When considering how to jump back into it all, I was faced with a conundrum: do I stay true to temporal life and continue on the chronological story of a 20something exploring the other side of the world? Or do I skip the bread and butter, appetizer, drink and hop right into the main course of this month’s gastronomical binge: Thailand.
After sorting out pictures and parsing though memories, I figured I’d do both. I’ll go back in time to satisfy those in need of order, but I’ll hop back and forth like an Indie-film to quench the thirst of those looking for a little more chaos in their life. What that results in is: one old story, next time one new, then one old, then Thailand until you get bored of hearing about tea, street food, Mr. Tom, curries, extravagance and obviously elephants (not to eat, of course).
So back into time we go; we go back just two or three weeks ago when the air cut through any number of layers of clothing, hair would freeze outside, and ice covered the tops of rivers and pods. We go back to a weekend that a friend and I had planned for about a month: a weekend filled with the answer to “how fresh can you get?”
When I first came to Korea, I was fascinated with what foods Koreans ate on the regular. Obviously there are things that the rest of the world knows about (see: bibimbap, kimchi, and maybe soju?), but then there are the things that the people here eat that will never be exported for one reason or the other (I’ll save you from my diatribe on culture, food, and the marketing of the two as one). Some of those truly Korean things were the freshest of things. Yes there are prepared foods, but most of the dining I did was accompanied by fresh vegetables, raw meat for our self-cooking on the grill in the middle of the table, fish tanks outside of the restaurant displaying the fish that you may be eating if you choose the right dish, or – in some cases – moving octopus tentacles which you had to chew vigorously to stop the suctioning on the inside of your cheek.
True, these are all super fresh. You see them kill your meal right in front of you. The vegetables are vibrant and crisp and you are almost assured that they were imported within the week. But what about fresher?
This is where some readers might want to stop reading. I hate to say it, and it almost seems counterintuitive for me – the writer – to say “stop this tom foolery,” but this part gets a bit… carnivorous.
Seeing as that probably only entices most of you, let me continue.
In search of the freshest, the best, the coldest, the source, around eight of us all traveled about 90 minutes out of Seoul to a small town, famous for jjimdak and bing-aw. After a subway, a train, and a taxi, we all found ourselves in a rented out house on a frozen lake. We were destined, and had planned, to ice fish.
Now, when I think about ice fishing, I think of Alaska, Russia, and the Bering Strait. Not South Korea. But there I was, on more than a foot of solid ice, over a small river, with about one hundred other people, all digging small holes in the ice with ice-picks, dangling fishing rods down into the remaining flowing waters.
The goal of this fishing was not to catch the fish, put them in a bucket, drag them home and cook them up with some lemon and dill. That wouldn’t be fresh enough. The point of this fishing excursion was to fish the small sardine-sized fish out, put them in a bowl full of water, and eat them. No cooking. No killing. Well, not, at least, until they hit your teeth.
See why I said this was carnivorous?
The eight of us stayed on the ice laughing and catching up with our fishing lines dangling down into the dark depths for about four hours or so, in hopes of catching our own fish. Alas, the lake was all fished out. We actually didn’t see anyone catch a single fish the entire time we were there. We did, though, see lots of kids racing on small, make-shift sleds across the ice, people building fires on the ice, and college-aged students getting completely wasted in the middle of the day… on the ice.
No matter – situated on the edge of the ice block aka river were several food stalls stocked full of fish cake, ramen, soda, water, fried fish, and (!) raw fish. They even got a little frisky and served a salad with these flopping fish on top.
We didn’t get that exotic, and just ordered one round of fried fish and one of the raw fish. To our table came a Styrofoam bowl filled to the brim with water and about 30 fish swimming in a school together to the right, left, front, back, trying to find the exit.
Equipped only with chopsticks, three of us plunged into the water, snatching up a fish, trying to keep it between our silverware.
“Dunk it into the gochujang” (see: thick, vinegary hot sauce)
And into my mouth went a fish dunked in hot sauce, still flopping around a bit. Squeamish? I somehow wasn’t. It’s hard to describe what these actually tasted like. I’d say they tasted like “fresh.” Some say cucumber. Some say cold rice. If anything I’d say they tasted like adrenaline, because I was so into making sure they were dead before they hit my esophagus.
Would I do it again? Maybe. Was it worth it? For sure. I mean, who can beat that, in terms of freshness? Not Whole Foods, that’s a fact.