2018-02-21 09:25:04
Reporter’s Notebook: An Olympic Challenge: Eat All the Korean Food That Visitors Won’t

09:25, February 21 205 0

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — When David Chang tells you to eat something, I figured, you should probably go eat it.

I’d been talking to Chang, the famed chef and a fellow Korean-American, about the Olympics in South Korea, where he spent 10 days this month working as a sort of culinary correspondent for NBC. Our conversation turned to the local cuisine around Gangwon Province, which includes the Olympic cities of Gangneung and Pyeongchang, and the extent to which people visiting the Winter Games here seemed to be engaging with it.

Mostly, we agreed, they were not.

“The thing is,” Chang said at one point, his voice ascending, “it’s peak snow crab season right now. I don’t know if people understand. This is the best red snow crab! You can’t eat it like this anywhere else in the world. It’s so sweet. Go eat the snow crab!”

So I went to eat the snow crab.

At a restaurant near Gangneung Olympic Park, a colleague and I slipped on plastic gloves and each grabbed scissors. (When I’m president, scissors will replace knives on everybody’s dinner tables.) We pulled crab parts from a bubbling pot as deep and wide as a witch’s caldron. We broke our busy silence only to marvel at the ribbons of red and white meat dangling between our fingertips: They were feathery soft and, yes, so sweet. When all the legs were gone, we asked for a couple packs of instant noodles to repurpose the cloudy russet broth.

Other than us, though, the restaurant was empty. Cars and buses shuttling athletes, spectators and journalists to the venues passed on the big street outside. Choi Jong-bu, the owner, stood on the sidewalk and watched them go.

“I got everything ready for the Olympics, hired some more part-time help,” he said, flicking ash from his cigarette. “And then: nothing.”

Many restaurant owners here echoed that refrain: For a lot of businesses, it has felt as if the Games were not even going on. Visitors don’t seem to be venturing outside the Olympic bubble, they said.

I was determined not to be that sort of visitor. So I’ve swanned into press boxes with pork broth practically dripping off my clothes. I’ve interviewed some of the world’s top athletes with raw garlic on my breath. I am beginning to sense some of my colleagues growing alarmed with my behavior. But I can’t stop.

My last visit to South Korea was over two years ago, and I’ve spent the past year living in Berlin, where Korean cuisine remains subpar. So eating here this month has been like binge-watching IMAX movies I’d only seen on airplanes.

There was the late-night bowl of seolleongtang — ox bone soup, slow cooked to snow white opaqueness — over which a colleague and I defrosted our cheeks after shivering through the opening ceremony of the Games.

Another night I sought out some haemuljjim, a hodgepodge of local shellfish braised with a pile of bean sprouts and red pepper sauce, to test whether my spice tolerance had dulled after moving to Europe. The dish provided a brain-clearing heat, the kind that quiets the exterior world and narrows your focus to your tongue and the sudden inexplicable need to keep it burning.

And I needed to try the regional specialty mulmakguksu — buckwheat noodles in a cold, savory broth, topped in this case with young radish kimchi and dry seaweed — which I’d somehow never had during any of my half-dozen previous trips here.

The Olympics, of course, have never been just about sports. Politics have always been intertwined with the proceedings. For me, food has entered that mix, too.

Early on in the Games, for example, in the fields lining the mountain roads, I noticed enormous brackets of pollock that were hung to freeze and dry in the icy wind. It turned out that dried pollock (known as hwangtae in Korean) from Gangwon Province was served as the main course at the Feb. 10 lunch meeting between South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, and the high-level delegation visiting from the North.

The lunch dishes were reportedly meant to represent all eight provinces of the formerly unified Korea — a food-based gesture to engender good vibes, however cautious, between the nations.

Not everyone here can devote such brain space to epicurean concerns. Athletes largely keep to the dining hall at the special village in which they live, and tourists new to South Korea may not fully understand the signs and menus beckoning them. Maybe that explains the long lines outside McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza.

My personal gastronomic haven has been a restaurant whose Korean name translates roughly to Blue Sea.

The headliner is the raw blowfish, sliced thin and fanned out on a plate like a hundred translucent flower petals. Grabbing piece after piece after piece, with a dab of salt and sesame oil and an occasional sliver of garlic, has proved a fine away to spend a late night far away from home.

The place also serves sannakji, raw octopus so fresh that the slices quiver on the plate. For non-Korean visitors, the dish exists almost exclusively as a dare.

Really, whole swaths of Korean cuisine can give foreigners pause. On a recent visit to Pyeongchang Hanwoo Town, a beef barbecue restaurant near Olympic Stadium, staff members apologetically informed us that they weren’t serving any of their specialty raw beef dishes. They cited the norovirus scare, but it sounded more like a cultural concession.

“Koreans are used to seeing and eating it, but foreigners’ stomachs might not be, and they could get sick,” said Chang Myeong-soo, the manager of the restaurant.

In our conversation, David Chang said it had been frustrating at times to see that Korean food — beyond bibimbap, barbecue and kimchi — was still so inscrutable for so many people he encountered during the Olympics.

Among his pet peeves, he said, was how non-Koreans used Japanese names to describe Korean dishes: Hwe, sliced raw fish, is not sashimi, he said, his voice rising again; dduk, rice cakes, can be pretty different from mochi; and kimbap, rice rolled inside seaweed with various vegetables or meats, should never, ever, be called maki.

“It’s like having to explain that French and Italian food are different,” Chang said.

Still, Chang concedes, sometimes people might need reference points.

At the opening ceremony, for instance, Chang bought eomuk, or fish cakes, at a concession stand, which provoked some bewilderment among his non-Korean companions. “I said, ‘Have you ever had a pike quenelle? It’s basically the same thing,’” he said with a laugh.

I’ve been lucky to have the company of Chang W. Lee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times photographer raised in South Korea, and more important for me, a soul mate in gluttony. He and I have started a lot of our dinners here the same way: getting into a cab with a restaurant in mind and ending up at a different place after a conversation with the driver. And a lot of the dinners have ended the same way: with a second dinner.

It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon, just beyond the halfway point of the Games, that Lee first betrayed a hint of fatigue.

“I’ve never had a food marathon like this,” he said, his chopsticks in a bowl of noodles.

It was true. The past week had felt almost like an athletic pursuit. But as far as I was concerned, we were conquering it.