Tharp On: Korean Food

Let me proclaim this loud and clear: I absolutely love Korean food, in all of its pungent, prickly, zesty, pickled, be-tentacled goodness. My heart goes into spasms as those side dishes are carefully laid out in front of me, and I dig in with the desperation of a P.O.W chowing down his welcome home meal. I mean, what’s not to love about it? It’s fresh, sour, sweet, savory, wonderfully textured, and low in calories.  Just look around. There’s a reason why Koreans – who may be the chunkiest of all Asians – are still thin. Sure, it’s genetics, but how do you think those genetics got programmed? By diet, of course.

You want to know something else? Koreans love their food more than I do. They love it so much that they are on a non-stop campaign to make the rest of the world adore it too.

Remember those embarrassing commercials on CNN International a while back, where uber-famous singer Rain, in sad, halting English, tried to convey to the rest of humanity the subtle wonder of bibimbap? Now I eat the hell out of bibimbap several times a week, and understand the Korean Let’s Make the World Respect Us More Commission’s reasoning behind the campaign, but like many things Koreans do, it was just, well, a little overcooked. In the end, I’m sure it did more harm than good.

Korean food is awesome, but not everyone thinks so, which is fine I guess, but it puzzles me when foreigners move here and reject the cuisine outright. I’ve met a fair number of Western folks who say to me, Yeah, Korea is cool, but I just can’t get down with the food.  Hmmmm…

These are the same people whose year or two in Korea causes them to pack on kilos faster than a sumo champion training for a title bout. Twenty four months of mac and cheese (Kraft Dinner for our Canadian brothers and sisters), double Quarter Pounder with Cheese sets, and T.G.I. Friday binges will do that to a person.  Ah, the mysterious East. What do they tell mom and dad when they waddle off the plane? That kimchi gives them a glandular disorder?

What gets me more are the vegetarians: Don’t’ get me wrong – some of my best friends here are and have been vegetarians. Hell, years ago I was too, but that was only because I dated one and went to a very hippy-dippy Seattle arts college. So I understand vegetarians’ many noble reasons for abstaining from meat and fish and the like; I even go so far as to APPLAUD this decision (clap clap). However, there’s just one little question rapping at the door inside of my brain: If you are a vegetarian, why on earth would you ever move to Korea? Why???

In my humble estimation, food is culture. You will never truly understand what makes a people really tick until you eat not just what they eat, but how they eat. Korean food isn’t necessarily a meat orgy, but most any dish will at least have a bit of fish or shrimp as a flavor base. I have eaten kimchi made without anchovy paste, and guess what? It is nowhere as delicious as the real thing. By rejecting the cuisine, you are, in a way, rejecting the culture.

That said, I don’t get down with everything the locals eat. Bongdaegi (silkworm pupas) is just awful and were only ever eaten because there was no other protein to be had. Hey Korea: You aren’t poor any more – you don’t gotta eat bugs. Hong-eo (fermented skate) literally tastes as if it was soaked in cat piss for a year. I’ve never eaten boshintang or dog in any form and never will, but every once and a while I meet expats who not only admit to trying it, but brag about eating if often and how delicious it is (which you know is a load of horse crap).

And last but not least, are the array of lamentable holiday specialty treats Koreans drag out on every red day (you probably already know my opinion on ddeok): bizarre hand cakes stuffed with sweet black bean mush, flavorless nut snacks, and maddeningly bland biscuit-y things made from desiccated popcorn and bird seed.  Again, relics from grandpa’s day:

Oh, when we were young, we had no money for treats. We would eat the ox-dung dipped in ant-honey. Very delicious.

But these are just quibbles. I love most everything else on the Korean table and take it down with gusto. As the locals often say when I join them for nakji bokkum (small spicy octopus) or godingeo jo-rim (mackerel steamed with radish): Oh! You are almost Korean!

But I can’t end this rant without one more, minor gripe, and that’s this: Less gochujang (red pepper paste) please. It can be tasty, but you don’t have to slather the stuff over everything you cook. While there are spicier cuisines in the world (Indian and Thai spring to mind), the preponderance of gojuchang in the Korean kitchen has a cumulative effect. Sometimes, when evacuating some dishes, I feel as if I’m fire-bombing the Ho Chi Min Trail. I can almost hear my ass sizzling. And what’s going to happen after 20 years of such a diet? I’ll tell you: My shriveled, calcified O-ring is going to look like a small piece of squid, covered in rock salt and then blasted by a blow torch. And that’s a vision that none of us want to ponder, now do we?

You can get Chris Tharp’s book ‘Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea’ on Amazon or

Steve Feldman’s review of the book is here and more of Tharp’s Haps stuff here.

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet

Illustration by  Sarah Elminshawi. You can see more of Sarah’s work here:

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