Saturday, February 14, 2009

Free Buffet at the Korean Embassy = Heaven

The crowd anxiously shifted around in their seats. My friend Dan was on the verge of causing an international dispute.

We were at the Korus House, a venue for cultural outreach at the Korean Embassy, to hear a lecture on a seemingly uncontroversial subject: archaeological excavations of pre-modern Korea. But Dan, who is Chinese, had disagreed with the view of the lecturer, Dr. Sung-rak, that the excavations proved that pre-historic Korean culture had influenced China. “Isn’t a lot of this politically motivated?” Dan asked. As the color drained from the moderator’s face, Dan suggested that Dr. Sung-rak was biased due to his Korean roots and that the opposite conclusion was more likely: it was actually Chinese culture that had influenced Korea.

Dr. Sung-rak rummaged through his notes, buying time while trying to think of a tactful answer that wouldn’t invite Hu Jintao to invade Seoul. I leaned over to Dan and whispered, “No more questions.”

Before this night, Dan had caused many controversies, but only by telling jokes about racial stereotypes at dinner parties. I could take the punch-lines about Jews having small penises, but now his habit of starting fires was about to get us physically escorted from the room. And a boot from the Embassy would ruin my two goals for the night: (1) make it through the lecture without snoring or drooling on anyone, and (2) stuff myself on the free feast of Korean food that Korus House had promised afterwards.

Luckily, we weren't approached by any Korean bouncers. Dr. Sung-rak avoided Dan’s question by temporarily seeming to forget how to speak English.

Mercifully, the lecture ended. The crowd, a strange mix of archaeology professors and lovers of Korean cuisine, flooded into the next room, lured by the nutty scent of sesame oil. We discovered a generously big buffet.

Korus House had recruited the renowned Korean chef Jae-ok Chang, author of three Korean cookbooks, to prepare the food. This was not the first time that I had enjoyed Korean culture with Ms. Chang. For the holiday of Chuseok, during which Koreans give thanks for the abundance of the fall season, she and I collaborated for a celebration at the Korus House. She participated by cooking traditional food in the style of the ancient royal palace: bulgogi (marinated beef), jeon (savory pancake), kimchi (pickled spicy vegetables), and bibimbap (seasoned rice and vegetables). I helped out by shamelessly ravaging it, free of charge.

I expected that she would again go the traditional route, if for no other reason than to cater to the archaeologists in the crowd by serving up some culinary artifacts. Surprisingly, though, a few of the dishes were more modern, particularly a thick garlic dip to go with braised chicken and a terrine of calamari in a starchy plum sauce. I noticed that Dan looked a little smug. Given the lecturer’s theories about how Paleozoic Koreans had so much influence over their Chinese neighbors, it was pretty ironic that the Korean food was bathed in Chinese sauces.

That said, I think Ms. Chang might have made the right choice in going with a couple of Asian fusion recipes. The archaeologists, who were mostly Caucasian, didn’t really know what to make of some of the other dishes that were more genuinely Korean. When I went back to the buffet for a second round, I noticed an older couple hovering over the serving bowl of kimchi. They were so fascinated you would have thought they had just discovered the fossils of a previously unknown species of dinosaur. I think they were about to break out their trowels when they saw me. “Is this onions?” they asked. “No, bok choy,” I said. They thought that it was too spicy, but check out the spring issue of the Journal of Archaeological Research for their groundbreaking study on Tyrannosaurus Kimchi.

Dan and I eventually found a group of Koreans to have a better conversation about the food. An archaeology professor from Catholic and a recent graduate of American University agreed with me that the kimchi tasted really fresh – homemade, not the stuff shipped from California to D.C. supermarkets. We also enjoyed a variety of panchan and Korean spring rolls – which were good enough that my new friends had the occasion to teach me the Korean word mashitha. It means delicious.

We left Embassy row with world peace secure and our appetites more than satisfied. But I’ll be back to Korus House next week when they offer introductory Korean language classes. And, of course, light Korean snacks.

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