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.