not long ago, to my dismay, a product began to vanish from my ken. It's not a big deal, cosmically speaking, but it had brought a lot of happiness to me.
Soy ice cream. Of the Purely Decadent kind. (image from linked page)
Why was this a loss? Because I'm allergic to milk, so I can't eat regular ice cream... unless I want to be very unpopular, in a Pumbaa sort of way.
And this has gotten me thinking: one of the funny puzzles of living, and eating in Korea, is the Korean attitude toward healthy, and foreign, food... as if the two were mutually exclusive. Wherever it came from, and exactly how overblown this attitude is, is up for debate, but there's a funny thing that happens when non-Korean foods come to Korea.
And just to assure any readers that I'm not a ranting furriner making wild and unsupported generalizations... I'm well aware these are generalizations, they are not true in every case, or of every Korean, and it is certainly, certainly true, that the attitudes/paradoxes I discuss here are much less universal, and/or much less extreme than they used to be. So un-jerk that kneejerk. I'm not trying to be a straight hater, but now that I've made my qualifications, please take this paragraph and apply it to the whole article: the hedging and qualifying statements get tiresome. So if you get upset about generalizations, kindly substitute "some Koreans" or "many Koreans" wherever I say "Koreans" (or name any other group) and settle down.
Koreans like to take a lot of pride in how healthy Korean food is. We all know this: my first year in Korea, it became a running joke among me and my friends that every Korean food was either "healthy" or "good for man" because my boss in particular, and also a whole bunch of other proud Korea promoters made those claims, again and again and again.
And perhaps the "Korean food is healthy" boast is kind of like "Korea has four seasons," in that all thinking Koreans realize that Korean is not the only cuisine in the world with healthful properties (or the whole world would either eat it, or have slowly died out/succumbed to the healthier, stronger Korean/Korean food-eating invaders, at some point in history), it just seems like Koreans think Korean is the only healthy Korean food, because they haven't really been instructed on the health benefits of other cuisines, have no reason to talk about that with foreigners anyway (let's not forget that many of the conversations Anglophones have with Koreans are colored, at least a little, by an intent to represent Korean culture positively to the non-Koreans), and have reinforced images of other cuisines formed by focusing on the least healthful aspects of those cuisines (in order to contrast with Korean food and make Korean food look better). I've heard so many times from my Korean friends and colleagues that Chinese food is too greasy, and it is... if you choose to focus on the greasy Chinese foods. If you focus on grilled meat, barbeque chicken and pig skins, Korean food comes across pretty greasy too.
Pig skin. Lookin' healthy.
Japanese is bland, sez some Koreans. You know what else is bland? Juk. And nurungji. If you contrast ssamjjang with sushi, yeah, Japanese is bland. If you contrast teriyaki or yakitori with clam jjuk, Korean food sure is bland, isn't it?
So let's just acknowledge that every cuisine in the world can be healthy or unhealthy, greasy or plain, savory or bland, depending on your choices. Green salads and sandwiches made with whole grain breads? American food is healthy. Big Mac sets and deep dish pizza? American food is unhealthy. Soups, bibimbaps, seasonal fruits and vegetables? Korean food is healthy. Barbequed and/or deep-fried animal parts with soju and a side of ddeokbokki ramen? Korean food is unhealthy. Let's not be simple-minded.
One of the things that's puzzled me the most about Korean preferences in food is, for a country and a people so interested and concerned about the healthful properties of their native cuisine, how unhealthy, and sometimes just awful their taste in foreign foods are. And not only are the tastes in non-Korean food awful and quite unhealthy, the real baffler is that there often seems to be little to no interest in even knowing about the healthier alternatives. (go reread paragraph 5)
For example: my soy ice cream. It's hella good stuff. In fact, it's almost as good as real ice cream... but it tastes only a little less rich, while having waaaay less fat and fewer calories. For a country where I've watched people pay eighty dollars for a medium sized box of mushrooms because they're the healthiest kind, for a country where one of the most famous duty free must-buy items is boxes of super-expensive red ginseng, famed for its health properties, you'd think soy ice cream would be a no-brainer to catch on!
But it's disappeared instead.
For another one: what about soy milk in coffee drinks? (tipping my milk allergy bias here) It's less fatty, has fewer calories, and (if you use the right kind of soy milk), doesn't make the drink taste like beans (warning: don't try using any old supermarket soy milk in your macchiato. Some of them make for weird tasting lattes). But especially in Asia, where there are a lot of lactose intolerant people, it seems really odd that Starbucks is the only chain I've found that offers soy as a substitute in milkish drinks.
This post was prompted by my disappointing visit to coldstone creamery, which used to have raspberry and lemon sorbets among the flavor choices: two things I could eat, and now they are off the menu. Argue that it's the simple realities of supply and demand, but that simply reiterates the vital question: why is the demand so low?
In the country where your mother-in-law will nearly force-feed you foul tasting side dishes because they're healthy, and pay sky-high prices for ingredients or medicines that are healthy...
(Songi mushrooms: can be costly)
Why aren't really good (more healthful) breads more popular in Korea? I mean, they're more popular now than ever before, and it's miles better than 2003 when I got here, when the choices were wonderbread, wonderbread, and imitation wonderbread, but Korean sandwich places like Joe Sandwich and Isaac Toast still don't even offer a whole grain option, and you'd think that healthy option would go over well here.
Why aren't low-fat drinks, ice creams and soy substitutes more popular, and more available, in a country that gives so very many damns about looking good, and where being thin is so important?
My theory? When Koreans are looking for healthy food, they go Korean. And because Korean is always the go-to healthy choice, notKorean is what people go for when they're not interested in healthy - perhaps to treat themselves, or try something exotic, or to get a stopgap snack between real meals. And if you're looking to get through to dinnertime, or to sample strange flavors, or to feel a little luxurious, the healthy option is moot.
And that's too bad, simply because a good sandwich on a real substantial bread, for example, is a real treat, and once Koreans get a taste for it, I think it'll catch on (as is happening now). What's available in Itaewon now is better than has ever been before, and what's available outside of Itaewon is better than ever before.
What it means is we have our little "chicken-and-egg" vicious cycle, though, where (as in music) the foreign foods that catch on here are almost invariably the sweetest, least healthy ones (belgian waffles, anyone? Abba?)... and then just to make sure everybody's clear it's "Western" food, any possible healthful aspect of the food is removed -- how many brunch places in Seoul have whole wheat, or multigrain pancakes? Or how many of the "brunch" places have museli on the menu (which was on almost every breakfast menu when I traveled around china: even some of the smaller towns), but Museli is far too healthy to convince people they're living it up like the sex and the city girls. So people develop that image of Western food in their minds, and then only go for Western food when that's what they want -- meaning the market only demands it, so providers only provide it, so that image of Western food further crystalizes.
(Museli picture source)
And that's where sweet garlic bread comes from, boys and girls (either that, or it came free with the original pizza, I guess). And innocent-looking bread products stuffed with whipping cream.
And will Koreans ever turn their noses up to things like sweet garlic bread, sandwiches with shredded cabbage on them, and truly unexpected pizza toppings? Perhaps. Given the fondness here for foreign cars, clothes, handbags, and everything other than products that directly compete with Samsung, it's a reasonable prediction that the trend will continue, for more authentic, or just better quality, foreign products to keep growing in popularity (see: vast improvements in the breads, beers, coffees, cheeses, organic foods and home cooking materials available here) -- and even that eventually, people will develop a nose for quality, and not just look at the price tag (whiskey). If Korea can go from coffee straws to hand-drips from 2006 to 2011, I won't put it past Korea to move beyond sugar garlic bread, Isaac Toast, and Joe Sandwich as well.
And you know what? As long as I can get a good sandwich on real bread, I don't really care if other people like their Joe Sandwich and their sugar garlic bread -- it doesn't take long to figure out which restaurants and shops are serving the real deal and which aren't.