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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Cold winter winds bring about the season of fresh, raw seafood. My earliest memories of food revolve around winter, the bitter cold of January and February. In the historic Noryangjin seafood market in Seoul, fish mongers and buyers bustled about at the break of dawn. The market smelled of the ocean. When seafood is fresh, there is no fishy stench, just ocean, nothing else. The crisp air was permeated with the sea itself, as if we were walking along the docks somewhere on the peninsula’s eastern shore. Holding me by the hand, my grandfather would pick out the best flounder, snapper, sea squirts and squid. Telling me to open my mouth wide, he would toss in a sliver of glistening white flounder fillet, lightly dipped in a gochujang-based vinegary sauce (“chojang”). The fillet from a fish that was swimming just minutes ago was a taste that would determine the depth of my food philosophy for the next twenty years.

Raw squid is delightful. I’m not fond of ika nigiri sushi, for no good reason. But I was first introduced to the squirming creature, tentacles and all. Twenty or so years ago, during the winter months, the narrow streets of Seoul were littered with “squid trucks.” Yes, trucks equipped with massive water tanks filled with live squid. These trucks would slowly maneuver around the neighborhood, like patrol cars, calling out for customers through pre-recorded PR announcements. “Squid for sale, squid for sale! Fresh squid for sale!”

My grandfather, at the end of his evening strolls, would walk up to one of these trucks and buy a few squid. The driver, now transformed to master squid man, would stand above the water tank with a pole in hand, equipped with a net on one end. Plunging the net in the blue water, he would swoosh it around madly yet decisively, and when he raised the pole back into the atmosphere, so did the squid, shooting water in all directions. After subduing the squid, the squid man gutted and cleaned it, before finely slicing the flesh on his cutting board. At home, my grandfather would smother the sliced squid with an ample dose of red chojang, and chopstick loads of it happily went into our mouths. Not dry and rubbery like the ika at low end sushi joints. Firm yet delicate. Creamy, with the spicy vinegar and peppers smoldering the outer edges of the tongue. Pleasurable.

Our earliest food memories easily determine what we eat. Our capacity to try new food is decided from a very young age; the more you were exposed to a large variety of cuisines, the more you are willing and able to open your mouth to shove in that mysterious yet delicious morsel of whatever in front of you. Food memories not only determine our future eating habits, they define who we are at the most basic level. Food is communication, food is hospitality, food is thought. People say that one can travel the world in an armchair – through books. In the past few months, I have traveled the rigid Siberian tundra, the Inner Mongolian grasslands, and the busy streets of Tokyo, thanks to brilliant authors. A book is the essence of years worth of the author’s research and thoughts, a culmination I can devour in a matter of days. Food is the same. I eat, therefore I travel the world, meet people and cultures vicariously through the dishes. Food has heart, and good food not only transmits flavor, but also a serene sense of togetherness.

After Chen took out the spatula, he said, “Now I’m going to treat you to something different.” First he put in some sheep fat, then broke a couple of eggs, frying them until they were lightly cooked. Gasmai and her son got up on their knees to look into the pan. They stared wide-eyed at what they saw. Chen gave each of them one of the fried eggs, over which he sprinkled a bit of soy paste. . . . Fragrant, oily smoke filled the yurt as the six people ate until they could eat no more and laid down their chopsticks. The wildwood feasters had gone through more than half of the eggs in the bucket.

This is an excerpt from Jiang Rong’s novel “Wolf Totem.” During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, many Chinese college students, including Chen, were sent to the Olonbulag grasslands of Inner Mongolia to “educate” the nomadic herders and “cleanse” them of their old cultural norms. While the novel grapples with much larger themes than food, this scene captures a moment where food bridges a gap, a divide that goes back a thousand years. Han Chinese students and a Mongol mother and son enjoying a midday meal of fried duck eggs in a yurt.

Elders of the Mongol grassland did not eat eggs – or any poultry – for they believed the animals could fly up to Tengger, their deity. It was blasphemous to eat anything that could fly up to Tengger. But Gasmai, the young Mongol mother, and her son enjoy this delicacy, and even in the midst of cultural tension, fried eggs do their share of bringing about understanding. The grassland elders worship birds, but their children eat them with foreign students from Beijing. Odd and unbalanced from one perspective, but appropriate and inspiring from another. Gazelles, marmots, horse meat, lamb. Food is the fertile foundation of this novel, the conscious thread that weaves the seemingly unweavable characters. For Gasmai’s young son, one can only imagine the impact the fried eggs would have in his life. How will this food memory affect his life on the Olonbulag?

It’s one thing to have food memories, deep and profound or bleak and undefined. It’s another to have none. Koreans are said to have descended from Mongols. The physical resemblance is there. Newborns from both nations have pale blue spots on the outsides of their feet or hands, which eventually fade and disappear with time. They call it “Mongolian Spots.” Yet while the wealthier South overflows with food, producing millions of tons of food waste, the North starves. Especially after the great famine in the mid-1990s, entire families have vanished in hunger. Others have barely survived, eating dirt, grass, tree barks, rats, whatever they could find that wasn’t poisonous. Same roots, entirely different food memories. Actually, no food, no memories. Can’t call it “memories.”

The Kaesong Industrial Complex was meaningful for two reasons. First, it was a political success (debatable), a sign that both sides could peacefully do something positive. Second, it was an economic success (also debatable), not only for the corporations involved, but also for the workers themselves. There has been heated debate regarding the working conditions and labor rights within the KIC, but many (understandably) say that working there is infinitely better than working elsewhere, say, the coal mines in the mountains in the northeast, or not working at all. To date, about 120 South Korean companies had hired more than 53,000 North Korean workers. That’s a paying job for 53,000 families with a liveable wage. Unfortunately, the KIC recently fell victim to the escalated tension between the North and South; the complex was shut down completely, and the factories and their workers were vacated until further notice. No more paying jobs, no more food.

A hidden victim of this situation is the “choco pie.” A nationally loved treat in South Korea since the 1970s, the choco pie (short for chocolate pie, but more like a cake) is a three-tiered cake with a layer of marshmallow in the middle, the whole thing coated in milk chocolate. May not sound sexy, but try it and be amazed. When the KIC was in full operation, carts of choco pie were specially manufactured and supplied there, as snacks for the workers. Because cash bonuses were not allowed in the complex (considered too capitalist), instant ramen, coffee and other treats were rewards for hard work. But the choco pie was by far the most popular, and each worker usually received three or four a day. Having seen nothing like this, many workers would save the snacks and take them back home, to disperse to family and friends, or to sell them on the black market. The Guardian reported in this article that the choco pies were sold at three or four times their original price.

So the streets of Pyongyang were flooded with chocolate-covered cake. They achieved “legendary status” not for its taste, but as a symbol of South Korean wealth. It wasn’t food flooding the streets, it was democracy raiding Pyongyang and the bellies of its residents. Along with choco pie, fashion, music, literature, movies – freedom itself – is seeping into the young people’s psyche. Skinny jeans? Risky but yes, that too. A psychological struggle has been brewing in the minds of the North Koreans for some time, the brainwashing propaganda clashing with the influx of news and materials from abroad. How could the South, the mortal enemy, thrive to make snacks like choco pie? Those capitalist pigs, how could they enjoy such prosperity when we were taught that our great leaders have built the strongest nation on earth?

The rising tensions between the North and South meant a roadblock for choco pie. Crates of this stuff now sit in warehouses, unable to make their way into the complex, into the North. These batches were specially manufactured for the complex, and thus cannot be resold in the South or elsewhere; to lower production costs, the KIC-specific chocopie weigh three grams less than others. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation birthed by a 63 year-old conflict. The flood of food culture has come to a screeching halt. Somewhere in the black markets of Pyongyang and its suburbs, dealers are probably hustling for the highest price of what remains, but with the KIC shut down, a symbol of change now sits in moldy warehouses, lost. A veteran snack that has lost most of its popularity in the South is chocolate gold in the North, nuggets of democracy floating around from market to market, pocket to pocket. What a moment it would be to witness a famished child tearing open the wrapper of his first choco pie. Glee, confusion, pleasure, guilt.

Between two nations that fought an angered, blood-thirsty civil war, a simple chocolate cake spread a small token of love throughout the famished North. Food is powerful. Twitter fueled the Arab Spring, bringing a sea of unheralded change and democracy to the region. Great, but Twitter is useless in a country where its populous has no internet, let alone wireless connection. Before tweets and hashtags, people will remember the choco pie. It’s silly to equate a snack to the North Korean equivalent of the Arab Spring, but do not underestimate the power of chocolate.

Food is powerful. It “tweets” with no internet connection, it speaks. The manufacturers factories in the South, the trucks filled with crates of choco pie, the KIC workers’ pockets and bags, the streets of Pyongyang and elsewhere. A chocolate wall blocks the 38th Parallel for now, but when the flood resumes, the choco pie will be remembered as a pioneer in the crumbling of the North Korean regime, of the inevitable shouts of freedom.

The lost generation of the North now has food memory. And it’s covered in chocolate.

I envy doctors.

Not their paychecks (okay maybe a little), not their social status (what status?). I envy them because their profession requires them to partake in life at its most essential core, its bare naked truth; at the very crossroad of life and death. Observing death, or one’s miraculous escape from it, has a certain effect (or depending on how you look at it, a certain toll) on one’s life and thoughts. Life, stripped of all temporary badges, removed from all foam and bubbles, comes down to your health. At the root of everyone’s lives and concerns, health, and consequently death, is center stage. Observance of the body’s inherent weakness and vulnerabilities, often leading to tragic ends, humbles you like no other, constantly reminding you of what it means to “live.” Oddly enough, death illuminates life.

The life of an average lawyer is often monotonous. Contrary to public belief, not every lawyer enjoys courtroom thrills every other day like the JAG guys in “A Few Good Men.” Litigators, like me, spend most of our time buried in paper. This past week, in which a filing of thousands of pages was due, all I remember are Excel spreadsheets, corporate documents in PDFs, standing in front of the massive copier, feeding the copier, more spreadsheets, more PDFs, cursing at the copier, and walking to and from the copier. And the scanner with an unusual appetite to devour every other page, making that terrifying hissing sound as the sheet is violently crinkled and deformed. Like a pure, white lamb being devoured by a gray wolf.

Sure, this work was also for the public good (I try to console myself), as a victorious case will save this corporation millions of dollars, keeping it in business and providing paychecks for its employees. Yet in this statically hectic life of an average lawyer, “life” is so often forgotten. Working for corporations with no “face” makes it very difficult to measure the impact of one’s worth; dollar signs, while critical on the balance sheets of the business, do little to gauge meaningful “personal” impact on individual lives. Mindlessly muttering in front of the copier and computer monitor does not help, either.

Living in this gray area called “associate attorney,” I am sometimes jolted awake with utterly unreasonable tragedy.

A family of six was just beginning to revel in their new life in Phnom Penh. The parents were both missionaries from Korea, and were sent to the bustling city to study the language and culture of Cambodians, all in preparation of eventual missionary work. The young children – eleven, nine, seven and three years old – were grasping the language like dry sponges, slowly becoming accustomed to the suffocating heat, the very fragrant (but very different) food, the people, and streets, everything. As the parents began laying the ground works of their mission works, brainstorming and networking, the children also began building their imaginary fortresses – of new friends and classmates.

Traveling in Southeast Asia is fundamentally different from living there. No matter how long the duration, be it a weekend trip or an extended six-month stay, travel is travel. Knowing that your roots are not permanent, that you have the will and ability to pack your bags, book the next flight and get out of there offers a sense of freedom or outlet that calms the nerves. Leaving the comfort of your home country to set new roots in Cambodia – with four young children – takes guts. No amount of planning seems adequate, and suddenly, sacrifice takes on a whole new meaning.

Yet this family of six made it through the first three years. Chatting up the locals and making friends was easier, thanks to all the language training. The food – the food! – was beautiful, vibrant. When the announcement came that their missionary site had been finalized (Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia), the excitement in the household was palpable. The thought and process of moving again was daunting, but years of preparation had finally come to fruition. As they packed their limited belongings, thoughts of their new life and work in Siem Reap reeled through their minds, a distant land full of new people, new schools, new food. Change, they now realized, was a blessing in disguise, now an essential fuel for this young family.

Sometime in the early morning. The last of the boxes were stuffed into the back of the weathered SUV. Teary goodbyes were exchanges, as other missionaries and friends gathered around to send the family off. But no one was truly downhearted, for they had made plans to visit sometime in the near future. They promised to call when they arrived in Siem Reap, and to send pictures. A fellow missionary took a photo of the family in their SUV, and after the family had left, emailed the photo with the message, “Sending this now, but you’ll see it when you get there.” All of this took place before 10:00 am.

The missionary friend who had taken the photo (and who had also helped with the packing the past few days) went about his usual routine, taking language courses, making contacts. Ready to go to bed, he received a phone call later that night around 10:00 pm. “There was an accident. The SUV carrying the missionary’s family hit an oncoming tour bus head on.” His mind blanked. His knees buckled, and he grabbed a chair for balance. He could not believe what he was hearing. The family was passing through the Kampong Thom region. Both parents and the two middle children were killed on impact. The oldest daughter and the three year-old survived, but the oldest suffered massive brain damage, several compound fractures, and lost an arm. The youngest was in a coma. Ten Taiwanese tourists on the bus were also killed. Still unable to digest the news, the missionary rushed to the hospital, where the four lifeless bodies arrived around one in the morning.

I am told that the grieving mother of the dead missionary just boarded a plane from Korea to witness first-hand what had just happened to her beloved son and his family.

Why.

Why do things like this happen, even to the best of us. Why now, when their new mission work was just about to bloom. Why the kids, still so young, full of life. The surviving children, what about them, what about their lives. What about the old, grieving mother; what are you supposed to say to her.

Why.

There is simply no answer. Reason only goes so far. Logical explanations are often rendered meaningless. No words of comfort are good enough – they’re simply not good enough. Grief, anger, confusion. Nothing satiates what life sometimes regurgitates. It does not care about your circumstances, and it could care less about how you deal with it in the aftermath of tragic loss.

In the wake of things, as I continue to go about my work as a lawyer, swearing at the copier and cursing Bill Gates and his damned Excel, I am once again reminded that life has a purpose. No level of comfort will do, and no cry for an adequate explanation (why?) will satiate the thirst. But a belief that everything happens for a reason, and that every life in every path has a purpose mends at least a portion of torn hearts. The enlightenment that someone’s purpose may be realized through death is still hard to swallow. That “why” question.

So much suffering, so much injustice. As another tragedy is permanently etched in my mind, this average lawyer continues to ponder about the purpose of life.

May the victims rest in peace…

A few months ago, when Jodi of Legal Nomads asked me to take part in an interview for her “Thrillable Hours” series, I was excited yet worried at the same time. Unlike many other interviewees for that series, I had not turned my back on the law, I had not packed my bags to travel the world, and I did not have a unique, interview-worthy career. I was (and still am) an associate at a small law firm, living in the repeated patterns of commuting, working, commuting, eating, sleeping. I did not attend a top law school, and I certainly did not finish in the top of my class. Nothing special. What the hell was I going to talk about?

I was telling people that the gist of my interview was this: stop being an asshole and you’ll start having fun. That point still remains true. Upon reading through the interview again, however, I realized that a common thread was much broader and “brighter”: it was creativity. What I didn’t have was the Ivy League diploma, the credentials, the experience, the connections, the ability to travel the world. What I did have, and what I was really struggling to get out through the interview, was to show an average lawyer’s desperate clawing to live a creative life, to lay in bed at night and honestly say I created something today that I am really proud of. What I did have was this blog, started from humble beginnings (still is), but slowly growing to 500 subscribed readers. What I did have was a developing writing gig with an online magazine headed by former editors of world class publications (why the hell would those guys work with me?). What I did have was the urge to think beyond my daily lawyer parameters, to leave something lasting that is more than legal memos and motions. What I did have was a new found ability – and willingness – to stop and to think, not only with the logical left brain, but with the entirety of my being. Creating.

A headache created by the left brain is often cured by igniting the right brain. We were born to create, and therefore, we experience the purest quality of satisfaction and happiness when we are creating. Sadly, some occupations were not created to create, consuming even our non-working hours with work-related thoughts and worries, a never-ending noose slowly suffocating our creative capacities without any tangible alarm system to trigger our senses. Take lawyers for example. By nature, lawyers are destructive. To be successful, we must be (particularly litigators). Whether you practice before county judges or federal agencies, lawyering is warfare; if you don’t strike first, if you don’t strike accurately and with force, if you don’t contemplate your opponent’s every move two, three, four steps in advanced, you die. There is partial truth in that even we lawyers create. Yes, we come up with legal arguments, draft pieces of writing, practice the art of persuasion before judges and juries. But the ultimate goal of such creation is, ironically, to destroy. Someone must lose for you to win that verdict, that settlement, that zero percent dumping margin. The tool of our craft, our weapon, is principally the left brain and the logic it supplies. We strain the brain for every ounce. This is the prime culprit behind lawyers’ unhappiness and destruction. With every successful memo, with every persuasive brief, with every jaw-dropping argument, we may win motions, we may win cases, we may achieve acclaim, money and success. But as most lawyers would agree, behind those wins lurks emptiness. Uncontrollable emptiness. Human beings (yes, lawyers are people too) were meant to create lasting value for the enjoyment of the entire flock, and when we fail to do so, we are miserable.

This is why I write. Commuting on the metro, walking the sidewalks of DC, I take notes of every morsel of thought that jabs my thought. Every time I scribble something in my Moleskin, every time I sit in front of that keyboard to pound at something, that is when I feel like I am truly creating lasting value, something worth pouring time into, something that will live on long after the breath at the tip of my nostrils ceases. That is when I feel alive. That is when my right brain, and for that matter, my entire being, is moving. No, I am not a professional writer. No, I was not a journalism major. No, I am not actively seeking to become a professional writer or a journalist. Regardless of one’s profession, we are all writers on many levels. Historians say humanity, and culture, was born when people started drawing and scribbling things inside caves. Writing need not be so technical; simply put, it is a form of expression. Every breathing being yearns to express itself, though some are more talented at doing so than others. I am a human being who expresses himself through writing – this is a natural, very average, phenomenon everyone should strive for. The form of expression varies. Some write music and perform, some paint, some act. Though different in form, all methods have this in common: they make you stop and “think.”

To live creatively, one should practice two principles.

First, be observant. Two people see the same object, experience the same environment and observe the same happenings. The non-creative person easily walks by, nonchalantly, thinking “this is the same lilac from yesterday, this is the same street, the same protests.” In other words, the non-creative person does not give a shit. On the other hand, the creative person, having taken in the same things, “cares” and does give a shit. He stops, observes, and more importantly, asks “why” or “how come.” I once read somewhere of a training technique for fiction writers. They would sit around in a cafe, facing the street and looking through the window. Taking turns, they pick out a random person, and knowing absolutely nothing about that person, they would devise her life story – where is she from, where is she going, why is she going there, who is she meeting, and on and on. This exercise is perfect for fiction writers who need to develop characters and prose. It’s also a great example of what daily creativity requires. It requires observant storytelling. It requires you to look at something, someone, and think beyond the mere given, beyond the facts. What you see with your eyes is the bare minimum; you have to imagine beyond that to tell the hidden story. Creativity is storytelling, and all stories are built upon patient observance.

Second, become a generalist. Study and absorb as many areas of knowledge as you can. Throughout the industrial era, and even as recently as the 1990s, many “successful” people were highly specialized professionals, the cream of the crop in their fields, sharp as a sushi chef’s knife. They drilled a singular well, and they drilled deep, not wavering, not looking to their left or right. So what you end up with are physicists, lawyers, doctors and PhDs of all kinds. For drilling that one well, for drilling it deep and sturdy, you were compensated. People paid you for your professional knowledge and experience. In other words, people receiving your services could care less about whether you played in a garage band on Sundays or whether you secretly baked macaroons as a hobby. You’re a doctor, I’m paying you to remove my appendix, do your damn job and remove my appendix, no more, no less. To be clear, if you’re a general surgeon, and if your job is to remove the patient’s appendix, you better be qualified to do the job, and you better do a damn good job. In terms of living a creative life, however, just doing your job is no longer good enough. Rather than becoming a specialist – studying one thing, doing one thing, and living completely immersed in only one thing – become a generalist. Be the doctor who can discuss economic policy with other economists. Be the mad physicist who can discuss Manet with the art student. Be the lawyer who can discuss the ancient art of Edo-style sushi with the chef from Japan. Creativity in this century will come from a wide net of individuals, all contributing (and deeply understanding) one’s intellectual gifts. All areas are interrelated. Sorry, but you can no longer give the science guys the finger. The web of knowledge is what creates true value that lead to lasting change in people’s lives. To join this web, one must meet others dwelling in other professions, widen one’s reading capacity and crack open one’s intellectual curiosity.

Whether it’s literature, music, economics or engineering, regardless of professional area, the creative being – the satisfied and happy being – is one that constantly seeks new ground, sees what others do not see or simply pass by, and stops to create something that adds value to humanity. The artsy people do not own the copyright to the word “creativity.” This transcends occupations or personality. We are all wired to live creatively. Not creating will inevitably lead to bitter depression and hatred. Live according to your wiring. Stop and observe something, and think. Meet new people and read about the last think you thought you’d ever read about. Ignite your being in its entirety, and live happily ever after.

My earliest memory of a neighborhood butcher shop has everything to do with pinkish neon light. No, not outside the shop, as if pork shoulders were going fast in a red light district. All but forgotten now, Korean neighborhoods were once home to many mom-and-pop butcher shops, only to be swallowed whole – slowly and painfully – by conglomerate-owned chain stores and massive supermarkets.

Upon entering these small shops, one was always greeted by a pinkish hue, a glow. No escaping it. For whatever reason, the lighting in the meat display was always that color. Not yellow, green, or lavender. Pinkish. So most common folk in Korea, my generation or older, all have fond memories of pinkish neon meat display lights, along with the distinct smell of fresh meat permeating every cubic inch of whatever tight space one stepped into. These butcheries mainly sold beef and pork; plump beef ribs, thinly sliced sirloin, pork belly, pork shoulder. Back in those days, “aging” meat was not popular in Korea. Freshness was the principally sought after quality in any cut.

That meant no 75-day dry-aged bone-in rib eye. That meant no handmade pâté. That meant no half-smoke, no salami, no fat-marbled burgers. But alas, of course none of these existed in the butcher shops of my memory. There was no Red Apron Butchery. I’ve got a new neighborhood butcher now, and there is no room for jacking around with this one. Meat, straightforward meat. Pinkish hues are nowhere to be found, but after a few visits, Red Apron is building up a niche in my gastronomic psyche already.

Red Apron is a temple for cured, smoked, stuffed, aged meat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more impressive display of these things in one gathering. Not quantity, but quality. Everything looks as if they were handmade. Time was taken to carefully set those pâtés, to stuff and smoke those sausages, to cure that salami, to age those steaks. An assortment so mind boggling that I had to pry myself away from its gravitational pull. A powerful vortex of meat, lurking beneath the surface with suction cups as beautifully lethal as those of the Kraken itself. My lust will not be satisfied until I have sampled every morsel offered, an admirable feat worth struggling for.

Just steps beyond the display, in an open kitchen, two cooks were busily grilling, busily assembling, busily frying. In addition to all the meat porn, Red Apron serves up a burger, sandwich and hot dog menu with the potential to reach legendary renown even against the most revered of delis and burger joints. To date, I’ve tried: the porkstrami sandwich, the Cubano sandwich, the meatball sandwich, and of course, the classic cheeseburger. Of these four, the porkstrami was most unique, a definite head turner, a potential question mark. Slices of roasted pork emulating the flavorful, peppery bursts of brisket. Sauerkraut on top of that. The end creation is the best of both worlds; a distinct pork flavor with that pepper-cured kick you yearn for from pastrami. Two dichotomies clash in a bun, under a bed of pickled cabbage. And all for the better.

The more classic the recipe, the harder it is to execute it to perfection. The more common the taste, the harder it is to make a bold statement with it. The giants of meat, the temples of smoked curedom, they all master the most basic of all calling – the classic burger. Red Apron, all innovation aside, does just that. Of the four creations I’ve tried (admittedly, I have ways to go before making a full circle on the menu), the cheeseburger and accompanying fries were the best, simply sublime. Nothing fancy, nothing hipster, nothing too Brooklyn. Toasted buns, lettuce, tomato, American cheese, and a hand-crafted patty cooked to a perfect, bleeding medium. The ground beef actually has flavor, increasingly a rarity even among so-called “gourmet” burger chains. Only choice cuts are used, and with the use of trustworthy, pure meat comes the privilege of enjoying pink patties. Almost tears of joy. And the fries are fried in beef fat. Need not say more. If you’re not frying the frites in peanut oil, the only other options should be either duck fat or beef fat. Red Apron throws in whole garlic cloves and rosemary into the fryer. Crisp, fragrant, deep. Bold and straightforward, just like their burger.

It’s a joy to be around a no-bullshit butcher.

“Justo moves his hand up the filet in a literal flurry of movement; with each bone that comes out, he taps the pliers on the cutting board to release it, then, never stopping, in one continuous motion, repeats repeats repeats. It sounds like a quick, double-time snare drum beat, a staccato tap tap tap tap tap tap, and then . . . done. A pause of a few seconds as he begins another side of fish. I can barely see his hand move.”

Anthony Bourdain dedicated an entire chapter of “Medium Raw” to Le Bernardin’s Justo Thomas, the now-almost-legend-like fish butcher carrying out the masterful salmon fillet job described in the excerpt above.

Northern Virginia has no Le Bernardin. But the Super H-Mart in Fairfax, VA, has some of the freshest seafood you will find anywhere. Cod, salmon, flounder, catfish, carp, mackerel, hairtail, and more varieties of shellfish than I can recall. Oh, live blue crab and even live crayfish, occasionally. At the fish section’s epicenter is Heradio, master fish butcher. With skills that rival even the most seasoned sushi chefs, hand him a live flounder and he will have it gutted, cleaned, filleted, sliced, and in your mouth before you can say Eric Ripert.

Heradio, the fish butcher.

Heradio2

Today I am starting a new feature series on i am not a lawyer.

Portraits of Cooks” will be a series of photos of the men and women who do the real cooking behind kitchen doors – the cooks. The “star chef” conundrum has proven to be phenomenally profitable for many, including the Food Network and its posse. In the midst of all the Bobby Flays and Paula Deans, however, the faces of the people who actually prepare most of the food we eat at restaurants – the line cooks that tirelessly wash, chop, fry, stir and grill – are lost. The star chefs get all the acclaim and fame; this series will pay due regard to the owners of the calloused and burnt hands that too often remain unrecognized. This series connects food to face.

Whether I’m dining out in my favorite joints or discovering new spots, getting to know the cooks has been invaluable. Not only do you learn firsthand about the restaurant and the food, you build a deeper understanding of the restaurant industry and of the people who comprise it. Understanding the people behind the food is the first step in truly understanding food itself.

Meet our first cook, Jose Ventura of Famous Luigi’s Pizza. One of the oldest pizza joints in downtown DC, Luigi’s pizzas are made fresh and baked to perfection, never shy on the cheese. The handmade dough is actually the best part of their pies, thanks to Jose and his crew.

JoseVentura-Luigi

According to author Oliver Bullough, in his book The Last Man in Russia, the country is “dying from within.” The culprit? Massive quantities of vodka. Toxic levels of alcohol abuse coupled with alarmingly low birth rates are eating away at the Russian population – a bastard child of the long Soviet totalitarian rule. By following the life of an Orthodox priest, the book illuminates the multifaceted cause that has ruined more than a few livers; lives ruined, generations lost, and hope hard to find. The beloved national drink has become an outright epidemic.

With the book’s last words still lingering in my thoughts, I read of yet another epidemic. Thousands of miles south of Moscow and the northern gulag sites of Inta, this epidemic is ravishing a nation regardless of generation, is extremely contagious, and has no apparent cure. While Russia suffers from “chronic alcoholism,” Korea suffers from “chronic depression,” and its people are leaping to their death, literally. Dying from within. Suicide is a leading cause of death in Korea, with tens of thousands of people annually taking their own lives, usually by leaping, hanging, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Chronic depression has taken a firm hold on the populace. It does not always show up in stat sheets or in the evening news, but silently, it is draining the lifeblood from the heart of this country. What is causing this epidemic? In the last few decades, Korea has experienced unprecedented economic growth, with a GDP of about $1.16 trillion in 2012, compared to an economy of about $250 billion in 1990. Skyscrapers scorch the sky all throughout Seoul, Busan and other major metropolitan areas. The country played host to the Summer Olympics of 1988, the World Cup in 2002, and will host the Winter Olympics in 2014. On more than one occasion, President Obama has praised Korea’s math and science educational curriculum, urging U.S. educators and policy makers to benchmark the academic feats. Samsung, LG and other global corporations were all birthed here. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” racked up a record number of views on YouTube and has rocked radio stations all over. So then, what the epidemic?

Suicide. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) defines it as “an act deliberately initiated and performed by a person in the full knowledge or expectation of its fatal outcome.” It is also important to note that data and figures on suicide rates are only based on official registers of causes of death, meaning many suicide deaths are unreported and unaccounted for. According to the OECD Factbook 2013, suicide rates have decreased in many countries since 1990, with declines of 40% or more in Denmark, Hungary, Finland and others. On the other hand, for Korea, the rates for males have more than doubled: from 19 suicides per 100,000 people in 1995 to 50 per 100,000 in 2010. Also alarmingly, the rates for women are the highest among OECD countries, at 21 per 100,000. Age is no barrier to suicide deaths in Korea. According to the WHO, suicide is the leading cause of death in Korean youths, defined as those aged 15 to 24. Strikingly, youth suicide rates have risen sharply during a three-year span from 2006 to 2009, from around 9 per 100,000 in 2009 to around 15 per 100,000 in 2009. At this rate, with its youth population falling helplessly to suicide, Korea’s future is bleak at best. This is beyond a few news clips. This is a disease, an epidemic, a public health catastrophe.

From both official research data and an uncle of mine, a psychiatrist in Seoul, it is apparent that a rise in depression levels is directly correlated to the rise in suicide rates in Korea in recent years. During the same span of years when male rates doubled and female rates reached OECD records, the number of persons treated for depression and bipolar disease also rose drastically, with increases of 17 per cent for depression and 29 per cent for bipolar disease, all within a mere five years from 2006 to 2010. Studies point to many factors that contributed to the rise in psychological disorders and suicide, namely economic downturn, weakening social integration and the erosion of the traditional family support base for the elderly. And not surprisingly, those in low socioeconomic groups were much more likely to be affected. Government initiatives, both at the federal and local levels, have had minimal impact, and early detection and treatment of depression have not been effective. Fueling this stark increase in Korea’s chronic depression is the largely underwritten social stigma of receiving therapy or psychiatric care. Compared to other Western OECD countries, where reaching out for such help is more common and socially acceptable (encouraged even, to some extent), in Korea, one risks being labeled as “crazy” or “psychotic” by visiting professionals to seek help in the early stages of depression and other disorders. Ironic, as the primary reason in seeking help is to treat such “craziness,” and yet that label is the very reason many victims are hesitant to proactively seek treatment. The whispers, the gossip, the glares and stares. In their 2008 paper titled “South Korea” (included in Paul S.F. Yip’s “Suicide in Asia: Causes and Prevention”), renowned researchers B.C. Ben Park and David Lester write that Korea’s cultural belief that suicide is an individual problem makes it difficult to secure funding for medical and educational programs aimed at reducing suicide. Depression is silently killing of a nation, and its people may be silently fueling it.

Discussing statistics is easy. Analyzing numbers and debating psychology is easy. What’s missing is connecting each statistic to a face, to a story. Every hanging, every poisoning, every leaping has a person behind it, a story that needs to be known and discussed. Talking of suicide in the third person helps nobody. As long as we remain distanced to the root cause of mass suicide, as long as we maintain our comfort zones, this wound will never heal. The mask needs to come off, the numbers need to pushed aside. In an attempt to partially reveal the monster behind these attacks, the victims’ stories need to be told. Who are they? What kind of lives did they live? In what circumstances? Will this lead to a cure? Certainly not. But in illuminating each death, others’ lives, and even their deaths, become “my” life and “my” death. Such personalization is vital to empathizing with others, a characteristic widely missing in Korea (and elsewhere). Therapy helps. Pills help too. But what really helps is one outstretched hand. A few caring words, words of encouragement and support. One set of watchful eyes. As a small gesture towards such enlightenment, here are their stories.

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Three female teenagers, classmates at a nearby high school, make their way up to the nineteenth floor rooftop of a highrise apartment building. It’s 9:50 pm, and they are holding chips and soda in plastic bags. There are two male friends as well, smoking cigarettes, chatting. When the last of the cigarette butts hit the deck, the boys they leave, and the girls’ conversation turns to life, in a bad way. They had been friends since entering high school together, finding solace and a common bond in the fact that all three of them were brought up in single-parent households. One of them had recently moved from a neighboring province had was living with an uncle, her parents no longer a part of her life after their divorce. A second friend was brought up by her grandmother after her parents’ divorce when she was still a toddler. Since April, they were heard saying that, if they ever found a “suicide mate,” they would be willing to take the plunge of death. These comments were taken likely as jokes, and other repeated signs of severe depression and suicidal impulses were untreated, or unnoticed altogether. Shuddering at the thought of their parents’ divorce and families depleted of love and support, the three quickly agree to kill themselves, at once. They are more than prepared, as they take out green construction tape to tie their wrists together before leaping from the nineteenth floor. The thick tape is noisily drawn out, latching onto the slender wrists over and over again, as the ancient Egyptian pharaohs were once mummified. One friend, taken over with a fear of death, desperately tries to convince the others to back out. Her pleas are meaningless. The two, already bound as one, literally and metaphorically, do not budge. A mental tug-of-war ensues for the next sixty minutes, a struggle between life and death, between the sudden impulse of suicide and a friend’s plea for life. Convinced that her friends’ determination is unwavering, the third girl rushes down to get help from the apartment security guard. As she pounds the elevator buttons in search of help, the other two slams the rooftop door shut, locking it from the outside. After a frantic search, the security guard is found, but by the time the third friend was on her way up the top floor, the two others plunge forward. They are found in the apartment complex garden, wrists tied together with green tape.

Every November, a pitch-black shadow looms over Korea, as if the Angel of Death himself is swooping through the city streets. It’s not even 8:00 am, yet dull-faced high school seniors, sporting their respective school uniforms, march through the schools’ front gates. Some parents and loved ones waive goodbye, kisses are exchanged, some wipe tears. Some swiftly turn around, as if staring at the backs of test-takers magically casts a spell of bad luck. As the cold autumn winds whip the students’ faces, the day of the college entrance exam has arrived. Unlike the SATs in the U.S., or other standardized tests, the Korean entrance exam is administered only once a year. Practically, all three years of high school are spent preparing for it. In addition to standard coursework at school, most students take out-of-class tutorial sessions that often last well past midnight each day. It’s no exaggeration that college acceptance is almost purely depended on one’s score on the exam, and given Korea’s bleak employment opportunities for young graduates, the test takers’ expressions on that chilly morning are nothing less than sheep being dragged to the slaughterhouse. Three years of your life on the line, your foreseeable future on the line, your parents’ expectations on the line, the weight of the world squarely on your shoulders. For one exam. Pressure, at its peak. Test takers A, B and C all walked into this exam in the fall of 2012, in their respective cities of Dangjin, Busan and Daegu. For A, age 18, it was his second time taking the exam. After a sub-par score the year before, he was accepted into a mediocre university, but opted to re-take the exam to transfer schools. A spent the better part of the ensuing year preparing for it. Around 7:30 pm on the day of the exam, his mother found him hanging by the neck on a rope. He had suffered from depression-like symptoms all throughout the preparation process. For B, age 19, it was also his second time taking the exam (this one-test-a-year thing is clearly not working). Almost two months after taking the exam, B took off, telling his family that he needs some time to digest and dispose what had just happened days before; the exam results were out. Late at night on December 29, B rented a motel room near the renown Haewoondae Beach, ripped open a small bag of ignition coal, lit it on fire, and laid down on the bed. When room service found him the next morning, he was already a corpse, dead from suffocation, the pile of coal now flameless, burnt, and lifeless like the deceased. For C, this was his third time taking the exam. Actually, he never took the exam the third time. The night before, under tremendous pressure to perform well, he had jumped off the balcony of his high-rise apartment. Third time is never the charm. One test, three suicides. In fact, there were countless more, documented and undocumented.

Like any other day, Ms. Kim, age 47, a wife and mother, went to work at a Lotte Department Store in Seoul. For the past few years, she had worked as a managerial salesperson for a cosmetics company with a storefront on the first floor of the main building. Smiling, she approached passersby with the newest creams and eyeshadow, making a few sales here and there. Her numbers, reflective of other cosmetic sales and the slumping economy in general, were down lately. Like any other day, she wrapped up her shift, cleaned her station. Like any other day, she also was semi-forced into cleaning the air ducts and wiping the dust off of high ledges. Unlike any other day, at 10:00 pm, Ms. Kim jumped to her death from a seventh-floor balcony of the department store. According to her family and other sources, she was enveloped by pressure to raise sales, both from her cosmetics company and Lotte. The police investigating the death initially told family members that there was reason to believe that unethical “pressurizing” from both sides played a critical part in her death. However, in the end, the investigation was cut short, ruling Ms. Kim’s death as a simple suicide, her fault and her fault only. The police department’s reasoning was that suicides, by definition, have no external cause, thus warranting no further investigation. “Our job is to determine whether the death was a suicide or homicide, no more, no less,” they were quoted as saying. Of the thirty or so fellow employees, only two were interviewed. In regards to Lotte’s exertion of pressure to raise sales, the two employees stated that it was more like “positive encouragement,” rather than a deathly grip that drove Ms. Kim to her death. Two out of thirty testified, and according to an anonymous employee at the department store, even those testimonies were probably “false” and “fabricated,” given that Lotte had full knowledge of all the participants of the investigation; one-too-many words and one’s job would have been thrown out the window. Ms. Kim’s death led to a few days of calm on the first floor, but soon after, the hawks’ eyes were glaring once more in search of Won signs, preying on their next victim.

Twenty-six year old A was a female firefighter in the city of Daejon. Around the station, she was well-regarded as bright, active and cheerful. She had recently started studying again to return to college, and even participated in a local competition to show off her “Gangnam Style” horse dance moves. A had completed a night shift the day before, and had returned by around 9:00 am. She was due back at the station by 6:00 pm for another night shift, but she failed to report. Her friends had called and texted throughout the day, and had gotten no response. Around 6:30 pm, A took the elevator in her apartment building to the twentieth floor. Leaving her pair of shoes by the staircase, she jumped off the balcony. No will of any sort was found. It was her birthday. According to her family, A’s superiors at the station had repeatedly pestered her to join their afterwork drinking binges. Mind you that these were more than mere happy hours over beer at the T.G.I.F around the corner. A was supposedly forced to comply and participate, her rejections and discomfort were of no one’s concern. The fire department acknowledged that they had one recent gathering in which A was a part of, and that some male firefighters had “jokingly” suggested they get together again in the near future. The police are continuing to question family and members of the fire department to gather additional facts. However, given the epic history of Korea’s drinking culture, its often demeaning attitude towards women, and how all of this combined implodes uncontrollably (alcohol plus rowdy Korean men plus female co-workers), one should not be surprised to find chronic abuse and sexual harassment as a leading culprit behind this case.

B was a fifteen-year old high school student in the small town of Kyungsan, adjacent to metropolitan Daegu. A few months ago, he wrote the following letter to his parents and his older sister: “Mom, I’m sorry I’m not coming home today. Say sorry to Dad and Sister for me too. I will now tell you why I’m killing myself. Police officers, I’m writing down all the hateful bullying I received at school. At this rate, there is no way you can completely prevent or stop school violence. In classrooms and in restrooms, there aren’t enough security cameras, and even if there are, there are too many blind spots. The beating usually takes place there. Lastly, I’m tearing up as I’m writing this on the top floor balcony of our apartment building. But I love you all. I’m thirsty. Sorry I’m pestering you ’til the end. Give me some water…” With that, B jumped to his death. Since middle school, B was the subject of extreme bullying, often beaten until bloodied and bruised, usually at school from fellow classmates. He had moved to a different school district to start high school, but even there, the bullying persisted, his repeated pleas to school officials and parents having no preventative effect. In recent years, after an alarming number of school violence incidents, school districts and municipal governments had installed security cameras in and around school, but apparently, these did not have full effect in preventing all beatings. Battered and bruised, this high school student sat their on the rooftop, penning his final letter, thirsty for water. He never got that glass of water.

Ulsan is a port city on the eastern seaboard of the Korean peninsula. C, an eighteen-year old high school senior, was struggling from stress related to her academic performance, or so said the school officials. She had recently taken a “emotional, behavioral characteristic exam,” which indicated a dangerously high score for various forms of depression; the school had deemed such results as “unalarming,” and C was sent to go about her life, as if everything was bright and shiny. Days later, she hanged herself. C’s parents thought otherwise. They claimed that she was ostracized as an outcast, by her own classmates. As proof, they presented an email, dated last December 31, from C to a close friend, expressing shock and dismay at the behavior of some of her other friends, the perpetrators of said “ostracization.” The email names four or five individuals that were C’s friends from middle school, and states that they had engaged in extensive gossip and fabrication of false facts to purposefully ruin her academic and social life. When confronted with this evidence, the police said it was not enough to see it as a cause of the suicide, because the email does not explicitly discuss “violence” or the fact that C was ostracized, per se. The police, in turn, quesetioned the parents’ motives, stating that the parents had never raised the issue of “school violence” in connection with their dauther’s death. To the parents’ disbelief, the police, the school, and the school district was ruling out the possibility that group ostracization was the cause of the death, simply because physical violence was never brought up. In a country where “group think” is a powerful force in every aspect of society, this young lady was driven to her death, not by a masked gunman or ravishing serial rapist, but her own classmates, her so-called “friends.” But friends don’t kill other friends, do they?

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During my last trip to Korea, I was embarking on an annual journey to the shores of Busan. I stopped in Daegu for lunch, hungrily stepping into a restaurant famous for its spicy puffer fish stew. As I stuffed my face with bean sprouts, steaming morsels of puffer fish fillet, and perfectly al dente ramen noodles, I realized that I was just miles away from the birthplace of the late president Park Jung Hee. After overthrowing the government via a military coup d’état in 1961, Park reigend the country for nineteen years. Under his dictatorship, countless human rights were ignored, and freedom of speech was all but forgotten as trite and meaningless values. Journalists and rights activists were jailed, beaten, exiled or even killed for speaking out against the government. Along with such abhorrances, the Korean economy experienced a boom it had never experienced before. After the devasting Korean War came to a “pause” in 1953, the country was still in shambles, people struggling to eat and grasp basic human needs. Park launched the “New Community Movement,” an all-comprehensive plan to revive the Korean economy through increased exports and domestic industrialization.

The plan worked. Korean industry boomed in the ensuing decades, exports grew, and chaebols were born (thanks to Park’s pro-conglomerate policies). The hard-working, working bee-like soul of the Korean’s were ignited to drive an ever-growing workforce, never taking no for an answer, raising skyscrapers and sending shipping containers all over the globe. What the Koreans did not do, however, was look back. Economic polarization was entrenched in society, and was growing like a malignant tumor, spreading. The “haves” grew fatter while the “have-nots” saw their savings dwindle. The country was unofficially divided into “Seoul” and “everywhere else.” Even within Seoul, the city was divided into the stereotypically wealthy “Gangnam” district and “everywhere else.” Inheritance of characteristics is frightful thing, as evidenced by the “haves” relentless pursuit to not only amass continual wealth and power, but also to make sure that the “have-nots'” opportunities are crushed at every opportunity, ensuring their social positions are safely maintained. This dichotomy of haves and have-nots has permeated every sector of the country; politics, business, education and health care alike. Koreans’ “extremism” had helped country get of fits feet after the war and had led to an unprecedented economic boom, but the same extremism had fueled the inner soul of many to morph into monstrous totems of selfish greed.

So what’s causing this country’s suicides? What’s feeding this deathly frenzy? Frustratingly, no one answer exists. It is a culmination of many facets of life, many dichotomies, many extremes – financial, educational, familial. What’s clear is that suicide is decimating the population, especially among students and young adults. It is concerning that suicide is viewed as an “easy” way out. The suicides of many celebrities and public figures (including former President Roh Moo-hyun, Samsung heiress Lee Yoon-hyung, singers U-Nee and Chae Dong Ha, supermodel Daul Kim, and actors Choi Jun-shil, her brother Choi Jin-young, Ahn Jae-hwan, Jeong Da-bin, Lee Eun-ju, Jang Ja-yeon, Kim Ji-hoo, Park Hye Sang, Park Yong-ha, and Jung Ayul) have often ignited the so-called “Werther Effect,” in which the suicide of a popular figure triggers a string of “copy-cat” suicides. To borrow the WHO’s definition of suicide, “an act deliberately initiated and performed by a person in the full knowledge or expectation of its fatal outcome” is not easy under any circumstance. But the Korean populace is jumping and hanging all too easily, as if the end of one life is meant to bring closure to whatever pain that caused the suicide in the first place.

Too many of us forget, however, that the end of one life never brings closure. Instead, it mercilessly rubs course salt onto an already gaping wound of raw flesh, right through the nerves and down to the bone. Their deaths remain silent. Numbers do not speak for themselves. News articles are easily forgotten and archived, dusty. The world moves on, the prideful haves continue to have, while the wounded continue their daily struggle for survival. Government is of no help. Schools do not help. Religious organizations try, but to no avail. Suicide, ultimately, is an “individual” act. Yet to combat it, more than one individual’s heroics are needed. Care is needed at the indivdual level, but the empathetic interest needs to be societal, encompassing every corner of every district, town and province. The victims are bleeding. Their families are bleeding. Their cities are bleeding. The country is bleeding. Profusely. It’s bleeding to death.

And no one seems to give a shit.

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