Coming to a new country I expected there to be odd moments with food. Moments which leave me confused, possibly delighted and possibly disgusted. I just thought I would share some of the memorable dishes I’ve eaten at my schools here so far.
Episode One~The Shrimp: “Do you like shrimp, Lucca?” a co-teacher asked me hestitantly. I love shrimp. Those are the little pink things you eat in pasta with garlic sauce, right? I nodded and all the teachers frolicked to the caffeteria excitedly. I paused as a heavy Styrofoam cooler was open to reveal massive gray prawns, their large black eyes watching me judgementally. There were “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” from all the teachers around me who love their food the fresher the better but I was still feeling a bit intimidated from the staredown and even more indimdated by the knowledge that koreans have been known to eat things live. I watched nervously but relieved as the teachers brought out pans and little stoves to cook them at the tables and jumped every time something hit the lid of the pan. The little guys sounded so angry and I was getting scared of them; this was my first time eating prawns and they seemed to have a lot of attidude. The lid finally opened back up to reveal pink, quiet food. In fact, they almost looked like the pasta shrimp I was used to having but they still had so many little legs all poised to attack and their little eyes still watched me so judgementally. I’m telling you, I have never been this scared of my food until coming to Korea. I probably would have sat for a very long time with my plate of sauce, nervously holding my chopsticks, if a kind coteacher hadn’t taken it into his heart to get them ready for me. And they were amazing. In America I usually buy food from the normal grocery store and don’t really have the time or money (or motivation) to go to do my own fishing or catching or growing. Here in Korea my tongue is getting spoiled with things straight from the sea or from the mountain gardens. So if my teacher were to ask again, “Lucca, do you like shrimp?” I would still nodd excitedly even though I know exactly what I’m getting myself into.
Episode Two~The Little Squidlings: So, my life in Minnesota hasn’t included much sea food and when I moved to Geoje I was excited about the new wierd foods I would be able to discover dinning on an island. Now, when I see squid on the menu I get excited about having a familiar tasty food but this was certainly not always the case. I remember almost screaming the first time I found a baby squid in my pasta and taking about a half an hour before I build up the courage to close my eyes and eat it. But one of my first days the teachers table had a plate of beautiful purple squidlings. Ok, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if they were squid or octopus and I barely remember how they tastest. I was in shock at the fact that they did not appeared to be cooked, were as long as my hand, and were meant to just be eaten whole. I still am not sure if I liked them. My brain was still trying not to be afraid.
Episode Three~The Tomatoes: Don’t they have tomatoes in Minnesota? Yes they do and I eat them on sandwitches and in salads if I have to, and I have eaten them in school lunches here on a fairly regular basis, but the other day they were in an unusual sauce. You can expect the sauces here to be really sweet or really spicy here in Korea and often both and you will never know until you bit into it. I’ve had apples in sauce that was actually peper sauce (that made me a bit sad) and I’ve had cucumbers and strawberries in a sweeter sauce (which surprised and delighted me). But today it was straight-up pure honey. I always felt like tomatoes as a fruit is a bit of a lie. I mean, in my opinion tomatoes trying to claim the same level as strawberries, grapes and mangos is just arrogant and untrue but drenched in honey I realized something. My goodness, tomatoes can be downright delicious. I realized this by the end of eating them, of course. The first few bites were pure confusion. Why was there honey on my tomatoes? That’s like putting honey on pizza! Oh, wait, Koreans do that too…
Episode Four~The Salty Creatures: I really don’t remember what these creatures are called. I just sat down to lunch one day with my plate of veggies (drenched in lots of sauce of course). I am still pretty terrible at learning vegetable names here (there are so many new ones and they are all pretty similar) and I’m even worse at remembering those names. I thought what I was about to bite into next was some other vegetable but my chopsticks paused. They were a bit too silvery to be veggies, even though they were mixed with almonds and dressing like a salad. I stared at the unknown food item wondering if they would be sweet or spicy. I picked up an almond sliver for a flavor check. Salty. Very. Very. Salty. And I realized that all the little silver things had little black eyeballs. What is it with Koreans and food with eyeballs??! It is so unnerving! In fact, I still will not eat these little fishy things when they show up on my plate. Yes, I did try them at one point and yes, it was a bad idea. I do not like them, Sam I am.
Episode Five~The Oysters: The vice principal came rushing into the teachers office with a massive styrofom box and proudly took of the lid. A massive cloud of steam floated out and all the teacher gathered excitedly around. My co-teacher told me “Gool.” I staired at the container confused. Honey? Nope, my bad. Not Ggool, just gool. Oysters! I don’t remember having oysters once back home. I’ve had them here in soup and been rather confused but found them pretty tasty. But when they opened up the package this day there were mountains of shells some still salty from the sandy seaside. (By the way, back home I love collecting seashells and any shell is exciting. Here, sea shells are just like peelings and I can’t tell you how strange that makes me feel. It’s waking up and finding out gold is just the dust that keeps collecting on the mantel piece. Not the most annoying thing in the world but just something you have to deal with. It makes me feel oddly wealthy or spoiled, I guess. And yes, I still collect seashells but not from my plate because that would be weird!) My co-teacher handed me a shell containing a massive oyster.
MY GOODNESS oysters are amazing!!
And, I really wanted to open one up myself. I got so excited about cracking open the shells you would have guessed I was pearl hunting but I didn’t even need to eat the oysters at that point, I just had fun opening up sea shells and finding the perfect little meal inside. Of course, I also enjoyed eating them and ate my fair share and my co-teachers told me that here are they are ridiculously cheap. I’ve actually seen them all over the rocks by my school but never really made the connection before.
So these are a couple of the food adventures I’ve had at my schools so far. It doesn’t even count all the voluntary food adventures I’ve put myself through. Like the time I found bugs as a side dish for my octopus, the initial shock of finding out that beans are a main dessert ingredient here, or the time I found an whole massive octopus in my soup (or the time I found an octopus running away down the side walk for that matter). Moving to Korea has made me think more about where everything comes from and it has taught me to value fresh and local. I see all the fisherman in the morning pulling in the fish that ends up at the markets by my house and watch the ajummas collecting oyster shells in the afternoon. Of course, there are moments of unpleasant suprise, but overall all the meals here including (and especially) school lunches fantastically delicious. In fact, I am afraid I may be getting very spoiled indeed. #IslandLife