[Dramas and food] Of mukbangs and me: How Korean food worked its way into my fridge and my life
by Guest Beanie
Her Private Life
When the giant jar of kimchi I’d purchased from the Korean supermarket rolled out of the fridge and landed on my toes, my first words (after squealing in pain) were: “Are you okay???”
This was, of course, directed to my kimchi. Er- I mean, the kimchi. From a once exotic food I’d only ever heard of, to now being a fridge staple of mine, kimchi was the first turning point in a continuing series of turning points that brought Korean dishes and culinary delights into my dietary repertoire. A stint in Korea teaching English introduced me to a dizzying variety of condiments, preserves, and dry goods that I have determined I cannot live with. God help me if I ever get marooned on an island. Kimchi withdrawal is real.
One could argue that food in Korean dramas commands character status. Female leads drown their sorrows in jjajangmyun and soju, ladies meet together at cafes and plot revenge; families get together to make kimchi, and students fuel examination cramming with instant noodles. Long before Let’s Eat and YouTube mukbangs celebrated gastronomical voyeurism, Korean dramas kindled a desire in me to taste jjamppong and sample soju. So much meaning was tied around food in Korean dramas. A hungry young boy could be treated to an ajumma-made omurice. A young woman would cry silent tears, a ball of rice nestled against her cheek. Foam kisses. Coca-cola kisses. Romance swirled over cake as betrayal did over barley water.
Ironically, when I lived in Korea I barely watched Korean dramas. Misaeng is real, folks. All those workplace dramas are not exaggerating when they imply your time is in your boss’s hands. Conversely, I discovered new and fascinating foods, foods I hadn’t come across in dramas. Citron tea helped me through several colds. Glutinous rice-jelly stuffed bread (whose Korean name I never found out) was my breakfast before work. Dak galbi was a favourite with my coworkers: stir-fried chicken, cheese, ramyun noodles, and cabbage all swirling in a large wok of deliciousness.
The longing awakened by my sense of sight as I watched characters engaging with food in Korean dramas was complemented by the taste and flavour of the food I had in Korea. My memories of my time there are anchored in the spicy-sweetness of tteokkbokki, the sizzle of pork swimming in ssamjang and wrapped against the light crunch of lettuce. Surprising a halmoni when I (a foreigner) bought her kimbap, which she’d been selling wrapped up in cellophane outside a subway station. My Korean friend treating me to hotteok, encountering potatoes on a pizza with honey offered as dipping sauce. Meeting friends in a traditional teahouse in Insadong, relaxing over tea in another traditional teahouse in Jeonju while I tried not to spill any over my rented hanbok.
My sweetest memories? My friend’s mother waking up early and making us dwenjang jjigae for breakfast, with ingredients all out of her organic garden. That same omoni gifted me her homemade kimchi. All other kimchi pales in comparison. Yes, even that kimchi which stands as a pillar in my fridge.
Last year, for three months I lived in a remote part of the world. It was a difficult time. I was alone, struggled with learning the local language, and often witnessed corruption and injustice. Until then, my cooking had always been makeshift, “survival cooking” as my mother dubbed it with my attempts at edible dinners more likely than not to end in tears and takeout. When I returned home after those few months, I went immediately to the Asian grocery market and loaded my shopping cart with ingredients that my Indian-born flatmate found strange and exotic. That night, less than twenty-four hours after my feet touched the soil of the country I now call home, I made my first kimchi jjigae. It tasted almost authentic. It tasted like renewal.
Answer Me 1988
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- [Dramas and food] The discovery of side dishes
- [Dramas and Food] Anchoring my memories
- [Dramas and Food] The spice of life
- [Theme of the Month] Dramas and food
Tags: Theme of the Month