Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jeju: Loveland (not safe for work)

Jeju is an island south of the Korean peninsula sometimes called the Hawaii of Korea.  Both islands are shield volcanoes (Jeju is dormant) with economies based on tourism and exporting fruits (mostly tangerines and oranges in the case of Jeju).  Jeju has always been sort of independent from mainland Korea.  Locals speak a unique dialect and have historically had a somewhat different culture.

Jeju was on my list of places to see before leaving Korea behind.  It's conveniently only an hour by plane from Seoul, so I flew over and spent 3 days doing the tourist thing.  My first endeavor was a visit to Loveland, an erotic sculpture park outside Jeju City and the most infamous tourist trap in all Korea. 

Funny story:  Loveland is literally right next to the official, classy Jeju Museum of Art.  I took in Loveland first and browsed the Museum of Art afterward.  There's no bus stop to get back to the city and Loveland is the more popular attraction, so I needed a taxi and they were all waiting in Loveland's parking lot.  On my way to the gaggle of cabbies I was hailed from behind in English by a well-dressed young Korean man who turned out to be a Jehovah's Witness who hangs around outside this local monument of sinful prurience and struggles to press copies of the Watchtower into the hirsute, sweaty palms of debauched foreign tourists.

My frolic through Loveland is obviously a story best told in pictures.  Here some of them are, but a warning first:  this is definitely not safe for work and if you find erotic statuary distasteful these definitely are not the pictures for you.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sokcho and Seoraksan

Seoraksan National Park is home to, and named after, Korea's most popular mountain.  It's on the east coast, 3 bus-bound hours from Seoul, next to Sokcho (a city).  Seoraksan is so dang famous I wanted to climb it before splitting Korea for good.  My lovely companion and I made it so one magical (highly arduous, actually) Saturday.

Yep, still funny.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Korean Food: Ddeok

Let's be frank:  ddeok is weird.  Also hard to pronounce.  The closest you can get in English is "dock."  The favored translation is "rice cake" and, I think, somewhat misleading.  It's not something a typical English-speaker would consider cake-like or recognize as being a rice product.  Still, that's what the locals insist on calling it.  (Can't teach them anything.)

The classic ddeok dish is ddeokbokki, which is what you see here with an added egg and noodles.  Normally there's just the red sauce (often painfully spicy), ddeok sticks (the tubular white things) and odeng (the flat stuff--it's a kind of fish cake).  An ubiquitous street food.

If I had to pick one word to describe ddeok, I'd go with chewy.   Two words?  Chewy, insipid.  All the flavor of ddeokbokki comes from the sauce.  Ddeok itself tastes like nothing. 

It's traditional in Korea for new hires to buy ddeok for everyone after they receive their first paycheck.  I don't know if this occurs outside education but it's definitely the rule at my school.  This semester there were several new teachers and I received a ridiculous amount of first-paycheck ddeok.  Two, three times a week I'd return to my desk after a class and find a little gift-wrapped box of glutinous blandness waiting for me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Kimchi Field Museum

In one of the COEX mall's sub-basements lies the Pulmuone Kimchi Field Museum.  Pulmuone is a Korean food company that produces, among other things, kimchi.  I don't know why the place is called a "field" museum; perhaps because if you're there, you're in Korea, which constitutes being in the field for a scholar of kimchi studies.

Kimchi is a blanket term for vegetables soaked in brine and fermented and/or pickled.  I'm convinced it all began as a food preservation strategy because I can't bring myself to believe they did these things to enhance flavor.  There are something like 200 different kinds of kimchi but the most common sort is made with napa cabbage and red pepper paste.  When someone says 'kimchi' this is usually what they mean.  I end up eating it just about every day and it's probably the only kimchi you can find outside Korea, wherever you are.

Like most waygooks, I don't like kimchi.  Koreans think this is because it's face-meltingly spicy, which shows you how parochial their palates are.  Having eaten food from all over the globe as well as countless kilos of kimchi, I can assure you your first thought after chopsticking a slab of kimchi into your mouth will not be "this is spicy."  An average burrito is spicier than kimchi.  So are many other Korean dishes.  No, the reason waygooks dislike kimchi is that it tastes bad, viz. like fermented cabbage that's been soaked in salt water.

Korea's been trying to talk its way onto the world stage in recent years.  One of its tactics has been the promotion of Korean culture abroad.  See, for example, the humorously inapt Visit Korea Year (2010-2012) and various attempts to convince foreigners that Korea can make unique contributions to world culture.  If you ask a Korean what Korea has to offer the world, they'll probably mention the two products of Korean culture they're most nationalistic about:  Hangeul ("the world's most scientific alphabet") and kimchi ("the food of the future").  Hence the kimchi museum being bilingual.  Let's have some pictures.

Ironically, this ancient kimchi recipe is written with Chinese characters.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Facebook has declared war on prolixity.

Isn't it weird when you're lying in bed learning some Spanish and thinking about how you spent 2 hours of your own personal free time studying arithmetic and are pretty stoked about it, actually, and then you suddenly taste the cheap no-brand Hot Pocket(tm) you ate probably like 16 years ago (with the black olives, left over from when your mother had bought a few on sale and discovered your sister hated them) during that strange, dark period when you watched The Empire Strikes Back every night for several consecutive weeks?  I mean how can you summon such a specific, seemingly insignificant sense impression from so long ago and then recognize it?  And what, if any, connection exists between all these things?  Other than you (me)?  And isn't that the human condition right there.

Friday, July 8, 2011

One Week of School Lunches

Clockwise from rice:  roots and walnuts marinated in soy sauce, apple noodle cabbage thing, kimchi, pork vegetables ddeok, mung bean sprout soup.

Clockwise:  doenjang soup, french toast, toasted seaweed, leafy non-cabbage kimchi, banana, unmixed bibimbap.  The Korean race suffers an ancestral horror of unmixed bibimbap.  If you're at a Korean restaurant and look like you may not mix it, someone will come and do it for you.  Red stuff is gochujang (flavor sauce).

Clockwise from rice:  random greens, fried pumpkin thing, radish kimchi, chicken and potatoes, kimchi jjigae.

Clockwise from rice:  random greens:  the sequel, eggs marinated in soy sauce, kimchi, chunk of fish, pig bone soup.  The soup was pretty good actually but had fist-sized chunks of pig bone in it.
The rice is discolored because it was cooked with black beans.  Proceeding clockwise:  japchae (sweet potato noodles), I don't know but there was apple in it, kimchi, marinated quail eggs + meat + I don't know, soup with random vegetables and sea creatures (some whole, some in parts).

Monday, July 4, 2011

Busan: Incomprehensible T-Shirts

While visiting Busan we came across a collection of superb Engrish.  The pictures caption themselves.