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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Food Tour Day 1: Breakfast

While some people skip breakfast, others call it the most important meal of the day. Nonetheless, people in both camps have something in common: whether you eat breakfast or not, you probably do so in a hurry. Who, other than housewives and hagwon workers, has time in the morning to actually put together a meal? Picking, choosing, scrubbing, slicing, boiling, frying, and other chores eat up precious time that could be used for more pressing tasks, like finding matching socks and remembering where the #&^( your keys are.

The perceived inconvenience of eating a real breakfast, caused by such maladies as greater distances between home and work, the necessity of dual-income households, and a general lack of interest in culinary independence, has brought us such wonders as Frosted Flakes, Bisquick, and Gogurt. In other words, our pantries have been overrun by corporations. If you can find a single breakfast food in your home that hasn't passed across several state borders and through numerous processing facilities to get to you, count yourself lucky.

It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I developed an interest in eating food without logos, slogans, characters, jingles, boxes, or wrapping. Somehow, even as a graduate of a pretty good university, I still believed that a healthy breakfast consisted of a serving of my cereal of choice (preferably one advertising how many vitamins had been added to it), a cup of pasteurized, homogenized skim milk, a piece of toast, and a bit of meat or an egg, either way, full of antibiotics. Eventually, writers like Michael Pollan furnished me with the intellectual stuff necessary to recognize that I had been wrong all along, but it was life in Korea that gave me the impetus to start making changes. No Waffle House around the corner*, no Tony the Tiger beckoning me from the other end of the aisle, no decent bread, no bacon at all. I was often tempted to just forswear my morning meals altogether, but given that I didn't start work until 3PM, that didn't seem like the best option.

Instead, I took a hint from the people around me. Or, at least, from the ones who weren't neck-deep in Western Food Orthodoxy. They ate rice, beans, nuts, stews, fish, vegetables steamed and raw and fermented - in short, the same basic stuff they ate all the rest of the time. The same flavors, too: where we tend only to have sweet and rich in the AM, Koreans also incorporate salty, sour, bitter, and whatever else you can come up with into their morning meals. Here, there's no giant conceptual gap between food that is to be eaten before the earth has done half its day's rotating and food that is to be eaten after; it would be something close to meaningless for a restaurant to advertise, IHOP-style, that it offers breakfast around the clock.

Adjusting to this new style of eating was a little weird at first, and to be honest, I still hate eating rice in the mornings, but after a short while I found that the barriers were far more psychological than physical. Once you can let go of "tradition" - which isn't actually tradition, because the modern breakfast is almost completely a product of Kelloggs and 20th century food transmogrification technology - you open yourself up to a world of delicious and nutritious possibilities. Even someone as environ-mental as myself, all wrapped up in a quasi-veg*an, anti-corporate, organolocavore lifestyle stuff, living in a strange land far away from home, has plenty to eat.

Here's a typical example. It can be put together in ten minutes, eaten in fifteen, and cleaned in two. More importantly, its nutrition is packaged in whole foods, which means it's more synergistic, more available to the body, and more likely to keep you satisfied until your next meal. I don't know what they eat for breakfast, but my coworkers, most of whom probably eat breakfast later than me and then start class with me at 9AM, often head to Subway (yeah, we have one on campus) for their footlongs right when class gets out at 10:50. My stomach, on the other hand, is hardly even rumbling at 11:40 when the faculty cafeteria opens; I wouldn't go over before 12:30 if it weren't for the mad rush that begins at noon.

Eager to see this magic plate that I've spent the last half-hour talking up? Please, remember that I never said it was much to look at.

The substance of the meal comes from the sweet potatoes, all nice and chewy; the bite comes from dipping thee crisp carrot sticks and mini peppers into ssamjang (made of soybean paste, red pepper paste, and sesame oil), and the richness comes from pan-fried tofu with a perilla oil and powder sauce. Have a cup of tea first and and, if you're still hungry, a piece of fruit after, and you're good to go.

Fair enough, there's some prep work involved - taking care of the sweet potatoes ahead of time, and, even more, all the embedded labor in the sauces and oils. But who can't squeeze in ten minutes on a Sunday night to prep breakfast for most of the week? And surely the process of making sesame oil is a little simpler than the process of making Smart Start. Further, for those in a real hurry, you could replace the tofu with nuts or a hard-boiled egg. Another benefit of meals like this include that they change throughout the year according to whichever vegetables are fresh, cheap, and in-season. It's easy to replace cucumbers with carrots, to visit the market and buy any of hundreds of varieties of hand-made side dishes, or to incorporate whatever your CSA box happens to bring (quail eggs for me this morning^^). This means that we stay closer to natural rhythms and further from artificial preservatives. Which in turn, means, that we're closer to health, food independence, and sustainability. Sounds like killing ten birds with one stone to me.

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