Sunday, March 16, 2008

Things Taste Strange, Things Are Strange

Image from Shorpy.

You would easily expect food to be different in Korea. And you're right. You will notice of course the very obvious differences--but those differences you expect, you expect the Koreans to eat live octopus and kim chee But it are those more subtle, less superficial differences in taste that end up shocking you. I have two examples of this. Both of them come from the workplace casual of the staff-room.

A couple hours ago I was offered what the Koreans call a japjari tomato. This is a green tomato that you eat raw and whole, like an apple. Now, we're all used to tomatoes in our sauces and on our salads and on our sandwiches or over our pasta or on our pizza, but I think this was one of the first times when I just had a tomato--just a lone tomato. And the taste was a tart explosion of a vinegary pulp with a ringing bite of brine, with a slight fog of unami hanging as an aftertaste, with a mouthfeel like a squishy apple. Sure, it tasted like a tomato. But here, out of context, even the taste of a tomato can taste utterly foreign, a revelation.

And then I was just chatting to a fellow teacher when she handed me a stub of a microwaved sweet potato. "Here," she said. And I ate it. Just like you'd eat some chips.

Sweet potatoes as a snack? Tomatoes eaten like an apple? Strange food isn't just a matter of mixing strange ingredients, but a matter of thinking about ingredients differently. Indeed, so much of our cooking--like so much of our culture--is simply contingent, arbitrary, and meaningless, the epiphenomena of history, and yet we tie food so tightly around our sense of self, it sometimes still baffles me how meaningful it all seems.

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