by Lindsey Coulter, Greenheart Travel English Teacher in Korea
Korean restaurants tend to be deceiving. Although outwardly unimpressive, they pack a punch in the kitchen. Time and again I’ve found myself staring down in awe, marveling at a plate of expertly prepared octopus or marinated mushrooms. In addition to just being straight up delicious, food is a crucial component of Korean society and an important link to the past. Despite centuries of evolution and some interesting Western fusions (i.e. the french fry corn dog conglomeration and oddly wonderful patbingsu), Korea has, thankfully, remained close to its culinary roots.
Although arguably one of the most future-focused societies in the world, food is a constant reminder of Korea’s considerable history. Traditionally, inhabitants of this small peninsula maintained a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and sea life; foods that are not so different from those I grew up with in middle America. How these staples are sliced, diced, steamed, fried and served, however, is drastically different. Koreans have been fermenting soybeans for doenjang since 1500 BC, and it was the ancient Baekje Kingdom that concocted the spicy, peppery kimchi still ubiquitous today. Thanks to globalization, Western-style bakeries, fried chicken joints and pizza chains now crowd the streets, but Koreans young and old still hold firm to their kimbab, gamjatang and samgyupsal.
If the way to the heart is truly through the stomach, then it’s not surprising that I can’t get a particular meal (and a particular restaurant) out of my mind. Apart from the fluorescent lighting and refrigerators bursting with soju, this modest establishment would have been at home in almost any era. Traditional hanji paper covering the windows cast a warm glow, and stacks of battered tin bowls and kettles were the only semblance of decor. Groups of smiling, work-weary locals had gathered to enjoy whole mackerel, spicy tofu stews and bowls of sweet makkeoli, an alcoholic rice drink. As far as restaurants go, it seemed fairly forgettable.
I curled my legs under the low wooden table as a harried ajumma arranged dozens of side dishes (banchan) in a brilliant, haphazard pattern. Between bites of sesame drenched greens and savory roasted duck I noticed this food seemed different, richer. My companions, locals themselves, explained this particular restaurant specialized in “old” Korean cuisine, using time-tested techniques and recipes, including those that have fallen out of current fashion. Fashionable or not, I devoured fantastic konggogi (a garlic-heavy bean dish that could easily pass for beef,) petite quail eggs simmered in soy sauce, rustic, homemade tofu served in a hollow bamboo branch, aged kimchi and yellow bean cakes drizzled with honey.
That simple meal is a perfect example of why Korea is so attractive to foreigners like myself. Despite living on the cutting edge of technology and development, history and tradition are easily accessible and eagerly shared. Since that evening, I’ve looked at almost every meal in different light. I suddenly wonder about the generations of hunters, farmers, foragers and cooks who coaxed distinct flavors from such humble ingredients. I think of the ways food changes between seasons, provinces and families, and how even trendy food trucks back in the US are integrating buchu muchim and gochujang into their menus. It’s a fabulous testament to the sheer awesomeness and almost universal likeability of Korean cuisine. When a dish has been around for 2,000+ years, circled the globe and won the hearts of some notoriously picky expats, you know it’s good.
After two hours of eating, drinking and impromptu Korean history lessons, I strolled home from that delightfully deceptive little restaurant full and happy. Laughter, chatter and the clanging of pots and pans filtered out into the night, proof that appreciation for “old”, “unfashionable” food is alive and well. I slowed to admire the bright lights of modern Incheon, still enjoying the lingering flavors of the old, already plotting my next culinary adventure.