Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Seoul: The Food!

I didn't know this before going to China, but much of East Asia has a week-long vacation at the beginning of May. The Japanese version is a little famous, with "Golden Week" being the time that cities world-wide are swarmed with Japanese tourists. The holiday comes from two holidays that are near each other, and are also Hawaiian holidays: Lei Day/May Day/International Labor Day on May 1st, and Boy's Day/Children's Day on May 5th. I didn't realize, though, that these holidays also form a week long holiday in South Korea and the PRC.

For the holiday I took a trip to the nearby city of Seoul. It's only a 1 hour flight from Shanghai, closer than the vast majority of China. However, it felt very different and distinct from China. I thought the trip was entirely interesting and I'll have a few things to say about it. I'll start by talking about the food in Seoul.

First, I should say that food seems to be everywhere in Seoul. You're never far from a restaurant or snack stand. Most surprising to me is that the more crowded streets are lined with stands selling food.

The stands are interesting. You don't just grab a bite on the run. The idea is that you stand along the side or even pull up a chair and sit down for a bit, along the crowded sidewalk. Some of them are larger and have chairs or even benches inside tents, but for the most part people just stand near the side counter. You see a lot of the same foods everywhere, generally selling for one or two dollars. On the left were some sausages on a stick, except for the size they felt German style. Below some rice cakes, a bland food with a rubbery texture that I actually really like. It was in a sauce I would have to describe as very spicy ketchup. Instead of giving a fork or chopsticks, with most places you wield a kebab skewer, stabbing at your food to pick it up.

Just as I expected from American Korean restaurants, you'd order a main dish, and then get maybe 5 sides of Kimchis, preserved vegetables which are often sour or spicy. The main surprise was, these Kimchis weren't as hot or as funky tasting as the Korean restaurants back in Oakland (albeit a heavily Korean part of Oakland). No fermented fish, and nothing I ate was hot enough to prompt me to immediately reach for the water glass. And many of the main dishes I ate were actually quite bland, although that could be what I ordered. Here, some soup dumplings.

I've gone to Korean restaurants my whole life, and expected being in Korea to expand on my enjoyment of Korean food. However I have to admit I left Seoul unimpressed with the food. On the positive side, I think it is extremely healthy, and I appreciate the emphasis on fresh ingredients. However I think the food is far too simple, and oftentimes the food tasted extremely bland, only with nearly identical (and again, simple) hot pepper sauces put on top. My favorite meal ended up being a simple katsu, it could have been a normal plate lunch back in the US:

And so I occasionally indulged myself on Western Style food. Western style food in basically not worth eating in Shanghai, and I've been to Japan and it's generally too localized to recognize. In Seoul there was a lot of it, it was pretty good, although sometimes given a weird twist - I saw that McDonald's served a Big Mac variant with bacon and strawberry jam added. There were also a lot of chains you didn't expect to see: Popeye's chicken, Cinnabon, Sbarro, Baskin Robbins, Krispy Kremes, and so on. There were also a few Mexican restaurants I went to. They were thoroughly in a US style, and pretty good. The burrito below tasted like being back in a gentrified part of San Francisco's Mission. It sported Sour Cream and Guacamole, which would be unimaginable in Shanghai. Bizarre amounts of cumin were used, and the nacho cheese was a sauce made from mayonaisse and velveeta (or something), but it was generally much better than would be possible in Shanghai.

The drinks were a big positive. My favorite was the juice stands. They would take a large cup of fruit, add ice and a little sweetener, and blend it up. It would sell for just a dollar or two, and was very delicious. If you look at the cups of fruit below, each cup's worth of strawberries was used per drink.

Drinking alcohol in Shanghai is a little rare. Consumption is obviously far below that of the US. In Korea, drinking is just as obviously much more common than with the US. A lot of the restaurants and food stalls had people who'd clearly consumed too much, and it didn't matter which day of the week it was. The national drink seems to be soju - advertisements are everywhere, just as with Coke and Pepsi in the US. Soju is a tasteless mix of industrial ethanol and water, much like vodka except it's mixed at 1 part alcohol to 3 parts water, whereas most vodka is mixed at 2 parts alcohol to 3 parts water. Green soju bottles with the equivalent of 5 shots of vodka are sold pretty much everywhere, and I noticed them going for $1.25 at a 7-11. I have to believe alcoholism is a serious problem, although I only witnessed some wacky drunks harassing a karaoke competition.

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