I’ve been told that the World Health Organization has recognized the Korean diet as being one of the healthiest in the world. I don’t know how the report was worded, exactly, but I expect the word ‘traditional’ had to be in there somewhere, probably just before the words ‘Korean diet’. If I wrote the report myself, I just might throw in the word ‘potentially’ for good measure…
Kimchi (fermented cabbage) and doen-jang (fermented soy bean), both Korean staples, are possibly two of the most beneficial foods in the world. There is a good balance of vegetables and leafy greens with most meals, as well as many roots, herbs, and different sorts of twigs and barks used for broths.
Where things start to go wrong is when different foods started being introduced into the country. In the 1500’s chili peppers made their way to the Far East, and found their way into nearly every Korean dish. The benefits of chili are many but a quick search on the risks of over consumption showed that the first risk is stomach cancer. At 6 kg of chili consumed a year per capita (the most in the world), consequently stomach cancer is the number one killer in South Korea. More recently, the introduction of fast-food chains hasn’t had the greatest influence, and although Korean society is very slim, elementary students are getting noticeably pudgier. In response, the government has made zones around school areas, prohibiting junk food and snack vendors.
Another substance that’s made its way into a lot of recipes is Spam. I honestly don’t think I ever ate Spam before I came to Korea. At fist, I would remove it, or avoid it, when it was in the food I was served. After I while, I became complacent, and ignored its presence in gimbab (sea weed and rice rolls) but still got a strange feeling in the grocery store, going down the aisle of Spam, stacked five shelves high. I remember the time I went to the grocery store with EunBong to buy a Thanksgiving gift box for her parents. There were baskets of bathroom supplies, socks, fancy rice cakes, apples, dried persimmons, red ginseng drinks, and there at the end, $80-$120 Spam gift sets. When I asked EunBong about the Spam, she told me, “Yeah, in Korea that’s a very good gift!” I could hardly believe it, but after a few years in Korea, it wasn’t actually that surprising. When I told her that at home, it’s considered really low quality, she told me in Korea it’s the opposite. When she was young, if a student brought a spam and egg sandwich to school, all the other students would stare with envy.
When we got to her parents’ house, and presented our spam-free gifts, her father gave us the gift set he’d received from his taxi company; a box of Spam. Inside was regular Spam, Chili Spam, Curry Spam, Chicken Spam, an empty space where her father took one can of Spam, and a few others but I closed the box before reading the rest of the labels. When we got home, I tried a small slice of the curry flavored one and was about as close to gagging as ham is to, well, Spam! The rest of the cans disappeared over time, EunBong probably used them with her mom while I was at work, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit left out.
In our current monetary situation, I think our diet has actually improved. I cut back on chips and snacks to almost none, and EunBong made an effort to fight her chocolate cake and donut craving. I’ve been buying lots of cabbage, carrots, squash, and Asian radish (similar to an elongated turnip). Along with our boiled dinners, though, I’ve suddenly found myself reaching for the Spam we received for Lunar New Year. As I write this, I ask myself, wouldn’t it be better to use this as motive to make an effort to become vegetarian. It would certainly look better for the image of this blog. Instead, however, I’ve been swallowing my pride, my dietary integrity, and, with it, the Spam.