Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Chicken? That Doesn't Taste Like Chicken! It Tastes Like Soup."

Koreans always seem to note their surprise at my love and appetite for Korean food. My plate is always cleaned by the end of every meal, and both my mouth and my belly are always smiling. This commonly leads to discussions about food because 1.) Koreans love their food, and 2.) the most refined component of my Korean lexicon (and usually their English vocabulary) revolves around culinary terminology.

This brings me to a conversation I had this afternoon at lunch with two of my co-teachers. One of these polite middle-age gentlemen was gently poking fun of the other’s pickiness when it comes to food. “He don’t like the pizza, the 치킨 (chicken), the rice cake, he don’t like,” he said, pointing to the other, both of them enjoying a good laugh over the matter.

“No pizza!” I exclaimed with exaggerated enthusiasm, attempting to make my co-teachers feel comfortable with our conversation in a language foreign to them. “No chicken!”

“No, he doesn’t like!” my co-teacher repeated joyfully, once again demonstrating his mastery of the all-to-familiar contraction within the spoken English of Koreans.

A couple of seconds later I realized something that needed immediate clarification.

“Hold up-“ I said with a calculated quizzicality, “last week we ate 계탕 for lunch- and you loved it.” (Samgyetang is Korean ‘ginseng chicken soup’ served in a piping hot claypot)

I was surprised by his admission of not liking chicken because, first of all, 삼계탕 contains an entire young chicken boiled whole, and, second of all, this baby chicken sits in a broth made from the stewed bones of its brothers and sisters. The chicken is then stuffed with rice and other goodies like small fruits, while the broth is infused with pungent ginseng and garlic. 삼계탕 is traditionally eaten in the summer, its filling yet refreshing nature believed to replace nutrients lost during the long and humid dog days of the season.

“Yes, I love the 삼계탕," admitted the picky eater co-teacher. "I like the soup.”

“Well,” I claimed smugly, “삼계탕 has 치킨(chicken) in it- actually, it has a whole chicken in it. Are you sure that you don’t like chicken?”

“He doesn’t like the chicken because it’s fried," interjected the first co-teacher. "He likes the soup.”

Now I began to believe that I vaguely understood what we were talking about.

치킨(chicken) was probably referring to ‘fried chicken’, a dish very familiar to American gullets coast to coast, and a dish that Koreans do surprisingly well. The composition of fried chicken in Korea is almost identical to that found in America: parts of a chicken are battered then deep-fried and served piping hot with a dipping sauce (except in Korea this chicken is always served with a red chili dipping sauce). I have found that in Korea the ingredients used in fried chicken are somewhat fresher than those used stateside, making it a tastier treat but with a significantly heftier price tag.

Fried chicken is also traditionally served with beer, which is my favorite part of getting to eat chicken either at home or at a restaurant or anywhere.

But I am still unsure how one of my co-teachers could claim to be a chicken-hater when just last week I watched him eagerly consume a whole chicken right in front of me.

Here are some possible answers to my conundrum:

1.) ‘Chicken’ for Koreans denotes both the type of food and the style of preparation (fried).

2.) Korean eaters place more of an emphasis on whole ‘dishes’ as opposed to ingredients within those dishes.

3.) “Soup”, “stew” and “meat” are all viewed as separate types of food that are not to be compared.

Further investigation soon to follow.

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