Someday I’d like to visit Korea. Its ancient culture has a particular air of mystique that is captured in its beautiful pottery, romantic landscapes and delicious food. At the same time, I feel as if I’ve already been there because there are so many references to it in popular culture. I’ve seen snatches of it in K-Pop videos, Korean drama and in the novel White Monkey by Carlos Hughes. I’ve also taught Korean students and spoken with other teachers who worked there and loved it.
Although it is not the biggest country in Asia, it has deliberately publicized its culture to great effect around the world. The phenomenon of ‘Hallyu’ or ‘Korean Wave’ contributed to the fact that ‘Gangnam Style’ was the first video to reach 1 billion hits on Youtube and to the fact that my students in a remote corner of Saudi Arabia wanted to learn Korean and work in Seoul.
Korea Town starts at the corner of Broadway and W. 32, Manhattan, and extends for a single block. As soon as you step past the sign saying ‘Korea Way’, you move from a world of yellow cabs, hotdog stands and bemused tourists into a small city street in Seoul. My friend Jasmine, a native Korean who’s lived here for several years, offered to show me around so I jumped at the chance.
Much to my satisfaction, Jasmine first insisted on taking me on a quick tour of H-Mart, a Korean supermarket. Whenever I’m somewhere strange, which is often, my favorite thing to do is to pore over the supermarket aisles and reflect on the culinary habits of the people who purchase such odd things.
The first thing she pointed out were the sacks of rice, which were right at the entrance, being the staple of Korean cuisine. Although rice is difficult to grow in the mountainous country, Korean farmers are diligent about it and the product is of very high quality.
Next, we zipped through the fruit and vegetable section. Here, she pointed to a bunch of dried red fruit. These were jujubes or daechu-cha from the Ziziphus jujube bush, also known as Chinese dates. In Korea they use it to make a ruby-red tea full of vitamins, polyphenols and other nutrients . She also pointed to a long root, ginseng, from the Panax ginseng plant. Koreans have cultivated this plant for centuries, believing it improves their overall health, and they add it to tea, soups and other dishes.
Stopping by the sauce bottles, Jasmine picked up a bottle of fish sauce.
“This is for kimchee,” she explained.
Suddenly, all became clear—so that was the ingredient that gave the pickled cabbage that sharp, tangy flavor! Two weeks ago Jasmine gave me a jar of her homemade kimchi and I’ve been making my way through it ever since, analyzing its flavors and textures.
We went to the noodle section and she explained that Korean noodles are usually very spicy. Her husband Sergei is Russian and they are way too hot for his palate, she added with a chuckle. When I recalled that Muscovites consider tomatoes spicy, I could imagine the volcanic effect of superhot noodles on his delicate system.
We walked out of H-Mart and as we wandered down the street Jasmine pointed out all the shops–bookshops, cosmetics, clothing and restaurants–BBQ, fried chicken, tofu. Above every shop there was either a bar or a restaurant, so it was almost like two streets in one.
“Korea Town never stops. Twenty-four seven,” she said. “At night, even when New York stops, Korea Town keeps going. Ah!” she pointed ahead of us as if she’d seen Father Christmas. “Ginseng!”
Sure enough, there was a whole fancy shop devoted to the leggy root. We went in to investigate. Here, it was sold as a dark paste in little jars, or as the naked root lovingly packaged in cellophane and displayed on a tiny pedestal. Jasmine said that it was very good for improving energy levels–that her grandmother used to make her own ginseng paste, it was very good–so I decided to get a small jar.
At the checkout, the shop assistant presented me with the world’s smallest spoon.
“First, just have one level spoonful a day,” she said seriously, “Then, after a month, increase the dose to two or three.”
“OK,” I nodded dutifully, wondering if I could spread it on toast like Marmite.
Taking the pretty red bag out of the store, I hoped we would soon be stopping for cake. Sure enough, Jasmine headed straight for a Parisian café of the Asian variety, with dainty sponge cakes and soft sweet buns. Together we shared a big green-tea roll.
Jasmine seemed a bit down. She explained that it was to do with the news about Korea and Japan, who are at one of the lowest points in their diplomatic relations since 1965. South Korea insists that reparations are owed to families of those forced to work for Japanese firms in World War II. Japan claims that that was already settled and has retaliated by limiting exports of materials Korea needs to produce electronic goods. In turn, South Korean consumers have started to boycott Japanese goods. Jasmine said this breach in relations is particularly hard because she works in an office where most of her other colleagues are Japanese.
In an effort to cheer her up a bit I produced a map of Korea from a book I was reading and asked her for recommendations for a future visit.
“Well, you must go to Seoul,” she said. “Then Geojedo Island. Very beautiful! And then the East Coast, the sea is very good–clear. Not like the Yellow Sea…” and pretty soon she was reeling off half-a-dozen places whose names I can’t remember.
As we were finishing the cake, Sergei met us and we all went to the great Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya, a few blocks away and opposite Bryant Park. Jasmine pointed out a calligraphy aisle, saying that as a schoolgirl she used to have to practice writing katakana. She showed me the ‘inkstone’, the brushes, the ink and the thin, slightly roughened paper. When I asked if schoolkids still have to do it, she said no, they all learn English.
As we said goodbye at the Subway entrance, I thought about how many worlds New York City contains. On every trip into the city I see something new, and this time I’d learned a bunch about a whole country. It was pretty tiring. As soon as I got home I’d have a spoon of that ginseng.