Thursday, March 25, 2010

Food for Thought: The Unfortunate Expat Error by Lindsey Huster

Over the weekend, a friend of mine, a teacher in Japan, came for a visit. During her premier Korean dining experience - a inculcated medley of side dishes, Korean barbeque and Soju - she asked what were my preferred Korean foods. After a bit of deliberated, inebriated thought -weighing the worth of dolsa bibimbop on a cold day over the convenience of kimbap - I decided upon omurice, with cheese, sans ham. Omurice - the closest perhaps to a western comfort food- is a toothsome omelet not just for breakfast, stuffed with rice and cheese, and doused in ketchup or gravy. She smiled wryly at my pratfall, asking me when I started to enjoy Japanese food.

I was completely confounded. Upon further research, unfortunately, I found that my comrade was indeed accurate. Omurice is the child of Japan and not of South Korea (although it is also eaten in Taiwan as well.) With such a cultural blunder, a mental springboard suddenly emerged and demand the lucid distinctions of Korean dining versus Japanese dining. I know that I’m not alone in this endeavor to identify the differences, know them and eventually, mock other ex-pats for reenacting the same faux pas. Alongside mastering the language Korea (or at least a few phrases) , expats should expand there Korean awareness to food culture.

Of course, both dining experiences begin with rice; it’s the hub of most meals. Rice cookers are plentiful in both locals. The point of departure, however, begins with the execution. Japan has been known to eat rice solo (Gohan), but it is unlikely that you will find a Korean eating a bowl of rice unaccompanied. Donburi, a bowl of rice with toppings, is one of the most familiar dish in Japan; it is usually adjoined with pork, tuna, beef and chicken. For Korea, one of the most renown rice meals is bibimbap, a pastiche of vegetables, rice and a fried egg. This dish is best eaten in the “hot pot,” as dolsot bibimbap. Thankfully, this favorite of mine is an authentic Korean delight. The closest variation Japan has is Kamaneshi, which is a rice dish with a blend of meat, sea food and vegetables cooked in an iron pot. The overall result of the mixture is of the same vein as bibimbap, but is more related to Cantonese po chai or Chinese guō fàn.

Kimbap, a bronze in food favorites, appears to be slightly pilfered from Japan’s Maki-sushi. Two quick glances at these seaweed-sealed rice vittles, and they resemble an identical twosome. Take another look at the stuffing, however, and each has completely different take on the this rolled up dish. Unlike Kimbap, which is usually stuffed with ham, fish steak or crab stick, maki-sushi is filled with raw fish and large amounts of sweetened rice vinegar.

When it comes to main dishes, Korea and Japan prefer different meats as well. Korean delicacies enjoy grilled meats, marinated beefs (bulgolgi), Kalbi (beef short ribs), and Mandu (pork and leek dumplings). In contrast, Japan delights in the fresh taste raw fish and creamy tofu. In the long run of Asian food race, Korean cuisine tends to be more spicy with the help of Gochujang (red chili paste) and more seasoned, with the help of sesame oil, onion and a sometimes excessive amount of garlic. Japanese food proffers milder flavorings like soy sauce and dashi.

Although in a very obtuse impressionistic appearance, there are some parts of the Asian food culture that appear to seamlessly joined, blending right into each other and creating a mosaic of food. Take a few steps into the culture, however, and the picture becomes separate food composites, displaying unique and obvious differences between the indigenous foods of Asia.

Lindsey Huster a writer who usually hails from Chicago. She enjoys listening to music,wearing cardigans and generally anything vegetarian.