Sunday, July 20, 2008


The Foreigner vs. the Gochu

The waitresses bring us everything we need to enjoy a Korean meal: a spoon, some chopsticks, rice and some apparently-pickled vegetables that we can taste if the food gets to hot and/or spicy.

And, perhaps to ensure that those apparently-pickled vegetables will be used, she brings us the gochu. The word gochu is used to describe the hot pepper that Koreans use to make gochujang, a kind of hot sauce used in a large number of Korean meals.

I always eye the gochu suspiciously, wondering if I should take a bite. Perhaps this restaurant serves the sanitized, foreigner-friendly version of the gochu pepper, as opposed to one that tastes like live ammunition.

My relationship with gochujang is not nearly so complicated; at least not anymore. When I arrived in Korea about three years ago, it certainly wasn’t easy eating it with just about every meal – constantly reaching for napkins for my nose/eyes/mouth, asking to have my water jug refilled seemingly dozens of times, all the while having worried natives ask me if I was okay, or at least going to be.

Within a couple of months I came to understand why the salt, pepper and grease content of Korean foods is so low. Once you’ve gotten used to gochujang’s taste, not to mention the sensations it brings, a condiment that doesn’t make your eyes a little red becomes a disappointment.

Gochujang is seemingly required in order to make most Korean foods unique. Without it, bibimbap would be little more than salad with toasted rice, seolloengtang would just be beef and noodles, and dakgalbi would be little more than rice cakes mixed a possible source of Avian flu.

The gochu itself is another matter. Whereas gochujang mixes the pepper’s natural flavor with soybeans and glutinous rice, the gochu is pure and unfiltered. I’ve tasted green gochu in the past and received no abnormally strong sensations. The problem is that you won’t know the potency of this particular pepper until it’s perhaps past the point of protecting yourself.

Eventually, curiosity wins out and I have a single, small bite of the pepper. It tastes no better or worse than any other green vegetable on the first sample, which leads me to try another. At this point, I’ll begin to notice a rise in the room temperature.

Convinced that I can handle it, I decide to take a third taste. I can only imagine that this sensation is similar to biting a landmine. I immediately lunge forward, dominant hand covering my mouth, holding its contents inside because, despite the excruciating discomfort, I know that spewing the pepper now will do little to improve my disposition.

The Koreans nearby offer a variety of remedies, such as whole jugs of water, the apparently-pickled vegetables, and their hands with which they offer to fan my mouth. After a few minutes, when all of these efforts in tandem have succeeded in containing the spread of oral napalm, I feel tempted to have another bite. After what I just experience, I’m sure the worst is over.

Unfortunately, my disinclination regarding math has lead me astray once again. Rather than adding to the spiciness, each bite taken actually multiplies it. Therefore, this fourth bite is actually eight times stronger than the first, and someone's going to have to call the waitress to a) bring more water, b) bring more of the apparently-pickled vegetables, and c) join my eating companions in fanning my mouth.

After the fourth bite, I generally elect to stick with different side dishes the rest of the way. The rice and other assorted vegetables are just fine, though I feel the occasional phantom pain when I catch sight of my Korean dinner companions dipping the gochu into a different kind of a hot sauce and proceeding to eat the entire offending piece of plant life.

Is their entire digestive tract made of lead, I think to myself, or just the part that swallows? And what, exactly, do they eat for dessert? Bleach?

I had hoped at some point that I would’ve subdued the gochu and been able to endure it, much as I have endure the taste of other spicy dishes. Lately though, I’ve become convince that it’s too tall a hill to climb for this foreigner.

Now, my only concern is for my parents. Very soon I’m getting married, and they’ll be coming to Korea for the occasion. What will they eat during that week? Snack crackers?

I’ve become so accustomed to the gochujang that I could easily forget that it’s included in a meal they’ve never tried before. How will their thoroughly American digestive tracts respond?

"Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” I’ll probably say as they work through glass after glass of water. “I don’t mean that it’ll be more tolerable for you after just one week; I mean that you’ll get used to feeling like your gums have been carpet bombed. I did.”

Are we gonna see a regular "Rob"-Column in the KH? That would be awesome^^ Or some good tennis articles in the Korean Herald would not be bad either.
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