Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Food for Thought: The Street Food Dilemna by Lindsey Huster

For some eaters in Seoul, hungry and in a hurry, constitute as the food mantra. There is fast-food edibles ordered at a counter which comes out in minutes and are consumed just as quickly. Then, there is the faster food, the goodies prepared in advance, and in a fervid eater's hands within seconds. Such delights, but obvious diet-breakers, can be classified as “street food,“ The aforementioned edibles are the easiest and most on tap food in Korea.

Otherwise known as Pojangmachas, or "covered wagons," these roving street carts offer a smorgasbord of the fastest foods to sate the hungry during daytime lunch hour, the swarming nightlife of Korean drinkers, and the ambling milieu of inbetween snackers. It would be impressive if you have not yet stumbled upon one of these food kiosks. Food vendors camp out in areas usually with heavy foot traffic, including but not limited to markets, metro station entrances, and clubs. Some street vendors are open throughout the day, while some choose to come out to feed the midnight night crawlers, stumblers and stutterers of the night. Some street vendors even offer enclosed sitting to keep their tent a year-round attraction and to ward off rainy weather.

Fried Mandu, Fried Egg, and Fried Chili Peppers
The almost-omnipresence of street vendors was not always so. Pojangamachas became more rampant in Korea during the South Korean economic crisis of 1997. Since a large portion of food could be eaten for a low price, tents, booths and stalls sprang up on every opportune corner and niche. Now, they continue to flourish as an alternative to sit-down restaurants for its cheap eats, friendly atmosphere, and in many ways, an extension of the evening's nightlife.

Street food is not only a ubiquitous feature in Asia, but can be found in almost every country.. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 2.5 billion people consume street food everyday. In America, vendors can be found selling hot dogs, while women in Senegal can be found selling millet porridge. In Korea, the street food remains just as steadfast. Students, white-collar workers, nightlife seekers, Koreans and expats all consume street food.

Although an easy eat, this almost-food group of Korea is not usually a healthy choice.
Most of the foods are fried, greasy, sugary and offer very little nutritional value. Ultimately, street food is on par with take-out, and junk foods, and a step below other fast foods.

PopCoke: Chicken in a cup with soda on the bottom
While Kimbap is a healthier and rare exception, the majority of foods dispersed in tents and corners proffers consumables that tend to be fatty and fried to perfection. Mandu, wheat dumplings, are overstuffed with mixes of beef, pork, mixed vegetables and kimchi. Although the dumplings can be steamed, they are usually fried. Tteokbokki, boiled rice cakes smothered with red pepper paste, is the epitome of street food. They are usually prepared with carrots, mushrooms and mixed with a gochi-chung sauce. Even with all the vegetable fixings, tteokbokki is a health façade, with a usually a serving amounting to over 230 calories.

Most meat varieties found in tents and carts often are fried, including squid, shrimp and chicken. Odeng, pressed fish cake boiled in a seasoned broth, is another staple street food that when consumed in larger amounts, is a disaster for dieters. With its thin and ribbon-like appearance, it is easy to consume more than one; however, a typical serving is over 200 calories.

For the dessert lovers, hotteok is a pancake the packs an especially unhealthy and cavity punch. Handfuls of dough are stuffed with a combination of brown sugar and walnuts, sesame seeds and cinnamon, which is then fried into a crisp exterior chewy interior. With the sugar high comes also a calorie count of 260.

Aside from the nutritional value of street food, there is the quiet voice in the back of most eater heads; such voices tend to brood I wonder how old this is or I wonder when the last time this woman washed her hands. In many regards, this nagging voice may be warranted; cleanliness and freshness of street foods is a battleground that many countries have attempted to regulate, but have fall short. Ultimately, such regulations and whether they are implemented remains foggy.

The best option for street food devotees would be to stick to places that look clean, and consume foods like corn on a stick or packaged nuts, which freshness is more obvious than a meat or noodles soaked in broth and savory sauces. The obvious alternative is to pass on the street vendors and seek out the tastiest and healthiest parts of Korean cuisine. Although most of Koreans finest eats can be considered a sit down affair, the price is still right, and your health will stay in check, too.

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