The mid-autumn festival during the autumnal equinox—celebrated in China as the mooncake festival and Native American Day in the U.S.—is a culinary delight in Korea when Chuseok is observed, a harvest feast festival merged with ancestry remembrances. It is also the celebration of “the great middle,” hangawi, indicative of Sinosphere’s yin-yang preference for balance at the center, as reflected in the Hangul’s flag.
Bulgogi, a favored dish associated with beef, steak to Western familiarity, is more than the grilled preparation to Hanguk, for it now includes chicken (dak) and pork (dwaeji). Bulgogi (China’s kaorou) and kimchi (Dong Bei’s labachai) were two of my favorite viands when I first stayed longer than a day in Suwon south of Seoul.
What is now a bedroom community, suburb to the capital city, Suwon was farmland for fruit orchards and vegetables in August ’72, the peach blossom’s aroma wafting over the land along with the scent of cabbage fermentation. History now reveals that the U.S. military and Ferdinand Marcos’ henchmen were in Walker Hill plotting the details of a martial law that was declared on Sept. 21 a month later. McCoy toed U.S. policy that at the time, which favored the leadership of indigenous dictators. (Don’t get me wrong. As an Ilocano, I attest to Manong Ferdie’s dictatorship!)
But history is not our preoccupation in this reflection. It is the taste for bulgogi, kalbi (spare ribs), and kimchi that forever stayed with me. When Hyatt announced the addition of a Korean station in their Tour of Asia Sunday dinner buffet, I counted my pennies to see if I could squeeze my way to the sindoju and dongdongju (rice wines). Austerity has been the tenor of our post-Soudelor finances, so we reluctantly passed up the occasion and drooled from a distance.
The state of my finances is not at issue either. Getting to the jesasang (ancestral) table on the charye (tea rites) would have satisfied my Rock-of-Peter curiosity on Buddhist and Confucian traditions, but it was still the taste buds that wanted to be sated.
Saipan should be familiar with the bulgogi and kalbi by now. After all, the traditions of old Goguryo is not foreign to the Marianas as many of the Japanese workers of the sugar field and the soldiers that came to the defense of Saipan during WWII were of Hanguk descent. Now, one can’t go to a mom-and-pop store without running into a proprietor, or a DFS store and hotel staff, without hearing yobo sae yo and khamsa hamnida.
Kim chee (as spelled in Hawaii) has gone international, though Asiana of the Kumho group (Star Alliance) and Korean Air (SkyTeam, aka Korea Air Lines) do not include it in their in-flight offerings. I remember going to a Seoul McDonald’s in ’72 and was offered the Big Mac with kim chi. That is pandering to the indigenous taste buds. But I got used to the taste and the smell. Ms. Kang initiated me to the flavor and I was not one to complain. I relished the breath’s under-the-sheet aroma in olden times!
But the culinary aspect of Chuseok is our concern, though differences in architecture of Sinosphere might be of interest when looking at the shape of pagoda roofs. Nihonggo build eaves straight down with barely a curve, while Hanguk does theirs straight up on a definite curve. Zhongguo does its slant right on the median, which is no surprise since the indigenous name for “China” (Persia’s land of the Qin) is governance from the middle, Zhong Guo!
On the spice side, Japan tends to let cuisine go on its own, allowing the natural ingredient to exude its own flavor with not much assistance from seasonings, while the Korean would be exuberant in their use of pepper, onions and garlic, among other garnishes. The Chinese tend to take the middle way, right down the Han’s alley of the old Chang-an, now Xi’an of Shaanxi, unless one finds himself in the foothills of Sichuan or the Silk Road caravan through Taklimakan (the desert where folks “go in and don’t come out”) heading for Central Asia of the Kazakhs and other -stans!
We keep heading back to geography when we should be savoring the flavor, indulging the palate. Which is what the Chuseok at Hyatt is all about. In an earlier time, I wore my Cheong-san and my lady her Qi pao, to savor another Sinosphere flavorful offering, but those days are gone. Besides, I’d look ridiculous at Kili Cafe wearing a Dopo (with the wide-brim hat) while I escort a lady on her majoba (long jacket) over her Hanbok on top of the jeogori (short jacket). Besides, my Hangul neighbor won’t wear one unless her husband tags along. What is a single guy to do?
So back to bulgogi, kalbi, and kim chi. Watching calories, skip the bulgogi; on the grill, kalbi is Saipan-familiar, consume with caution, but the kim chi, well, it is a garnish, and one treads gingerly through the culinary track, for like Malay durian, it smells like hell but tastes like heaven. Let olfactory and tactile be gustatory. Enjoy.