February is almost here. Where did January 2023 go and so quickly?
Almost a year ago, we noticed numbers of Asian young men and a few young women living in the 1920ish Mediterranean Revival rental bungalow next to our house. Somehow I put two and two together and did a fair amount of eavesdropping to learn that they were from South Korea. They were here as interns in the catering department of one of our larger resort hotels. We became friends with only two: a young man who returned home early as he was disgruntled with the program and a young woman who quickly moved out of a house full of free-for-all fellows.
Last week, she came over to cook us a Korean dinner while preparing to return home. Her menu was constrained because of daughter’s lack of tolerance for even the smallest hint of piquant spice. What a meal we had. First a miso-based soup with clams and vegetables. Next, using my pantry, a nice noodle and vegetable dish, a zucchini dish, and fried rice with lots of egg.
My first trip to Seoul was in 2004 for the triennial of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the first such meeting convened in Asia. What an eye-opening introduction to the wealth of Korean museums as well as their particular brand of hospitality. Constant Companion had visited Korea some years earlier in association with trainings he had organized for Samsung Corporation.
It was also a gustatory eye opener, many, many years before the widespread popularization of Korean food now flourishing in the US.
That first trip was followed by about twelve years (2008-2020) of return trips on museum business. As chair of the International Committee of Museums of Ethnography (ICME), I was invited to join the editorial board of the International Journal of Intangible Heritage (IJIH.org) published by the National Folk Museum of Korea.
These weeklong stays held in February just after celebrations of the Lunar New Year, immersed me annually in all of the pleasures of winter … I think I have five outfits that I wore year after year! After lengthy business meetings a few days were set aside for “study tours” to learn about and observe intangible heritage in Korea and visit museums and other important sites. Our tours criss-crossed the republic from Sokcho in the northeast to Tongyeong in the south and even Jeju Island.
I was fortunate to be invited to participate in additional meetings in some of those years including: 2009, the annual ICME meeting; 2013, the opening of the National Museum of Contemporary History and the annual Yeongwol Museum Forum; 2016, the Korean Anthropological Society meeting in Jeju. It was all topped by teaching museum studies as a Fulbright Specialist for six weeks at Hanyang University. I was introduced to a wide range of museums and heritage sites during all of these visits. I also grew to be quite adventurous with regards to the many foods we were offered. Thus, many memories of tastes past which were invoked at our recent wonderful dinner.
One of my colleagues took me on an excursion to Namdaemum, an old and huge complex of markets. We stopped at a lunch spot of his choice. All delicious. In the following years, I returned on my own once or twice to buy beads for necklaces. Subsequently, the bead market was moved to Dongdaemum, another market
Accompanying meals is an array of what we could call appetizers or banchan. Banchan can be vegetables, some pickled or prepared otherwise, fish, and more. If you like one and finish it, your dish will be refilled
Here’s another table of banchan, all vegetable and healthy, lotus roots in the center.
Korea is a country of kimchee, a method of preserving the wealth of vegetables during the hard winter. Homes will be surrounded with pottery jars like these, holding their own versions of kimchee.
Meals start with soup, whether at a restaurant or in the home; see the dinner our guest made us with a miso soup. Rice with beans in it is also a staple of most meals.
Two very typical dishes are rice cakes, tteokbokki, either cooked in a spicy pepper sauce or prepared sweet, and different varieties of jeon or pancakes (a dish I try to replicate from time to time to the pleasure of the family). I think you can fine both in the freezer section at Trader Joes! Excursion stops during the conferences I attended often included venues to pound the rice for rice cakes with huge wooden mallets, some sort of embarrassing activity. Those on the sidelines enjoyed tasting jeon.
Dotori-muk (도토리묵) or acorn jelly is a Korean food made from acorn starch. I think it’s a winter selection in the banchan offerings.
The 2019 post meeting study tour took us to Seoil Farm, an organic working farm and education center in the mountains of southern Gyeonggi Province. Here, traditional methods of Korean cooking and preparation have been preserved in a beautiful setting.
There is so much more to share – bulgogi, japchae, congee, mandu, bibimbap – but I’ll end as many Korean meals end, with a flavorful tea served in lovely cups. Aesthetics are part of all of the meals we were enjoyed.
February is approaching and with it, memories of Korean tastes past.