Gloomy Wednesday calls for grinding, smelling, brewing and sipping good coffee. And watching coffee. Hario-hypnotized.
Courtesy of Dolcezza, brewing excellent beans from Intelligentsia.
Music by Azure Ray.
Gloomy Wednesday calls for grinding, smelling, brewing and sipping good coffee. And watching coffee. Hario-hypnotized.
Courtesy of Dolcezza, brewing excellent beans from Intelligentsia.
Music by Azure Ray.
By definition, winter signifies a shriveling of life. Retraction takes a grip on trees and shrubs, and even people, as we pull our hands up in our sleeves, pull our coat collars tight against our exposed necks, and bundle up in layers of cotton, goose down and fur. By definition, winter signifies death, the polar opposite of life, of creation. Evidence of life – greenery, warm rain, gently caressing wind – is absent, nowhere to be found. All of life temporarily submits to the cold, awaiting the dissipating frost, awaiting that first sign of sprouts and roots. Yet until then, hibernation blankets the fields, patience seemingly dwindling from the foreground of bustling production.
How ironic, then, that the very symbolization of winter – death – so often creates highly prized delicacies in localities scattered about. From death itself blooms a creation that would not have seen light in the warmth of spring; death nurtures a will to thrive, a will that sparks ingenuity.
It is no surprise that humankind’s wisdom blossomed greatly around food and the preservation of it. After all, no matter what the circumstances. one must eat. For survival or for pleasure, exponential wisdom and know-how has been dedicated to ensure the steady intake of food. Such wisdom was ever more vital during the per-cannery era. Today, at any given Safeway or Whole Foods, there exists entire aisles dedicated to canned foods; anything and everything can be canned and stored for, well, until the apocalypse. If I may digress, my high school building was built as a bomb shelter in the fifties, and according to school legend, there were a complete system of tunnels underneath school grounds, all the way out to the baseball field. And along these tunnel routes rested thousands of canned rations. Russian missiles never did come, and our yearbook staff’s efforts to uncover the myth never led to any solid evidence. Nevertheless, the science of canning food for preservation is a relatively new phenomenon in gastronomic history.
Preservation of fish has played an integral part in human development. From various parts of the world, where civilizations sprouted and blossomed near rivers, bays and other bodies of water, preserved fish was a critical protein source throughout the year, especially during the cold non-growing months. With no refrigeration technology available, fish was preserved using other sources of wit and wisdom – salting, pickling, smoking and drying. Fermentation was extensively used even in hot and humid climates. In Southeast Asia, fermented fish paste, in its many forms and varieties, are used daily as in important flavoring ingredient in countless local dishes (Cambodia’s “prahok” is something I have wanted to try for years). In Japan, the ancient ancestral sushi, known as “nare-zushi”, was pickled by stacking fish with layers of rice, the season-long fermentation process, often lasting months, breaking down the rice and fish to create its distinct taste and funk. Herring has been pickled as a delicacy in the Baltic and Nordic regions, and Alaskan salmon is just one type of fish that has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type personality change upon smoking.
Perhaps the practice of drying fish leaves the least amount of control in one’s hands. No amount of salt, rice or any other pickling agent is used for preservation; in most other methods, variables of similar likeness are under full command of one’s hands. As some may say, “control is power.” Put in another way, the relinquishment of control is a direct loss of power. But the process of drying asks of such relinquishment; all one can do is clean the fish, perform blade work on it as deemed fit, and hang it. The rest is left to nature. Conditions of temperature, humidity and air velocity is beyond one’s reach, and one may dare say that Mother Nature takes over from then on, preserving the day’s catch at her pace in a manner she chooses.
In direct contrast to the central element of its definition, winter bears and births one local delicacy in particular that may only be found in the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula. Affectionately called “gwamegee” by the locals, this air-dried mackerel pike is the offspring of the unique environmental and historical roots of the city of Pohang and the North Kyungsang province.
Although the exact ancestral beginnings of gwamegee is debatable – most say it started around the early nineteenth century – the preservation process and its unique texture and taste have been passed down through generations. Originally, gwamegee was made with herring, as the fish was caught in great abundance in the seas of Pohang and even upstream in some of its rivers. As the supply of herring diminished, mackerel or saury took its place. After being gutted and cleaned, the fish is hung in the sea breeze of Pohang for up to two weeks. The flesh, not fully dry, still retains the essential oils of the fish, compacting its flavor. As it was hundreds of years ago, it is best enjoyed with an array of seaweed and cabbages, often with chives, raw garlic, and spicy vinegared pepper paste. This delicacy was so sought after that, in the Chosun Dynasty, kings ordered the artisans to ship cartloads of it to Seoul before the product could be sold in the general market.
I once again was reunited with this dish in the most unassuming restaurants in Shinsa-dong, part of the now infamous “Gangnam” district of Seoul – miles and miles away from Pohang. There were no waves to listen to, no ocean breeze to walk against. No seagull in sight, not a fish line in before us. Just Gangnam, in all its deceiving glory. As if reenacting the history of supplying the royalty, the gwamegee was personally delivered from Pohang, just days after it was plucked from the drying lines. No kings of Chosun were present at our table, but with each bite, one drew closer to understanding why the well-fed monarchs anxiously awaited their chariots to arrive from the poverty-stricken coast land.
Winter creates. Its harshness is often misunderstood, temperature acting as a deceptively cunning shadow of its true nature. Its slashing winds dig through outer layers, almost seemingly through our bones, but in our modern, everyday concrete jungle, the shrill of the wind is magnified through our man-made wind tunnels. Out in the outskirts of Pohang – and any other quiet sea-side townships – the ocean breeze, even its winter variety, gently caresses the hanging fish, rocking it back and forth ever so slightly. Harshness and shrillness are no longer accurate descriptors. Like a newborn in a crib, like budding leaves and flowers in the early days of spring, the wind here is a nursing mother, cooing her young to the most intimate lullaby.
Winter creates. By no means is the temperature cuddly during Pohang’s winter months. But in creation’s perspective, even the cruel thermometer has its place. During the two-week drying process, the freezing temperatures of the night enraptures the fish and freezes it. Throughout the night, as the full moon watches on, the hanging fish is a cocoon in deep sleep, swaying back and forth at times, and holding still as a rock when the wind retracts itself to the depths of the dark. It awaits. When the morning sun bursts open over the East Sea, the gradual warmth of day re-heats and melts the flesh. As a butterfly breaks into the world, so does the fish stretch from the cold of night into a day’s worth of sun. As this process of freezing and re-heating repeats itself for fifteen days, the natural oils of the fish are harnessed, compacting its flavor and nurturing a wonderfully chewy texture.
Winter creates. The blistering heat of the summer sun would have overwhelmed the tender mackerel, devouring its nutrients and succulent juices. The winter sun warms the flesh just enough to semi-dry it; only the winter variety of sunshine is sensitive enough to preserve the fish’s distinct qualities. In conjunction with the sea breeze and frost, rays of light stroke the fish gently, gliding over every morsel, every molecule with equal due care. The degree of alarm associated with the microwave oven jolts whatever specimen occupies its chambers; on the contrary, the winter sun is in the midst of a delicate ballet with the rows of hanging fish, allowing patience and time to bloom in their roles as facilitators.
Alain de Botton, in his book “Status Anxiety,” quotes the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, in defining and defending art – and thus creation: “Every great work of art . . . was marked . . . by the ‘desire to remove human error, clear human confusion, and diminish human misery,’ just as all great artists were imbued with the ‘aspiration to leave the world better and happier than they [found] it.’ They might not always realise this ambition through overtly political subject matter . . . and yet embedded within their work, there was almost always some cry of protest against the status quo, and thus an impulse to correct the viewer’s insight or teach him to perceive beauty, to help him understand pain or to reanimate his sensitivities, to nurture his capacity for empathy or rebalance his moral perspective through sadness or laughter. Arnold concluded his argument with the idea upon which this chapter is build: Art, h insisted, was ‘the criticism of life.'” Through plagues, famines, and wars, art symbolized creative vitality. When pressed, humanity responds in full bloom, preserving every percolating ounce of richness.
The worst circumstances draw out the best in humanity. When the fields are barren, stripped of its life-giving capacity, frozen solid three layers deep to the core, winter creates wisdom. The need to survive creates the urge to thrive. The slashing winds are different. The night frost is different. Rays of sunlight are different. Previously perceived as villains of angry blizzards and wind tunnels, nature’s ingredients are themselves transformed into creators. Destruction no longer subdues the fields; although still frozen, humanity thrives in the most frigid of temperatures, the darkest of hours.
All this is illuminated by winter, which by definition creates nothing but death.
Expression has no boundaries. As an encore from our Korea series, here is the food path we took on the Peninsula, in three minutes.
Follow the tongue. Hungry yet?
“Place” is associated with just about everything that our senses come across. In whatever activity our body and mind take part in, we do so in a “place”; whether or not one recognizes or appreciates such a phenomenon is an entire dialogue on its own. Our daily commute takes place somewhere (train, subway, bus, parking lot-like I-66); our work takes place somewhere (cubicle, hole-in-the-wall, highrise); our mingling chatter takes place somewhere (sidewalk, bar, lunch line at the salad place that for some reason always has a line); our gastronomic activities take place somewhere (Korean deli, at my desk in front of a computer monitor, Indian lunch buffets with unnamed but delicious curry creations).
Coffee epitomizes the imprinting power of place. In turn, place symbolizes an attached ambiance, a feel, a mood, a hue associated with the place that holds the coffee.
A vast number of coffee drinkers, for decades, drank coffee not only for the sake of coffee, but more so for the attached ambiance. The price one paid for a cup of black liquid gold was not limited to the beans themselves, but included the chair one sat in, the light fixtures above one’s head, and the streaming music. I recall, as a youngster in Korea, a time when (before the onslaught of Starbucks and other chains) coffee shops were referred to as “dabang.” These peculiar establishments – now almost unheard of, practically extinct – were the preferred meet-and-greet points for just about any occasion, particularly for blind dates. The servers slash waitresses, affectionately referred to as “madame,” played the roll of hostess more than a mere server. Patrons oft returned to a said dabang just for a renowned madame’s company.
And the coffee. Dabang establishments have left a permanent imprint on Korea’s coffee culture, a tattoo-like presence. The term “dabang coffee” is still used when one would like to sip a cup with cream and sugar, with more cream and sugar. Coffee was first introduced in Korea to the royal family at the start of the twentieth century, and as the beverage began to take to the masses, the unfamiliar and rather bitter taste of this black liquid was understandably pacified by the inclusion of cream and sugar. Like other cultures, coffee was enjoyed as an after-meal splurge, a sugary exclamation point, acting more as a dessert than anything else. The popularity of “Americanos” and black drip coffee is only recent history on the Peninsula. The lasting impact of said dabangs can still be reminisced by Korea’s love for instant coffee; convenient one-pack-a-cup sticks with ground coffee, powdered cream, and sugar.
Coffee influences where and how we converse with one another. Where once a dabang hosted blind dates, a Starbucks or Coffee Bean stands to host chitchatting college students in Gangnam. A lasting similarity, though, is the relatively muted interest towards the coffee itself; as it was decades ago, one pays for one’s seat and right to chat in that specific ambiance.
Greeks had their own association with coffee, as painted here by Nikos Kazantzakis:
“I took a seat in a kafeneion. The coffee and water came. Today is Sunday, services are over, and now the householders proceed to the square. Dressed in their Sunday best, grim and pompous. They sit down, light their cigarettes, sip water and wait with faces turned toward the north. What are they waiting for? The newspapers from Athens. React to the order around you, resist the current, say no! when all those around you are murmuring yes; this is one of the most demanding obligations of a soul that lives in a bankrupt era. Consonance and balance are fertile virtues in creative times; but when the historical moment of dissolution is at hand, a great struggle is needed to keep your soul in order. In order to catch hold, not to be swept away, a good method is to concentrate your mind on a great soul, one which sprang up and blossomed in your native soil. Today as I sit in the Tripolitan coffeehouses watching the people and listening to their talk, I sense that if I were a young man living in Tripolis, I would concentrate – in order to save myself – upon the rich, aggressive, cunning and valiant soul of Kolokotronis.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Journey to the Morea).
Throughout his account of his travels through Greece, Kazantzakis was intrigued by the the substance of people’s conversations while they sipped coffee. Not even “sipped,” but often his subjects would order a coffee, a couple glasses of water, and converse; the sipping of coffee is rarely mentioned in his narrative. The Greeks of the Peloponnesos, awaiting news from Athens, debated politics and the economy; they spoke of struggle, of resistance, of bleak hope. Coffee was the perfect vehicle to deliver such conversations. In the midst of political chaos and uncertainty, the “kafeneion” served as the vehicle of mutual gatherings – whether or not the coffee was consumed was secondary. And the Greeks seemed fond of their glass of cold water with their coffee; reason not elaborated by the author, but indeed for some purpose. Coffee, water and cigarettes, inseparable trio for conversation, at least for the Greeks.
Coffee’s sense of place, and its vehicular role of delivering conversation, does not always lack a rising truth: the quality of the coffee. One speaks of paying for the coffee shop ambiance, the seat and the lights, a gathering place of political discourse. But now more than ever, the “taste” of the coffee itself has a sense of “place.”
The cold-brewed coffee transforms one’s perception of the standard morning buzz or after meal coffee; the art of “culinary coffee” should be increasingly appreciated. La Colombe Torrefaction, a personal favorite, steeps its dark Corsica blend for sixteen hours in stainless steel wine tanks, resulting in its Pure Black creation with an ultimate clean and crisp coffee. Its subtle cocoa tones rest profoundly on one’s tongue – throughout the meal, and specifically with red meat. Coffee and meat, lamb chops or a bone-in rib eye for instance, are excellent partners in crime. The natural sweetness in cold-brew coffee sublimely tosses around the iron and fat in a bloody steak. A few swings of the steak knife and a chug of coffee transports one’s senses to Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, wherever the coffee beans have been grown and hand-picked.
Culinary coffee allows a profound shift in the “place” of coffee. No longer limited to the dabang, the Starbucks, or kafeneion, coffee now roams freely from table to table, across cuisines, to be enjoyed in conjunction with a culture’s specialty dish or mom’s home cooking. Coffee’s notes and flavors are vast and numerous like the Greek gods, each with a variant fury. Matching a bottle of some French wine with a Chilean sea bass (which is, by the way, endangered) drenched in truffle oil should now be as ancient and antiquated like the ruins of Corinth. Culinary matching now breathes in the fresh wisp of fresh-ground coffee or a “cold one” from steel wine tanks. The vast bean varieties from growing regions all across the globe presents an unexplored “black ocean” within the art of food.
Some say we are what we eat. One must add that we are what we drink, where we drink, and to what purpose we drink to. Coffee signifies place. Valuation shall not be shortchanged only by the beans’ price tag, or with the real estate associated with the chair one sits in to enjoy such coffee. True valuation, like good coffee, shifts – from table to counter top to cafes and the streets. Where we drink will always add value. With whom we drink always adds conversation, with its own scale of values. What we drink (region, bean, roast, brewing method) levitates our coffee experience beyond our physical presence and transports coffee’s sense of place to unseen and unknown plateaus. In all aspects, coffee is the medium in which one finds common ground where none previously existed, orating stories of people and their places, echoing those efforts of Homer himself.
Expectancy adds minimal value to our travels. Setting out, on a journey for a day, or two, or days on end, expecting the expected is nothing beyond our norm, our due course; comfort, as some may call it. Comfort is the public enemy of a truly memorable trip. Expecting the expected, and cajoling one’s body and mind through the expected events and circumstances when the expected appears and executes itself; comfortable as it may be, it’s leagues away from memorability.
We remember glimpses of our travels through the unexpected. The virtually unknown crab shack (hideously delicious) discovered amidst pure desperation, an unannounced downpour that led to a scurry into a previously hidden vintage shop, road construction and its consequential detour, birthing explosive panoramas of cypresses, pines and willows.
Resting on the southern shores of the peninsula, Busan’s warmth and radiant beaches rarely hint of snow showers. Even in the winter months, when Seoul and its surrounding regions shiver and solidify like chocolate mousse in a blast freezer (minus seventeen degrees Celsius recently), Busan generally sports a gentle southern breeze, its temperatures never threatening or malicious.
After a two-day gastronomic galore, dark clouds swarmed in like horizontal pillars of smoke, and the skies opened up, regurgitating white powder and clustered matter with all its might. My cognizance had never pictured Busan cloaked in white. There is something intensely bothersome about non-accumulating snow; it’s a tease, a master of the push-and-pull, showing you glimpses of purity, yet taking it back before the density of its colors are fully revealed. Exceptions exist, and when an unsuspecting mind meets a wall of white flurries, dusting the windshield, brushing hotel window panes, caressing every barren branch, accumulation is an unneeded luxury to compose the luscious silhouette created by the clouds.
Fish mongers swiftly scurried about, not with panic or urgency, but with inexplicable joy, almost childlike, at this phenomenal downpour of snow. Beaming. Tourists, huddled under canopies or behind glass walls of some multinational coffee shop chain, absorbed the site of purity falling silently, at times at a slant, at times sideways, but always silently. Beaming. A gray-haired gentleman briskly walks with a young boy of no more than five years old, appearing to be grandfather and grandson. The older man’s knit scarf comes off, and he wraps it around the neck of the younger man. Both beam excitedly.
The unexpected snow cleansed our retinas, drawing us closer to the edge of our known comforts, and ultimately unwrapped its purity. Standing, walking, sitting, beamed we did. Giddily. With monstrous snowflakes hitting the sides of our faces, we loaded our luggage one by one, not knowing what the storm would bring to Kyungju, our destination. As we made our way, I was reminded of a Busan I encountered years ago, a city and shoreline on the brink of a mild hurricane. The soot-like clouds seemed abnormally low that day, as if one could grab a chunk if one stretched out far enough. The winds were gathering speed, gusting in some instances. At first, the raindrops were scattered, not menacing at all. But then after a roar or two of a thunder’s cry, I “heard” the rain as much as I saw it; Haewoondae beach and its shallow waters magnified the chorus of raindrops falling on its surface.
Odd as it seemed, a hurricane-infested beach was incomprehensibly more attractive than a sun-infested one in mid-July. Mother Nature’s flakiness, it turns out, memorialized an otherwise uneventful trip.
“With our backs to the snowy mayhem” would be entirely inaccurate. For one, the entire drive from Busan to Kyungju was never snow-free, and secondly, “mayhem” is a relative term. True for the driver, but not so for spectators. “Through white curtains and grayish black slush,” we drove the expected two hours to the ancient Shilla capitol.
As Alain de Botton put it: “Among all the places that we go to but don’t look at properly or that leave us indifferent, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that overwhelms us and forces us to take heed. They possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty. This may not involve prettiness nor any of the obvious features that guidebooks associate with beauty spots; having recourse to the word might be just another way of saying that we like a place.” (The Art of Travel)
Kyungju is just the place. As the capital of the thousand-year Shilla dynasty, it bears the many fruits of the era’s cultural heritage; tombs, artifacts and landscapes. Not unlike Washington, DC’s National Mall and its countless museums, where flocks of students and chaperons partake in the annual summer pilgrimage, Kyungju is the most popular field trip destination for many budding academics. But as de Botton accurately observed, not many look at its fruits properly, and consequently, Shilla’s legacy rarely scratches the innermost corners of our thoughts, and too often leaves travelers indifferent.
A thousand-year history bears a heritage too rich for words. On a clear day, when the yellow and orange sun beams directly above one’s head, eyes dart from left to right, trying to encapsulate the green, the brown, the granite-gray. Too much for a pair of eyes to handle. An inherent beauty of snow lies in its ability to simplify matters, to cloak the distractions, the impurities, and leave standing only what is truly important. As I stepped out of our vehicle, and as my sneakers fell through a seven-inch white abyss only to be stopped by that friendly “squeek” of compressed snow, only two beings occupied by sight; five majestic tombs and the surrounding barren trees.
The sky and snow-covered tombs were inseparable, the whites of both bleeding into one another, their boundaries blurred and unclear. Distinguishing, with any degree of certainty, the end of earth, mound, tomb, and the beginning of sky, atmosphere, air was a daunting task. The color “white,” however, was distinguishable in shades; pale, bright, stern, mellow. This panoramic plataeu of white was disturbed only by specks of black representing far and near trees, standing as guardians of the dead, and even this disturbance was no menace at all, instead adding depth, perception and balance to the otherwise overwhelming display of the shades of white.
To borrow the words of John Ruskin, “No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”
Ruskin was lamenting the speedy haste of tourists, boasting the ability to blast through Europe in a week by train; going instead of being. Kyungju and its royal tombs would be nothing more than a few white blurs from the vantage point of a warm car. Feet sinking in inches of powder, the steam from our breath billowing in clouds of white, tasting the moist winter air – every step draws one closer to Shilla, to the story of its kings, their reign, and their long-forgotten legacies.
Closer to beauty in its absolute terms.
A family of five was busily snapping photos; father shifting left and right for the perfect angle, mother struggling mightily to harness her three boys; and the boys preoccupied with the size of their snowballs. One would hardly guess that this, indeed, is a grave site, laden with death and sorrow. Yet ironically, death, symbolized by the five hill-like tombs, resembled nothing less than pure beauty, the effects of funeral somber nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the white sheet of snow has cast a spell, suppressing whatever gloomy thought squirming to emerge from the underworld, just layers beneath our feet. But on a second thought, even in the spring and summer months, the tombs, with their lush greens resembling pastures more than burial grounds, may be deemed beautiful; even then, the tourists come and go, families pose and smile, children run about. The snow must then have another meaning.
“For a foreigner the pilgrimage to Greece is simple, it happens without any great convulsion; his mind, liberated from sentimental entanglements, leaps on to discover the essence of Greece. But for the Greek, this pilgrimage is fraught with hopes and fears, with distress and painful comparison. Never does a clear and unencumbered thought arise, never a bloodless impression. A Greek landscape does not give us – if we know how to listen and to love – an innocent tremor of beauty. The landscape has a name, it is bound up with a memory – here we were shamed, here glorified; blood or sacred statues rise up from the soil, and all at once the landscape is transformed into rich, all-encompassing History, and the Greek pilgrim’s whole spirit is thrown into confusion.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Journey to the Morea)
A pilgrim’s confusion is exemplified by layers of snow. How easy it would have been to walk besides those mounds of dirt with no thought, no inquisition; as Kazantzakis explained superbly, “without any great convulsion.” Travel with no convulsion is like locking one’s bedroom door and embarking on an epic journey from one’s couch to one’s bed, then on to the mysterious windows (This was actually done by Xavier de Maistre, written about in his Journey around My Bedroom). Beneath the snow, beneath the layers, exists fruits of history that have been muted indefinitely. For a traveler obsessed with the “speed” of travel, a journey through Kyungju, through Korea, is simple, uncomplicated; but for those who question the “innocent tremor of beauty” – the cities’ flashing night lights, the thumping music, the car-riddled roads and cloud-piercing skyscrapers – one may hear the groans of centuries of invasions, bloodshed and hunger.
A hiatus of invasion or foreign occupation was a rarity for Korean Peninsula; the various Chinese tribes from the north, the Japanese on their ships from the east. Even when Shilla conquered its rivals and built a thousand-year dynasty, blood was poured on the streets of Kyungju and elsewhere to maintain that power. After the Second World War, the peninsula was split in two, and a civil war tore through, permanently scarring the mentality of those surviving and even their unborn descendants. Financial hardship drove people to the mountains in search of food – tree barks, grass, dirt. The economy boomed like no other example in modern history, but at the cost of democracy and individual freedom; even the president at the helm of that exponential growth was gunned down. Bloodshed, pain and tears defined this peninsula, more than any of us would like to readily admit. Much of this has been drowned in “beauty,” perhaps of a misunderstood variety.
Perhaps the “snow” layering the ancient tombs of Kyungju have deeper meaning; perhaps it is a symbol of a new beginning, a cleansing of whatever impurity that lies beneath it, within the deathly mounds; an opportunity to press the refresh button. Free from the costly race that has deceived us with economic fortune, free from the corruption that has become the new norm, free from the pain-drenched conscience of every pilgrim walking the grounds. Perhaps snow is, truly, beauty, and beauty is truly possible. Cloaked in shades of white.
My gastronomic senses instinctively recognize “beauty” when they see it; the nose first detects it, the ears bring in the crowd, the sizzle, the eyes memorialize on first sight, the tongue and mouth take care of the rest. Our footrace through time amidst the snow-covered tombs was only complete with another pilgrimage to a traditional bakery infamous for its “Hwangnam bread”; a delicate dough filled with sweet bean paste, imprinted with its signature logo and baked until the very tips turn ever so crispy. Proportion and texture stands out. Each pastry is hand-molded from scratch, and the dough has surprising density, despite its incredible thinness; Chewy Chips Ahoy after they are heated for ten seconds in a microwave, but better. The sweet bean paste tastes nothing like the sugary black matter easily found in cans. Also handmade from scratch, the smooth yet lightly grainy texture perfectly matches its buttery richness (but, of course, no butter added).
Beauty, so easily found, so easily consumed. But then again, the slushy roads were no easy task to reach this harbinger of beauty, and it is doubtless that its beauty was magnified by each step we took amongst the dead kings and ever-falling snow, still visible just outside the steamy glass windows. Beauty led to beauty, all falling into its respected place, enhancing and never overwhelming.
Exotic lands and voyages across forests and rivers may reveal some layers of beauty, some value not easily discoverable in everyday life, say in one’s bedroom. But beauty’s true shades, its true colors, are closer than we often assume, at times right above us in the falling snow, right in front of us in the tombs of dead kings of bygone eras, and right beneath our feet is squeaky snow. Perhaps the first bite into a steaming Hwangnam bread is all you need to fall into an aesthetic abyss.
Some say you eat with your eyes. I say you eat with your circumstances; why limit eating to the eyes? How you got to the vendor, on what road, in what weather, who took your order, in what plate was your pastry given to you, who partook with you, did you stand or sit, coffee or tea, was there a line – all this accompanies one’s “eating.” Not at all complex, just circumstantial. The surroundings make the food, such a truth in all the gastronomic corners of Korea.
Handing one’s passport and boarding ticket to the attendant at the international departure terminal is an oft-overlooked trigger; memories of all hues and depths percolate in one’s conscious, filtered and recollected. The attendant glances at my passport photo, looks up at me, glances at the photo again, as if the photo is nothing more than an alter ego bearing no resemblance to the man thirty inches away. One last look over my shoulders, crack one last smile; one last wave goodbye, before reentering the vortex called reality.
The annoyance of removing one’s shoes and the ritual of posing within the all-seeing body scan machine shuffles one’s thoughts, not in any particular order, yet cinematographic. A mind does not remember every morsel of detail from a trip, however short or prolonged. Like an artist, it harvests only what it chooses to harvest, carefully picking the highlights of the trip’s crops; and scenes are filtered, some crisp and some fuzzy, to embed permanent sketches into the soiled walls of our conscious. Vincent van Gogh would latch unto this phenomenon in an instant, in which some colors, contours and characteristics are chosen amongst others, brought out into the fore. Yet the exaggeration still represents “reality,” and resemblance takes on a completely different subjective meaning.
Snow-covered tombs of ancient Shilla kings thumped the outer edges of my thoughts as I closed my eyes in my cramped economy seat. Beauty is majesty cloaked in white, the hurt of bygone eras caressed and blanketed by all-forgiving, forgiving and healing layers. Beauty is simplicity in design and taste, balanced under the scrutiny of all one’s senses and with its surroundings.
Travel is beauty, but only if one’s soles are willing to embrace the sound of sinking snow.