ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Publication Date : 13-08-2012
Landing in South Korea’s ultra-modern Incheon International Airport, the visitor is given a vivid introduction to the ultra-modern sophistication of this booming nation.
Technology is apparent everywhere you go, from the whisper-smooth efficiency of the luggage carousels to the futuristic architecture of the main terminal building.
South Korea is recognised as a global technology hub, and its leading technology companies have successfully developed and exported a wide range of innovative products, from the advanced Galaxy Tabs and multi-carrier phone technology, to advances with actual androids and cutting-edge developments in bioscience.
Speeding on the new expressway from the airport, you are left in no doubt that Incheon is a metropolis of the new millennium, with gleaming towers of glass and steel that incorporate every imaginable technological development, and then some.
Even the cars that speed down the highways are sleek and stunning.
Analysts say that South Korea is one of the most technologically-advanced societies on earth, and that Seoul, the nation’s capital, is “the bandwidth capital of the world” with the fastest and most comprehensive connections.
Tradition in modernity
However, even as the nation hurtles towards the future, it is holding fast to many of its timeless traditions and practices. The bemused visitor sees this happening on many levels.
On the street, many of the electronic devices of the nattily-dressed yuppies play traditional tunes rather than hip-hop rhythms. On stage, mini-skirted young entertainers play classical instruments with delightful dexterity. In old palaces around Seoul, traditional guards in ancient costumes parade for tourists before a backdrop of shimmering skyscrapers.
In an ultramodern convention centre, business information is disseminated by beauties in Korea’s traditional hangbok costume.
Some of the most exciting attractions for tourists are found, paradoxically, in the wonderful and varied museums of South Korea. In the relatively unheralded city of Gwangju alone, there are so many fascinating museums with absorbing interactive displays that this unprepossessing town could be a stand-alone destination in itself.
One of the largest cities in South Korea, Gwangju is also ancient, having been founded in 57AD. The Gwangju National Museum, Gwangju Ceramic Museum, Gwangju Municipal Museum of Art, Kunsthalle Gwangju Art Gallery, Gwangju Art & Cultural Centre, Gwangju Museum Of Face and the enormous Gwangju Folk Museum are just some examples of the city’s commitment to cultural conservation.
The most surprising Gwangju museum for me, however, was the Namdo Folk Food Museum. Although a modern metropolis, Gwangju is also famous for its rich and diverse cuisine, and skilled Korean chefs.
The modern-day visitor should not miss the Namdo Folk Food Museum, where you can pre-book a visit to see the splendid culinary exhibits or to participate in traditional cooking classes. Conducted in ultra-modern and gleamingly hygienic kitchen-classrooms, these classes showcase the nation’s time-tested recipes.
The cooking lessons here are a first-hand experience of tradition in modernity.
A popular adage has it that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”, and if South Koreans love their traditions, nowhere is it more apparent than in their culinary tastes. Despite the proliferation of American fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Dominos and Pizza Hut, the most popular fast-food in South Korea is kimbab, the sushi-like rice-rolls in seaweed, seasoned with sesame oil and salt or soya sauce.
The Korean-owned Lotteria fast-food chain commands the largest share of the local fast-food market.
Even the national airline Korean Airline serves exquisite traditional cuisine on flights, and has won international awards for its bibimbap – a traditional Korean dish of warm white rice topped with fresh and seasoned vegetables, a raw or fried egg and sliced meat. A fiery paste of chilli and pepper is added, and the ingredients are stirred together thoroughly just before eating.
Bibimbap is eaten either cold or hot – I have tried different versions of this dish across the Korean peninsula and found them invariably to be delicious.
Unlike traditional Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or Laotian cuisine, which is eaten with wooden or plastic chopsticks, Korean food is eaten with stainless steel chopsticks and a matching long spoon. Again, most Oriental meals consist of a few choice dishes served in large portions, but Korean meals tend to consist of many simple dishes in relatively small servings.
East Asian food tends to be subtle in its flavours, but Korean eeyum-shik is known for its strong and pungent taste, with generous use of chilli, pepper and spicy pastes. There is also a greater emphasis on meat while vegetables are often preserved, pickled or fermented.
Most Koreans proudly attribute these differences from the cuisine of their East Asian counterparts to their strong Korean-Mongolian heritage.
One culinary feature that Koreans have in common with their Oriental brethren is a love for seafood in all its variety – the fresher, the better.
On my last visit to South Korea, I made it a point to visit several small seaside towns and industrial ports.
In every instance, I found excellent seafood restaurants. Some were small, authentic local eateries with Korean low tables called sang, where dinners sit on a wooden platform. Others were enormous and glitzy multi-storied restaurants, with elaborate maritime-themed architecture reflecting their menu.
On scenic Homigot Cape, there were even rows of lady-hawkers operating with little more than a small stove and a wooden box of freshly-caught seafood on ice. On a cold and blustery autumn evening, I savoured the piping-hot roasted fish dipped in a piquant sauce from one of them, and it was absolutely scrumptious!
From grandiose boat-shaped seafood emporiums with gourmet chefs in Mokpo to Jukdo Market in Pohang with its tiny mom-and-pop eateries, the variety of seafood was staggering.
Apart from fish of all conceivable shapes and sizes, I found shark, giant squid, cuttlefish, eel, jellyfish, octopus, sea-horses, starfish, crabs, prawns, lobsters, oysters, scallops, clams, sea-snails, mussels, abalone, sea cucumbers and sea anemones or sea urchins – plus a few other things I simply could not identify.
The wonder of it all was that everything was alive!
For an even more comprehensive selection, some outlets also had dried, smoked, pickled, salted, roasted and even candied varieties of seafood for sale. A couple of places even offered to wrap purchases in ornate Korean gift-packaging so that one could return home with attractive souvenirs of the tastes and traditions of South Korea!