Sunday, July 31, 2011

Good til the last drop...

Maybe it was the momentum of all those delicious meals in Korea, or maybe some reciprocal Airline Karma for how much I love flying, but even our airplane meals on the way back were incredible (see above for an example). More on that later.

Speaking of tasty Korean dishes, I got a chance to see the cookbook that I had edited years earlier. Published by The Korea Food Tourism Association, the book details 300 traditional Korean recipes in four major languages. Don't get your hopes up though; even though Joo and I translated everything into English, you won't get very far unless you can distinguish between 20 different types of seaweed.

For our final meal in Korea, we went to Changmonim's favorite restaurant. It involved soaking crisp rice sheets into a beet juice until they softened, and then filling them with shredded veggies and tabletop-roasted pork and beef slices. Apparently it was a Mongolian restaurant, but I never saw food like that in Mongolia (my memories of Mongolian food are fraught with fermented horse yogurt and something else that I'd rather not detail here).

After the meal, we went out for ice cream where the 12-hour long sobbing goodbyes began. Even though most of the tears weren't specifically shed because people would be missing each other, it did make me question momentarily whether Joo was okay living in a country far away from her relatives (we had a long discussion later and she heartily assured me that she really does prefer living in the US).

Then, an early morning bus ride to the airport. Little did we realize that the brooding skies overhead would soon unleash a torrential downpour that would claim at least 50 lives and put half of Seoul underwater.

Incheon to Tokyo was relatively uneventful. Our bigger surprise came when we were getting ready to board our 13-hour flight across the Pacific. We got called up to the desk and asked for our boarding passes. They switched them around and when we looked to check the new ones, this is what we saw:
Yeah baby. Gotta love overbookings. We had gotten bumped up to First Class once before on our flight down to Peru, but that was a much shorter flight and certainly less deluxe arrangements. On this flight, it took us about the whole 13 hours just to try all the different seat positions.

After some pre-flight drinks, and a bowl of toasted mixed nuts, we were given our menus which included the pictures of three nationally-famous chefs who were responsible for preparing our meals.
After the appetizers came the first course - a sushi selection, fresh roll, and a salad with creamy Asian dressing.
There were four options for the main dish - one is shown at the beginning of the blog - another was some fancy form of chicken. Luckily, Joo's culinary experience enabled her to translate all the fancy cooking terms for me.

Gourmet midnight snacks were available throughout the night, and the morning spread looked like this. Who says airline food isn't good???

Perhaps one of the nicest parts of the flight was the Noise Reduction Bose headphones that our personal stewardesses passed out (they knew and called each of us by name). You never really realize how loud an airplane is until you suddenly dampen out all the noise. Despite her emotional turmoil, Joo conked out the instant she put the headphones on. I, on the other hand, watched four recent releases and then meditated for a bit with my seat in a fully horizontal position.

After returning, I experienced something odd... let's call it jet propulsion (the opposite of jetlag). For the next five days, I had an abundance of energy and only slept an average of four hours a day. I'm not sure what that was all about, but it finally died down and I'm back on my normal schedule again. Home sweet home. :)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Continuity of Family

I considered calling this post "The Bovine Massacre" for reasons soon to be revealed, but somehow the family focus seemed more positive. As I tend towards vegetarianism when travelling other countries (including Korea), my family always jumps on the chance when I hint at liking some form of meat. Thus, when I casually mentioned how I hadn't had any beef stock soup (Seollangtang) this time around, Changmonim's cousin quickly offered to take me to a local dive.

We were now into the weekend traffic, as evidenced by the below photo that shows a combined effort of five people (including the driver) to park a car.

This was definitely one of those restaurants I never would have stumbled on by myself. We had to go all the way through a local market into an almost deserted hallway with a couple stray vendors.
Translating the restaurant sign as we approached, I realized it said "Cow Head Soup," but the front advertising display made this even more clear.

It appeared to be a fairly simple process. Simply take a bunch of cow heads, boil them in an enormous cauldron of water, throw in some onions, rice, and sesame seeds, pull out the skulls, and voila! Cow head soup!

This wasn't quite the same soup I had had in mind when I mentioned beef stock soup to the women earlier on, but boy was it delicious!

The other main meal of the day was "jesa" which I'm not quite sure how to translate. It's a ceremony to celebrate one's ancestors, but it can take several forms. This particular one was to honor Grandpa's parents who had passed away back in World War II. After being introduced to Grandpa's younger brother and his wife, I was ushered into the ceremony room where the oldest uncle's wife had spent the day preparing food for the ancestors. This is not a trivial detail. In Korea, the oldest son is responsible for all familial duties, but that really means that the oldest son's wife is responsible for all the traditional ceremonies. It's such a major responsibility that Korean females will seriously weigh this factor in when deciding whether to marry a firstborn son (although the culture is slowly changing).

I'm never quite sure how to take the traditional ceremonies here. In some ways, the concept of honoring an ancestor feels very sacred and the detailed structure reinforces this. At the same time, people are coming in and out laughing, talking, answering cell phones, etc. even during the heart of the ceremony (which itself only lasts five minutes). I asked Grandma and Grandpa about this afterwards, and they told me that the ceremonies these days are much different in terms of respect level than when they were younger (at that time, everyone had to be completely silent and there was a much stronger air of reverence). It makes me wonder if it will die out within a generation or two.

After the ancestors had their fill, we enjoyed the leftovers (which was basically everything except for a couple cups of the rice whiskey). Then, as Imo was feeling sick, JakunWeisumo took out a needle prick device and poked her under her fingernails and toenails (I had never seen the toenail pricking before; Joo said that is only for more serious cases of stomach sickness). This process apparently allows the "bad blood" to flow out of the body.

The favorite part for me was lounging around afterwards and discussing the olden days. I had never really pried Grandma and Grandpa before for details of their childhood, but somehow the atmosphere seemed right. I found out that the Japanese invaders had prohibited Grandma from ever attending school (even elementary school) and so she had to teach herself to read. I asked Grandpa if he ever hangs out with anyone other than Grandma these days and he said, "Everyone I knew is dead now." For some reason this invoked uproarious laughter among all those who were listening. Joo explained to me that Grandpa is an anomaly for his generation in that he has lived an abnormally long time. He told me stories about when he first saw the American soldiers arrive in the Korean War and how he had no idea what was happening and so he ran for his life since they looked so intimidating.

It was one of those moments when I feel so privileged to have married into a culture where family is essentially an extension of self (as opposed to Western society where family members maintain their unique individuality even when they are very close with each other). That's still a strange concept for me to grasp, but I'm enjoying every minute of trying to figure it out :)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sleepover at Grandma's

I had mentioned a quick trip to Grandma and Grandpa's house we had taken earlier and, in fact, those types of trips are about all I had ever done before. So it was a fun change of pace to have a sleepover at the farm. I also mentioned my amazement at how many random buildings they have on their property. Here are some pictures of a few of them. The first one is the house they live in, the second is where they cook, work, and eat, and then after that my best guess is storage.

They used to run a mill, although I think that was on a different portion of their property. Now, several companies just pay them money to use their buildings and property for storage.

They do maintain a large amount of fruits and vegetables in their garden, however. More on that later.

When we arrived, our first task was to pull off the prime sesame leaves from the stems. Typically, these would then be soaked in a seasoned soy sauce mixture, but this time around Grandma mixed things up a bit by dipping them in batter and then frying them.

Our appetizer was potato pancakes with freshly harvested potatoes from the garden.

Then came the main course - a delicacy Changmonim had picked up on her way over.

This eight-legged guy wasn't nearly as questionable as the three-legged octopi that Koreans like to eat while they are still living. That's one food I still haven't mustered up the courage to eat... I mean, can you think of a more lethal choking threat? A large squishy living clump with the ability to suction onto your tongue on the way down?

Present in several of the dishes was garlic, shown here drying out in front of one of the abandoned buildings.

But the specialty of Grandma's farm is hot peppers. At this point in the season, they're still green, but some of them still pack quite a punch.

The picture below shows the final layout of the food. I took another picture since someone's hand got in the way of this one, and then I realized that the inclusion of the hand was a much more accurate portrayal of a Korean meal. All the food is in the center and everyone's hands and chopsticks are flying across the table at all times (rather than ask someone to pass something, all the food stays stationary and you simply grab things a bite at a time).

Despite her lack of interest in alcohol, Joo was very interested to learn how to make makgeolli, a traditional drink that combines fermented rice and wheat. Grandma had a special ingredient of course (what Grandma doesn't?) that made this makgeolli rather unique.

We all slept on the floor, coming in and out of sleep, with the TV on until someone clicked it off around 3:00 am. Those who were awake talked freely and people just took naps as needed. Grandma showed off her yoga skills (which were amazing - they included doing a complete 180 degree splits and then touching her head to the ground) and we all took turns trying out the brutal massage chair. There were only three buttons - I knew the first one said power and so I pressed it to turn it on. The second one determined the strength of the massage, so of course I adjusted it to "Strong" and enjoyed the pounding for a bit. The third one had some characters I wasn't familiar with and so I just pressed it to experiment. From now on, I will always remember the Korean characters for "Prostate."

The next morning, I heard Grandma and Grandpa leave the house around 6:30 am, so I followed. There was a monk dressed in gray robes outside waiting to meet with them. Apparently, the monks occasionally use their property for some ceremonies. After the monk left, I walked all around the property with Changmonim gathering some kind of plant (meong?) It's funny... many times when we gather plants here to eat, I'll focus on the wrong part. For instance, when gathering the meong, I was trying to arrange all the leaves for us to eat. Changmonim saw me, laughed, and snipped off several of the leaves and threw them on the ground. The edible part is the stem. Other times it's the root, the leaves, the flower, or a combination thereof.

However, I'm not a complete idiot. When it came to the bottled water (below), I knew exactly which portion to consume.

Above, I had mentioned how my grandparents here have been able to maintain a large garden (a surprisingly large one given their age of almost 90). This was always a mystery to me since I knew they didn't have hired hands. Another thing I had often thought about was the groups of grandmas I often saw working off the side of the road doing menial tasks. A couple days ago, Joo was talking about how her Grandma is really exhausted and I tried to cheer her up by saying, "Well, at least she doesn't have to do minimum wage manual labor like the grandmas we always see working out in the hot sun." Joo laughed and said, "You mean pumashi?"

Pumashi (shown below): yet another part of Korean culture that I had often witnessed but never understood. JooYeon explained to me that pumashi is kind of the Korean farmer equivalent of Amish barnraising. Whenever it is time to plant or harvest some crops, a farmer calls up all of his or her neighbors (many times older people these days since the younger ones own equipment) and they all help each other. Funny how a simple change of perspective made all the difference... now when I see the groups together it seems much more beautiful. That said, I still see a lot of senior citizens working manual labor in a way which is obviously not pumashi. Part of it is the awkward transition from elderly people living with their eldest son (less common as Korean society grows more individualized) to retirement homes (still uncommon since they are viewed as horrible places for "rejected" elders). Somewhere in between is the struggle of older people to survive on their own without the help of their children but without checking into a center. Of course, these are all my own perceptions - any corrections from Koreans reading the blog would be welcome!

My Gluttonous Existence

The meals have been amazing here in Korea, especially for someone like me who prefers a little bit of a lot of things. As this has been my longest stay ever in the countryside, I'm getting the opportunity to see where more and more of the foods come from. For example, I often drank garlic juice when I lived in Seoul, but I never knew how it was made or why it was black. I had no idea that it was heated continuously for three weeks, or at least that is one way to soften the garlic cloves as shown below.

We spent some time in a bookstore too, with Joo trying to find some books to teach Korean to her 4- and 5-year olds at the church in Athens.

Of course, even with Joo at my side, I'm often unsure of what everything is. For example, I think the large tubs below were being used to make large amounts of tofu but I'm not sure.

Part of the advantage of being a foreigner here in the Korean countryside is that people like to treat me to whatever it is they have access to. Often this is food or clothing, but one lady's son worked at a waterpark and so we all got major discounts.

To service people of all ages, the waterpark also doubled as a mokyoktang. In other words, there were large heated public baths that you soak in for a long time until your skin softens, and then you sit naked on a little stool and let someone scrub you with an abrasive cloth to take off your dead skin.

Imo and Changmonim spent most of their time in the sauna nibbling on the prohibited snacks they had snuck into the park.

After the waterpark, we went to another restaurant with bountiful side dishes. This particular one was famous for the leaves of certain fresh mountain plants. Even Joo's hero Kim Yun-ah (the Korean Olympic figure skating champion) had dined in the restaurant. My highlight of the meal was the toasted seaweed dipped in seasoned soy sauce shown below.

And the battle begins...

Kiwi follows my same childhood habit of taking naps after meals; not surprising given how full one feels after indulging in these banquets.

And another meal (sorry for the lack of diversity in this entry; however it IS representative of how I've spent a lot of my time). This one was compliments of changmonim's cousin shown at right below.

As part of trying to take good care of me, changmonim always keeps a close eye on which side dishes I am eating the most of. She yells at the waiter (normal in Korea) to bring more of something whenever I take two consecutive bites of a particular dish.