Seoul and the fermented stingray of perdition

I’ll say this for Korea: Recently I’ve had reason to evaluate, and at a national level they have by far the nicest, softest bathroom paper towels I have encountered. Fluffy, soft and absorbent, neither the splinter-bearing roughage nor the instantly-disintegrating tissue we usually get in China. I suppose this is a sign of development. Or tender skin. Or who knows what, but you take the small comforts as you can when you’re traveling.

After fifteen years in Asia it was my first-ever trip to Korea this week. This doesn’t count numerous stopovers at the old Kimpo Airport on the way from Singapore to the US back in the mid nineties. These flights always connected through just after all the snack shops at Kimpo closed, which is to say at about 4:30PM. Kimpo was not an advertisement for visiting Korea. It was kind of like the abandoned parts of the future city in “Logan’s Run” except with fewer homicidal children and a slightly worse selection of food. I also once got trapped in Seoul overnight and got bussed into a hotel, but pride, and the fact that I never saw much more than the inside of the bus and the hotel room, keeps me from listing that as a “visit.”

Eventually I switched from Singapore Airlines to EVA, which meant my transits switched to the more modern but (at least then) equally amenity-poor Chiang Kai Shek International in Taipei. CKS is now called Taoyuan airport, which is just as well unless the heirs of the Generalissimo wish for the chief impression of him to be that he endorsed the sale of only tea leaves and museum-piece replicas.

In the years since my Seoul transit stopvers Kimpo has been relegated to the domestic airport and Korea has opened the glittering Incheon International Airport. Incheon is fine as airports go, well appointed with snacks and coffee. It’s only disadvantage is that it’s actually in China. Or at least that’s what the drive from downtown feels like. It’s not one of those urban airports that you stroll right out of and into downtown wherever (like, say, the old Kai Tak). If you stroll out of Incheon, you’d better have a tent and a rifle to hunt with. Although I’m not sure what there is to hunt in the Han river delta. Egrets, maybe. I’ve never had egret, but if egret tastes like what egrets eat, then it probably tastes like frog. This, to my mind, is not an advertisement for egret meat.

I’m preoccupied with weird foods because I arrived in Korea with something of a culinary agenda. I mean, I also had a work agenda, but a man’s got to have priorities. I enjoy Korean food but I’d never had it actually in Korea, so I was looking forward to having the real thing even if that meant spicy egret meat or whatever. I did not, as it turns out, have spicy egret meat, although I had something almost as weird. More on that later.

After getting to the hotel, stowing our stuff and doing a hectic hour’s worth of actual work, my traveling companion David Wolf and I struck out in search of dinner. We were staying at the Grand Intercontinental, which is attached to the Ko-Ex exposition center and glitzy hypermall. I should have known that this meant our chance of finding good Korean food was zero. The first restaurant we encountered upon walking out of the hotel was a TGI Friday’s. A circuit of the mall also yielded an Irish pub, a mass-market pizza place, a couple of Italianoid places, Japanese food, Coldstone-freaking-Creamery, and a range of food-court insults including, yes, a Sbarro. But no Korean restaurant.

So this is the face of globalization. I built a career in Asia so I could have the option of eating at a Sbarro in a mall food court in Seoul. Either the Koreans are desperate to escape their own cuisine, or they’re catering to foreigners and (with some justifcation) have the lowest possible expectations of what we eat. Given the shocking number of coffee shops and Dunkin’ Donuts I saw in Seoul I tend to favor the latter. This is no exaggeration: There is a main street near the Grand Intercontinental that has a Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts on literally every block for a good two kilometers, not even counting outlets of the local and completely ubiquitous Hollys (sic) coffee chain. This from a country that thinks American beef is crime against humanity. Somewhere in the far distance Tom “The World is Flat” Friedman is laughing his ass off.

Finally, near the threshold of surrendering to what I like to call the cheeseburger gravity-well, we found a Korean place. This place satisfied all my cliche, preconceived ideas of Korean cuisine by serving me a dish called “chicken ribs” which, despite the name, was 10 percent chicken (no ribs), 10 percent rice cake, and eighty percent cabbage and chili paste.

Cabbage and chili paste is my image of Korean food, thanks probably to the large amounts of kimchi I have eaten over the years. It’s pretty much the front-to-back of what I thought Korean food was, as though the early Koreans stumbled on this frigid, windswept peninsula where nothing but cabbage and hot chilis grew. Well, and egrets. In the dim recesses of my imagination I pictured some kind of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment where two Korean farmers collided: “You got your cabbage in my chili paste!” “You got your chili paste on my cabbage!” And thus a cuisine was born.

And so I ate a big whack of cabbage and chili paste. And it was good. I happen to like both cabbage and chili paste.

Here I should explain something: I have some kind of learning impairment when it comes to spicy food. I love spicy food and chili of every sort. Unfortunately, it has a pronounced effect on me. How can I best describe this? Perhaps a military metaphor. For me, eating any really spicy dish is two battles. There is the initial assault on the palate and then, about twelve hours later, what might be best described as a brutal rearguard action. I know that this will happen and, as a result, one of the things I try to avoid is eating really spicy things when I travel. But, you know, I was in Korea and what the hell.

What an ass. And I mean that in every conceivable sense of the phrase.

The next morning, after spending an awkward amount of time in the bathroom (the Kindle app on your phone means never being out of reading material) we headed out to the office to spend a day training CJ, our new head of Korea. After a long day in the conference room drilling on messages and scenarios CJ kindly took to us to dinner at a little, family-run restaurant near our office. It was called something like “A ladle full of moonlight”, but the business card is all in Korean so I can’t really verify this.

It was here that I got my real education in Korean food. Sixteen courses worth. Sure, there was cabbage and chili paste, but there was also pickled cabbage without chili paste, raw fish, grilled fish, grilled vegetables and bean cakes, awesome mushrooms, beef wrapped around vegetables, miso soup (a fair amount of Japanese influence at the high end, it seems), and some kind of porridge made from the burnt rice scraped from an iron cooking pot that my wife has now made it her life’s mission to taste.

Most of this food was perfectly straightforward to someone who has been in the region for many years. However there was one dish that earned a place near the top of my list of bizarre stuff I have eaten. This list already included most of the usual Asian roadside organ-meat and insect delicacies and, among other things, black market flying fox served in Singapore of all places. I do not recommend flying fox. I tastes fine but it is extremely fiddly to eat and is likely to be frustrating to anyone who doesn’t have an ancient Roman’s patience for winnowing microscopic morsels of flesh from miniscule carcasses.

The dish that stood out in Seoul was not fiddly at all, and consisted of large chunks of fermented stingray meat that carried a very distinct whiff of ammonia. (At least, I recall that it was stingray, or skate or some other flat elasmobranch.*) Had Wolf and I not been the guest of a Korean I might have thought that the restaurant staff was unloading the old fish on the foreigners. Or in Korea, maybe unloading old fish on people is considered a courtesy. You are our honored guest. Here is a rotten trout. Would you like to marry my daughter? I’m man enough to admit my ignorance about this kind of thing. CJ described the stingray as being “about 20% of the way toward lutefisk”, which, if you know what lutefisk is and unless you have a fetish for both decay and traditional Scandinavian foods, is not really a plus. There is a reason why lutefisk is not among the delicacies offered at Ikea lunch counters.

The way to eat the fermented stingray is to set a sushi-sized hunk on a similarly-sized piece of fatty pork, and then wrap the whole thing in a kimchi leaf and pop the works into your mouth. Doctrinally-speaking, at any rate. The real way to eat this dish is to have three shots of shochu beforehand and then chase the whole thing with beer. Lots of beer. In this sense, it’s kind of like a Korean boilermaker with fermented stingray where you might place a lemon twist or a maraschino cherry in the sequence of a normal cocktail. Thinking about it, three shots of shochu –or arak or baijiu or whatever your local equivalent is– and a beer chaser will get you through most nasty foods.

I had two of the fermented stingray things. The fact that I was willing to go for number two suggests a couple of things: First, like many western idiots, I will go to extreme lengths to prove my manliness to foreign hosts. Second, the stingray was a long way from the nastiest thing I have ever eaten.

Since you asked, the nastiest thing I have ever eaten was balut, or fertilized duck egg, which I had in Ho Chi Minh city (nee Saigon) in 1998 during a night on the town as a guest of the Tiger Beer company. Balut is approximately three orders of magnitude nastier than fermented stingray in all three culinary dimensions: looks, texture and taste. A Googleimage search for balut is only for those of iron constitution. I chased my balut with a lot of beer which, under the circumstances, was not a hard thing to do. So everything in perspective.

The next morning I paid for my sins. We were taking a taxi from the Grand Intercontinental to the Shilla Hotel, where our product launch was being held. This meant crossing one of the congested bridges over the Han river during rush hour. As we were crawling along, my entire descending colon suddenly filled up with what felt like a combination of magma and caltrops.  ”Urgent” is completely inadequate word to describe how it felt. If you were to use a rusty needle to tattoo the word “URGENT” across your forehead in flaming capital letters and then rub a mix of soot and Rebel Yell bourbon into the raw, bleeding skin you might come close.

If there is a feeling worse than sitting in a traffic jam on a bridge in an unfamiliar city an unknown distance from your destination with a rectum full of molten sulfur and the previous day’s fermented stingray remains, I have yet to encounter it, and I’ve had two surgeries, a major car accident and extensive dental work (not all at once). Uncertainty in this situation creates a surprising amount of anxiety. My heart was literally pounding and adrenaline was pumping through my pores. This makes sense, since I’m sure if I’d let go in the taxi, wet breeches or no I’d have had to run like Jim Brown to escape a mighty beating at the hands of the driver. I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone when I say that an enraged Korean taxi driver with a tire iron chasing a balding PR man with soiled trousers across a bridge in downtown Seoul rush hour traffic is a sight much of the world would actually like to see, but I don’t wish to be the person to indulge the world’s prurient fascinations. Except in writing.

To spare you the details, I made it. Once we cleared the bridge I was going to tell the driver to pleasefortheloveofgodstopatthefirstavailablelocation! but the traffic eased up almost immediately and it was only another five minutes to the hotel. I guess the thought of being arrested for public easing on the side of a Seoul bridge on my way to a press conference gave me just enough fortitude to tough it out.

Anyway, it was in most ways a good trip and I was happy to finally make it to Korea. There is no greater moral to this story other than the obvious: Be a little cautious about the stingray and try to stay away from morning transit after spicy dinners. These rules evolve for a reason, and one forgets them at his peril.

*Former marine biologist alert.

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