Eating my way through Korea

Brian Hanson-Harding, English Teacher at Northern Valley High School in Old Tappan, New Jersey

 

During my two-week trip with Sejong, I learned a great deal about Korean history, art, literature, religion, and tradition, but nothing taught me more about Koreans than the culture of Korean food. I've been eating Korean food for decades, since my first taste of bulgogi at Woo Lae Oak in midtown Manhattan during the 1980s. But it wasn't until I spent two weeks in the country, eating Korean food three times a day, sharing meals with families, and sitting at low tables, that I fully began to appreciate what food means to Koreans and what it says about them.

First, I learned that, to Koreans, food is key to health and wellbeing. It seemed that at every meal there was a dish or ingredient that had a specific health benefit, or acted as an aid to digestion or good appetite. And Koreans seem very concerned about others' appetites. I learned that a traditional morning greeting was "Have you eaten lice yet?" and a common afternoon greeting is "Have you had lunch yet?" Having endured a long history of suffering and privation, Koreans seem determined that their guests eat enough. Wishing someone to have enough to eat seems to be the Korean way of showing that one cares.

Furthermore, To Koreans, food is fresh and local. While Americans have just recently begun to understand the importance of local food, it seems Koreans have known about it all along. Their cities and towns are full of markets selling fresh food that has never seen the inside of a package. Fish and seafood are sold just meters away from the sea where they were caught. Wherever you look in this crowded, mountainous country, every inch of available space is planted with crops of all sorts. And in every backyard sits a changdok, a collection of (traditionally) ceramic pots containing the kimchi and sauces and pastes that are key to Korean cooking, and all of which were prepared by the family, working together to prepare the essential ingredients of their food for the year.

Above all, to Koreans, food means sharing. When people eat a meal together, they not only sit facing each other, but they share everything: the meat on the grill, the pot of jigae, and the many small dishes of panchan. Whereas Americans are accustomed to choosing dishes for themselves without regard to others, Koreans eat collectively. And they not only share the same food, but they all eat off the same plates with their chopsticks and all dip their long-handled spoons into the same stew pots. To me, this says a lot about the trust and closeness that exists among those sharing a meal. To be invited into a family's house is to be invited to eat out of their soup bowl. And to eat with a family is to share the kimchi and sauces that they prepared together and put into their chang-dok.

The sharing of meals among members of a Korean family seems to me very emblematic of what this culture is about. It reflects the typically Confucian emphasis on the group over the individual, as well as the happy realization that a people who lived through starvation and suffering now live (for the most part) in a land of plenty.