I have a hair trigger reflex when it comes to adding new destinations to my travel bucket list. It’s as if the travel monster necessitates regular feeding although it’s hunger will never be satiated and of course, in a desire to please, I myself am all too eager to feed it. This past weekend, after spending the day at the Korean Food and Film Festival, it seemed close to madness that we had not previously considered a trip to Korea. Two big things influenced my view; the food and the people. I would not call my hunger insatiable, but very much like the travel monster, I too require regular feeding.
Nothing about the day actually started out promising. Dark, foreboding clouds loomed up above, discouraging the passage of light into our kitchen as my bare feet touched the cool tiled surface of our floors. I stood in the kitchen, a grapefruit clutched in one hand, trying to persuade myself to have a healthy breakfast. My mood matched the clouds outside at the thought of such foolishness. By the time I had showered and changed however, the sun had made a magnificent come back and the day seemed filled with possibility (also I had abandoned the grapefruit in lieu of last night’s pizza so I was in a remarkably better mood). Getting to the festival, I found myself alone as Husband went off to run some errands and the friend I was meeting had not yet arrived. I was none too phased, there was much to see and experience so I was happy to wander aimlessly (or rather to follow the smell of delicious food) around. I am distracted by a tantalising sign that reads Chicken and Beer as a young, fresh faced Korean woman, asks me “Do you drink? Would you like to taste some Korean alcohol for free?” Now, it was barely after 11:30am but the lady seemed so friendly (and she did say free) that I found myself unable to say no. I tasted a deliciously refreshing hibiscus cocktail and was given a brief explanation of the main ingredient, Soju, a firm Korean favourite made from rice wine. Already, I was sold on Korea, not only did her people seem to know me (offering me free booze) but the warmth of the reception and the eagerness to share their culture with me really warmed the cockles of my heart. Later when I took Husband around to sample some of the typical Korean drinks, a man who looked more like a teenage boy, enthusiastically thrust a small glass of Bekseju into my hand. Holding a similar sized glass filled with the cold amber fluid in his hand he proclaimed “Geonbae! We believe that if you drink this you will live to be a 100 years old!” After we had sampled the ginseng infused drink and he saw looks of appreciation, he happily proclaimed us Korean before proceeding to encourage us to try everything else he had to offer.
When my friend arrives, things get even better, she had lived in Korea for a few years and her enthusiasm about all things Korean (more especially the food) was contagious. Soon, I was stuffing my face with everything I saw, from Jeon (tasty pancakes with delicious fillings including Kimchi) to Mandu (fried dumplings) to traditional Korean barbeque and many other things I can’t re-name now. What really interested me (and my taste buds) was the use of spice and heat in many of the dishes I tried. A Korean lady laughed as she asked me in broken English to try a small finger shaped rice cake coated in a thick spicy broth. The rice cake was soft and gummy almost and the fragrant broth that it found itself in generated a respectful amount of heat without being overpowering. I sipped Bekseju from a heavy, tiny glass and found that it perfectly complemented the heat of the dish. I loved being able to experience this almost literally in my backyard. I also loved the fact that this small taste (not in the literal sense- small is a bit of a fallacy in terms of how much I tasted) had brought me closer to a country I knew very little about. Closer, but not close enough the travel monster reminds me.