Monday, February 16, 2009

dead baby fish versus cheese

I had an interesting discussion with one of my dorm mates. We're in one of these "international" dorms where everyone is supposed to be open-minded and nonjudgemental. But when he finds that people are leaving used paper towels and chopped up food piled high in the sinks of the community kitchen, he wonders out loud whether some of our neighbors—who include many Americans—were either born in a barn or have grown up in such privilege that they simply don't know how to take care of themselves by cleaning up their own mess.

And yes, we do have someone coming every night at 11 p.m. to clean up the kitchens, which would only serve to reinforce the latter condition.

After that tirade, the discussion moved on toward other intolerable things. When it comes to food, there is only one that this neighbor finds insufferable, and that is what he describes as "dead baby fish." He's not sure what the name is, but he's fairly certain it's from Vietnam (though this does not mean he dislikes Vietnamese food).

In all fairness to Asian culinary quirks, he said, folks back in East Asia don't always have the most pleasant impression of typical American food either. He recounted a Chinese person he knew who vomited immediately upon eating his first Dorito. "We'll make more" may sound more like a threat than an encouraging message for this guy.

Naturally, my own thoughts went back to Korea, where things like Doritos and foods that probably would fall into the "dead baby fish" category are both quite popular. I described for this neighbor pŏndegi [번데기; also beondegi], commonly known as silkworm larvae. This is the one single food in Korea I find offensive to the sense of taste and smell. The best way I can describe it is that it smells like someone is cooking dirty socks and it tastes even worse.

Korean kids love pŏndegi, which is still sold by street vendors near schools. Even nowadays, despite changing tastes geared more and more toward fast food. And that's the other thing: Koreans* love cheese. Big Macs, pizza, cheese sticks, TGI Friday's fried mozzarella, etc. If it contains cheese, tastes like cheese, or has cheese in the title, it will be gobbled up and more will be demanded. McDonald's and Pizza Hut franchises are on virtually every corner, ready to serve up cheesy items filled with cheese.

No Korean except some old fogey living up in the hills would ever vomit upon eating a Dorito, or Cheetos, which is also hugely popular.

If someone starts marketing cheese-covered pŏndegi, they'll make a fortune. Cheese-filled pŏndegi might also fare well, but it would be harder to produce. How do you get those little larvae to munch on those cheese slices?

The weird thing, however, is that — despite the love of cheese — the smell of cheese is offensive to a lot of people in Korea. In fact, one of the complaints I hear about Westerners is that they "smell like cheese." I was told by one Korean that I must have strong Korean DNA because I was the only American he'd met who didn't have that odeur de fromage wafting about them. (I may have a weird chemical make-up, because a Canadian woman I'd dated told me I was the only foreigner she knew in Korea who didn't smell bad despite the lack of deodorant.)

That got me thinking that the average Korean may in fact have a very wide-ranging palate that runs the gamut from "dead baby fish" to cheese. Koreans are even known to like natto, considered by many to be the vilest of all Japanese cuisine (though I happen to like it, especially when mixed with warm rice). All the flavors of the rainbow — except cilantro. For some reason, Koreans and cilantro are like vampires and garlic.

So to sum up:
  1. Many Westerners don't like pungent fishy smells.
  2. Doritos can make some East Asians vomit.
  3. Most Koreans love smelly fish AND cheese (though it's not clear if they would like them in combination).
  4. I was able to woo a Canadian woman because I smelled okay despite not using deodorant.
  5. Koreans enjoy a wide range of tastes, but hate cilantro.
  6. Vampires hate garlic. 
  7. Pŏndegi smells like dirty socks being stewed. 
  8. Natto not so bad.
* By "Koreans" I am by no means referring to 100.0% of the population. If I had to venture a guess, this broad generalization probably covers about three-fourths of the population, give or take. As with any country, it's rare that you would get more than 80% or 90% of Koreans agreeing on any one particular issue, not even a love of kimchi

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