Worms still wriggling on the plate, sea cucumbers (think aquatic slugs), fermented sting ray and raw crabs… just some of the delicacies served up on a press tour of Korea last week. I am sorry to report, your loyal correspondent turned down the opportunity to try these specialties – as would, I’m guessing, most UK delegates. (She did, however, manage to stifle the strong urge to shout: “Bleugh!”)
Fortunately the assembled group of international press corps was made of sterner stuff – and stomachs – and an Aussie and a New Yorker were determined to try everything on offer.
It seems to be true – Koreans really do eat just about everything. (And that does include a particular type of dog, bred for the purpose, although, I was told, this is largely by the older generation and the young Koreans I spoke to wouldn’t entertain the idea.)
However, although many of the national dishes are challenging for Western palates, the food is an amazing and fascinating element of what this country has to offer. We had an excellent and enthusiastic guide, which made it almost impossible not to feel excited by the array of dishes on offer. And I would urge all event organisers to do the same, particularly if planning a banquet of Royal Korean cuisine, as it’s known, partly because there is such a huge number of dishes it requires an enormous kitchen team to assemble it. Sitting cross-legged at a low table to enjoy the food is also challenging for most Westerners but does make for a more traditional atmosphere.
But the thing I enjoyed most was being told to sit down to each meal in the genuine belief that you were there to eat because it would improve your health. Somehow in the West we have managed to create such a distorted and guilty relationship with food that the idea that it is doing us good has somehow got lost along the way. It is increasingly fashionable to try to rekindle that link between health and well-being and what we put in our bodies – where it has come from and how it was grown/reared. In Korea they have held on to it. Not only is the food low calorie and low fat – it is mostly boiled or steamed with the addition of seasonal flavours, it is also the original ‘slow food’, with most of it fermented for ages, often years, to bring out the taste.
The infamous Kimchi or fermented vegetables is the classic example. It is a diet high in vegetables, rice and noodles that helps to combat obesity – I didn’t see a single overweight Korean, although I did spot a few podgy schoolchildren so you do worry for the next generation – and other modern diseases. (Unfortunately it seems that the stressful corporate environment and pressure to succeed that the society places on its citizens has led to very high rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, which means its cancer rates are not as low as might be assumed.)
Temple food, as cooked and eaten by monks, takes the cuisine to a different level and uses only organic, vegetarian ingredients. And there are now a few excellent restaurants offering 'Temple food' for groups. But if you know your group is not likely to be adventurous with their gastronomy, then there are delicious Korean barbecues of succulent beef and marinated pork, which are sure to be popular. And Seoul in particular is awash with international restaurants offering every type of food. And, if all else fails, the chicken and beer restaurants that can be found all over are just the job in place of a kebab on the way home from a party night.