Why the best Korean food comes from the least exciting parts of Korea (Cable from Korea #11)

The Haeundae area of Busan boasts an appealing medley of attractive beaches, impressive skyscrapers and delightful mountains. These impressive assets draw in numerous tourists and make it one of the most desirable places to live in the whole of South Korea.

Ironically, it also has some of the worst food. I say that even though I eat there a fair bit. Like many western expats I go to Haeundae for half way decent burgers or pizza. But, by and large, that’s all you’ll find: fairly expensive meals that are less good than the average restaurant in any town in the US or UK. Look for the cheap and plentiful Korean food that you find in the rest of the country, and you’ll come up empty.

This becomes especially apparent whenever I meet people staying in hotels down there. When a friend from Vietnam visited Busan for an evening and heavy rain stopped us travelling very far, I found myself in the odd position of not being able to find somewhere that did barbeque, bibimbap or kimbap. As around 90% of restaurants in Korea do, this was a) odd and b) frustrating! Even with more clement weather it is still difficult. When my parents were in town, I wanted to take them for ramen but I – and their hotel concierge – simply couldn’t find anything. The nearest substitute they could suggest was massively expensive sushi! I wound up dragging them back out to my commuter, an hour and a half away by subway, to my favourite ramen place.

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It’s not just my opinion that it’s great. No fewer than four people had independently and insistently recommended it to me before I eventually visited. It has featured on Korean TV and people travel down from Seoul to try it.

However, the less remarked on restaurants around it will also do you a stonkingly good meal for the same price as a Starbuck’s coffee.

Tyler Cowen, an unlikely combination of economist and food writer, has explained that there are good reasons for this:

If a restaurant cannot cover its rent, it is not long for this world. According to a 2005 study, more than half of all restaurants close in the first three years of operation, so this is not a small problem. You can lay off kitchen staff when times get tough, or substitute the cheaper tilapia for the fancier and scarcer Chilean sea bass. But rent is a fixed cost, meaning that you have to pay it every month no matter how many customers walk through the door and no matter what ingredients you are serving.

Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. If a food idea does not work out, the proprietor is not left with an expensive lease. As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. Many of them end up in dumpier locales, where they gradually improve real-estate values.

In a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show Cowen went further and singled out Korean suburbs as the place where the most interesting affordable food in the whole world is found. Given that Cowen seems to travel the world in large part to eat stuff that is quite a recommendation!

Curry: a biography by Lizzie Collingham (review)

Come for the mouthwatering history. Stay for the meditation on how Britain and India have changed each other.

I’ve made a habit of reading for about twenty minutes before I go to bed. That made Lizzie Collingham’s ‘biography’ of Curry problematic for me. Her descriptions of sauces, samosas and other treats left me trying to sleep whilst uncomfortably hungry. This is a book as rich in flavour as the cuisine it describes.

Yet Collingham is also adept at using culinary anecdotes to evoke bigger stories. Take, for example, the passage below. On the surface it is discussing the discrepancy between Indian and British Indian food. But what it most vividly is communicating is the difficulty of cross cultural communication and that as a result being a migrant often means living in that chasm.

The majority of the population living in the South Asian subcontinent would not have recognised the food served [in British Indian restaurants) as Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. In the early 1960s Margeret Orr Deas took an Indian friend to a restaurant. He politely remarked that ‘we have very different food in India’ and in the following days worked his way along all the Indian restaurants on Westbourne Grove trying to find something that approximated the food that he was used to at home. Besides the inexperience of the cooks, and the need to take short cuts, there was also the problem of unadventurous British palates. ‘In those days garlic was not liked at all; even coriander was frowned on’. The cooks produced milder, creamier dishes with far less chilli and black pepper than would have been used in India. [The successful restaurateur] Haji Shirajul Islam  commented, ‘Of course the food is not like in [his Bengali home of] Syhlet – there we use all fresh things, fresh spices, that makes a lot of difference, and the meat and fish and everything, all fresh’. He never ate the curries prepared in his own restaurants preferring to cook for himself at home. On the other hand, for a generation of Indians growing up outside India, this food was as authentically Indian as the food they ate in their homes. Haji Shirajul Islam’s son even preferred his father’s restaurant curries. ‘When he goes to the restaurant he eats Madras – hot one…Me I always eat in the house. When I offer him food he eats it, but he says it’s not tasty like restaurant food, because he’s the other way round now’. For generations of British customers, and even second-generation Indians, are Indian food. In comparison, food cooked in an Indian home can seem disappointingly unfamiliar and lacking in restaurant tastes.

The complicated processes by which British and Indian influences are meshed is the book’s driving theme. True, there are a couple of early chapters that deal with period before the arrival of the East India Company’s corporate raiders. But it is with their rise that Curry finds its purpose and momentum.

And it is an important theme. Throughout the entire era of European imperialism, no colonial occupation lasted longer than the British rule of India. That led coloniser and colonised to have an unusually deep influence on each other. In my current home of Vietnam, it is often hard to detect any distinctively Gallic legacy of French rule. By contrast, in India everything from cricket and milky tea to parliamentary democracy show just how strong the British influence. And much to the surprise (and in many cases disgust) of the colonisers the homeland was changed by the colony. The prevalence of Indian food in Britain attests to the movement of millions of migrants from the subcontinent to the UK.

But observing this does not necessarily mean the two countries are converging. As curries have been adjusted for British tastes, so democracy has been adjusted to Indian conditions. The hum drum contests between Labour and the Conservatives would be hard to mistake for the uproarious battles between Congress, the BJP and numerous regional parties. Any Britain beholding Indian democracy must be awed by its scale and heartened by its survival in a society marked by widespread poverty and illiteracy. But they must also be alarmed at the large part violence and corruption still play in the process. As Collingham shows so well, the two nations have not only borrowed from each but adapted. It is not simply that British practices have appeared in India and Indian ones in Britain. Their relationship has involved plenty of creation.

In light of this, it is not surprising that Collingham eventually reaches a nuanced judgement regarding the output of an ‘Indian’ takeaway. She concludes it is not some kind of imposter. Rather she observes that there’s always been an incredible diversity within Indian cuisine. The subcontinent has larger population and landmass than Europe, and accordingly its food varies as much Yorkshire Pudding and Kebab. In the south there are largely vegetarian cuisines built around rice, while in the north meat and wheat play a large part. Given this Collingham suggests we should see British Indian food as one of these cuisines and recognise it an expansion of the world’s great culinary repertoire rather than a subversion of it.

As a Britain living away from my homeland and missing much of its food – and especially its ‘Indian’ food – I heartily agree.

Britain needs more Vietnamese food

British cuisine is generally considered to be terrible. While recent memories of Christmas mean I must acknowledge that my homeland can produce some dishes worth savouring like roast dinner and Christmas cake, even as a proud Brit I have to broadly agree that the only thing we excel at foodwise is blandness. Yet the food you find in Britain is often pretty good.  That might sound like a contradiction but it isn’t. British people can eat good food because we are eating progressively less British food. Instead we’ve turned on mass to Italian, Indian, Chinese, French, Thai, Spanish and Japanese cuisine. Imports have thus been the salvation of British palates.

Nonetheless, there remain gaps in the culinary UN that Brits now eat. These tend to be countries to which we rarely go on holiday and have received few migrants from. Perhaps the most obvious absence, especially when you compare the UK to the US, is Mexican food. However, the gradual spread of Chipotle may go some way to addressing that.

Also missing is Vietnamese food. While Britain does have a decent sized Vietnamese community it’s a lot smaller than those in America, France and Australia, and it’s not been enough to really been large enough to give its cuisine much of a presence in the UK.

This is a shame because Vietnamese food is pretty damn good. It’s tasty while still being remarkably healthy. It’s not as rich as Thai and Indian food and makes much less heavy use of spices and thick sauces. Instead it relies a lot more on the strength of its basic ingredients.

The most common dish is phở (pronounced ‘fuh’) which is basically noodle soup. Eating this while perched on a small stool in a pavement cafe and not throwing it down myself has been a constant challenge while I’ve been in Hanoi. That, however, does not detract from the fact that it’s a pretty good way to get lunch.Phở (Vietnamese Noodle Soup)

That said if you’d rather a sandwich then that’s pretty easy to come by. French colonialism made few positive contributions to Vietnamese culture and society but baking was one of them.  One can buy what gets called bánh mì: essentially very elaborate baguettes. And, somewhat contradicting what I said earlier about Vietnamese food being healthy, the cakes and pastries are seriously good.

As you’d expect from a long thin country with a resultingly long coastline seafood places a big part in Vietnam’s diet.

However, my favourite Vietnamese dish has to be the spring rolls. Chinese takeaways had given me a very fixed idea about what these were. But in Vietnam they take a very different form. The wrapping is generally a lot thinner and in some cases can just be raw rice paper. That makes it a whole lot easier to savour the fillings and in my humble opinion is a pretty big improvement.

Gỏi cuốn (Spring Rolls)

La vie sans sucre: 5 things I’ve learned by avoiding sweet foods

 

 

I’m now 9 days away from finishing my month without sweet food and drink to raise money for Mind. Thanks to Tom, Sarah, Helen and Duncan who’ve donated already. If you would like to join them then please visit my page on Just Giving.

Here are 5 things I’ve learned so far:

1. A tougher rule can actually be easier to follow

I’ve spent more of the past few years than not trying to moderate how much sugar I ate. Frankly it’s been a bit of a waste of time. If I try only to eat sugar on ‘special occasions’ then an awful lot of occasions become special. If I resolve to only to eat small amounts, I start noticing that the marginal impact of a ‘little bit more’ is insignificant, and eat a little bit a lot. If I limit myself to certain days, then they become a 24 hour long bout of gorging.

Having a blanket month long ban, removes these loopholes. That makes it harder for me to defeat my own good intentions.

2. That said it’s still hard because sweet things are so nice

I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking longingly through the windows of bakeries or into supermarket freezer cabinets. There’s something uniquely tempting about sugary foods. Eating a muffin gives me a warm feeling that say a packet of crisps just doesn’t. Sweet foods feel so much lighter and smoother than most savoury ones.

There is science that explains why I feel like this. The brain rewards us when we eat pleasant foods by releasing a chemical called dopamine. With most foods, the more reguarly we eat them the less dopamine is released when we do. However, with

3. It’s hard to snack without eating sugar

This is a not unrelated point. A chocolate bar or a pastry are by far the simplest way to pick up something quick yet pleasant on the go. If they are not an option I’ve found I’ll often opt to go hungry instead.

4. It’s harder to give myself a treat

This is – besides the taste of chocolate – the thing I miss the most. I’ve come to realise that before this month that if I wanted to celebrate or cheer myself up then the way I did it would almost invariably involve sugar in some way.

5. My mood swings around a lot less than it did

This has been a definite upside, which tempts me to continue going without sugar beyond this month. I don’t know if this is a real effect, a placebo or just something I’m imagining but I do feel like more stable blood sugar levels have translated into my mood and energy levels also being more stable. For me that’s a big deal.

 

Christopher Hitchens and eating pork: a microcosm for the debate about religion and reason

The weirdest chapter of ‘God is Not Great’ illustrates a lot of the problems with the book as a whole.

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The third chapter of Christopher Hitchen’s anti-religious screed ‘God is not great’ is entitled ‘A short digression on the pig; or, why heaven hates ham.’ It’s devoted to dissecting the Jewish and Islamic prohibitions on eating pork. He writes that “this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world.”

I want to present my own suggestion for a microcosm: this strange little chapter for the whole of ‘God is not great.’ Hitchens is undoubtedly a hugely talented polemicist. However, rather than ensuring the validity of what he writes, his skill with words often serves to obscures the logical or factual errors in his argument, that would become evident much faster if presented by a lesser writer.

Reading his chapter on pork the following problems become apparent:

It’s irrelevant to most religions

Porcophobia (a word which as far as I can tell Hitchens coined) is only a feature of Judaism and Islam yet forms part of Hitchen’s indictment of religion as a whole. A Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Baha’i might legitimately ask: what has this got to with me and my faith?

Hitchen’s response to that would likely be that not eating pork is just the most ‘tenacious’ of the fetishes that religion promotes and that ‘all religions have a tendency to feature some dietary injunction or prohibition.’ In response, I would ask: is there anything useful to be gained from trying to apply a single critique to the multitude of divergent and distinct commandments on food and drink? Can you really say the same thing is wrong with Jewish kosher, Hindu vegetarianism and Baha’i teetotalism?

This is a point one can extrapolate out to the idea of critiquing religion. Hinduism postulates that there are thousands, while Buddhism typically has none. Therefore, surely they should be criticised on different grounds.

He winds up acknowledging that it might be wrong to eat pork after all

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Having spent several pages ridiculing people who refuse to eat pork; Hitchens sneaks the following rather dramatic about turn into the penultimate paragraph of the chapter: “the pig is so close to us, and has been so handy to us in so many respects, that a strong case is now made by humanists that it should not be factory-farmed, confined, separated from its young, and forced to live in its own ordure.”

Elsewhere in the book we have examples of other religiously inspired that Hitchens has to concede might have a point – Quakers, Martin Luther King and Martin Niemoller for example.

He makes rationality carry too much weight

Hitchen’s justification for the double standard whereby humanists can legitimately decide not to eat meat but religious people can’t is that “this is a decision that we can make in the plain light of reason and compassion.”

It may not be rational for a Jew or Muslim to single out pork among all other meats. However, there is no rational reason that I find it distasteful to eat dog or insects. It’s just my culture. But despite that I imagine few atheists would see my reaction as immoral and indeed many would share it.

Nor would all of the notoriously hard drinking and smoking Hitchens’ own decisions have stood up to a rationality test. But rationality is not all there is to life.

He assumes religions are irrational

Even if we accept rationality as being invariably desirable that’s not necessarily a mark against religion.

We can perhaps locate reasons for ‘irrational’ beliefs. It could be that dietary restrictions build a sense of community among believers or provide them with a daily connection with their heritage. C.S Lewis suggested that stopping ourselves doing innocuous things could be practice for preventing ourselves indulging in things that cause genuine damage.

More broadly, there is a long tradition of grounding faith in reason: look back to Aquinas or in the present at Keith Ward.

The secular world generates plenty of irrational nonsense

Especially about diet but about plenty of other stuff too.

Sugar does not make children hyperactive

According to this article in the New Scientist at least:

A 1996 review of 12 blinded studies, where no one at the time knew which kids had received sugar and which a placebo, found no evidence to support this notion. This is true even for children with ADHD or whose parents consider them to be sensitive to sugar (Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, vol 36, p 31)

In fact, one of these studies concluded that the sugar effect is all in parents’ minds.