Korean foods I do not like

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The older I get, the more intensely Korean I feel.  For years, I could go months without eating kimchi.  Now, something in my DNA cries out for it week after week.  I’ve also started to feel more nationalistic, very proud and sometimes defensive, especially about our food.  When someone says Korean food smells bad, I feel this little kid urge to spit back, “Oh yeah? You smell bad!”

So it hurts me a little to admit there are Korean foods I do not like, and even more, to admit that they smell bad.  I wouldn’t tell you, except I want always to be truthful in everything I write, whether it’s a cookbook or a story.  And this way, when I tell you that acorn jelly, in all its slippery glory, is really delicious, you’ll know that you can trust me.

Diane and I had dinner a few nights ago with our parents at 두레, Doorei, a lovely, traditional restaurant in Insa-dong, a lovely, traditional neighborhood.  Despite the title of this post, I have no complaints about the restaurant.  Other than the three dishes described below, I liked their food very much, like the salty and chewy dried 민어, mineo, or croaker fish (photo above).  And even including these three dishes, the kitchen was cooking with an honest and quiet restraint.  The flavors were clean and clear, whether they were bellflower roots in a spicy sauce or perfectly cooked rice dotted with dark beans.

I should also note that we ordered foods we were pretty sure we wouldn’t like.  I don’t believe in extreme eating (I hate when Westerners brag about eating “gross” things that are totally normal to other people) but I do believe in education.
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홍어찜, hongeojjim, was very educational (photo above).  Hongeojjim is fermented steamed skate fish.  In other words, fish that’s been allowed to rot before it is oh so delicately steamed.  A specialty of the southern region of Jeollo-do, it’s beloved by the people there. Most Koreans outside the area won’t eat it.  Koreans are obviously big fans of fermentation—kimchi, doenjang, booze—so that tells you something about how fermented this skate is.

At Doorei, the fish came hidden under a pile of blanched bean sprouts and wild parsley.  It was very, very soft, gray and slippery, almost disintegrating as my mom cut it into pieces with a big spoon.  It tasted like ammonia you can chew.

I’d eaten a couple of bites, trying to ignore the feeling of being assaulted in the back of my throat, when my father finally noticed I wasn’t dipping it in the spicy red pepper sauce.  “You’re supposed to eat it with this!”  It helped mask the flavor, but not enough for me to want to keep eating it.  Our parents assured us that this wasn’t even that bad.  There was skate out there that was way more fermented.

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The night of fermentation continued.  We’d chosen this restaurant because it’s well-known for its 청국장찌개, cheonggukjang-jjigae, also a regional specialty, but from Chungchong-do, where my father is from.  Cheonggukjang is a fermented soybean paste, like doenjang, which is a pantry staple for Koreans all over Korea.  Cheonggukjang-jjigae is a stew made from that soybean paste (photo above).  But that’s pretty much where the comparison ends, at least for me.  Doenjang is earthy.  Cheonggukjang is muddy.  Doenjang is delicious.  Cheonggukjang is not.

Others say that doenjang cheonggukjang is like Japanese natto, which sounds right to me since I don’t like natto either.  But I can appreciate that the level of fermentation in hongeojjim and cheonggukjang, like natto, is an acquired taste, and that both dishes might be quite delicious and delightful to other people.  There are people out there who like Vegemite!  And I myself am very, very fond of super-stinky blue cheese.

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But the last thing we had, I don’t think even Koreans would say that they like it.  At the end of our meal, we were given complimentary cups of 삼지구엽차, samjiguyeopcha, a medicinal tea that translates into “tea made of 3 branches, 9 leaves.”  That’s exactly what it tasted like, barks and leaves.  Koreans have always believed that the food you eat is the most important medicine you can put in your body.  This was a very literal interpretation of that idea.

But all in all, it was a wonderful meal.  Diane and I learned so much more about what Koreans eat and drink.  And lest I feel any waning of love for my native country, as we were drinking our tea, the men next door began a drunken yet enthusiastic rendition of the national anthem: “May God bless our country for ten thousand years and years!”

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8 Responses to “Korean foods I do not like”

  1. Carolyn Says:

    I loved every sip of the 삼지구엽차 and did not know you did not drink yours. I would have asked to drink yours too! 🙂 The slight suggestion of bitterness that stood out in an otherwise perfectly harmonized blend of tastes was what I loved very much. It was a perfect dessert for me. I always thought sweet things do the trick of making one feel fulfilled after a good meal. But the slight bitter taste really completed my wildly happy evening with good unusual and tasty food and wonderful company.

    I cannot say that I liked 홍어찜, though I thought the combination with plain vegetables was good. I like 청국장 in general, but theirs was a bit too thick and a bit too raw for me.

  2. Grace Says:

    I’m so glad someone liked it! And I’m sorry I didn’t give you mine, though I think my dad drank mine as well as his 🙂 It really was wonderful company, and since that meal, so many people have told me that they like cheonggukjang-jjigae, I’m wanting to give it another try.

  3. Isaac Says:

    I’m confused. What’s that first picture a picture of? And is there a picture of the cheonggukjang?

  4. Grace Says:

    Oops, so sorry! I rewrote this post so many times, I forgot to make clear the cheonggukjang goes into a stew! The first is the dried, then cooked croaker fish. Revised post above.

  5. Leslie Says:

    I went to a restaurant in Insa-dong last summer with my dad and sister and they gave us a very bitter medicinal tea at the end. I generally like bitter things, but similar to what you said, I thought it tasted like the floor of a rainforest. My sister and dad gulped it down, saying they liked it. But when I asked my sister if she truly liked it or liked it more for the idea that it was “healthy” and medicinal, she agreed that it was a latter. I may be too cynical for my palate to be swayed by the potential health benefits of something that tastes just plain bad! But maybe it IS just a difference in taste buds. I LOVE marmite!

  6. Diane Choo Says:

    Lol. This particular version was fairly dilute, but tasting “like the floor of a rainforest” sums it up really well. Have to say that I prefer this samjiguyupcha to marmite though.

  7. avisualperson Says:

    i feel you! I really tried to eat that fermented skate a few times and even wrapped up in all manner of kimchi and pork belly, or doused with gochujang or other condiments; the raw vapor of ammonia emanating from my nostrils after 15 seconds of chewing was just too gross. I tried, I did! I had it at a bamboo restaurant in Damyang near the bamboo forest park, and also had it at a few makkoli joints in Jeonju.

  8. Grace Says:

    I’m impressed you tried so many times, Jeff!

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