by Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
2nd Stop: Kyongju, Korea
I keep trying to explain that I don't speak Korean, but the girls in the ladies' room apparently aren't buying it. They chatter on merrily to me, presumably admiring the way I wear the chopsticks in my hair. I smile and nod, just glad to be so well accepted in my mother's country. Koreans are a happy people, and as one guidebook I read said, they're likely to burst out in song at any time, or simply laugh out loud, even by themselves. Trust me, it's true.
The ladies' room is quite active at the moment because the Buddhist dance at the Shilla Cultural Festival just ended. We've got about 15 minutes before the next event begins. This annual October celebration, one of the most exuberant in Korea, is a must-see, and takes place in and around the ancient city of Kyongju. It honors and reflects the golden era of the Shilla Kingdom (57 BC to 935 AD), a sort-of renaissance period when the arts and economy flourished. For several days the town springs forth music, dances, artwork, folk tales, and shamans to rejoice in the high culture created during the reign of the Shilla kings.
Back out on the street, billowing flags and banners enliven the city, where government decree dictates that all buildings must bear the traditional dark gray, gently sloping Korean roof, creating a uniform feeling of old-world elegance. The Buddhists leave the stage, and the crowds make way for the Farmer's Dance, an age-old shamanistic kut ritual to purify the area and entreat the good will of the spirits. Drums and gongs broadcast urgent rhythms, while the performers spin wildly about, reaching a near frenzy. In the rear of the square, the fan dancers in their billowing chartreuse skirts and glimmering crowns stand by for their spectacular entry.
All this dancing makes me hungry, and I'm already late for a home-cooked dinner at the home of Mr. Kim, a curator at the National Museum. I grab my interpreter Steve Shon, a charming young Korean-American student who, being male, missed my interaction in the ladies room, and off we go. (Just remember this, he says: "Hangungmalul mot hamnida—I don't speak Korean." Great, I think. Now you tell me.)
We arrive at the Kim residence, a classic house in the traditional style. My guide and I immediately exchange our shoes for a pair of slippers before walking across the comforting, warm ondol floor. The older Korean homes use an efficient heating system that channels the heat under the floor. This makes for especially cozy, comfortable dining when sitting on the fancy pillows surrounding the traditional low lacquered dining tables. (In fact, modern ondol systems are appearing in many energy-efficient Western homes these days.)
My host and his men friends sit cross-legged, drinking popchu (a kind of high-grade tonic, similar in taste to ginger beer), telling stories and occasionally breaking out into song. Being drunk in Korea carries no stigma, and the Koreans tend to enjoy their booze as happy drinkers, unabashedly smiling, laughing, and singing. They nibble on pajon, the deliciously savory spring onion pancakes typically as snacks.
"This is a replica of an ancient cup, unearthed in the ruins of Shilla," explains my translator as the host pours yet another round of the potent popchu. The striking pottery cup, glazed in the color of celadon, bears a delicate crane on one side, inlaid in white as is the unique custom in Korea. Celadon, often called willow-green, is found in Chinese pottery as well, but even the Chinese revere the special hues of celadon crafted in Korea, colors with such names as "sky blue after rain" and "kingfisher blue." The Chinese have never been able to replicate the subtle variations in celadon that the Koreans have, and one Chinese scholar proclaimed the Korean celadon one of the ten most wonderful things in the world—the other nine all being Chinese.
My host explains: "The Korean potters were so skilled in their art that the Japanese captured most of them in their 16th century invasions. To this day, the remnants of the most beautiful Korean pottery, found mainly in museums, brings a tear to our eyes. When they took our artists, the Japanese stole part of our soul."
Korea has always been a crossroads of cultures, absorbing the influences of others as well as emitting its own. Mongols, Chinese invasions, and fighting among Korea's own tribes kept the region in turmoil until the Shilla Kingdom united the peninsula in the 7th century, a period marked by a blossoming of Korean arts and crafts.
As we drink and talk, I detect the irresistible scent of sizzling garlic, so after slurping down my popchu, I excuse myself from the men folk and wander into the kitchen. Three generations of women are busily rolling out round circles of dough to make mandu. I'm absolutely mad about mandu—Korean dumplings similar to Chinese potstickers or wontons. These ladies' rapid fingers stuff, fold, and seal the savory pockets of mandu faster that a magician's sleight of hand. I give it a shot myself and they laugh at my clumsiness, but after a few tries I manage to churn out some decent dumplings, one that don't spew filling out the sides or look like puny pancakes.
The white haired halmoni, or grandmother, starts the mandu cooking, frying them in a bit of oil, then adding water to steam. Her daughter mixes the dipping sauce in a bowl and sets it in the center of a lacquer platter, intricately inlaid with mother of pearl bamboo designs (bamboo being a symbol of longevity). "Every family has their own favorite recipe for mandu stuffing," explains the halmoni's daughter. "My mother always uses tubu mixed with ground beef, but my sister-in-law uses pork and beef with no tubu." Tubu is the Korean word for tofu, or bean curd. "I like both types, but for me the secret is in the dipping sauce. It needs a perfect balance of vinegar and soy sauce, preferably with a bit of red pepper," to which halmoni nods in agreement.
Korean meals feature scores of little appetizers and side dishes, all served at the same time. In this family, the youngest children set out trays for dishes, which include assorted salads (known as namul); various hot and spicy kim chee pickles (the national dish of Korea); bowls of rice; baskets of fresh chrysanthemum leaves and other greens for wrapping up grilled beef and other dishes. The teenagers carry the trays out to the table. The arrival of this parade of food shoots the men into exuberant bursts of happy chatter and we all sit down to nibble.
I can't believe the array of food: it's like a Korean tapas bar, only better. Down the center of the table, accessible to guests by a reach of their chopsticks, are all of my favorite Korean dishes: chap chae, slivered vegetables with Korean sweet potato noodles, reminiscent of sukiyaki; bean sprout salad; sesame spinach; baby eggplant "sandwiches" stuffed with marinated grilled beef (gaji jijim); and of course, the exquisite golden mandu. I help myself to the mandu first, and as my eyes roll back in my head in sheer pleasure, Halmoni jabs me in the stomach with a smile and a chuckle. "You need to eat more!" she says in Korean. "So you can take this food back to America. All they know is Beek Mack!"—a Korean grandmother's good-natured jab at MacDonald's.
But all of these great dishes are just accessories to the hot course: pulkogi, the most famous of all Korean beef dishes, and a most extravagant meal due to the high cost of beef. My own mother makes an awesome pulkogi, as authentic and tasty as tonight's dish, in which thinly sliced marinated beef strips are grilled old-style over hot charcoals. I savor every caramelized bit, especially the charred green onions. Yes, Halmoni, MacDonald's just can't compare.
Koreans rarely eat sweets, preferring fresh fruit instead, which is how we wrap up the evening. A good guest always brings something—liquor, flowers, fruit, or modest gifts, but anything too extravagant involves an obligation and may embarrass a host. I arrived with a basket of Korean pears and crisp apples from Taegu, which our hosts now serve with cool ginger tea. After such a filling and spicy meal, nothing could be more satisfying.
As the final event of the night, everyone must sing a solo—another mandatory Korean custom. Knowing no Korean songs, I break out with a vivid rendition of an American classic, which surprisingly, the Koreans also seem to know—Blue Suede Shoes. Elvis, it seems, lives on, even in Korea—and I imagine these Korean potters may even have a version of celadon called "blue, the color of the king's suede shoes."
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October 1999 Itinerary...
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 1999 and modified August 2007
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