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Friday, December 03, 2004

Hold the kimchi

I'm an adventurous eater. There's very little food I don't like and even fewer I'm unwilling to at least try. But the Korean diet was, at times, a challenge. It's not that I didn't enjoy the food, but I was never really sure what I was eating and so describing it has been a challenge.

Perhaps I was poisoned early on. A month before my trip, my brother-in-law told me about kimchi, Korea's national dish. I've been describing it as fermented cabbage, garlic and spices. But really it's any variety of salted vegetables (cabbage, cucumber, radish) covered with a mixture of fish oil, garlic, red pepper paste and spices. The mixture is put into giant clay pots and left to ferment for an indeterminate time. My brother-in-law, who was in the Marines in Korea, claims kimchi pots were buried in manure in the ground and left to ferment. "It's nasty stuff," he told me. Somewhere in my subconscious, "kimchi = nasty stuff" must've hovered.

My Korean guidebook says it can become addictive. Certainly it is served at every meal, including breakfast. But, the book says, "Most foreigners either love it or hate it." I fall in the latter category. Gave kimchi the old college try, but it's not for me — too spicy, garlicy, cabbagey, etc. Our tour guide, Erin ("It's a good Irish name, no?" she said), told us that McDonald's in Korea serves a kimchi burger. Yuk! (Erin, an incredibly good sport enduring the unending questions and dumb jokes from journalists, was eventually nicknamed "The Kimchita" by our colleague from Russia. And every group photo, of which there were many, evoked "kimchi" in unison from the subjects.)

Our first Korean meal was at the Korean Folk Village. The remaining two women in our party hadn't yet arrived, so Sonya Smith, a senior at Cal State U., Long Beach, and I bonded early. Our stomachs were iffy, and Sonya is a vegetarian, which proved an even bigger challenge for her as the week wore on.

We opted for a dish called, and I know I'll misspell it, bimbimbop. Essentially it is white sticky rice and vegetables mixed with red chili paste. It was delicious and Sonya and I could probably have survived on it all week. I was grateful to young Mr. Yu who, at that first meal, gave me a lesson in using the metal chopsticks that are the standard in Korea.

My other favorite dish was bulgogi, meat barbecued at the table. It was good when rolled into a dried seaweed tortilla with a little rice and spicy vegetables.

We ate all manner of treasures from the sea, some I enjoyed, others I didn't. Shark fin soup was a gelatinous mixture in need of seasoning and I think I had more problems with the texture rather than the taste. But I could have consumed gallons of pumpkin porridge. In fact, any of the vegetable dishes were truly wonderful.

My favorite place we visited, though we only stayed for a short while on the last night, was Suwon City. It's in the center of the Korean peninsula and, like much of Korea, combines an intoxicating mix of ancient and modern.

We enjoyed a traditional Korean-style barbecue dinner (no shoes and seated on the floor), which proved tough for some of the American men, but they managed. We enjoyed grilling galbi right at our table, beef-ribs seasoned with sesame oil, garlic, toasted sesame seeds and pears. It was delicious. And there were plenty of mashed potatoes so my friend Sonya had something to fill her shrinking belly.

Suwon also is known for Bulhui, what Koreans call healthy liquor. It's made from 12 medicinal materials, including red ginseng (one of the country's largest exports), mulberry and Chinese matrimony vine. They claim it gives no sign of hangover. Near as I can tell, they are correct. We drank many toasts and did many "love shots" with Bulhui and I felt fine the next day, a good thing considering we were flying out.

But as much as I enjoyed (mostly) expanding my palate, I found myself craving McDonald's french fries, something I rarely indulge in here at home. In fact, during my layover in Minneapolis, I made for the Golden Arches for a large fry and "Coca-Cola Lite" as they call it in Asia.

And when my husband asked what he should make for dinner the night I got home, I suggested something along the lines of hamburgers on the grill. He made pork chops instead — and they were delicious.

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