Tuesday, April 22, 2014

HBO's Girls: The Perfect (Anti) Etiquette Guide

There's a great Seinfeld episode in which George, in order to not be such a repugnant human being, decides to do everything opposite of what he'd instinctively do. The result is that he gets the job of his dreams and starts dating women way out of his league.

The entire series of Girls could be approached in a similar way. While I enjoy its bleak and cringe-inducing criticism of self-absorbed Brooklyn hipster culture (as well its female-centric focus, which the media needs more of), the show is also quite useful in dishing out life lessons as a guide on how NOT to live. If you want to be perceived as a compassionate and mature human being, you would do well to carefully take note on how the characters on the show (to be honest, mainly Hannah and Marnie) behave and do exactly the opposite.

And if you find that your behavior parallels theirs too much, you should probably take a moment to ponder a serious turn in the arc of your life.

So here are some anti-etiquette lessons from Girls:

***Spoilers Ahead***

1) When friends talk about their problem, actually listen and get them to open up more if they want to; absolutely DO NOT pivot to talk about your own issues or experiences

2) Don't tell rape jokes at job interviews

3) Don't use funerals as professional networking events (or at least be very tactful about it)

4) Don't only call your parents when you need something

5) Don't live through life's moments as chapters to be written in your grand memoir about your great self that's lived all of 25 years

6) Don't use other people's celebrations as opportunities to promote yourself

7) What's good news for you may not always be good news for others; and if there's any doubt, DO NOT drop this news on them before their Big Moment (like a Broadway premiere)

8) Don't say aloud about how you wished you spent a semester abroad in Africa and saving the continent if you want to sound intelligent

9) Don't assume that you know better when people tell you that their family members are fucked up; they've only known them for, you know, their whole life, while you're clueless

10) Don't steal, especially from people less well-off than you

11) Don't ask for feedback on a piece of writing from the person who's the object of ridicule in said piece of writing

12) Don't let others treat you badly just because you think having a sad backstory makes you a more interesting person

13) Don't resort to the "Your dad is gay" insult if you want to seem non-childish

14) Don't remain best friends with people you hate

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Popularization Of Kimchi (And The Many Ways To Eat It)

According to this Salon article, kimchi is thoroughly mainstream now in America. Driven by big name Korean American chefs like David Chang and Roy Choi, kimchi has become something like arugula: kind of exotic, but only if you're not "with it."

To me, this is all a bit amusing because when I was growing up, kimchi was that pungent staple of Korean cuisine that you were always wary of serving (or having waft through the house) when you had your non-Korean friends over. In high school, I remember some of my friends thinking that kimchi was actually instant bowl noodles. I guess they saw the "kimchi flavored" label on the bowl and got mistaken.
No, this is not kimchi

As for myself, I like kimchi but I don't miss it the way I may miss a ton of other basic Korean foods (like jjajangmyun, salted mackerel, doenjang jjigae, etc.).

There are also a lot of kimchi types. The most familiar one is reddish with flat, ridged cabbage pieces. My favourite is called yeolmoo kimchi. It's green, with little cylindrical shoots and ample leaves. I think I like it because (A) it's generally more tart and refreshing than most kimchi types, and (B) I like leafy kimchi.

Yeolmoo Kimchi: My fave!

One funny type of kimchi is called cheonggak kimchi, which translates to "bachelor's kimchi." It's made with small, roundish vegetables. I'm not sure why it's called this, and neither do my parents. I did some basic internet research and supposedly, the shape of the radish is similar to that of hairstyles that were worn by Korean bachelors back in the day.

Cheonggak Kimchi

Non-Koreans should know that kimchi is not a meal onto itself. Apparently, some people eat it as they would a salad. I believe that people should eat a food any way they want, but in case anyone wants to eat it the "right" way, kimchi is not a main dish. Nor is it often a primary side dish. Go to any Korean restaurant, and kimchi will be just one of many little dishes, along with soy beans, perilla leaves, potatoes, anchovies, and so forth. Maybe this is what Italians feel when they come to the U.S. and see us eating huge bowls of pasta as a main course.

Best thing about kimchi is that it's very versatile. Whether it's cold or cooked, it tastes great. Here are some common and easy ways to eat it.

1) Kimchi Bokkeum Bap (Fried Rice)

My own handiwork

When I'm in Seoul, this is my go-to lunch when I'm at home and don't have any lunch plans. It's super easy to make: just chop up some kimchi and onions, fry'em up, and add some sesame oil. This is a dish that is actually elevated by spam due to its softness and saltiness. You could use ham or beef or other meats, but it's not the same.

2) Grilled Kimchi

Kimchi, like garlic, is a food that tastes wonderfully different when grilled. Gone is the tart spiciness, and replacing it is a kind of rich smokiness. Always grill your kimchi when you're at a Korean BBQ.

3) Kimchi Jeon (Pancakes)

This is a very useful way to use old kimchi that may be a bit too ripe for normal eating. This is good because the batter will dilute the flavour, so you want kimchi that's very strong tasting. Only trick is to get that crispy outer layer that's hard to achieve with typical frypans and stoves. I've tried making this at home, but I can't get that restaurant-style crust.

4) Kimchi Jjigae (Stew)

A very easy dish to make that can turn any boring pile of rice into something mouth-watering. If you're in Seoul, the one at the ubiquitous Saemaeul Shikdang is very well-known. You can pretty much add anything to kimchi jjigae (pork, tofu, tuna, etc.) and it'll taste great.

5) Steamed Kimchi with Pork Belly

Very simple dish. Steamed kimchi and uncured pork belly, with some plain tofu if you want. Sounds boring by themselves, but eat them together, and it's a very satisfying combo.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

I Miss Pojangmachas (Korean Street Food Vendors)

Walk around Seoul enough and you're bound to spot them. They'll often be covered in brightly coloured tarps, and inside, a huddled few sit on stools while a man or woman keeps stirring a large pan of rice cakes covered in a red sauce. Sometimes, a canopy extends outwards from the main "kitchen" to a picnic-ish area of plastic tables and chairs. People of all sorts—young, old, male, female—are there, eating something off a long pointy stick and throwing back shots of soju.

These are the pojangmachas.

A "pojangmacha" is a street food vendor in Korea. Usually, it consists of a food cart with a griddle for serving up ddeokbokki (spicy rice cakes), hoddeok (small fried pancakes). There will be a frying pot for various fried foods like fried squid, fried sweet potatoes, and fried noodle rolls. Also prominently displayed will be a long roll of soondae (Korean blood sausage) as well as a bamboo forest of long sticks protruding out of a tub of broth. This is eomuk, or fish cakes (delicious, but their PR team really needs to come up with a better name because "fish" and "cake" really don't belong in the same sentence). And of course, they'll often serve beer and soju.

Some of the pojangmachas in crowded areas like near Gangnam Station only have seating available around the cart itself. Others are more expansive and have little plastic tables and chairs underneath a vinyl canopy.

A lot of Koreans attach a sentimental and romantic value to pojangmachas. For starters, they're almost always the setting for emotional scenes in Korean dramas and movies. Often, when the hero or heroine experiences heartbreak, s/he will go to a pojangmacha alone and drink so much soju that the ajumma who runs the place has to cut them off. Confessionals are common as well. In Architecture 101, when the male protagonist first tells his friend of his fervent crush for the female protagonist, they're both at a pojangmacha, eating eomuk and drinking soju.

A pojangmacha scene from Architecture 101

On a personal level, my mom often told me that when she was younger, she and her friends would stop by these things after school and it'd be the best meal of the day. I never grew up in Korea, so eating at these places was one of the few ways for me to vicariously live that experience.

Contradictorily, when I was younger and visiting Korea, I would usually be discouraged by my parents from eating at pojangmachas because they're not as well-regulated as established restaurants. But starting in late 2010 when I was living for the foreseeable future in Korea and getting used to life there, I started to stop by once in a while at these places. And for whatever reason, food just tastes better when you're outdoors, sitting on plastic chairs, and huddled over a small table.

A unique pojangmacha I went to in Apgujeong that served breakfast sandwiches

I haven't ever gotten drunk at a pojangmacha, though. Yet. I guess this is one of the things I should try the next time I'm there!