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Seoul Food - Part 1
Fred C. Wilson III
Seoul, South Korea is one of the most exotic places on the planet. It's unique among Asian countries. The South Korean capital is a healthy mix of Japanese industriousness, Irish religious zeal, and traditional Chinese Confucian values, topped off with a Russian's love for all things mysterious and tough. Geography was partially responsible for the molding of the rough Korean character. With Russia and China straddled along their Northern and Western borders, the Japanese mega-giant to their West, and tiny Korea in the middle, the people of the Land of the Morning Calm had very little choice. It was toughen up or perish. I sampled Korean toughness at the airport when clearing immigration. The Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers who manned the immigration cubicles stamping passports verbally worked me over before permitting me entry. That ordeal over, I took a taxicab to my hotel in one of the more scenic areas of the South Korean capital.
History and Home Cooking
Korea has a long history. Whenever its history is told it nearly always begins with Tan'gun, the mystical founder of the country. According to this myth, Hwanung, the son of the Divine Creator, came to the earth with 3,000 followers and proclaimed himself king and ruler of the universe in the year 2,333 B.C. He was supposed to have ruled until the year 1,122 B.C. The oldest traces of Korean history were around 4,270 B.C. during the Neolithic Age. Throughout that time period until very recently, Korean history was punctuated by numerous wars, invasions, and more wars but through all these upheavals the proud people of this peninsula developed world class literature, art, culture, and various ruling dynasties. Though the country is sorely divided between the more democratic south and the communist north, brave Koreans continue to amaze the world by the resiliency of a proud and industrious people.
The New Naija Hotel was probably the most American of Seoul's hotels. It was a home away from home to numerous American military personnel. After a solid night's sleep, I got up at my usual time—early. It was my first full day in Seoul and I wanted to get a good start. Breakfast was a big surprise. The menu had everything Korean and American! Grits, bacon, ham, pancakes, eggs anyway you want 'em, toast, milk, coffee, tea, a wide variety of fruit juices—EVERYTHING! Being from Chicago, a food city of the world, it was all good. Just like home. I didn't believe it until I ate it. The cooks could really "burn" (cook). It was fantastic! Even better than many top restaurants back home. During my holiday I ate like a Korean king. I had "American" for breakfast but lunch and dinner was strictly Korean and at very reasonable prices.
Appreciating the Korean Personality
After my sumptuous breakfast I decided to "walk it off" (Ha! Who was I trying to kid?) by taking a walking tour of the neighborhood. My girlfriend, a young Korean lady, planned my entire itinerary. She selected the New Naija due to its close proximity to a myriad of the cultural and artistic centers in Seoul. As I was standing on a corner waiting for the light to change, I couldn't help but notice that nearly everyone, except me, was wearing suits. The men wore suits and ties. The women had on skirts, heels, and dress coats. Everybody seemed to be carrying an attaché case. As I walked it dawned on me that the people here were very formal; and talk about a clean country—the streets were clean with nary a cigarette butt in sight. There was no graffiti on buildings, and nobody jaywalked. Road rage among drivers did not exist, with motorists staying in their lanes. The "powers that be" ran that country by "the numbers." Koreans are a very conservative people and are expected to behave properly at all times. I found out the hard way that if you deviate from expected behavior, they will tell you about it and in not so pleasant terms, believe me. I wasn't on the South Side of Chicago anymore so I rapidly learned by the numbers. The Korean people are friendly, well-behaved, but not too big on patience. If you ask them questions or for directions they will be more than happy to help you out, just don't ask the same question twice after they explained it to you thoroughly the first time. Compared to all too many American cities, Seoul is a relatively safe place. In Chicago we have a Korean friend, a native of Seoul. Once I asked her, "Does your country have serious problems with juvenile gangs like we have here in Chicago and most other American cities?" Without skipping a beat she replied, "No have gangs Korea. They make trouble we take them faaaarrr away—you don't see no mo'."
What You'll See
The walk through the streets of Seoul was very scenic. The old Korean-style buildings are tributes to an elegant age gone by. I walked near elementary schools observing kids at play during recess and noticed that they act just as wild as ours in the States, and I was a 30-year veteran public school teacher. I took pictures of the arch that commemorated Korea's initial independence. The public swimming pool filled with swimmers reminded me of the Chicago Park District's free outdoor swimming pools that are available for summertime use. I walked through the subterranean world of shops and restaurants near subway stations, to the "soul" neighborhood where loudspeakers blast loud R & B music and where cheap but high quality suits could be had for next to nothing. I purchased a white tropical suit tailor made to fit!
Seoul is a city of restaurants, stores, and markets of every size and description that sold a wide variety of foods, dry goods, native medicines, and everything you can imagine, with everything for sale. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Seoul. One of the drawbacks of being raised in the American Midwest is that the terrain is flat … flat for many miles in any direction. Not so with Seoul; it's a city built on hills.
According to the latest 2006 polls Chicago is America's "fattest" city, bar none. I represented our city very well and nearly fainted huffing and puffing up one hill then down the other in a city where the majority of people are thin, exercise daily, and eat mostly fish and vegetables. Seoul is located on or near the same longitudinal line as Chicago so I couldn't use bad weather as an excuse for my excessive sedentary lifestyle. Both cities have basically the same weather, but Koreans do something about keeping the excessive blubber off. I have no excuse. When afternoon arrived I was still full up from the huge Chicago-style breakfast I had earlier. I just continued my walking tour taking scores of photographs.
I'm an ex-smoker—cigars and pipes. When I was leaving a Buddhist religious gift store, (I'm not Buddhist but a relative wanted a statuette of Buddha and a rosary) I was nearly accosted by a young, gray-robed monk who was leaving the store at the same time. I tried to respectfully bypass this baldheaded cleric but the man started shaking his grey robe saying in perfect English, "You stink! You stink! Don't you know that smoking can and will kill you! What's your problem?"
Back home this would have never happened unless the guy had a gun to go with it. Koreans speak their minds. After seeing movies about how priests from that side of the world engage kung fu folks in fights, and being in a foreign country, I was in no position to argue with the man, if I remember correctly, I merely asked him what was his problem. As it turned out, this man who was about my age invited me to sit next to him on a chair outside. He gave me a long lecture on why I should take good health seriously. During his lecture/sermon I discovered that he "pastors" two temples; one in Seoul the other in Honolulu, Hawaii, which was the reason why he spoke flawless "street" English. We talked for some time. Since I'm a big one for church myself, I asked him a few questions.
"Father, how's business these days?"
"Not too good," he sighed, obviously saddened by something I wasn't aware of at the time.
"You know, Father, I really hate to see you feeling low but I tell ya' what I'll do," I pulled out a Y500 (Wan) bank note dangling it over his silver begging bowl. "Would this make you happy?"
"It might," he replied, with eyes gleaming.
I eased the brown bank note with some ancient dignitary's picture on the face of the Wan note into his empty bowl.
He thanked me. After about 20 more minutes of conversation, we exchanged addresses and promised to write each other once I returned to the States. I kept my promise but I never heard from him again. He was a nice man and I had promised to take better care of my health. A year after our "chance" encounter I gave up smoking and lost over 100 pounds. The priest's scolding paid off. As with many Asians, the Koreans as a people rarely profess to a single faith. It's common for them to pick and choose various elements from Buddhism, Confucianism, and the two main branches of Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), though Islam and Taoism also have a strong following in Seoul. Being Catholic I toured, this time by taxicab, Seoul's Myeong-dong Cathedral. A historical city site, the cathedral was completed in 1898 in the Western gothic architectural style. Like Chicago, Seoul is a major Catholic diocese (archdiocese) with its own cardinal archbishop, so I felt at home.
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