Korean Food And Culinary History

This guy has apparently been declared a cultural treasure of Japan, and my mother in law needs to be declared a cultural treasure of Korea, on par with the greatest golden idols, the tallest pagodas, and the most ancient palaces, in the country. This meal she whipped up for us an hour or two ago was among the most incredible dining experiences of my life. It doesn’t look like much in the picture I snapped on my phone, in between gobbling everything down as fast as I could—she was taking care of our kid and waiting very patiently for one of us to finish and switch off—but I’ll still try to describe it:

The noodles, called “gooksoo” rather un-euphoniously, were mixed in with bits of spicy octopus from the pot toward the top of the picture. On the right you can kind of see spicy potatoes mixed in with spicy egglpant, while in the middle there are spicy kimchi cucumbers…and toward the top, just behind the pot, some kimchi that’s had its chili pepper sauce washed off (although there’s a ton of residual flavor still soaked into the cabbage flesh!).

But these weak words, this cold philosophy, is nothing to the raw power of that incredible food.

It was all amazing, but it was the potatoes that actually did it for me. I had been hanging around with my parents-in-law and my baby son for the last three hours and I was feeling so exhausted that I actually collapsed into a nap, for a bit, before dinner was finally ready to go—and when I dug into this stuff, and sank my jaws into the potatoes, I felt all of my fatigue just melt away. The world was peaceful, wonderful, and amazing again.

I must have sucked most of this stuff down in a matter of minutes, all over the protests of my tongue, where millions of tastebuds were perishing in the apocalyptic flames set by this woman’s love of spice—but, no matter, I pressed on, and felt myself in heaven, and knew myself to be experiencing the equivalent of an emperor’s banquet. Waves of flavor washed over me, mixed in with tongues of lashing flame. The textures were all different, all complimentary, but mostly smooth and rubbery, like the octopus, the fermented cabbage, the eggplant, the noodles cascading down my throat, combined with the cake-like starch of the potatoes.

Korean cuisine can be described, very basically, as boiled meat and vegetables mixed with rice and hot sauce. Sometimes the vegetables are fermented, as in the case of kimchi and the primary ingredient of denjang stew, which happens to be fermented soybean paste. It’s impossible not to notice the liberal use of chili peppers and jalapeños (both simply called go-choo, “pepper”, in Korean) in this species of cooking, and, in fact, I might go so far as to say that the fermentation and the heat are what really make the food unique.

Koreans appear to believe, almost universally, that their food is the hottest on the planet, but that’s because most of them have never tasted anything resembling Mexican food, and I’ve often thought that a fusion restaurant combining the two cuisines would have people spontaneously writhing on the floor in paroxysms of agonized joy.

A long time ago it came as a surprise to me when I learned that potatoes did not, in fact, come from Ireland. My mom is Irish, and obsessed with all things Irish, except for the two best Irish things—James Joyce and William Butler Yeats—and I had spent much of my life listening to her complain to my dad about the lack of potatoes in their lives, as she had apparently spent her childhood devouring a great deal of them. I was also vaguely aware that there had been some kind of potato famine or potato blight in Ireland in the distant past, and that this may have driven my ancestors to emigrate to America.

Then one day I learned that potatoes came from the New World, and my mind was blown. Food I had taken for granted as being singularly and permanently Western, from the days of the Homer on down, became historified: in the not-so distant past, my ancestors walked about with no knowledge of the tuberous delights my mother has spent so much of her own life complaining about. Tomatoes, and chocolate, and coffee, and god knows what else I had taken for granted as being indelibly my own, turned out to have come from somewhere else. There was nothing monolithic about it. All of its ingredients had been mixed in, over the course of two dozen centuries, from every region of the world, to suit our civilization’s archetypal palate.

My wife’s reaction was similar, when I revealed to her that there were no jalapeños or chili peppers in Korea five centuries ago, and that there was indeed a time when Korean food was not spicy. I’ve had some difficulty uncovering more than a few sentences on the internet on this subject, although I strongly suspect that there is plenty of information available in the Korean language, but it seems that these spices were first introduced to Korea during the Japanese invasions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which began in 1592, and completely destroyed the entire country. In those days Japan was using western harquebuses and crucifying its own native-born Christians, and it seems as though some of them got their hands on Mexican peppers.

Hasekura Tsunenaga, who was not the first Japanese ambassador to Europe, left on his voyage of discovery in 1613, and traveled there through Mexico, only two decades after the wars with Korea.

And so while the invasions resulted in the deaths of countless people, the destruction of numerous temples and palaces and other cultural artifacts, the abduction of artisans, and the reduction of arable land, there was one positive effect: Korean food, as we know it today, was born.

This revelation reminded me of the ship in One Hundred Years of Solitude:

When they woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, they were speechless with fascination. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the silent morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon. Tilted slightly to the starboard, it had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging which was adorned with orchids. The hull, covered with an armor of petrified barnacles and soft moss, was firmly fastened into a surface of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of the birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers.

Although it’s been translated into English, this has got to be one of the greatest passages ever written by anyone, period. This galleon, a symbol of Spanish oppression, tyranny, mercantilism, slavery, greed, war, disease, and profit, has been lost in the forests of Latin America for centuries, and is emerging now as something new: a fantastic artifact, completely divorced from its original purpose (lodged in a forest, distant from the ocean), covered in flowers, beautiful. An object of horror has been converted by time into something beautiful. One of my professors believed that the ship symbolized the birth of modern Latin American literature.

The peppers leftover from the first failed Japanese conquest of Korea bear some relation to this notion. I only wonder why they caught on in this country while they seem to have barely made a splash in Japan.

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