More Fruit and Some Snacks…

One drink that was popular and is still loved today by foreigners is their banana-flavoured milk. When I lived there, sometimes I longed for a food that was western-style. This milk was comforting and quite delicious and there wasn’t a milk like it where I was from. In plastic containers like this back then it looked more appetizing than it does now…now it comes in what I call “juice boxes” or small cartons with a little straw included.

I remember speaking to one of my Korean students, “Anthony ” Lee, about the fruit I saw in Korea back in 1997. Anthony and I used to go sight-seeing and go out to eat a lot. One of the restaurants we ended up in would be called a “pub” by Atlantic Canadians. Many establisments at that time were places to sit and drink a lot of draught beer that came in very large glasses, but you could also order plates of food at them. The signs outside of these pubs always said “Hof”, which I thought meant the idea was taken from Germany. There were never any forks to help a person like me to eat and I hardly ever saw an English menu in Korea. Even if I could understand the Korean I didn’t know what most dishes were, as my vocabulary was limited. So at this Hof pub, Anthony had to explain what I could order. I ended up getting a plate of vegetables and beef in a nice sauce. We each had a glass of the draught but Anthony said he had always been allergic to alcohol. After he drank some of it his face turned as red as a beet and I was surprised. I have never known someone else who had that problem.

While we were at the Hof restaurant, Anthony ordered a fruit tray for us. Fruit trays were common at many places I went. And they were expensive, I remember. Eating fruit was very common and I’m sure it was more common to eat fruit back then than it is now. Fruit was offered as dessert after a meal in people’s homes, I noticed, whereas in Canada it was more common to have a piece of iced cake or a piece of pie. The fruit in Korea was of a high quality and was always fresh and there was an abundance of all of it. Fruit was for sale almost everywhere I went, like there were always tangerines, Asian pears or large apples on display in front of all of the corner stores. The Korean people loved fruit. I had many of their purple grapes and tangerine oranges offered to me all of the time. That day in the pub, Anthony explained to me while we had some pieces of watermelon and some huge strawberries that there were many greenhouses in Korea that grew all of the beautiful produce they all required. And as usual, everything was so different to me. I told Anthony during our outing that the watermelon on that tray was the most beautiful watermelon I’d ever had. It was perfectly juicy and quite a bright red. The strawberries were huge. I do wish that Canada would have a growing system for produce like Korea has. Farms are disappearing in North America and Canada relies on distant countries for a lot of canned fruits and vegetables and other food. If we had these greenhouses, it would be such a great idea, I think. I admire the intelligent, innovative solutions to potential problems that Koreans use. Their ideas always benefit Korean society and their economy.

Oftentimes fruit trays had pieces of Korean melons on them. They are quite small with an average length of 6 inches and not big like honeydew, cantaloupe or watermelons. We don’t have any melons like these yellow ones in Canada. When I ate them, the consistency of them was like a field cucumber. The melon flesh wasn’t dripping with juice like a watermelon and it could be called ‘crisp’. The flavour was light and mild.

The only fruit I missed while I was there was grapefruit. They didn’t have any. I tried to explain what grapefruit was to a couple of businessmen and they couldn’t understand what I was talking about at all. Now I see they must have learned about it because I see some food is advertised as having grapefruit flavour. It is very difficult to explain important terms to someone who does not have a good command of English. It was hard for me to explain “grapefruit” and sometimes a Korean person wanted to know how I liked a particular dish of food. I said it was good but it was “rich”. I meant I could not eat a lot of it even though it was delicious. That was what my only answer could be in some cases. Nobody ever knew what I meant, even though I struggled to explain many times. Almost every Korean person I came into contact with had a big Korean-English dictionary to look up words on command. When I was teaching Mr. Choi at the semi-conductor plant, he always took the dictionary from my hands and wanted to see the written Korean word that I had loooked up to help our session along. He always assumed my pronunciation and interpretation of the Korean language was poor. I like looking things up and explaining but currently over twenty years later it must be so much easier to look things up on the internet or use Google Translate on the spot as needed. Back in the late nineties there was no wifi except in “internet cafes” and there were no translation sites and not many people had the devices they have nowadays. Many Korean people had cell phones but there were just some internet cafes where a person paid to use the internet in a room full of computers if a person wanted to, and that was mostly it. When I returned home to Canada in 1998, only dial-up internet was available. The lack of technology made my job in Korea more challenging, to say the least.

I noticed when I was in Korea that there was no market for barbecue sauce. I thought at the time that someone could make a lot of money by introducing any kind of western barbecue sauce to put on meat over there. Not many foreign flavours were accepted in Korea over 20 years ago. However, I did notice people loved “curried chicken”. It was on the menu sometimes at their workplace cafeterias. But cheese, which is common in the west, was only incorporated into some of their meals after the year 2000. While I was over there, I thought about how North American barbecue sauce has a tomato base whereas bulgogi (Korean ribs) sauce is soy sauce-based. I wondered if our barbecue sauce could be enjoyed by the Korean people, since everyone required a side dish of kimchi at every meal and other Korean sauces are extremely spicy and contain many chilis. Also, many of their dishes are vegetable-based or meat-free, but in Canada and the US, barbecue sauce is put on generous servings of grilled beef or pork.

While I lived in Korea, I saw these green vegetables that were the same size as the yellow melons pictured earlier. They are called squash, pumpkin or zucchini.

When I looked up about melons and squash in Korea recently, it was overwheming. The yellow fruit I wrote about earlier is technically called a muskmelon or an Oriental melon. Green squash, pictured above, are also called zucchini or Chinese squash or other variations involving these terms, such as Chinese zucchini or Oriental squash. Korean squash can be called pumpkin too. These are the only ones I saw over there, although there are apparently other longer, bigger sized ones like the zucchini I see in Canada. Korean squash are lovely as side dishes or in soups or Korean pancakes. I always marvelled at the beautiful Korean produce and how their vegetables could be so versatile and delicious but healthy at the same time. Their produce was so perfect and so bountiful. By the way, Korean pancakes were not like western ones. In Canada, we put sweet, brown sugar-based syrup on pancakes, but in Korea, pancakes have strips of vegetables in them and they often contain pieces of squid. There are even kimchi pancakes.

Stir-fried zucchini, also called pumpkin or squash, is very popular. I was so lucky to have experienced such food.

One of their most wonderful meals is dumpling soup. Mandu guk. Korean dumplings are made into the shape of half-moons. The wrappers are round and not rectangular or square-shaped like egg roll or wonton wrappers. So when they fold this round wrapper in half, with a spoonful of filling inside, it makes a shape of a crescent or half-moon. Back in the late nineties I could go in any small Korean restaurant and get a huge bowl of this soup for three dollars. When my husband visited me during the coldest week of that year, the 3rd week in January of 1998, he walked with me up in behind where I lived one morning and we went into a small, informal restaurant and I ordered us each a bowl of it. The soup was chock full of pork and vegetable dumplings, rice cakes(ddeok), clams, carrot, onion, and other types of food too but I can’t remember what else now. It was very nice to have in the cold weather and I liked having a break from kimchi and their other very spicy dishes sometimes, to be honest, as mandu guk isn’t spicy. I was glad the middle-aged Korean cook and owner (agumma) of the place was willing to serve us, as I knew sometimes foreigners like us were turned away back then. It was around this time that I had started to read Korean menus and could understand a lot of what they said. If I knew what a dish was, I could read it from the menu and understand.

Ingredients for Korean dumpling soup. The crescent-shaped dumplings are at the top-right corner and below them is a plate of ddeok(pounded rice) cakes. You can see some anchovies, laver(dried seaweed), carrot, onion, egg, and garlic and green squash as well as a jar of sesame seeds and a bottle of sesame oil..

Seoul had important amenities for everyone in most areas and in the basement of one of the apartment buildings beside my institute was a convenience store. I went there sometimes and could never believe everything I needed was close-by in Korea, because in my area of Canada most stores were far away from me, wherever I was. In the city i grew up in, everything was, on average, a 20 minute walk away or a bus ride away. One day when I went to this convenience store in Karak-dong, I was missing Canadian food and even missing English, and was feeling so lonely, when I looked in one of the store’s freezers. It was full of ice cream that was in small tubs and on sticks with colourful wrappers. I was thinking a nice ice cream bar would help me and comfort me….

Imagine you would love to buy an ice cream treat but the freezer looks like this. What kind of ice cream is for sale here? There’s a corn cob pictured on some packages. There’s a fish picture on some. And there’s no English anywhere. Are you sure that one is strawberry?

But when I looked in the freezer I didn’t know what anything was. I couldn’t ask the cashier because he would only know Korean. Everybody else in the store only knew Korean products and could not speak any English. The picture above is a modern one and the freezer I saw back then was even more confusing. There is one kind of treat above that has the word “Big” on it at least. But what is it? I see some Melona treats in the picture above. “Melona” ice cream was available in 1997 and I would get one sometimes. The original Melona is flavoured and coloured like honeydew melon and is pictured at the bottom. Honeydew flavour was the only kind of Melona I came across back then. I see 2 of them in the photo above – they’ve got a green wrapper. Melona has more flavours now and a strawberry kind is in the top left corner of this freezer. At least it’s really an actual strawberry flavour, as ice cream and other foods aren’t always what you think they might be when you are alone in a foreign country.

For hundreds of years in Northeast Asia, red bean was a special sweet dessert. This picture is not of a Korean ice cream treat but shows a Chinese or Japanese frozen snack, in the same way that red bean ice cream is found in Korea. Red bean is and was put into cakes and dumplings or can be mixed with shaved ice as a traditional treat over there. If you’re from the west, this looks like it’s strawberry ice cream though.

The trouble for me was that day I saw a wrapper with what I thought was strawberry on it, so I bought it. But when I was ready to enjoy my strawberry ice cream treat back at the institute, I found it was red bean mixed in the ice cream, not strawberry! There was no strawberry flavour of Korean ice cream back then. I was so discouraged and disappointed that I had no western “comfort food” available to me in Seoul. Ice cream is supposed to have sweet flavours in it, like chocolate or caramel or fruit like peaches, not beans!!! It was so strange and unappetizing to me that any beans were in my ice cream. However, now, years later, I would love and welcome any red bean paste in my food. I never thought I’d miss it, but now I do.

North American ice cream comes in many flavours, but there have never been any “honeydew melon” kinds, ever. In the late 90’s, I was glad this Melona kind was surprisingly very good though. There wasn’t much else in the freeezers that I wanted back then, unfortunately. Canadians do not want corn or red bean ice cream and pictures of fish on packages of ice cream are suspect. Thank goodness, this honeydew Melona was very nice and seemed to be unique and of good quality. The texture was creamy and ‘thick’ and ‘dense’ and not like any “frozen treat” I’d ever tried, to be honest.

North America always had many cows and we traditionally used real dairy cream to make ice cream in the past. Korea hasn’t got many dairy farms so their “ice cream” is different. So many meals from Korea are low-fat and having less dairy helps, as there are no creamy sauces. I was surprised that there were no big sections of cartons of milk in Korean grocery stores, as I had been told by the Canadian government for all of my life that dairy products were necessary to eat on a daily basis. We had to have between 2 and 4 cups of milk each day, we were always taught. There were posters and booklets about it in schools and clinics. Kids in Canada, myself included, had tests and lectures about this. However, I could see when I lived in Seoul that millions and millions of Asians did not eat dairy products much at all and they were all healthy. I then realised millions more people in other continents did not have cows and therefore did not have any dairy in their diets. Dairy products were not necessary after all, I deduced, because of my travel to Asia. I feel kind of foolish for not having realised that not every country had dairy products before and what that meant. Only recently has Canada revised its Food Guide to not necessarily include dairy products as a nutritional requirement. And 20 years after I returned to Canada, I heard on the news that Korean people have a higher life expectancy than Canadians do now, despite them not having a widespread dairy industry. Just the difference in access to milk, yogourt and cheese was a vast difference to me when I lived in Seoul.

Everything over there was so familiar to the Korean people but so very foreign to me. Like I’ve said, ice cream was less creamy than it was in Canada and chocolate bars weren’t as sweet as Canadian ones. Nothing was the same. Whether it was food or the actual walls in a room I was in….floors and heating systems and vehicles….

By jcorvec123gmailcom

I have a deep passion for Korea and love reminiscing about my time spent there in the late 1990s.

3 comments

  1. Hi Jennifer, We have melon like this in Tampa as we have a big Korean population. There are several grocery stores with the ice cream pops you mentioned. If I buy the, they are usually a little pricey here and I am the only one who eats them in our household. I agree with you about the low carb. Probably the healthiest place I have lived. The United Arab Emirates-I found myself gaining weight often because of the food.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting and good post reminiscing as always. What a difference just a few years makes. Now in Korea it seems there is a Baskin Robbins in every neighborhood; sometimes more than one. While in my hometown of Seattle there’s only one left that I know of, as we’ve transitioned to more unique and natural and local ice creams. Also, yogurt is pretty popular these days too. There are yogurt ahjummas on electric carts roaming the cities. The New York Times had a feature on them last year.
    Also, I was so happy when I first saw feta cheese in a supermarket in 2012. Then avocados became mainstream about two or three years ago. And now I found hummus for the first time in a non-specialty market about a week ago! I love daily Korean food but it is nice to have a large variety of comfort foods these days ~

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad to know about new items and any changes in Seoul! Please check your blog about Snippets – I wrote a comment in the one about temples….because I was in Anguk in 1998 and took a picture of the same building…

      Like

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