If there is one question people ask me to no end, it’s “what have you been eating?”. I’ve been thinking about how to answer this question for a little while and I’m still not sure I can answer to the satisfaction of those who have asked, nor can I answer it with much entertainment factor, but here is my best shot:
When I first came to Korea my school offered to give me dinner every night. The food is mostly delicious, and presented in a 3 container “dinner box” – rice in one container, kimchi and some other banchan (side dishes) in the second container and protein in the last container. Banchans would range from radishes, to lotus roots in a sweet sauce, to spinach (my favourite), perilla leaf kimchi, bean sprouts, or other greenery. The protein was often an egg, black soy beans or stewed meat. My favourite, however, is fried tofu in chilli sauce – oh my gosh … melt in your mouth… delicious.
As my sleeping schedule was all out of whack at the start of my stay here, I tended to just have lunch and skip breakfast at home – usually I would eat rice and greens with an egg, or if in a rush I’d have a bowl of ramen. If I felt like something super tasty I would pick up some kimbap or make my own. Kimbap is a little like sushi rolls except with more fillings. Usually you get spinach, egg, radish, carrots and cucumber and whatever extras you ask for – tuna is a popular choice – all wrapped up in rice and seaweed, and brushed with sesame oil. Delicious!
Whilst incredibly healthy, unfortunately, something in this diet didn’t suit me. About two months in I started to have serious stomach problems, to the point of feeling too nauseous and dizzy to climb the stairs at work and I headed to the doctor. After poking me until I screamed, he made a diagnosis of gastritis and sent me on my way with a prescription for what felt like 20 pills. Without exaggerating, it was probably closer to 10. He suggested that I stop drinking (I’d actually already done this) and cut out spicy and fermented foods like kimchi.
I went back to the school and explained my predicament. The foreign teacher before me had had similar issues with some of the food so luckily(?), they had a pre-made plan. The school would give me a small sum each week and I could bring my own food for dinner.
At first, I would just buy kimbap everyday, as it is free of the aforementioned banned foods and exceptionally quick and cheap to pick up on the way, however it really wasn’t filling enough and I would find myself ravenous by the end of the working day; meaning I would want to eat something before bed (my working hours were 2-10pm), thus not helping the gastritis in the least! The drugs were making me tired and motion sick, and I just wasn’t satisfied. To add fuel to the fire, I hate mega marts!
All those options make me ridiculously anxious. I don’t need 10 choices for plain(always sweetened) yoghurt, it’s bad enough that I have 5 in a supermarket back home. Nor do I need to buy anything but rice in bulk! And I certainly don’t need to buy a pillow or wardrobe with my chicken. Gah!
Supermarkets always fascinate me when I go to a new country, they are markedly different wherever you go, and I’m sure it has made or will one day make a great anthropology/sociology study. Yet, megamarts are simply overwhelming and I hate them. I could go on further, discussing the effect of such shopping monstrosities on the local economy, but for now I will spare you my imperfectly informed rant.
Not only are these shopping factories terrifying, they don’t really have what I want, or if they do, they have it at an unreasonable price. Luckily I have found a way of eliminating this terror.
First and foremost are the small marts, a little like IGA or smaller. They sell the basics and although they are slightly more expensive than the megamarts, I like the people who run them and they don’t seem to be too bothered by me.
My second resource is iherb.com . This American online store is marketed as a health food store, but it has become an institution among the expat community as a place to find ingredients unavailable in Korea (at all or at a reasonable price), like baking supplies, spices and canned tomatoes. Back home, I like to eat a lot of lentil and bean dishes. I’m not a vegetarian, I’m just good at cooking filling, healthy vegetarian food on a budget. Meat is expensive in Korea, yet so are beans and lentils – if you can find them! Luckily iHerb has free/$4 flat fare shipping – depending on the offer at the time.
Lastly, I’ve joined a program that sends fruit, eggs, veggies and bread (that tastes like real bread!) each week to my apartment. It’s a collaboration between the WWOOFing and CSA networks in Korea. The produce is delicious and it means that I am directly supporting Korean farmers, whose industry is dwindling in the face of competition from near-by China. I also like that I get some uniquely Korean produce like perilla leaves and certain other greens, adding challenge and excitement to my meals.
Since my hours have been changed to 1-9pm and I’ve been off the gastritis drugs, my sleeping habits have been much better and I’ve started having breakfast again. This is another thing I have turned to iHerb for – oats just aren’t available here! I could just eat rice but as it doesn’t cost me any more, I’ll stick with my old staple.
So after all that, I would say that, besides breakfast, I eat a combination of Korean food and cumin, with the occasional carb load of spaghetti or a cheeky pizza.
Oh and I’ve also discovered that it ridiculously easy to make your own yoghurt and ricotta cheese. See Mum? I am using those Chemistry degrees!
Eating out is a whole other institution and deserving of it’s own post, so stay tuned for more!