Travel and Food–Bronze Winner: Kimchi and Chrysanthemum

By Bharti Kirchner

It was with an eager, vegetarian appetite that I arrived in Seoul. Korean restaurants in the U.S. had spoiled me with their soups, noodles, and dumplings, but I instinctively understood that a great deal more could be expected from this earthy, fiery cuisine.

My layover here would amount to only a few days before I continued on a longer journey through Asia. After a seventeen-hour flight from the States, I wanted to relax and check out the dining spots, which I assumed would be plentiful in this capital city. My sole restriction was that the food must be vegetarian.

Prior to taking this trip, I’d researched into culinary history of the land and that had reinforced my perception. Korean cuisine had developed under a succession of imperial dynasties and later absorbed influences from the sophisticated culinary skills of both China and Japan. I had already concluded that such a venerable tradition would allow me to dine not only well but effortlessly.

Even the guidebook in my Seoul hotel room exhorted me to indulge: “Eat as much Korean food as you like and you will not gain weight.” I definitely wanted to test that assertion.

Mid-morning, I left my hotel, clutching a phrasebook to explore the nearby business district and hunt for breakfast. Along the main thoroughfare stood boxy modern buildings all apparently constructed in the same period, their business logos all in Korean. Where am I? I wondered. I couldn’t help but admire the rebuilding effort of the citizens after the Korean War, though it disconcerted me not to be able to read the street names or billboards. And I saw no sign of any eatery anywhere. No food smells, no sight of a bakery glass-case, and no person carrying a coffee cup; it was like passing through an urban desert.

Yet it didn’t seem proper to stop and ask a passer-by. Well-suited corporate types strode down the street with purposeful steps and unwavering eyes, as if late for a meeting. Everyone here walked fast. Suddenly, my stopover in Seoul seemed more of a hassle than I’d bargained for.

I turned a corner onto a boulevard that looked just like the one before. Now I felt completely disoriented. Lack of a familiar script posed a bigger hurdle than I’d anticipated. I detoured into the nearest side-street and, boom, stepped into another reality, a maze of narrow lanes and alleys redolent with the aromas of garlic, chili, and sesame oil. My senses were, however, in complete disarray; I had never associated these aromas with breakfast.

Still, this new scene brought comforting relief. “Now I know where I am,” I said to myself and looked around.

All manner of eateries were crammed in next to each other in some kind of an unknowable logic around a tiny open square that bustled with activity. A small, wiry man pulled a cart piled high with pale green sturdy-looking cabbages — there must have been a hundred, each with a farm-fresh smell — as he made deliveries to the shops. I’d never seen so many cabbages in one place. This most humble vegetable was held in esteem here; that much was clear. At the opposite corner, a vendor had set up a mobile food stall. I walked past the stall, inhaling the fragrance of roasting chestnuts that permeated the air.

On the sidewalk in front of a restaurant, a cook with a serious expression poached dumplings — smooth, plump, and glistening. He did so in a huge cauldron of foaming broth that sat on a charcoal brazier belching a cloud of scented steam. I watched, fascinated, while he worked purposefully, oblivious to curious on-lookers like me.

With surging hopes, I stepped into the restaurant. At least I could get a bowl of soup, obviously a popular breakfast item in this locale. But, alas, the menu was written in Korean and the servers spoke no English. I remembered to open my phrasebook; it offered no help. When you’re in a real-time mode, you can’t find the right page, if there is a right page. The phrases all seemed like an inky jumble. I apologized and retreated to the street, then, gathering up courage tried the shop next door.

A handsome smiling waiter one arm extended, directed me to the showcase where meals were done up in plastic. I recoiled. It wasn’t so much that the brightly colored sample dishes looked artificial, but each was topped with ferociously red strips of — what else — beef.

I pointed to one at random and asked in English, “Can you make me a vegetarian version of this?”

The waiter stared at me in bewilderment, like I had descended from Mars, like I wasn’t in my right mind. I thanked him and excused myself.

Starve when surrounded by clouds of appetite-arousing aromas? Absolutely not. Undiminished, I continued my search for the vegetarian soul of this city.

As I turned the corner, a counter-top restaurant with a blurry picture menu overhead caught my attention. In trepidation, I decided to take the plunge. I ordered a soup that looked innocent enough and breathed a sigh of relief when the waitress brought a steaming, breathing bowl and set it down before me. To my dismay it, too, was laced with chunks of beef. I should make it clear that I had nothing against beef, per se. Only that being unaccustomed to its smell, I felt nauseated.

Hastily I got up, paid, and walked out under the withering glance of other breakfasters and the distressed head-shake of the waiter.

If I harbored any feelings of humiliation, they were drowned out by stabbings of hunger. I walked up to the travel agency next door in search of direction, this time my phrasebook flipped to the right page.

“Annyong hashimnika.” I said “hello” as my phrasebook had directed.

But my Korean must have been less than perfect, for the agent replied in fluent English. “Your destination, please?”

“I want food.”

The agent laughed. “Korean food?” He turned to the agent at a neighboring table and said, “This lady wants Korean food.”

“Ah,” the second agent said, offering me a chair. “I’m a cook. My cooking starts with chilies and garlic.”

I salivated. “I love both. Tell me where I can find vegetarian.”

“Vegetarian? In Seoul? Most of our dishes are made with meat, Ma’am. We’re experts in cooking beef. I prepare beef several times a week.” He looked at me curiously for a second. “Ah, you’re a Hindu, perhaps?”

“Actually, I am. But with so many people eating vegetarian these days, you don’t necessarily have to be a Hindu, you know.”

In no time, we were into a discussion of sacred cows, the origin of vegetarianism, whether the consumption of animal protein was ultimately sustainable for the planet, and even how family closeness hinged on sharing meals.

Eventually he said, “Couldn’t you eat just a little beef?”

I chuckled over his “just a little pregnant” remark. He sounded like an aunt from my childhood, coaxing me to try her burnt black spinach.

In the end, he gave up and scrawled “no meat” in Korean on a slip of paper to show it to waiters.

That made all the difference. In the next few days, I learned how to place an order in a Seoul restaurant without pulling your hair out. Rule number 1: Don’t linger over the menu. The waiter, who appears with a plate of kimchi, expects to take your order right away, in accordance with the tempo of this hard-driving city. If eating is a pastime here, it’s also a hurried one. And rule number 2: Acquire a taste for kimchi. It is served at every meal.

Kimchi is that highly seasoned, enzyme-rich, pickled vegetable — tender, crispy, tangy, and chili-hot — and comes in more than two hundred different varieties. Kimchi, as I learned, is not merely a food, it’s a ritual. For centuries, with the arrival of autumn, an entire community would band together to make enough kimchi to last through the bitter, barren Korean winter. They stockpiled cabbage, daikon radish, and cucumber. They mixed the vegetables with ginger, garlic, coarse salt, scallions, ground red pepper, and other aromatics before pickling them in brine in earthenware pots. And finally the condiment would be ready for consumption. People would bow before kimchi, made with so much care, before taking their first taste.

I also gathered in passing that in ancient times, a woman’s marriage potential depended in part on her kimchi abilities. It wasn’t too difficult to visualize a bevy of young girls churning the pots yet another time, arm muscles bulging, breath hampered by chili dusts, but with wistful eyes,.

Kimchi not only adds zest to a meal, it is a vital source of nutrients, especially when the fields are snow-covered and fresh vegetables disappear from the markets. Kimchi is a salad, a pickle, a staple, a spirit lifter, a social leveler, and a cure-all. It is simply brilliant.

Today, most Koreans buy their kimchi, and pounds of it. I observed them doing so firsthand. On visiting an extra-fancy supermarket located in the basement of a modern shopping plaza, I found aisle after aisle of large open vats full of incarnations of kimchi. The most common were radish, turnip, cucumber and, not surprisingly, cabbage. I spied well-dressed women with the determined eyes of hunters, sniffing and contemplating their kimchi options. A sharp, garlicky, fermented aroma clung to the place. I didn’t linger long.

Kimchi in small doses, I soon found out, was quite another story. Its ferocious smell could be tamed by another staple — rice. And before long, sticky rice and kimchi became a lunch-on-the-run for me, or a mini-meal any time. The blandness of rice provided a perfect neutral background for the tongue-jolting marinated vegetables, and I developed a keen appreciation for this Korean icon.

With more experience, I ventured into other territories. At dinner one evening, I ordered bibim bab or “vegetables over rice,” which sounded ordinary but felt safe. In that crowded restaurant, I had to share a table with two Korean men. My one-bowl meal came. It contained spinach, bean sprouts, and black mushrooms, anointed with a blend of soy sauce, ginger root, and chili, and placed on top of a gleaming mound of rice. Accompanying the dish was, naturally, cabbage kimchi.

Between bites of rice, I struck up a conversation with my tablemates. They had ordered bulgogi or “fire beef,'” as one of them called it in English. Over a tiny gas burner recessed into the tabletop, they braised paper-thin slices of beef marinated in garlic and sesame oil.

“This is Korean barbecue, if you like,” joked the second man.

From the looks of it, this was no ordinary barbecue. Several tiny dishes of appetizing vegetables surrounded their plates: wilted spinach, braised summer squash, steamed eggplant, and plump seasoned bean sprouts. As if that wasn’t enough, an attractive platter of lettuce and deeply-shaded edible chrysanthemum leaves rounded out their meal. Deftly the second man wrapped lettuce and chrysanthemum leaves around the meat before biting into it.

I was intrigued by the ceremony, but even more by the vegetable side dishes, definitely the pièce-de-résistance for a non-meat eater.

“We call them banchan,” the first man enthused. “Chef’s vegetable specialties, you might say. They come with most dinners.” In bygone era, the royal table consisted of twelve such dishes. In modern times, five to seven is considered sufficient. It certainly made the table seem, to my starved vegetarian palate, one of the wonders of the world.

As with kimchi, I decided to make banchan a part of my vocabulary. I’d even order a meat dish, leave it untouched, and just devour the banchan that accompanied it. And the edible chrysanthemum leaves, I found, added grace and taste to any meal.

Still wanting to decipher the Korean cuisine better, I browsed the English language section of bookstores. Eventually, I came across a slender volume entitled All Purpose Guide to Korean Food: First Ever Dictionary of Korean Foods by Suh Hwan, published by Seoul Publishing House. The phrases — What to eat! How to eat! How much is it! — jumped out from the cover. This eater’s digest included descriptions of 193 Korean dishes, as if a visitor had months to spare. Along with a blurb on each dish came a picture, and even an approximate restaurant price.

How much more useful can a book get? I carried it with me everywhere. It even had the Korean words for “Leave out meat, I am a vegetarian,” number 17 on its phrase list. “Koki-nun jonbu bbaeseyo. Yache man moksum nida.” I repeated until I memorized it.

Rice porridge or juk, a simple gruel, took on a new meaning for me when, flipping through the pages, I learned that a red bean version is served on the winter solstice or when a new neighbor moves in. That the soy-bean-paste soup I had been routinely consuming was practically a national dish served in Korean homes every day.

The book dispensed advice on eating etiquette: “If you must leave your seat during a meal, put your spoon and chopsticks on the bowl. Do not put them off the plate. This means you have finished.” Sometimes the difference between going hungry and feeling satiated is how you position your chopsticks.

In the days that followed, I adopted another Korean custom: To leave within minutes after finishing your meal so as not to deprive the establishment of the opportunity to serve other customers. Most Koreans rush away to a tea or coffee house with their companions and continue their conversation, rather than lingering as we do in the U.S.

For me, a teashop located in the basement of an office building became a favorite after-dinner haunt. The place was nothing fancy, just a few tables and chairs scattered about the room, but it boasted of ginseng tea on its menu. The clear energizing brew was made with real ginseng root, not granules or teabags. What a treat to bite into a tiny tender slice of the root, with its bold herb flavor nestled at the bottom of the cup as a perfect finish to a meal. Somehow the brew made me feel stronger and more reflective, as though I did, indeed, possess ancient power.

All too soon, the day came for me to end my culinary stopover in Seoul and carry on with my itinerary. As my guidebook promised, I didn’t gain weight. (Did pounding miles of pavement in search of a meal contributed to that? Clever bunch!) And my vegetarian quest — frustrating though it was at times — had brought me a touch closer to the Koreans, their customs, and the magic of their revered kitchen.

As my plane took off, I realized that what made this brief layover memorable, what led me to discover treasures, were those unexpected hitches that pushed me beyond my boundaries.

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