy it or go to Mom's to get it.

I usually do fine with Korean food but pregnancy does something to a woman's cravings. I “need” Mexican and American food. Just as it's almost impossible to find Korean products in the Panhandle, it's difficult to find some American or Mexican products here, although there are more than there used to be 12 years ago. I value my Costco store, but it doesn't have everything I need, especially around Thanksgiving. I was expecting to buy some things on the black market but they were sold out. I asked some American soldiers if they could buy some products for me on the base but they said they have rations and their limit would be up soon since their wives also were preparing for Thanksgiving. I asked my sister, Teresa Ramos, who lives in Boise City , to send me cans of cranberry sauce, peas, Jell-O, bags of stuffing and gravy mixes. She spent ten dollars on the products and fifty dollars on the express shipping (it still took five days to get here). Thank you, sister. No, we didn't make turkey, most of my church members are vegetarian, and it's a good thing. The little turkeys on the black market were one hundred dollars. The black market here means that things that are not imported into Korea can still be purchased in stores where they are illegally bought from the American military base. Usually the Korean wives of American soldiers will buy from the commissary (subsidized by American taxpayers) and resell for a high price to the black market store. The store seller then resells it to me at an even higher price. I pay $15 for a pound of cheddar cheese. There's no legal place in Korea to buy whole oatmeal, Aunt Jemima pancake mix (the Korean stuff won't do) or corn tortillas (I can't make homemade ones because there's no masa harina here), Every time I go to America or my husband makes a business trip there I provide him with a long grocery list.

In my house we have fusion-food. That is, I set out western food and eastern food during mealtimes. When my husband graduated from UT Arlington we made a backyard picnic for family and friends. We laid out American, Mexican and Korean food. Later my mother said, “That guacamole was terrible. It burned my mouth and my whole head!” I said, “Mom, I didn't set out the guacamole. I forgot it. It's still here in the fridge. What did you taste?” She showed me. It was the wasabi (very hot mustard) for the sushi (raw fish). My poor mother. Later as I was recounting the episode to my mother-in-law she said, “What's guacamole?”