A Guide to Sushi and Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market

It was at the top of my list of "must-dos" when I finally got to Tokyo a few years ago. The city's Tsukiji Fish Market, which is the largest fish market in the world, had been recommended to me by my friends who had visited Tokyo before me and just about every travel guide. I had to check it out.

I was overwhelmed even before I stepped inside. There were people and transport trucks everywhere, not to mention men scooting...

Postcards: So Korean

Postcards: So Korean

It's been over six years since I left Korea and moved back to Canada, and yet, somehow, I'm still sorting through my two years' worth of photos. 

These are a few of my favourite things from Korea. Looking back, these are the things that, when I see them, I think "that's so Korean."

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below!...

My First Lessons in Culture Shock

My First Lessons in Culture Shock

I first arrived in Ghana on a Friday. I remember this because I didn’t have any Ghanaian money on me, or even knew what Ghanaian money was called. Did other people come here knowing this kind of information? Then again, I know a number of people who still consider ‘Africa’ to be its own country, so I don’t feel too bad about this. But I did have a collection of American dollar bills. I was ready to go. American dollars: the currency of the world.

I didn’t notice the problem until the next day when I...

Dog Days of Summer

Today, 14 July, is the hottest day of the year. Or rather, it should be, according to the lunar calendar. Current weather conditions: rainy, windy, 25 degrees.

Today is called Chobok, first hottest day. It's the first of three "hottest days of the year" during a period known as Sambok. The three collective "hottest days" (Chobok, Jungbok, middle hottest day, and Malbok, final hottest day) are called boknal, which translates to "dog days." The non-Korean world also has the expression "Dog Days of Summer" to describe the hottest days of the year; a reference to the dog star, Sirius, or maybe just the fact that both dogs and people get lazy when it's ridiculously hot outside.

But Koreans take the expression to a whole new level: traditionally, people eat dog soup, called boshintang. Today, though, most people eat a special soup, samgyetang, which is a full chicken stuffed with rice and ginger, boiled in a mild broth. It's a hot soup---a seemingly odd choice for such a hot day. But Koreans like to eat hot food on hot days because sweat cools the skin, while the heat warms the inside. Today may not have been a hot day, but the rain and wind didn't stop people from waiting outside samgyetang restaurants under their umbrellas, just so they could get a taste. Rain or shine, tradition is tradition. 

Feeding Seoul's Homeless

I started volunteering at a soup kitchen for homeless men a few months ago and recently began showing up every Friday evening as a regular thing. I have different tasks every week. Sometimes I wash cutlery (here that means spoons and chopsticks, of course) and sometimes I serve food; this week I served the soup. As the soup-giver is at the end of the line and therefore the last server the men meet before they head to find an empty seat at the tables, I asked a Korean co-worker how to say, "Enjoy your meal" so I could say it to the men as they received my soup.

"Mashi-kay juseyo!"

At the end of our service, when the line had disappeared and our soup had become a lifeless broth, I asked my Korean friend to explain what the sentence actually meant. I'm always curious to know how sentences translate in other languages, like how in Twi (one of the main indigenous languages in Ghana), the expression equivalent to "come back" (ko bra) actually translates to "Go come." Or in French, Bonjour ("hello") literally means "good day."

"What was I saying to everyone? What does that actually mean?" I asked.

"'Enjoy your meal,'" he said.

"No, no. I mean, what does each of those words mean, individually? Because I know 'juseyo' means something like 'want' or 'give' so"

"'Duseyo' means 'eat,'" he said. "Oh! No, no! Not 'juseyo.' 'Duseyo!'"

"What? Oh...oops."

"'Mashi' is 'deliciously' and 'duseyo' is 'eat' so the sentence is, 'Eat deliciously.'"

"But I was actually saying, 'Give me deliciously'?" I asked. "We're giving food to homeless men and here I am saying, 'Give me your food!' That's a pretty awkward and unfortunate mistake to make!" We had a good laugh before my friend told me that the men probably didn't hear the difference and if they did, probably understood what I was trying to say. But, other than that little speed bump, I'm enjoying volunteering at the soup kitchen.

It's interesting to see the different characters who stop in. Some are regulars, some come only once. Some are pushy and others polite. Some practice English by saying "thank you" to me, while others don't even look me in the eye. Some are disheveled and dirty. Some look like they just came in from the officewhich maybe they did.

Co-workers at the kitchen tell me that, with the economy the way it is now, there's a number of people who work during the day and then have no where to go home to. I still don't understand how someone can have no one to turn to, no where to go in their tough times. It's just something that will never make sense to me, I guess. Just shows how lucky I am, how much I have to be thankful for.

To volunteer with PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect), check out the group's Facebook pages here or here. Among other projects, the group continues to organize the "Feed Your Seoul" event each Friday and Sunday at a soup kitchen in the city from 6 to 7:30 pm. 

Hearty Meals for the Homeless (Korea JoongAng Daily) detailed PLUR's Friday service in September 2009

Got Beef?

Despite the massive demonstrations just a few months ago, American beef is on the rise here in Korea. Imports resumed on 1 July, after a five-year hiatus, and since then it has taken hold of 20% of the market. Australian beef still reigns with its 60% share, but American beef is already the second most popular beef import. On 2 July, Han Seung-soo, the Prime Minister of Korea, ordered American beef (worth 260 000 won) for him and his family in a high-profile dinner. He did so to help remove the stigma of US beef and show the people that it was safe.

In late June, the Korean TV channel MBC, whose program "PD Notebook" needlessly informed its viewers that Korean were more susceptible to BSE than other ethnic groups, issued an apology for the misinformation, stating it was a "translation error." This came after a month of pressure of journalists and politicians who say this program really increased Koreans' paranoia about eating American beef. This apology wasn't good enough, though, and, in mid-August, the channel was court-ordered to apologize on-air and say that it deliberately exaggerated some information and created some mistranslations.

Now, just three months after imports resumed, it's not an issue that I ever hear about anymore. My question is, when will Canadian beef be allowed back into Korea?

Crazy Cows & Korea

Korean Food: It's Delicious

Beside being healthy, Korean food is darn tasty. There are a few standout dishes that I particularly love: bibimbap and gogi gui. Bibimbap (mixed rice) is just what the name suggests: a bowl of white rice served with a variety of ingredients, such as lettuce, carrots, soybean sprouts, daikon (radish), mushrooms, and pepper paste, then topped with a fried egg.

Each type of ingredient is served in a group (as in my students' drawing), making for a colourful presentation. Everything has to be stirred and mixed very well before eating it---something Koreans like to tease foreigners about when they first try it.

It sounds weird (at least it did to me when I first heard of it), but it's really good---a recipe I will be taking home with me!

Gogi gui (grilled meat, known as "Korean barbeque") is definitely my favourite Korean food. What separates Korean barbeque from other barbeques is the grill. In Korea, it's not found in the backyard---it's on your table.

Enter the restaurant and take a seat; you'll notice the grill is built into the centre of the table. Ask the server for your choice of meat, maybe bulgogi (beef), galbi (pork or beef ribs), or samgyeopsal (pork). Cut the meat into bite-sized portions with scissors before placing it on the sizzling grill. As you chat, carefully turn the pieces over until they're ready. When they're crisp (and the smell of barbequed meat is too much to handle), dig in. Grab a leaf of lettuce, use your chopsticks to take a piece of meat off the grill and place it in the middle, and then grab other pieces from the buncheon (sidedishes) and add them on top of the meat. Fold the lettuce over and stuff it into your mouth. Cheers with a shot of soju and a shout of "Kanbae!"

Eating at Korean barbeque restaurant is not a meal; it's an experience.

Korean Food is "Good for Health"

Koreans are obsessed with "health." Diet, exercise---it's a daily part of Korean culture. Outdoor gyms (which deserve their own article later) can be seen at apartment complexes, city parks, and at the tops of Seoul's many mountains. My students constantly chat about body shapes (which, again, need their own explanation). Perhaps their greatest concern, though, is healthy food.

Me: [eating crackers at my desk at work] Mr. Lee: [looks at me without saying a word] Me: Uh, hi, Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee: I heard on the news that these [crackers] are not good for health. Me: Oh really? What makes them unhealthy? Mr. Lee: I don't know. I only heard they are not good for health.

By hearing crackers (mine were unsalted soda crackers, by the way) are not "good for health," I'm pretty sure that Mr. Lee---and anyone else who watched that news program---will never eat crackers again.

They have nothing to worry about, though, because any Korean will proudly tell you that they have the healthiest food in the world.

When I first arrived in Korea, my co-workers kept telling me that kimchi, a fermented cabbage (or other vegetable) dish, was one of the top 5 healthiest foods in the world. I kept laughing it off, thinking, Okay, it's healthy. But it's not like there's an official list or anything. But ask a Korean, and they will tell you there is.

Health magazine published an article listing the "World's Healthiest Foods" a few years ago and kimchi made the cut, along with lentils from India, yogurt from Greece, Japanese soy, and Spain's olive oil. The magazine attributes its "healthiness" to its large doses of Vitamins A, B, and C, as well as it's "healthy bacteria," lactobacilli.

Most Koreans eat kimchi with every meal and attribute their personal health to this dish. In fact, I was told that Korea did not experience a SARS outbreak because of kimchi. "Kimchi kept Koreans strong," I was told.