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Connecting the past with the present

My Scholarship entry - Understanding a Culture through Food

WORLDWIDE | Sunday, 22 April 2012 | Views [66] | Scholarship Entry

The first time I ate kimchi was on the pavement of a busy street in Seoul. With stainless steel chopsticks in hand I ate a dish older then Christ, while neon flashing lights, techno music and images of K-pop stars teamed up, trying to convince me to buy the latest phone or laptop. Catchy pop music pumped from the shops located on the strip. It was dinner time and the streets were full, families and friends were out and the spicy sweet smells of dinner hung heavy in the humid night. Shrieks from teenagers reached earsplitting proportions, it felt like the beginning of a carnival but was only an average Tuesday night.

There were at least a dozen restaurants crammed into the strip, filled with Koreans of all ages, steel chopsticks furiously transferring food from dish to mouth and back again. I sat outside with dinner in front of me. Naturally my meal included a side of kimchi. Around me a variety of Korean food was being eaten, bibimbab, dok galbi and jiggae among others, and every one served with kimchi. This is a fermented vegetable dish, eaten in this region for nearly 4 000 years. The most common type of kimchi is cabbage. Usually flavoured with a red spice that has a bite, but is not overpowering. A faint taste of raw cabbage survives the fermentation process and avoids the bitterness of cooked cabbage. Instead it is tangy with a pickled edge to it. Kimchi is served with every meal and is a source of pride and near obsession in the country. As my Korean colleague informed me, “without kimchi, Koreans cannot live.”

As I walked back to my little apartment, past the busy restaurants, I wondered what my new neighbourhood was like 50 years ago. The neon lights would not have been there, nor the cellphone shops or fashion outlets. Kimchi would still have been served with every meal and everybody would have been out on the streets, sharing what little food they had. Building a future that today is brighter both figuratively, and thanks to the neon, literally too.

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2012

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