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Chili Stress Reliever in Korea


The chili pepper in South Korea is quite significant. Which is sort of strange since, it only came to Korea in the year 1580 because of the Portuguese missionaries. They had also been through Japan and China, but Korea really seemed to gravitate towards this new spicy flavor. Nowadays Korean food is known for its red spiciness. In contrast, most North Koreans prefer food that is mild and quite bland.

Chilies in South Korean cuisine are pickled, fermented, dried, and ground. The chilies range in spiciness from mild to “blow your top” hot. They even make a special fermented paste called gochujang that is often used to flavor braised dishes and used to flavor vegetables and rice. If you go to the area of Sunchang families for generations have been making vats of this red chili paste that they store in large slab pottery pots called O’nngi. In order to coax proper fermentation, they wrap around the tops of each O’nngi pot with a rope that has bits of charcoal, pine needles and dried red chilies.

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Rants! Korea is not a Third World Country

Folks, I have to tell you- Korea is not a third world country. As someone that runs a culinary tourism business in Korea, I often encounter people that have never been in Korea before. Or, if they have been in Korea for business or layovers, they have been too scared to venture into the “scary city.” When I meet guests, they often seem weary and cautious. Women clutch handbags as if every permed 40-something women holding an umbrella and every pleated-pants-wearing older man is out to rob, rape or mug them. The men often hide their wallets in hidden fanny packs and once I had a guest pay me by taking money out of his shoe.

Folks, Korea is safe (except for North Korea…but that is a remote threat much like the idea of Cuba attacking Disney World), we don’t have problems with earthquakes or tsunami’s (70% of the country is covered by mountains- I think Korea is a corn on the foot of the earth). I often tell my family and friends the North Korean threat is live on CNN, but barely gets a mention on local news. Also, the Japanese radioactive wind isn’t going to be threatening Korea anytime soon unless the Earth starts spinning in the opposite direction.

Furthermore, Korea is not a third world country. It’s one of the richest countries in the world. It is ranked 14th in the world according to the GDP and last year it was one of the only economies to grow. The currency is strong- almost as strong as the American dollar (which isn’t saying much these days). Sure, you can find remnants of the old guard such as palaces and markets and monuments, but often they have been painstakingly restored costing 100′s of millions of dollars. Also, the public transportation system is probably the world’s most extensive, modern, efficient, and clean. Most of the people are college educated and – even though they might not seem like it- many of them can understand and read English (the society makes it difficult to gain any speaking practice). It’s a country that spends 30% of their salary on education even if they are grown adults.

The cost of rent and property in this city is very high. 3 bedroom apartments in the affluent neighborhoods of Gangnam, Apgujeong, and Hannam can go as high as 2 million dollars. People that are opening little coffee shops and bakeries in the same area may pay up to 10,000 dollars a month in rent (think about that the next time you complain about paying 3 dollars for an Americano, use the cafe’s wi-fi, and sit for 1 hour).

Everything is getting more expensive in the city and even though you might still be able to get cheap food, corners are being cut everywhere to get you that 5 dollar bowl of bibimbap to you with numerous side-dishes. The margins that some of these restaurants make on food is criminal- maybe 10%.

Take kimbap. If you are paying 1,500 won for a kimbap roll, you are getting processed vegetables and meat rolled with old rice (newly harvested rice is too expensive). This is the same for many of the other dishes as well. Have you noticed that buying food in the grocery store is more expensive than eating out? That’s because the restaurants are suffering in order to be generous to their customers. Food for Koreans is a basic right- I mean that is why they always greet each other by asking, “Have you eaten rice?” Therefore, many regular Korean restaurants feel like they can’t charge more for something that the market dictates they should.

Korea is suffering from an identity crisis. We are not North Korea. We are not Japan. We are our own country with our own unique identity. We are a modern country that is one of the safest and most convenient places to live.

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Surviving Christmas in Korea

Christmas in Korea

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Seoul Magazine. Reprinted with permission
Streetwise in Seoul
By Daniel Gray

The concept of what Christmas is in Korea might seem a bit askew. The East has only seen the commercialized, exported version of Christmas because of the pervasive western media and marketing. Come on, the idea of a jolly, fat, bearded weigukin (foreigner) entering houses via chimney to drop off presents made by north pole elves might scare a nation that has had a long history of brutal invasions.

Oh, and most Korean homes don’t even have chimneys- they have ondols (floor heating)-so imagining a big fat guy seeping through the floor might harken images of the horror movie the “Blob” rather than the idea of “Peace on Earth.”

Even the concept of toys and luxuries as gifts seems alien when typical housewarming gifts are still toilet paper, rice, and washing detergent. Furthermore, Korea children get “gifts” as rewards for getting a high score on a final exam, not just for being “good” for an entire year.

Christmas in Korea (and many parts of Asia) is what we have made it: a reason to go out and spend frivolously- but there is also has a tinge of romance. It all makes sense: sparkling lights, hot chocolate, wrapped presents, and cold weather requiring blankets, hugs, and…mistletoe. So if you are in a relationship, be sure to make reservations at swanky hotels and restaurants early. If you don’t, you might be single by 2011.

Don’t worry; there are things for you to do if you are single, have a family and for kids. Here is a list of tips so you can get through the holiday season.

*Go out and enjoy the lights: Most of the shopping districts will be strewn in Christmas lights so a chilly walk might seem quite warming. Last year the city of Seoul had their Seoul Lights Festival and lit up Gwanghwamun Square. I’m sure they’ll be looking to outdo what they did last year. *Go Ice Skating: Throughout the city, you’ll find squares converted into outside ice skating rinks. Last year the most prominent one was at Gwanghwamun Square and at City Hall. You can also find outdoor rinks at the Grand Hyatt, Walker Hill, and at Olympic Park.

*Buy Christmas Cards and Christmas Cakes for Friends: This is a great thing about Christmas in Korea. Your Korean friends won’t be expecting extravagant gifts. Cards are quite common, so are gloves, mufflers, socks, and gift certificates. You’ll also see Christmas Cakes for sale at most bakeries. I recommend you get a cake and have a nice dinner with a big group of friends.

*Get involved with Expat Clubs and Associations: Groups like Seoul International Woman’s Club, The American Woman’s Club, Amcham, Austcham, and the embassies will be having Christmas luncheons and dinners. Most of the time they have these earlier than later (most are before December 10th) and are by invitation only. I really wish I was part of the British Association of Seoul becaue they are doing a “Mince Pie Morning.”

*Eat at Christmas Balls and Dinners: Most high-end hotels and many restaurants in Itaewon will be having Christmas Eve and Day specials. Be sure to make a reservation. The *Go Shopping: The Lotte in Jamsil has a giant Toys R’ Us, if you are looking for something for the kids. I also recommend going to Dongdaemun to get Christmas gifts to send home. Who doesn’t love Konglish shirts, socks with faces of your favorite Korean singer, or polar bear hats with paws for mufflers? And remember, clothes are light and easy to ship overseas. Have a Merry Christmas!