“I think you should not eat so much spicy food,” my Korean co-teacher told me one day, after watching me load up in the kitchen during lunch. “It might disturb your stomach.”
I shrugged sheepishly. These days, it’s hard to determine what my body desires the most–rice or kimchi.
In spite of my vegetarianism, I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to food. Growing up in a Filipino household, I often had to eat a lot of food that would make most people queasy–“chocolate” meat, goat meat, dog meat, duck embryos.
At an early age I grew used to the sight of whole, bronzed pigs on the buffet table. I’d poke out fish eyes and grind them between my front teeth. I’d pry baby ducks from their eggs and–while my parents weren’t looking–make them dance for my sisters. I’d break chicken bones and suck on the marrow with relish. Squid? Couldn’t go down my throat fast enough!
But, in truth, I’m not too crazy about Filipino “dinners”–mostly because I don’t like most fried foods. (In my defense, I do find Philippine bread and desserts excellent, especially those with rice.) I’ll eat my mom’s dinners–she makes awesome lumpia and halo-halo—but rarely anyone else’s.
The point is, it takes a whole lot to faze me. So what might disturb your everyday expat only stirs my curiosity.
From a Western standpoint, it is only to easy to identify Korean food with Chinese or Japanese. After all, aside from bigger cities you’d be hard-pressed to find Korean restaurants. But each style has its own distinctive taste.
It took me a while to warm up to Korean food, especially after I saw cabbage lying in the streets last winter. The bloody appearance of kimchi didn’t help, either. But the spiciness eventually caught on and now I’m a full-grow kimchi addict. If I go a day without it, I’ll hit the bed feeling hungry. I just feel so much better after I eat it–my nose and throat is less stuffy, and my digestion runs more smoothly.
That isn’t to say that eating here is a walk in the park. When I go into a restaurant for the first time and tell them I’m a vegetarian, I still get dishes with ham or fish. (To be fair, my pronunciation isn’t that great.) If I happen to find a tasty dinner that hadn’t walked, flown or swam in its previous life, I tend to eat it every day for weeks, at the same restaurant.
Last spring, the staff at one restaurant near my work was a real godsend–they always knew I wanted cheese bibimpap, no meat. I ate there for three months. At one point I bought a rice cooker and tried to make my own, but it wasn’t the same. But then management changed, and I started seeing meat in my food again, in spite of my protests. So now I’m out of a good bibimpap place.
Now kimchi is my passion. I go wild for the stuff, even when it makes my eyes water and nose run. Yes, I know most types contain fish. I don’t care. Well, I do, but my nose isn’t strong enough to tell “fishy” kimchi from “it wasn’t breathing” kimchi.
After finishing each shred of cabbage, I take a square of seaweed, pick up some rice, and mop up the rest of the red juice. Even my students are a little confused by how much I eat (it can get too hot for them at times). “Teacher, you Korean!” they shrieked once.
However, they continue to be disgusted by my love for all things cheese, for which I am notorious.
What will happen to me when I get back to California? “Maybe I should take a cooking class and learn how to make kimchi,” I told my supervisor last week.
“Koreans use a special kind of cabbage,” she said. “You use American vegetables, it won’t be the same.”
What a dilemma!
And it ain’t just the spicy stuff that’s running through my veins. As I mentioned before, I love green tea. It borders on obsession, really.
As of now, I’ve had green tea cereal, green tea bread, green tea ice cream, green tea lattes, green tea cheesecake, green tea muffins (with green tea chocolate chips!), green tea tiramisu, green tea rice donuts, green tea dumplings, green tea smoothies and god knows what else. I even chew green tea gum and brush my teeth with green tea toothpaste.
And, of course, I’m well-stocked with actual green tea, should the apocalypse arrive any time soon.
I can’t even discuss my great consumption of rice cakes and tofu. Clearly, it’s going to be take a while before I start eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches again.
My taste buds aren’t the only things that have changed–so have my eating habits and manners. But I suppose that’s another post altogether.
Read Full Post »