Redefining The Exotic

In the States, exotic food is often not only associated with international cuisine, but also unfamiliar. At this point in America’s gastronomic history, I wouldn’t call Mexican or Italian food anywhere near exotic, because it is merely a part of the repertoire of the daily listing of possible dinner options. Sure, it might be different and, but exotic? No.

In many ways I find there are four classifications amongst our food options. The first is comfort. These are the foods that you will most likely always eat if presented, even if it’s not the healthiest thing in the word (see: my grandma’s mac and cheese, or my other grandma’s angel food cake – whew both of those are killer). The next is the quotidian. These are the foods that you eat every day if even by routine. Up in the morning with a cup of tea, slice of toast, spoon full of honey, no doubt. Getting further from familiarity, these next foods are different and exciting and special, but not challenging to our palates. In many ways, America is the King of this realm of foods. Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Middle-Eastern (sorry for the broad generalization), these are all thrown into the melting pot with us. That last realm of foods are the foods available to us, but exotic. “Oooh, I want to try something new. Why not Ethiopian (insert: Peruvian, Korean, Austrian).” These are the foods that are good, but new. Different. Enthralling. Memorable. Worth telling someone about later. This realm is also the only group of food you don’t really crave simply because you don’t know it well enough to crave it.

Before coming to Korea, Korean food was exotic. Kimchi. Dweonjeong. Galbi. Samgyeopsal. All of these foods are not English, and most of their flavors are unrecognizable by the American palate. It was full on exotic. “Oooh, what is that new place in College town? Korean BBQ? What is that? Like Southern BBQ?” Nope

Over the year, though, my ideas of Korean food started to redefine themselves; my family would send me boxes from home, trying to incorporate things that I missed or would enjoy. At first, my list was long, trying to surround myself with novelty of having oatmeal in Korea or honey from home. But as time went by, my lists turned from tangible to “whatever you want to send me.”

Most recently, Brianna came to visit. The day before she boarded the plane, she remembered to ask “what can I bring you from the states?!” “I don’t know, I don’t need anything, I have everything I need here.”

It’s not only with the food that I’ve become completely accustomed to, rather the places too. “Hey want to go to the temple?” “Weren’t we just at the temple?” “Oh yeah, I mean palace, or market, or whatever.” It’s not that I don’t care, I just have associated these parts of the Seoul landscape as normal, quotidian, everyday.

The full and final transformation of my redefinition, reappropriation of exotic came with a buffet.

Brianna and her dad were staying in a nice and swank hotel in the south of Seoul, so every opportunity I had to jet down there and hang out, I did. For the company, for the most comfortable bed in which I’ve slept in one year, and for the day’s logistics. What came as a nice and welcomed surprise was the breakfast buffet. Now, I’ve been to my fair share of buffets in Korea (they are upscale here, I swear!) but this one was exotic. It was full of the foods that I’d never think of eating nor did I crave. I mean, these foods were special, different, and memorable – even worth writing about.

Granola. Plum Compote. Bread Pudding. Grilled Tomatoes. Smoked Salmon. Cream Cheese. Capers. Fresh squeezed orange juice. Drip Coffee.  Crusty Bread. Jam. Nutella.

As I look back on those foods I indulged on, I notice that my idea of exotic has completely shifted. No longer is kimchi new, different – rather it has become the daily meal. Granola and cream cheese? Whew, those are something remembering.

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