Monday, April 19, 2010

Mmm 밥

Hello again. I guess it's been a couple weeks since the last post, eh? Nothing that amazing has been going on the last few weeks - at least nothing as amazing as bullfighting. I'm also taking a lot of classes right now and my course schedule for spring just got rolling so I haven't had a lot of time to blog. To catch you up, I started taking accounting courses online a little over a year ago when the economy went down the shitter - before I got accepted to this job - and I'm gamely trying to complete them now so that there's a possibility that I might be able to actually earn a living wage in the United States some day. My course load for the accounting stuff is half of what I had been doing in the States, but I'm also currently working on a TOEFL certificate (I don't need it for the job but the folks at the EPIK office said the experience might be helpful, which it has been) and I just started Korean lessons at the YMCA in Daegu. It's nothing I can't handle and still do my job but I have to stay focus or I'm going to fall hopelessly behind. So far I'm one week in to the full class schedule and I'm already a day behind. And now I'm blogging. But hey, you gotta get your priorities straight, right?

Although the job has really been a pleasant surprise so far I'm coming off one of my toughest and most frustrating weeks at work. I don't want to say too much specific about the job because social "face" is extremely important to Koreans, so if my extremely dedicated and capable co-workers thought I was talking shit behind their backs it would not be looked upon kindly. Plus I really don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, all of my co-teachers have been really excellent so far and Lord knows I would be lost without them. But to make a long story short, I massively overestimated my kids' abilities last week and rolled out a lesson that was long, boring, tedious and only made them bored and/or frustrated. (So much for my plan to use the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to teach English. The follow-up Slayer lesson has been completely scrapped.) Unfortunately I didn't have a fallback lesson and I did feel like the lesson I had prepared was somewhat effective, plus it was more complex than usual so I had put a lot of work into it. In short, it's very hard to gauge the ability of some of the students here. Some of them are really good and some of them just plain don't care, but that's no surprise. On the other hand, there are some quirks to English education in Korea that can be kind of unexpected. English is a very difficult language for learners here - by my understanding there's no such thing as verb tenses, articles or even singular and plural here, so there's a lot of difficult grammatical rules for learners here to pick up that speakers of Romance or Germanic languages already know innately. I get the feeling, though, that some parts of the language teaching here have been tilted towards the strengths of the learners, to the benefit of the students' grade point averages and confidence but to the detriment of anyone who actually wants to learn how to speak English or understand spoken English. Again, I don't want to make it sound like I think the home-grown English teachers are doing a poor job, because that's not what I'm trying to say at all, but sometimes the expectations just don't seem to jive with actual success in using the language here.

Probably the best example I can come up with is an experience from last Friday. I was in the teacher's office finishing up my lesson plan for this week and being relieved that I could finally get away from the awful lesson I concocted for last week when a third-year student came in and introduced herself. I didn't recognize her because my classes don't include the third-year students - the third years are typically cloistered away somewhere preparing for the test at the end of the third year that determines, basically, the rest of their lives. Anyway, this particular student asked me for some help with a list of words. I wasn't sure where the list came from, but it was a list of mostly four syllable English words - SAT analogy type stuff - and she wanted help pronouncing the words and defining a few of them. It wasn't easy since there were a couple of homonyms in the list that could be pronounced two different ways depending on what meaning you were trying to express. ("Conglomerate" as a noun and "Conglomerate" as a verb would be something similar to what I was dealing with.) But I did the best job that I could and when the next period started she left. At the end of that period she came back with another list of words, which I helped her out with again. (I should note that her pronunciation was acutaully spot-on for just about everything, I was very impressed.) The next period began and she left again, but promised to return. When she came back the third time, she asked me (as best as she could), "Teacher... how do I... make... sentence?" As if I could explain it as easily as I could explain how to pronounce "Conglomerate." And this was a third-year student who was clearly very interested in studying English and had been working very hard at it, and had clearly memorized at least two lists of English SAT-level vocabulary words.

In the very brief Korean lessons I had in orientation one of the locals had introduced me to the phrase "OTL" (pronounced "oh-tee-ehl"). This isn't so much a phrase as a vocalization of an emoticon. Think of the "O" as a head, the "T" as a body and an arm, and the "L" as the legs. What is signifies is banging your head on the floor in frustration. Or, if you want a real-life example, imagine a student, after a very frustrating week, asking you to explain everything about how to make a sentence in English in ten minutes. OTL.

But I don't want to talk about work... I want to talk about food!

I've probably mentioned before that I've been constantly amazed by what Western foods exist here and which don't. There's pizza, but the locals really don't seem to have much interest in the standard tomato sauce so they usually make it with something like a sweet teriyaki-style sauce or a cream sauce or a thin layer of sweet potato. (By the way, if you've never gotten a pizza with pickles and hot sauce on the side in your lifetime, you haven't truly lived.) There are some hamburgers joints around too, and of course there some American chains like McDonalds, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts and KFC. (I don't believe the Double Down has crossed the ocean yet, though.) But if you're going to thr grocery store and looking for some inexpensive staples of Western cuisine, you may be in trouble. (In short, there are no Kraft individually wrapped slices of American cheese, which makes 80% of Western food not worth eating.) I anticipated this (and also thought that maybe cutting some of the cheese, white bread and greasy meat out of my diet might help me shed a few pounds) so I had brought Korean and Chinese cookbooks with me. Korea is right next to China, right? So they should have Chinese ingredients, right? Hmm, maybe not. That assumption turned out to be pretty baseless and a little ignorant - something like assuming you can find New Mexico chili powder or Anaheim peppers in the local grocery store in rural Ohio, or a decent pierogie in southern California. Also, America is a big, rich, multicultural country, so there's a pretty wide variety of foods around everywhere. Koreans, on the other hand, mostly eat Korean food, so getting non-Korean ingredients in a smaller town like mine is not so easy. As for the Korean cookbook, I had failed to notice that one of the co-authors of mine is Japanese, and the book had used a lot of Japanese ingredients, or Japanese names for things instead of Korean names, which led to some translation difficulties.

Which brings me to the language barrier. Identifying ingredients by sight is not as easy as one might think it would be. For example, things like wine and beer usually don't say "wine" or "beer" on the label unless you're living in the movie "Repo Man." (Yes, of course I mean the Alex Cox film, not the Hollywood knockoff of "Repo: The Genetic Opera.") Beer and wine usually say something like "Budweiser" or "chardonnay" or "Sonoma Valley" or something on the label. This made finding a Korean equivalent for sake or Chinese cooking wine a trial. (I've never even had Chinese cooking wine, and the Chinese cookbook I have kept suggesting things like cooking sherry instead, which I'm pretty sure I'm not going to find and probably isn't anything like Chinese cooking wine.) I had read that there's a Korean rice wine called "Cheongju" that's pretty close to sake but I still haven't found it. I ended up finding a Korean rice wine called "Cheongha" that's passable. It's also potable in the event of an emergency beer shortage, which is something you can't say about cooking sherry or salted Chinese cooking wine. I also had a devil of a time find an equivalent for mirin, which is sweetened cooking sake. I ended up finding something called "mihyang" instead, that's described on the bottle as "(cooking wine style)" in English. I don't know enough about mirin to know the difference, and I'm still alive, so I'll call it a success.

Success with the Chinese recipes has been more of a mixed bag. Exotic stuff like five spice or Chinese pickled rape is nowhere to be found (and trust me, you do not want to ever search for "pickled rape" on Google to try to look for an equivalent). Even some stuff that I've heard is grown in Korea, like water chestnuts, isn't available in my town. Luckily some helpful chap on the Internet suggested that lotus root could be substituted for water chestnut, and the one time I tried it it was a pretty satisfactory replacement. Some things, like Szechuan pepper powder, oyster sauce or Lee Kum Kee chili paste are reasily available. But cashews? Forget it, use peanuts. Bamboo shoots? If we have them here then they're either out of season or I don't know what they look like. Canned baby corn? You're kidding right? Corn is a New World food, I'm sure that's something La Choy invented. There is corn starch, however. Why or how, I don't know, but I'm happy to use it when I need a thickener.

The other problem with cooking here is the same problem any bachelor has with cooking - fresh food is not packaged for the individual who's cooking for one. If you have to buy celery you're going to end up buying a whole bunch, and either eating nothing but celery for a week or using one stalk in a potato salad and throwing out the rest of it when it goes bad. The supermarkets in my town are even worse for this kind of thing because so much of the produce comes pre-packaged in bags or trays instead of being able to pick through it in bulk. You can't buy one pepper, or two large green onions - it's got to be a tray or a bag with more than one. I mean, I like the fact that I don't have to peel the garlic that comes pre-peeled in a bag of about fifty cloves, but it would take me at least a week and a half to eat that much garlic. (What can I say, I like garlic, but who likes garlic that much?)

The final issue with Korean bachelor living is that Korean cuisine is really not designed for eating alone. Traditionally, Koreans tend to live with their families until they move out and start their own families. Korean food tends to be served as a large number of small dishes that everyone at the table shares. Personally I love it - it means that when you order a 5,000 won entree at a restaurant it usually comes accompanied by as many as five side dishes that you never ordered or asked for. Bonanza! But there's no fucking way I'm making three kinds of kimchee, soup, noodles, dried fish and a small main dish if I'm eating at home. So finding a Korean recipe that stands up on its own as a meal isn't that easy.

So far the two Korean recipes I've had some success with are a pork and kimchee stir-fry called "kimchee pokkum" by my cookbook and japchae, which is a well-known traditional beef, vegetable and glass noodle dish. (By the way, if you're ever in Korea and a recipe calls for "dashi-no-moto" or some Japanese bullshit name for dry soup stock, it's called "dashida" (다시다) in Korean. It comes in large foil packs or smaller single-serving foil sticks. The beef-flavored stuff has pictures of beef on it and the sardine-flavored stuff has fish on the package. A little dash'll do ya.) The japchae wasn't all that good until I figured out that the mushrooms I bought that I thought were wood ears were actually some medicinal mushroom that's not even really supposed to be eaten. (That's not a surprise since eating them is like eating wet wood. Interesting flavor, though.) I've also managed to find a couple of Chinese stir-fry recipes that I can do here with a few strategic substitutions, as long as I don't need picked rape or Taiwanese sweet bean paste or ketchup.

I guess the last thing that's worth mentioning is that meat is mega expensive here, and it's not typically butchered in the ways they do it in the US. Boneless chicken breasts? Not in my town. Luckily Costco has them, or else I would have to spend an hour boning chicken parts every time I want to eat chicken. Korea does have plenty of chopped, compressed, prepackaged meat products, though - hot dogs, imitation crab meat, oddball random chunks of ham, and these rings of compressed fish stuff that are actually really tasty in soup. The first time I saw kielbasa here I was tempted to try to do a Korean version of my family's Bavarian sauerkraut recipe - fry up some scallions with bacon, toss in some kimchee with toasted sesame seeds, let it stew with some sugar, beef stock and beer and toss in some kielbasa and dumplings to steam while it cooks. I haven't quite gotten the confidence to try anything that crazy yet, though. What do you think - could it work? There's gotta be some way to find a happy marriage between two cultures that love pickled cabbage, pork and beer...

I'd also like to mention, on a socio-political note, that economists and environmentalists occasionally like to opine on subjects like how fast the world's resources would be extinguished if China had a middle class that consumed resources like the United States, or how fast the cow farts would kill us if Asians started eating as much beef as Americans. Now that I've seen how people live here that seems like a pretty facile argument. Fact is, nobody here would ever live like an American. Nobody's that rich and stupid and there isn't enough space to raise that much beef without it costing a fortune. Another example - nobody has hot-air dryers here, as I've mentioned. I'm sure someone would be selling them by now if people wanted them, but nobody has the space for one, the apartments don't have vents for them and I'm sure no one would want to pay to use that much energy to dry clothes. It takes generations to get as fat, slovenly and wasteful as Americans are, and in this day and age it would be too expensive for China or Korea to ever turn into us. We, on the other hand, are going to be in trouble in another twenty years because we are going to have to learn to live without some of the luxuries that people in parts of the world like Korea and China and India have always lived without in order to stay competitive, and everyone knows that it hurts a lot more to be without something once you've gotten used to having it. So, in short, if you're looking for a way for America to survive the century, you better get used to eating more vegetables.

Probably the tastiest thing I've managed to whip up here was my take on a Korean "omelet" dish, cheon. In orientation they served us these really tasty ham slices for breakfast that I eventually figured out were chopped ham served up cheon style. So I took the plunge, bought some Spam and decided to give it a try. (It was actually "Luncheonmeat" brand Spam and not Spam brand luncheon meat, but I digress.) It was super easy - all I had to do was mix three egg yolks and two egg whites with some garlic and salt, dust the Spam slices in glutinous rice flour, dunk them in the egg, fry it all in a thin layer of hot oil, and presto. I also did some young pumpkin slices at the same time (young pumpkin is something like a cross between a Western pumpkin and a zucchini) and the pumpkin was super tasty. The salt and fat from the Spam combined with the frying oil probably didn't do anything for my cardiovascular health, but hey, I've got government health insurance now.

My other two fallback dishes are old standbys from home - spaghetti and ramen noodles. The ramen here is way better than in the States - the package usually contains a packet of dried vegetables or seaweed along with the soup mix, so if you add a hard-boiled egg it's a full fledged meal. Some stuff I bought recently came with packets of this sauce instead of soup -something like hoisin but a little more sweet and spicy. And of course spaghetti is spaghetti. They've got some decent salad dressings here - I'm currently addicted to the green kiwi stuff - and there's no lack of fresh salad greens. Just don't expect to find a decent bottle of wine to go with it. I'm not a wine snob or anything -back home I usually picked up a magnum of Gallo and wondered why they sell all that stuff in California that costs twice as much and comes in those silly half-sized bottles. Wine here, on the other hand, is legitimately terrible, and a bottle of straight rot gut will run you about $20. Aussie table wine like Yellow Tail will run you upwards of $30 a bottle. Soju, on the other hand, which Koreans like to describe as "rice whiskey" even though it's only the strength of fortified wine, comes in bottles the size of beer and costs less than $3. Why waste money on quality when you're out to get fall-down drunk, I guess...

The one glaring exception I've found to the "impossible to get decent hooch at a decent price" rule is the persimmon wine that they make in Cheongdo. I had heard about it and always assumed it was something really heavy and sweet, like plum wine or manischewitz. We took a school field trip to the old Japanese train tunnel where they age ths stuff (it's a major tourist destination), I got a sample, and I was very pleasantly surprised. There's some extremely strong fruit notes in the regular variety but it has a nice balance to it - it's dry enough to balance out the fruit and come up with a mix of flavors that's fairly sophisticated. Not quite a red, not quite a white, and nothing like a wimpy blush either. The dryer variety was also very unlike a standard white but still had a very interesting balance and mix of flavors. But as I said, I'm no connoisseur - let's not forget that I was just singing the praises of Gallo merlot. (I'm telling you, for shitty wine Gallo is extremely unoffensive.)

Somewhat ironically I've been putting off dinner to write this so I guess I better wrap it up. I promise to post some pics of my town and the Cheongdo bullfighting on the blog some time soon, though. If you know me and know my email address you shouldn't have too much trouble figuring out my Flickr username, and there's some pics of the bullfights up there. I've got some more but I've been too lazy to upload them.

Bon apetit, y'all.

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