Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world and is home to nearly half the population of Korea. It’s an extremely cosmopolitan city, home to hundreds of Western chain restaurants, including T.G.I.Friday’s, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, McDonald’s and KFC.
But what if you don’t live in Seoul? What if you spend 2.5 years living on a small island in an even smaller village, with no fast food at all and limited options for Western cuisine? What you do is sample as much Korean food as you can, no matter how odd it looks (or how long it continues to wiggle on your plate after you’re served). Here are the top 10 weird things I ate while living in Korea.
10) Raw garlic
Peeled, whole garlic cloves are served with almost everything in Korea, from chicken soup to barbecued ribs. Koreans will prove their fortitude by eating it raw. Most Westerners prefer to throw it on the grill for a few minutes first. But the true test of strength is surviving the next 48 hours with the smell of garlic radiating from every pore in your body.
Ahh, kimchi. The national food of Korea. Enough of a cultural treasure that Korea’s version of NASA, KARI, specially fermented a batch to send into space with the first Korean astronaut last year. Essentially pickled cabbage, with some spice thrown in for good measure, kimchi is served with almost every meal, and if you’re lucky you’ll get multiple varieties. Some kimchis are seasonal and unfermented, such as the spring onion kimchi that’s served in the early part of the year. Most restaurants make their own, and every batch tastes different.
8) Ginkgo Berries
Ginkgo trees cover Korea, and during fall their leaves cover the streets like a yellow brick road. As the weather gets colder, warm ginkgo berries are sold in street stalls and are often added to soups. The nutty taste and fleshy texture make them delicious, and Koreans have a saying that if you eat six a day you’ll live to be 100 years old. Ginkgo consumption has been shown to improve memory, but the seed is no miracle food. Kids can be subjected to ginkgo poisoning if they eat too much, and some people have a poison ivy-like reaction to handling or eating the seeds. In addition, when the small round berries fall off the trees and rot on the sidewalks, they reek to high heaven if they’re stepped on or they burst, leading some to call the fruit “stink-o berries.”
7) Dried Cuttlefish
|Flickr: Muzina Shanghai|
Go to a movie theater in Korea and you don’t order popcorn. Your snack is dried cuttlefish, or sometimes squid. Often you can get it on a stick at corner marts, or buy entire horizontal segments. But the shredded stuff is the best. It tastes kind of sweet, and has only the slightest fishy smell.
6) Deer Antlers
Gamjatang is a deliciously spicy Korean stew with meat-falling-off-the-bone pork spine and winter vegetables. It’s best served with a side of plain steamed rice to take the heat off. If you happen to find something that looks like wood shavings in your stew, don’t worry. They’re just deer antlers. They’re there for medicinal reasons — they don’t add any flavor, but they’re “good for stamina,” a common Korean euphemism.
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