I think it’s fair to say that when most of us assemble ‘Asia(n)’ and ‘food’ into the same sentence, a few stock images spring to mind: steaming Chinese noodles, plump dumplings, and glistening wonton soups hurtling out of crammed restaurants adorned in red and gold dragons; pad thais with nutty pieces the size of acorns, mango sticky rice shining like polished marble, and fiery green curries from Bangkok’s vast network of road-side hawker stands; or perhaps we turn our thoughts to the fresh, healthy, delectable, and seemingly-limitless varieties of Japanese sushi from that fine, hardy nation, accompanied by pink-dyed ginger shards.
South Korea, however, is often overlooked, and not usually placed within the top echelon’s of Asia’s sublime cuisines. This is unfair. While kimchi is increasingly known in the West and is (rightly) emerging in supermarkets under such labels as ‘speciality’ or ‘international,’ Korean cuisine encompasses a huge range of food that is more than capable of holding its own against the continent’s most revered wonder-meals.
One of the best ways in Korea to interact and test the veracity of my words is to head down to a food festival, or, to be honest, almost any festival in Korea.
So, for this instalment of my Korean series, I’ll be relating my family's little tour of Daegu’s yacht festival at Suseong Lake (made larger with the arrival of our first baby), near our apartment. With this pertinent fact in mind, I’ve included no directions—we’re just a 30 minute stroll away (well, more like 40 minutes these days with our newborn).
I say ‘yacht’ festival. It was certainly billed as such on social media sites and strewn across banners depicting glorious modern sea-vessels that were patently yacht-esque, but the lake, when we got there around 3pm, was decidedly yacht-less. Given that it is a lake and the traffic surrounding it is usually horrendous, I’m not sure how they would get anything other than a swan boat in there. (I should point out that when I was looking for pictures for this piece from my Facebook album, I did note several small maritime vessels, but to call them yachts, in my view as a Brit, is a misnomer; besides, no one was actually admiring these ‘yachts’). Disappointingly, the wooden swan boats that are usually gliding around upon the water were moored on the opposite bank for the occasion of the yacht festival. I think I prefer the swans.
To be honest though, in Korea, it never seems to matter what the name of the festival is as it usually feels more like a gimmick or just a promotional device anyway (I should offer an example here, I know, but I can’t recall the previous thematic iterations). As far as I could make out with my expat eyes, this festival, at this location, seemed suspiciously like the last (I am sure, however, that there were nuances that I was too ignorant to observe).
In general, unless the festival is big and well-known, I’ve seldom attended any for the main/title event as it’s usually the food and general atmosphere of merriment that’s most attractive to me, especially when the sun is out and the lake is glistening with a surface of a thousand jewels.
Local events surrounding the lake invariably bring two things: hordes of cars cantering from place to place like it’s the migration season on the Serengeti, and a battalion of young police-cadets that are given the rather mundane jobs of organising, guiding, and, I suppose, corralling the herds of mechanical beasts with something resembling Confucian order. While, in my opinion at least, traffic and parking violations are poorly enforced in the ROK, festival days and special events are especially lax; cars are oftentimes observed to be bumper-to-bumper, huddled together as if needing the heat, and parked on just about any available vehicle-sized stone or tarmac surface, pavement or otherwise - it’s dog it dog out there!
For these communal occasions, market stalls sprout from the ground as if they are the Spartoi of Theban myth; white tents proliferate designated commercial areas in their semi-martial rows that help to protect both sellers and buyers from the sun—more akin to Ottoman marching camps than food stands—while a central marquee often predominates, serving to remind you that it’s Biscuit Week on Bake Off. Most are operated by smily, but customer-inducing ajummas. I must admit that sometimes I do feel like a statistic in one of their quotas.
At the lake, when an event is on, the makeshift food ‘court’ is primarily situated in an angular quadrant next to a renovated paved space that runs parallel to the body of water. Before arriving at this point, one must traverse the gauntlet of Korean craft stalls (and other wares besides) that festoon the tree-lined avenues. The presence of these temporarily erected stands when combined with the transfixed eyes of young-people glued to pinging smart phones that dictate both their irregular velocity and direction, as well as the older men pushing prized, rusting bicycles along—but who have not yet been made familiar with Western sidewalk etiquettes—makes navigation difficult, especially with a baby stroller. Patience is therefore required.
As one approaches the earmarked areas for nutritional commodities and ancient libations, the distant wind intermittently breaches the perimeter of the middle-distant mountain chain which overshadows the lake and all its environs. The welcome breeze first perfumes the vicinity with the odour of strong black pepper which envelops the senses before others jostle for fragrant supremacy given their localised intensity: fried onions and garlic blacken on large friers; sizzling sausages are tortured on BBQ grills; and the potent and (in my view) repulsive scent of fish and potato squares boiling in vats all bombard the undecided Digital Traveller. Nonetheless, one’s tastebuds salivate.
What I do very much like and enjoy at Korean festivals, such as those in Daegu, is the seemingly conscious effort to turn normal things into spectacles, particularly when it comes to food. Aubergine purple-coloured squid are made rotund with a feast of stuffing that imparts the impression that they are still alive; smiling kids run around the place with skewered meat—impaled on sharp sticks—that seem more like jousting knights at King Henry VIII's court; and grill fires rise high like the smoke signals in The Lord of the Rings. To me, Korean festivals feel like how I imagine medieval banquets to be.
Again, while the food, in my opinion, seems fairly generic to most festivals, it’s the spirit of occasion that makes them unique. During this particular adventure, Korean families raised small children’s tents for the impromptu entertainment—singing, dancing, etc.—and, somewhat oddly, a duo of teenagers(?) roamed around the place as paper-mache velociraptors. (I’ve largely given up trying to understand a great many things in Korea, this being one.) Odd as this was, it left a favourable impression upon me that made my son’s first Korean festival experience that much more memorable (even if he did sleep through it all).
The thing to take away from this Korean piece is simple enough: while the festival’s theme might be a bit of a misnomer—even to the point of naughty falsehood—the food on offer is almost always extraordinary and comes with its own built-in sense of spectacle. Those two points entirely override anything else that perhaps should have been there.
Editorial: Thomas Dowling has worked in the ESL industry for over 7 years, having lived and worked in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the UK. Currently, Thomas is a full-time Ph.D Student studying Environmental Security (mainly Myanmar and Southeast Asia) at the University of Leicester. He has previously studied degrees in Ancient History (BA; MA: Bristol), and International Security Studies (MA: Leicester). In 2014, he earned his CELTA qualification (ITI: Istanbul, Turkey). Thomas is also the Co-Founder of The Digital Traveller, focusing upon content and content management. Thomas presently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, Mandy, a rambuncious Jack Russell Terrier, and his newborn baby, Zeno.