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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Team Happy Bear Goes Organic

At Hangukjib, my teammates and I got a chance to put our own meal together. Not all the way from beginning to end, since so many of the vegetables had already been sautéed for us, but, in any case, more than usual. By learning about the people, history, and techniques that lay behind it, we had deepened our relationship with our food, and had been reminded once again that everything we eat can be appreciated in various ways. We can enjoy the taste, of course, and get lost in the sheer beauty of the dish, but we can also develop respect for and gratitude towards the people who put it together. We can note our sense of nourishment and satisfaction after the meal has been completed. Last, but not least, even as foreigners we can feel ourselves embedded in hundreds of years of history. Bibimbap was formerly eaten in various incarnations by peasants, by kings, by the bereaved. Now it's being eaten by people like us. The world is indeed a strange place.

Even such a deep experience, though, fails to address what is for me the most important question: what was the effect of my meal on the earth and all the other beings on it? Did it do more good than harm? Are the practices that brought it about sustainable? Are my choices contributing to others' ability to eat well, or am I detracting from it? Of course I want my food to bring happiness and wellbeing to me; but if it does so at the cost of sickness, deprivation, or destruction for others, I'd prefer to opt out.

Luckily, we're not caught up in some zero-sum game in which our health necessarily results in other's misery. It is possible for eating to benefit the earth and everybody on it. Or, more accurately, it's possible for farming to. Good farming, on a small scale, done with care, attention, knowledge, respect, and patience, can rehabilitate land, recover topsoil, recreate space for animals to graze on, and restore health to people. Team Happy Bear wanted to see this kind of work up close, in context, and in action, so Hansik graciously offered to take us out of Jeongju and into Jeong-eup to meet Lee Hee-cheon.

Meeting Farmer Lee

Farmer Lee started 백학농원 (White Crane Farm) some-teen years ago (that's a direct quote, not my memory faltering) because he wanted to feed his family food that was healthy and safe. I asked him if he had done conventional farming before switching over to organic, to which he replied, more or less "I would never farm anything except organic. What's the point?" Here's a dude who understands what it's all about! Non-organic farming methods, in the long run, create and exacerbate a host of seemingly disconnected problems, from oil depletion to water pollution, from topsoil loss to political instability, from starvation to obesity. Organic, sustainable agriculture is the only foundation upon which we'll be able to build strong, healthy, enduring communities in the future. If I were more of a historian, I might also try to make a similar claim about the past. In any case, Farmer Lee said that he had been successful: his kids are healthy and energetic, and his land is becoming more fertile year after year.

It would take a full year on an organic farm to really begin understanding anything, but, unfortunately, we only had a few hours together with Mr. Lee, so we quickly got down to business in the cabbage patch. He explained that he doesn't use any chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, to control bugs, he creeps through his fields, searches for clues like eaten-up leaves and little insect droppings, spots the invaders, and plucks them out with a pair of chopsticks. It does sound like a lot of work, but actually, it's not particularly harmful to eat a leaf that bugs have already nibbled on. In fact, Mr. Lee says, the fact that bugs eat it means it's probably good enough for us, too. Would you want to eat something that even a roach wouldn't go near?

This is neither here nor there, but it was at about this point that Mr. Lee picked a grub off of a piece of cabbage and said that it was probably pretty healthy, since it had been feasting on organic food. Greg then took the grub and scarfed it, more or less blowing the farmer's mind. Apparently he hadn't been given the full dossier on Team HappyBear!

Andy hoists a cabbage-trophy. In less than 4 hours, it will be Kimchi...

After harvesting some cabbages together, we walked down the hill, flanked on either side by persimmon trees just about ready to lose their leaves to the autumn and their fruits to hungry tourists. We moved on to the next stop: the carrot and garlic patch. The five of us all planted garlic together by pushing cloves about an inch into the dirt then covering them back up, while Mr. Lee explained that, as deplorable as the plastic (they call it "vinyl mulch" here) is, it helps the plants a lot by retaining moisture and warmth and keeping out weeds, which essentially steal nutrition from the garlic, keeping it from growing as big as it might. It's still not clear to me whether this kind of farming can really be called "organic" in the fullest sense of the word, but it's a whole lot better than the alternative.

Working up an appetite / earning our keep

Me and Tanya after eating a fresh clove of garlic each, wishing the cameras were equipped with smell-o-vision technology.

After planting garlic, we dug up some carrots, scrubbed them off on our pants, and, much to the amazement of Farmer Lee and the Hanisk crew, chowed down on the spot. Some were a little concerned about the dirt, but we told them: not only is organic produce healthy; so is the soil it's grown in. After all, all the vitamins and minerals in fruits and veggies come from one of two places: the soil, or chemical reactions within the plant. (Botanist friends: correct me if I'm wrong here). Our smiles and "mmmmms" probably did more than our arguments to overcome the crew's skepticism, but either way, they joined us, munching on the freshest and healthiest carrots they'd probably ever had. Unfortunately, I was too busy eating to take any pictures.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Slight Change of Plans Regarding the 1KFTFFF

UPDATE: NEVERMIND THIS POST. I'm gonna post everything here, and post whatever seems to fit well onto Hansik. I'll also be posting everything over at our team blog, http://happybeareats.blogspot.com. Tune in over there if you want to see how Anina, Andy, Tanya, and Greg's takes differed from mine.


From now on, all my posts regarding the First Korean Food Tour for Foreign Foodies are going to appear exclusively on the Hansik website in the Hostpot Review section. My team has made this decision in order to make sure that our posts are pulling traffic towards the Hansik site, rather than away from it. It should also make it easier for the people at Hansik to see how hard Team Happy Bear is working.

Thus, the post just under this one about brekky has been reposted here.

Eventually, after a ten day or two week delay, everything will get republished here; in the meantime, though, please follow the links I post to my articles on the Hansik website.

Much appreciated! Happy vicarious food tourism!

The Hungry Vagabond Gets Treated Like a King

Whenever I tell Koreans that I'm a veg*an, they generally ask the same question: what do you eat? Most of them don't seem to realize that Korean cuisine is full of awesome vegetarian goodies: pancakes made with green onions, chives, kimchi, potatoes, or lentils; noodles hot, cold, creamy, or spicy; all kinds of soups porridges; tofu in various guises. Then, of course, there's also 정식, or Jeongsik, or Table d'hôte, or the "set meal." No matter what you call it, it means rice, soup, and anywhere from, say, five to thirty-five side dishes, almost all of them veg-friendly.

However, the king of Korean vegetarian fare is, without question, Bibimbap (literally, mixed rice). Normally, I wouldn't take it upon myself to write about it, given that it's probably the simplest, most well-known, and most widely-diffused Korean food out there, with the possible exception of LA Kalbi. Thanks to Hansik, though, I recently underwent the most extreme and regal Bibimbap experience of my life:

Bibimbap with a master. This Granny (a term of respect in Korean) has been making Bibimbap for 52 years and claims that her mother invented it, or at least the high-class version.

Your standard Bibimbap - even the one I ate on the airplane on the way over here nearly five years ago, which, incidentally, was the first Korean food I ever tried - is vegetable heaven. Julienned vegetables like sauteed radish, carrot, and bracken, along with steamed and seasoned spinach, some bean sprouts, and a bit of roasted seaweed sit atop a bed of rice. Throw an egg on top if you'd like, drop on a dollop of red pepper paste, and stir it all up. Voila: a natural, low-maintenance, delicious vegetarian meal. At a cheap restaurant, this will run you about 3 dollars; at a fancy one, closer to 6.

For Kings, or, in this case, a bunch of vagabond foodies, Bibimbap can really be scaled up. Check out our table above: everything I just mentioned, plus sweet and spicy balloon flower root (it's OK if you have no clue what this is), sauteed zucchini, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, thin-sliced egg, mung bean jelly, ginko nuts, pine nuts, crushed sesame seeds, and a special broth made right there at the restaurant.

Some of the high-class toppings

Listening attentively to half a century of wisdom.

Being that everything will eventually get all stirred together, you'd think you could just throw in all the ingredients any which way. It's not so, though! The master insisted that we put each ingredient in its own place, paying particular attention to color symmetry. White radish slices and bean sprouts should be on opposite sides for optimal aesthetic appeal; sauces and nuts at the end to give it that just-completed look.

Me, Greg, and Tanya enjoying the lesson. Unfortunately (for them) Andy and Anina had not yet joined the festivities.

Can you believe I made that?

It turns out that even mixing it requires a particular technique. In addition to stirring everything up and mixing it evenly, one has to be sure to smush it together just so, in order that the perfect balance of soy sauce, sesame oil, and pepper paste will be mashed in to each grain of rice.

I got a little help from the boss on this one. Oh my god was it good.

It turns out, then, that Bibimbap has a fairly unique quality: no matter who puts the dish together for you, the final result is the outcome of your own skill. Even if you go all the way to Jeonju, search out the "Hangukjib," (the name of this restaurant) and order the most deluxe bibimbap on the menu, it's up to you to make it or break it! I see a little something symbolic in this: money can't buy you the best bibimbap; only familiarity can. Good food calls for good cooks, but also for good eaters, eaters who know something about the story and the theory of their food. Eating is consumptive, of course, but at its best, it's also participatory. More than many other places I've been, Koreans seem to be intent on holding on to this respectful, if not quite reciprocal, relationship between eater and eaten. Not as much as they should, given how many treasures their cuisine contains, but enough that just living and eating here as made me aware that people can, in fact, approach their food in different ways, some better than others. I owe many thanks to this Grandma in particular, and to others like her all around the country, for helping me learn how to really enjoy and appreciate food. Now, go get a bowl for yourself.

Me, Tanya, and Greg with two generations of Bibimbap Matriarchs.

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.

Team HappyBear Eats Its Way Through North Jeolla Province

If this post never gets finished, it's because my stomach exploded and I dropped dead with a giant smile on my face.

Like the other members of Team Happy Bear (don't ask about the name), I spent every moment between 5:00 Friday morning and 7:30 Sunday night doing something related to food. You name it, we did it. Shopping. Buying. Harvesting. Killing. Seasoning. Slathering. Cooking. Debating. Discussing. Eating. Enjoying. Thanking. A full month's worth of preparations, tons of plans made and canceled and reworked, all came together for a crazy three-day, two-night bonanaza covering seven meals and several hundred kilometers. I'm too exhausted now to go into the details of what we ate and where, but I'll just say that the trip was a dream come true: me and four foodie friends getting chauffeured around, following traditional Korean food from farm to market to table (to belly), relishing in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity, exploring its endless reworkings of what often looks to the uninitiated like a limited sets of ingredients, and learning about the history, methods, and thought behind it all.

The next ten days will be filled with my attempts to recall, review, and recreate all the experiences that are still whirring about in my mind. Keep checking back - lots of interesting stuff to come!