Archive

Food

Somewhere in an alley.

That sums up the the massive yet delicious “El Gordo” burritos I’ve been devouring the last few weeks. Like a chapter out of Alice in Wonderland, the directions to this hole-in-the-wall consists of “make a right, a left, another right, and another left at the penguin sign.”

Since 1986, this 19th Street establishment has been serving up hearty daily specials – today’s slow roasted pork burrito with habañero crème and spicy coleslaw was immaculate – for the hungry, lost souls of the District.

The marinated beef is my personal favorite, and the grilled items (grilled salmon burrito anyone?) are nothing short of perfect. If you’re feeling extra famished, you may “gordo”-size your burrito, conjuring a sixteen-ounce behemoth that goes well with any one of the three house-made salsas (mild, medium, hot).

No matter the day of the week, no matter the weather, Well Dressed is packed, each patron holding onto a dear order form, eagerly awaiting their numbers to be called. Chipotle and Boloco are just blocks away, and who knows how many other burrito joints dwell within the square mile. But nothing feels more homey than Well Dressed.

Follow the penguin.

The Well Dressed Burrito
1220 19th Street NW
Washington, DC 22036
Mon – Fri 11:45 am – 2:15 pm

“When an almond tree became covered with blossoms in the heart of winter, all the trees around it began to jeer. ‘What vanity,’ they screamed, ‘what insolence! Just think, it believes it can bring spring in this way!’ The flowers of the almond tree blushed for shame. ‘Forgive me, my sisters,’ said the tree. ‘I swear I did not want to blossom, but suddenly I felt a warm springtime breeze in my heart.” (from Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis)

A lingering question for the past several weeks has been “what makes a classic, classic?” Classic music, classic art, classic design. Daft Punk is great, but will they be great twenty years from now, fifty years, a century from now. Chopin’s melodies have been time-tested, generation-proved. Go back even further. The Beethovens, the Mozarts, and the Bachs’ melodies have not gone out of fashion. In fact, with time, their music has aged beautifully. Re-mastered, re-engineered, and re-performed, these classics became classics through the pressures of time.

If music, art, and design have “classics,” then surely, cultures also have classics. Cultural classics are best portrayed through food. That classic mom’s meatloaf. That classic chicken soup. That classic cherry pie. What does it mean for a culture to lose its classic things? Losing “classicity” means a shift in values. We are what we eat. Our food culture is a reflection of who we are as a family, a neighborhood, a region, and a country. Our values are imprinted in what we eat. To quote Kazantzakis again,

“Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are. Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humor, and others, I’m told, into God.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

While Zorba speaks of what we do with what we eat, the basic premise is the same. Nothing speaks more of a culture’s values than its food.

How about that classic kimchi.

Classic kimchi, you ask, seems redundant, no? As a traditional Korean food, is it not already, by definition, a classic? I emphatically say no.

Most of the kimchi we consume is mass-produced on some factory line. Thousands of split cabbage heads shifted along moving belts, harassed by menacing gloved hands, carelessly tossed with mysterious red filling. There is nothing classic about a classic food produced in such a way. Kimchi was not always made like this. Kimchi was never meant to be some hip new thing to try at that hip new Korean barbeque joint down the street. At its core, kimchi, and the art of “gimjang,” was Korea itself. It’s about the soil. It’s about people.

In the coffee world, there is something known as the “Third Wave,” a revitalization of sorts for organically grown, meticulously processed, carefully sourced, expertly roasted, and artfully poured single-origin coffees. At the heart of this movement is knowing where your beans come from, which country, which region, which micro lot, which farmer.

The same applies to kimchi. “Third Wave Kimchi” is knowing where your cabbage came from, who grew your radishes, who processed your red chili flakes. The concept of farm to table should directly apply to any meaningful bag of kimchi you consume. Good coffee tastes of the soil it came from. Real pork tastes like, well, pork. Does your kimchi taste of the soil? Or does it taste like the metal and plastic conveyor belt of some factory?

There is beauty in mortality; its fleeting nature adds value to every second of its existence. Gimjang is vanishing. And its slow vanishment has breathed a new life into the tradition, as evidenced by UNESCO’s likely decision to list kimchi, and the making of kimchi, as an intangible world heritage. Kimchi would be Korea’s 16th item on the UNESCO list, which includes ancestral royal rites, a percussion instrument performance, and a five-thousand year old dance routine. The final decision is due in December when UNESCO’s intergovernmental committee meets in Azerbaijan.

My friends at Roads & Kingdoms recently published a masterful piece on how UNESCO will designate Japan’s washoku (traditional dining cultures of Japan) as an intangible world heritage (read the piece here). Whether an organization like the UN can save something as intangible as washoku – and gimjang – we many never know. But the significance is the UN’s recognition of a “process,” rather than the final “product.”

The world is watching. But the question is “what” it is looking for. Kimchi is kimchi. What makes this product special is the art of “gimjang,” the traditional communal event based entirely on the making of kimchi. The final product is probably UNESCO-worthy. What’s definitely UNESCO-worthy is the process of making it.

Last November, I wrote about the history of kimchi and gimjang, and its detailed, laborious process (read the piece here). If that piece served as an overview of gimjang, this piece focuses on the people behind the art, the faces of kimchi.

Microlots are not only applicable to coffee farms. Throughout the suburbs of Korea, there used to be countless microlots with cabbages, radishes, green onions, and chilies, the basics of kimchi. Around the end of October (according to the lunar calendar), households gathered together for a two-day kimchi marathon. Literally after moments of being picked from the field, the cabbage is cleaned, chopped, and bathed in ice-cold salt water. Radishes are peeled and sliced for the filling, which involves rice paste, fish sauce, and ridiculous amounts of red chili flakes. Usually, hundreds of heads of cabbage are involved, as the kimchi made on this occasion is meant to last the entire winter season.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to take part in this proceedings will tell you: the best pork in Korea is the pork you eat during gimjang. It’s a tradition within a tradition. A kimchi sampler of sorts is prepared; some raw cabbage, cabbage soaked in salt water (not quite pickled, just overnight), kimchi filling, and buttery soft pork belly boild in light dwenjang. If you’re lucky, some fresh oysters on top. This feast is enjoyed by all the helping hands – family, friends, and neighbors. The pork is, sadly, no different from any other cut of pork consumed on any other day. It’s the occasion that makes the pork special. A day’s hard work (and more work to come) with family and friends, a bustling household with barely any room to spare, knees touching, aunts yelling, porcelain clanking.

The two-day ordeal produces loads of kimchi. Everyone that helped out takes a container or two home. It’s more than earning your share. You take away a piece of that familial gratitude, communal belonging, a sense of friendly cooperation before the harsh winter hits. It’s more than food. It’s more than just kimchi. You take home a piece of gimjang. Before it vanishes for good.

Every year, the number of households conducting gimjang is diminishing. It’s too much work. More and more people are moving to Seoul and other metropolitan areas, away from the soil, away from the farm. The nearest “supermart” carries ten different types of kimchi, all nicely packaged, ready to be consumed. In defense of this vanishing phenomenon, some people actually make their own kimchi, sourcing only organic ingredients and carefully applying the hand-me-down recipes.

But home-made kimchi is not “gimjang” kimchi. Granny Choe’s kimchi may be organic, is probably made with a grandmother’s love and care, but it is not “gimjang” kimchi. It lacks the fundamental ingredient of community, of seasonality. By definition, gimjang is not an individual activity. It begins and ends with the gathering of a community. The harvest, the cleaning, the chopping, the soaking, the mixing. It all revolves around a multitude of people.

Gimjang is UNESCO-worthy because it is the last string that binds Koreans together. It’s the bait that lures the old, the young, the rich, the poor, the haves and have-nots back to the soil, back to the community, back to the table. It screams, “Come take this cabbage, chop it up will you, soak it in that salt. Sit down and have some pork belly. Here, take a box of kimchi back with you. And another!”

An event that brings people back to the table. That’s classic. Time-proven. People-tested. When the rest of the world jeers at that slow, laborious, burdensome happening. When the rest of the world praises speed and convenience. When the rest of the world label food as a trend or fad. The old folks head back to their field, back to their soil, back to their gimjang.

But as this “last face of kimchi” disappears with time, who will preserve the tradition? UNESCO? Maybe. Not without an eagerness to get back to the soil. Not without a willingness to slow down, to step aside from the never-ending clockwork of metropolitan society. Not without a fondness for the old, the classic. Who will bring that back?

With bellies stuffed with fresh kimchi and the best cut of pork, the old folks have the final laugh. A laugh that may just be slipping through our very fingers.

I like brine.

It has been years since I stepped through the famed doors of Katz’s, stumbled to the front of the line, and ordered more deli meat and chopped liver I’ve seen in all my life. Then one of those “what the hell did I just put in my mouth” moments happened, when the man hand-carving the blackened hunk of pastrami handed a slice to me and said, “Try it, and tell me you don’t like it.” I tried it, and I was speechless. Except my brain was screaming, “what the hell did I just put in my mouth.”

Katz’s has been the standard for me, at least for pastrami. Hand-carving the meat is what sets that deli apart from the rest. Paper-thin slices do not do justice to the fatty juice that should be running through the meat. When that brisket is taken out the steamer, it rises from a bed of billowing steam. Hand-carving the meat preserves that moisture, and delivers the clouds right to your mouth.

I’ve been meaning to try DGS Delicatessen in DC for a while. In search of a decent Jewish deli in town, I wandered to and fro, disappointed mostly with the inability to reproduce my virgin pastrami experience at the Big Apple. Not bad, but nothing special. Maybe it was an atmosphere thing. Katz’s has a distinct noise, a distinct density. And I don’t know of a DC deli that can point to a table and say Meg Ryan had an [cinematic] orgasm there. Right there.

Multiple sources informed me that DGS is legit. So I finally went there, with high expectations.

I like DGS.

Scrap everything I said about pastrami (just for a second). The pickle plate at DGS is a must. Every pickled thing is done in-house, and whatever they are slipping in their brine, it’s working. The mind-blowing appetizer is more like artwork than pickles. Complete with a hot pink egg. I can’t find words to describe pickled blueberries. Sweet, sour, with a tang, but not like pickled cucumbers, still has a reminiscence of late summer. Amazing.

I can say this. The pickles at DGS are better than Katz’s. I said it.

The latke was cooked perfectly, crispy brown on the outside, steaming moist on the inside. The apple chutney (not sure if it is made in-house) was delicious, complimenting the rather salty potato pancakes.

latke

Pastrami. HAND-CARVED.

Am I the only person blown away by this? I’m sure some misinformed TV guy on the Food Network said Katz’s is the last place on earth still doing this. Sorry, Food Network guy, DGS has been doing this forever, just blocks away from my office. Thanks.

The portion was smaller than Katz’s (meaning DGS serves sandwiches for one person, not me, my wife, and Uncle Joe), but the price tag was also proportionately smaller. I got the classic: rye and mustard, nothing else. It was stupendous. All the benefits of hand-carving the meat were there. Moist, juicy, flavorful. Right amount of fat. And something was going on with the mustard, although I shoved this thing down too quickly to observe it. In simple terms, to quote Borat, it was “very nice.”

pastrami

Katz’s is good because it’s in New York. The city adds flavor. By the same token, DGS is good because it’s in DC. Believe it or not, the District also adds flavor.

Even in the midst of a shut-down.

The mind is composed of frames. Like reels of film, the mind churns at the tempo of frames per day, per hour, per minute, and per second. In a churning world where turbo speed is required, milliseconds per each frame, observance is the practice of pausing. By dissecting each frozen frame, one’s conception of time – and of life – is no longer a straight, one way arrow. Time curves. Einstein was right when he argued his “frame dragging” theory. The same sixty minutes allotted in each hour become an eternity for some, and a blinking stoplight for others.

Choice cuts of pork shoulder, thinly sliced fatty brisket, top blade of beef, whole mackerel, white shrimp (with their heads in tact), bratwurst, and spicy Andouille sausage. As a matter of human nature, these aforementioned items sizzling on the grill makes it almost impossible for one to think twice about the flames amidst the glowing charcoal. In retrospect, yes, one does think about the flames and the charcoal, and does so precisely and carefully, for the level of activity of the flames and the state of the charcoal is what determines the end quality of the protein suspended above. But, as a matter of human grilling nature, all attention is poured exquisitely on precisely that, the art of grilling.

Campfires are different. Smoring activities aside, building and enjoying a campfire is about the flames – the conception, the juvenile flickerings, the sweeping, roaring peak, the gradual decline, and the ultimate, flameless glow. After a marathon grill session featuring meat as varietal as the animals boarding Noah’s Ark, I stacked a few logs, allowing plenty of space and air between them. Starting the fire with only a few dry twigs proved a challenged, so I cheated and lit a kick-starter; and kick-start it did. As the crescent moon started to ascend above the rolling peaks of the Shenandoah Valley, I plunked down in a lawn chair, fresh coffee in hand, and observed the fire. Sip of coffee. Feed the fire with dry twigs. Throw my head back and look up into the sky, and become mesmerized by a sea of stars, the sheer vastness surprisingly suffocating. Sip of coffee. Repeat.

Flames are part of a collective entity – fire. Flames slowly subsume their surrounding, inch by inch. At its conception, and during its immediate gasps for air, it seems like the fire burns uncontrollably, leaping beyond its reach, frantically twisting and twirling in and through the stacked wood. This initial chaos is the fire gasping for oxygen, as a newborn lets out its first cries after taking in its first gasps of air. But after the flames settle, the fire becomes grounded, and its energy is harnessed, controlled in its center. At times, individual flames attempt to jump out alone, in search of uncharted wood, only to fizzle out in no time. Individualism has not place in the world of fire. It breathes as a unit. The flames slowly advance, retreating sometimes, yet returning again, crawling, creeping.

“Now he could hear the continuous rumbling of carts as they left the markets. Paris was chewing over the daily food of its two million inhabitants. The markets were like some huge central organ pumping blood into every vein of the city. The din was as if made by colossal jaws, a mighty sound to which each phase of the provisioning contributed, from the cracking of the big buyers’ whips as they started off for the district markets to the shuffling feet of the old women who hawked their lettuces in baskets from door to door.”

In his classic impressionist manner, Emile Zola, in “The Belly of Paris,” paints the Parisian marketplace Les Halles in the wee hours of the morning, comparing the bustling market to a heart pumping blood to the rest of the city. As the sun began to hide behind the slopes, the fire too resembled a central organ, pumping miniature flames left and right, incessantly burning brighter and brighter, not too fast as to fizzle before its time, but not too weak as to put a gap in the supply of red, orange and yellow. Its flickering veins stretch and contract, hissing at the wood, licking the air in unpredictable randomness. Chaos is no more, as the steady supply of energy from the grounded center reigns in the flames as if they were on chained leashes.

Fire is flexible. Its power comes from its flexibility. Flames do really dance, bending with the wind, riding the wind. They glide on the logs’ surface, morphing from one amorphous shape to another. Rigid flames would be short lived, broken. Survival calls for wind riders, adapting to the ebb and flow, using the oxygen from the wind to burn brighter than before. While one may think that the ferocity of a fire is a defiant act against the wind and the elements, it is quite the opposite. Fighting the wind makes no sense for the fire. No matter how ferocious the fire, it dare not pick a fight with the wind, for its flames cannot char the invisible. The fire’s dance is that of a skilled boxer, light on its feet, jabbing, shifting, ducking. Its dance outlines the contours of the wind; the invisible becomes visible through the dance of the visible. The wind actually feeds the fire. With every jab, left hook and uppercut, the flames kiss the wind and suck the oxygen, retreating shyly, only to return once more for another lick.

Smoring activities subsided, the coffee long gone. Served me well to bring along the Bialetti moka pot; dense, concentrated cup of coffee to match the dark of night and the billowing smoke from the fire, its rich Guatemalan flavors permeating my immediate vicinity. My longing for a wolf howl was not realized, and the stars shimmered brighter as the sky took on deeper shades of black.

The longer the fire burns, its flames become embedded into the glowing logs. The thicker of the dry twigs have not yet turned to ash, their vitality measured by the occasional hisses and crackles. The glow of the firewood is the beginning of the end for the fire. Older flames now vanish inside the logs, as if a persistent vacuum sucked them whole. The disappearing flames resemble the work of old women divers on the coasts of the Korean peninsula. Now an almost extinct profession, women would free dive into the depths of the freezing water, twenty, thirty, forty feet at a time, to pluck sea cucumbers, abalone, seaweed and other goods to be sold at the nearest market. The work is treacherous and painful, yet the remaining divers – most of them in their fifties, sixties and beyond – have kept up their livelihood. The manner in which they dive is reminiscent of the disappearing flames. Silent.

Like a small pebble dropping to the depths, no splashes are made, no fanfare. One moment the diver, in her black body suit and goggles, is there, and in a flash, she quietly disappears beneath the waves. Minutes later, she resurfaces, again silently, holding in her hand precious gems that would put food on her table later that night. Like the old divers, the flames, after traversing through the bright glow of the wood, burst out at the first opportunity, licking the surface once more, kissing the air and smoke. The process is repeated all around the logs, flames disappearing into glowing sinkholes, the wood, now almost an ashen gray, blinking brighter and brighter, and the flames poking their heads out once more, with the same vitality.

As the once vibrant campfire slowly subsides into a pile of glowing ash, I now wish I had just a few sips of Ethiopian Sidamo, just to get its dancing flavors to last a bit in my mouth. The clock has almost struck midnight, yet the hours spent observing the fire’s timeline culminated in a craving for coffee. Fire and meat earlier in the day, fire and coffee late at night.

Wrapping up the evening, I traced the fire to its origin. The kick-starter birthed this fire. The kick-starter speaks. Like an opportunity of a lifetime, it burst into flames the moment I clicked the lighter. The kick-starter was seemingly self-sustainable, as it continued to burn brightly on its own. The surrounding logs did not catch on instantly, while the kick-starter continued its self immolation, extorting energy. The logs eventually caught on, and the small, non-sustainable flames of the kick-starter rode the logs, spreading rapidly, crackling louder than ever.

Even with the world’s best kick-starter, the campfire would not have come into being if the firewood was wet. “Unprepared” logs would not have caught on, and the kick-starter would have burnt itself to the end, the flames fizzling out in the same vicinity as its birthplace. Readiness, then, is a must to start a fire. Kick-starters, in various forms, present themselves in one’s life. Like golden stars in a Super Mario game, they offer opportunities of a lifetime, something that will light that spark needed to get the fire going. But unless the wood is prepared just right, kick-starters are useless, and opportunities will pass by showing no signs of remorse. To catch the spark at the right moment, readiness may take time, patience and perseverance.

The “readiness” of the wood is also useless unless the logs are stacked as to leave some void space between them, creating enough space for oxygen to travel freely. The best wood, with the best kick-starter, will not produce a long-lasting fire if it is not fed with an abundance of air at its conception. In similar fashion, one must create and maintain a certain inner “void” to harness the fire, to ground it. One must not smother one’s inner self, and not fill it to maximum capacity. Ten logs stacked like bricks may never catch on fire, while three logs stacked carefully like a pyramid will burst into flames as soon as the kick-starter hits its peak of self-destruction.

No fire is sustainable with no void. This inner void is a mental room that allows creative thinking. Stuffing one’s mind with knowledge and experience only takes you so far. To sustain creative, meaningful output, a vacuum is needed to fuel the thought process with fresh oxygen. The void, in Zola’s terms, is the organ pumping fresh blood to the veins stretched throughout Paris. The void pushes the flames out, reigns them in, allows them to travel through the logs freely. It is not the amount of information one stores that determines success; it is the ability to harness that information, to channel it, and to sustain it in the most flexible manner.

Dance like the fire.

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.

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.

Just minutes ago, I was driving across Bay Bridge in what seemed like miles of concrete, the ferocious rain slapping against the barely visible windshield, all the temporary residents of the bridge enveloped in a thick fog. Even with the wipers toiling at maximum speed, visibility was near zero. Then, in spectacular fashion, the sky cleared and the clouds parted, collecting the rain and its remnants. As rays of sunshine pierced the withering layers of precipitation, the fog cleared as well, dissipating in a heartbeat, as if it were never there to begin with.

“I’ll have a shot of espresso, pulled long please.” Thanks to a faulty navigation system, a supposed two-hour drive up to St. Michaels had taken closer to four, and with a stiff back from the extended drive, I desperately grasped coffee’s medicinal healing powers. Espresso for the back. Worked before, so why not. Doctor’s orders. What came back was an overly bitter, acidic specimen of espresso, remarkably similar in taste to the ginseng extract my mom used to shove in my mouth as a child. Not something you would want to correlate with coffee, especially the first few sips in a new town. In open defiance to the predisposed list of “coffee cities” – the likes of Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – I was, in part, in search of a noteworthy coffee scene in this small tourist destination, a roaster and a cup or two of praiseable beans and coffee. Maryland has its share of excellent specialty roasters, Ceremony Coffee being one of them. But my first stop at Blue Crab Coffee quickly dwindled any hope of making a significant discovery (TripAdvisor and Yelp are not to be trusted blindly). Disappointment trickling down my esophagus along with the shot – I had expected much more from a relatively well-reviewed cafe, especially a more jovial atmosphere in lieu of sorry music – I stepped back outside and into the sun on my first afternoon in St. Michaels.

A trip to crab country when crab season is still months away. The only glimpse of Maryland blue crab was a glistening plastic replica hanging on a wall at Blue Crab Coffee. But St. Michaels was much more than just crab. It is a quiet coexistence of opposites, centered around shipbuilding and leisure. The town first flourished as a mecca of shipyards in the Chesapeake, fueled by people’s explosive appetite for oysters and later crab. A boom in ships, oysters and crab meant a boom for the town. Churches and schools were built, homes were settled, and fisherman, oystermen and businessmen alike flourished. Then the ships were no more. The oysters never died off, but harvest levels fell drastically. Crabbing became the main source of livelihood. Over time, the once thriving ship town evolved into a quaint retreat, with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld purchasing vacation homes on the Bay. Different types of vessels are built now, mostly luxury yachts. Tourism, especially during the summer crab season, sustains the town.

But ironically, the off-season is the ripe time to immerse oneself to the quintessential Eastern Seaboard. Away from the flocks of tourists, jam packed in the one-two-many crab shacks near the docks. Distanced from the temptation to settle for only the guided tours offered twice a day. In all honesty, escaping “touristy” St. Michaels is near impossible. You should pay admission and check out the maritime museum, a must to understand the backbone shipping industry that sustained this regions for decades. Guided tours or not, you should walk through the heart of the city on foot; the historic section is tiny, and you’d drive through it in minutes. In the midst of “touring,” however, be sure to chat up the locals to find out where they eat and where they drink their coffee. In doing so, you will find that crab country is possibly more charming when there are no crabs around.

From my short trip to the heart of the Chesapeake, here are three takeaways.

1. Fried Oysters and Pulled Pork, at Once

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Talbot Street is the main street piercing the belly downtown St. Michaels. The narrow street is clubbered with eateries left and right. One restaurant was particularly eye-catching, with an open patio resembling Cancun during spring break. A menu displayed the usual of what you’d expect on the coast – fried fish, burgers, sandwiches. Packed and bustling, very “family friendly.” Pass. Instead, I walked further down the road, a few blocks, towards the outer edge of downtown. Fewer people on the sidewalk. In the distance, I spotted a cloud of smoke slowly rising from a smoker on a trailer. The smell of smoky, caramelized meat was violently enticing. Gripping. The last thing I expected on this trip was to be standing next to a cozy smoker, inhaling the Divine Breath while contemplating whether to have grilled grouper or oysters. And pulled pork. The sign outside read ‘Big Al’s Market.” Smoked meat. Plus freshly fried Chesapeake oysters. Needless to say, I walked in.

On the hand-written menu, “barbeque” and “oysters” floated harmoniously, shyly as if the two acquaintances did not really know how to coexist within the limited square footage of the establishment. Surf and turf was no longer a plate of disdainfully well-done steak with dehydrated shrimp. Here, pork butt slowly roasted for hours in an actual smoker married just-shucked oysters the size of dried persimmons, breaded and perfectly deep fried. Smoke, pork, bun, oysters, cocktail sauce (with extra horseradish). All consumed at a “smoke-side” table outside, right next to that smoker. Did I mention the smoker? The oysters, still hot, had an audible crunch, and yet I could still taste the sea from the juices in side. The horseradish pleasantly shot up my nostrils, while the fuming smoke from the roasting pork bun and ribs cajoled the left side of my face. No complaints on being completely enveloped in that smoke.

A proper hello to a new city. Cars whizzing by behind my back, the warm midday sun easing the still brisk spring winds, a few local high school students taking the table next to ours with baskets of pulled pork sandwiches and fries. Even if I was sitting on the curb, without tables, I would not have had lunch any other way in St. Michaels. Expected and unexpected at the same time, on that main touristy road but not touristy at all. Southern charm from the ongoing smoker, Chesapeake charm from the oyster juice. A wonderful dichotomy reflective of the bygone glories of the shipyards, the mounds of shiny oyster shells, and the remaining gift shops selling disturbingly ugly t-shirts. Embracing this dichotomy presents a new prism in which to view St. Michaels as something more than a mere settlement of vacation homes. Embracing this dichotomy tastes like, well, smoke. That smoker!

2. White Tablecloth is Not the Devil

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have a thing on fine dining. Not against, just “on.” The one-too-many shiny utensils, two-too-many glasses, the obviously American-born waiter (quite possibly a George Washington University student) painfully saying “voila” every other visit with an accent even I can detect, the pitifully frugal morsel of food on my overpriced plate with some sauce smeared across the top and mysterious foam slowly deflating on the side. Not against fine dining, not against it. I’d like to redefine it, somewhat. White tablecloth does not make food “fine,” nor does an over indulgence of fois gras or truffles on every dish. To be honest, I don’t know how I’d define fine dining. “Fine” is subjective on so many levels, although Michelin or the Beard Foundation would disagree. Defining subjective things is almost a pointless task, for the final definition of the term will be, by “definition”, different for any individual or group. Different definition across cultures, race, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this, I say the hell with it, here is what fine dining boils down to: enjoyment of well-prepared food in the company of likeable people within the confines of agreeable surroundings. Food, people, place.

Hence the heightened speculation when I was seated at Sherwood’s Landing, the exquisite restaurant at the Inn and Perry Cabin hotel. In any city I visit for the first time, my priority is to explore the hidden huts and shacks no one has heard of and not reviewed in Yelp or TripAdvisor. That cafe only the locals frequent, that burger joint students visit for their hangover cure. But this trip had a grander purpose than my priorities, our first wedding anniversary. For one meal, no shack will do, no hut will do, only the best dining experience in all of St. Michaels would be worthy of our occasion.

The dining area was beautiful, overlooking a small bay with wooden docks, the late afternoon sunshine illuminating the entire room. The tables were mostly empty, as we had opted for an earlier time slot. Like much of the resort itself, the restaurant was serene and calming, the famous spa having rubbed off its influence even in the gastronomic arena. Enchanting, but my interest, as always, was whether the food would match the ambiance. And indeed, the chef rose to the challenge. No foam. No fluff. No frills. Local, in-season ingredients, generous portions. The warm salad, with blanched asparagus and morel mushrooms, was more than pleasing even to this salad-despising carnivore; the butter and crème fraîche sauce, punched with chopped garlic, was perfect. The real highlight, however, is the stuffed duck breast I had for my entree. If you’ve had duck breast done blasphemously incorrectly on more than one occasion (read overcooked), you will empathize with the praise I am about to pour out. Most importantly, the breast was the perfect temperature, pinkish and very moist. The chef butterflied the breast, pan fried it, and stuffed it with a tantalizing concoction of apples and smoked walnuts, among other things. Three medallions, rolled like a futomaki, rested on three beds of pureed parsnips, a much wiser supplement than potatoes or other starches. To best enjoy this dish, every criterion must hit the tongue at once. Juicy duck, tart apples, smoky walnuts, sweet and buttery parsnip. Oh, and the medallions were wrapped in bacon. Not overpowering, just adding salt and smokiness. Do I need to say more? The sauce was something wine-based, sweet, savory, brilliant. No other single dish has left a lasting impression as this one. That says a lot.

Fine dining has reinvented itself in my psyche. The fancy frills, the foie, even the foam – they’re okay. As long as the food is profound and prominent throughout the dining experience, as long as the food is straightforward, as long as the food tastes “fine,” white tablecloth is not the devil.

3. Locals Know Their Brew

RiseUpCoffee

Exploring a new city through its cafes is a brilliant approach. Coffee, the people who serve it and the cafes in which it is served, is a vein that connects cities and their inhabitants. Where there is coffee, there are stories, stories about stories, and the people behind the stories. Cafes are microcosms of the city itself, a miniature that captures its essential characteristics. You know a cafe, and you’re half way there in knowing the city.

I did not have high expectations of St. Michaels’ coffee scene. Most reviews I glanced over indicated two cafes, one of which was closed in 2011. The other is Blue Crab Coffee, a supposed local favorite located in a big yellow house known as the Freedom’s Friend Lodge. As my first stop in town, I walked in and ordered an espresso. The rest is as stated in my opening; nothing special, nothing noteworthy. Bad espresso. Maybe it was that particular barista. Maybe the specialty pour over coffees would have fared better. I judge sushi joints the same way. One bite of nigiri; if it’s off, you haven’t got the basics down. Coffee? Espresso, if it’s off, it’s off. Whatever the reason, my first impression of St. Michaels, and any hopes of discovering a hidden coffee culture within, was all but ruined.

This is why you talk to waiters, bartenders, baristas, and hotel concierge. These folks know their cities in and out, and usually are giddily happy to share nuggets of information with you. At the end of a mind boggling meal at Sherwood’s Landing, as I was stuffing my face with an equally delicious souffle, I asked our waiter about their coffee. Restaurant coffee service, especially in starred establishments, is a recent interest to me, as I have written about it in this post. A blend of Sumatran and Guatemalan beans, the coffee was smooth, full body, and very nutty. With obvious pride, the waiter informed me that they have been working with the local roaster Rise Up Coffee for some time, and this was a specially designed house blend for the restaurant. Rise Up Coffee, I had to get me some of that, pronto. Evidently, the nearest nexus to this new found wonder was a drive thru kiosk a mile or so away.

The kiosk was the last pit stop before driving back to DC. I usually enjoy the cafe experience, walking in, perusing the single origin menu, checking out the espresso machine, the whole bit. But if a ten-by-ten hut in a parking lot serves fresh, tasty coffee, I do not care. Nothing frivolous, just a standard cup of the daily house blend, and yet my last impression of St. Michaels is now etched with Rise Up’s rich brew. The coffee scene did not let me down, after all. A local roaster in existence since 2005 serving great coffee on par with bigger competition in cities like New York and Seattle. It was a shame I did not visit the newly opened roastery in Easton; you can be sure I will drop by during my next visit. New roaster (at least to me) doing things right, brewing excellent coffee – these things excite me. Who knew. The “locavore” concept now makes more sense to me. Local oysters, local duck, and locally roasted coffee. Besides the obvious benefits of freshness and taste, the discovery of locally owned and distributed foods and coffees adds pure bliss to travel. And such discoveries will be the focal point of future tales to come.

“Stop being an asshole and you will start having fun.”

That sums up my interview for the Legal Nomads series “Thrillable Hours.” Founder Jodi Ettenberg epitomizes a major truth of why I started this blog – to document lawyers in the act of not lawyering. A former corporate lawyer in New York, Jodi left her practice to eat her way through the vast unknown, writing about her devourable moments on her site. She has also authored the book “The Food Traveler’s Handbook,” in which she preaches why food is the ultimate prism in viewing our world of many cultures. If you have not already, check it out here. Jodi was a joy to work with, and I hope to conjure up another deliciously creative project in the near future.

“Thrillable Hours” features ex-lawyers who have left the practice of law, or current lawyers like me with multiple identities beyond the reach of the law. Many wonderful people were interviewed before me, doing incredible things I may never achieve. Reading their stories have left a lasting imprint on my thoughts, and I hope you will discover a similar jolt in yours, lawyer or not. I tried to answer the questions as honestly as possible, and the process was most rewarding to me and allowed me to reflect deeply into the last few years and the years ahead.

What an honor. You can read the full interview here on Legal Nomads.

The big hand on the clock had not yet passed the number twelve. It was not yet seven a.m., early for breakfast, according to some standards. I had barely taken off my parka when the kimchi jjigae started to boil, simmering atop the makeshift butane gas burner. “Aged” kimchi, fatty morsels of pork, fish cake, and in spectacular fashion, instant ramen noodles. This was the most memorable meal in my trek through Korea, and a worthy champion of all breakfasts of champions, a mesmerizing symphony of hot, spicy, sour, fatty and nutty.

Eating through Korea, and much of Asia, one inevitably encounters levels of heat and a variety of spices. They are what make the dishes unique, that “bang” effect when you pop that first spoonful in your mouth. Meat from all parts of the animal (and from all kinds of animals) smeared in deliciously mysterious blends of red chilies, fish from all depths of the ocean simmering in heat-infused cauldrons, and the freshest produce with nothing else but touches of sesame oil and mother loads of garlic. Personally, anything in soup form turns my head; alongside coffee, things boiling in savory broth are my favorite psychoactive drugs. What can I say, doctor’s orders. Soup fetish is shared amongst many travelers, writers and eaters alike. Fellow non-lawyer lawyer Jodi Ettenberg, travel writer and author of the blog Legal Nomads, knows a little something about eating through Southeast Asia, and has professed her love for all things soup in a beautiful piece about the gastronomy of Mekong (read it here).

One problem. I have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. According to the renowned Mayo Clinic, “Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid or, occasionally, bile flows back (refluxes) into your food pipe (esophagus). The backwash of acid irritates the lining of your esophagus and causes GERD signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms of GERD include acid reflux and heartburn. Both are common digestive conditions that many people experience from time to time. When these signs and symptoms occur at least twice each week or interfere with your daily life, doctors call this GERD.” In food terms, anything flavorful and exciting will cause stomach acid to shoot up my esophagus. No good.

Thankfully, my case is not that severe, nothing that cannot be treated or controlled with “healthy” eating habits and Prilosec OTC (and my condition has improved significantly within the past year). Nevertheless, eating my way through Korea was not always easy with GERD, especially when I was treating every meal (starting with breakfast, and often more than three times a day) as if it was my last. But I wasn’t about to settle for salads and bland rice porridge. So over the years, I have developed a list of sorts, comprised of tips to control and minimize the level of discomfort. Every street I strolled down, something was boiling to my left, something steaming to my right, the soondae lady calling for me, the catfish stew guy grabbing my arm. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything, except temptation.” Ah, the temptation. Ceaseless. Having GERD could be a death sentence to a traveler, a crippling Achilles heel. While shitting like a mink and crawling on all fours after eating bad crab is probably worse, GERD still impacts your eating routine. So awareness and precaution is critical. That is why I share this list with you, in hopes that, if there are any travelers out there suffering from this annoying-as-hell disorder, they will still manage to conquer the gastronomical path without a trip to the emergency room.

With that, here is some non-medical advice from a non-lawyer lawyer.

*          *          *

1. Take Prilosec OTC (or equivalent) Religiously

I cannot emphasize this enough, for I once too underestimated its usefulness. Prilosec should be taken once a day, and it essentially blocks the release of excess stomach acid. Better than Tums. One doctor recommended I take it right before bed, because, theoretically, acid is more likely to travel upriver (meaning up the esophagus) when one is reclining. Makes sense. Another doctor told me I should take it about an hour before an anticipated “big meal,” so when this anticipation comes to fruition, my stomach is not freaking out, spewing acid like a frightened sea squirt. Personally, I think taking it at night before bed has worked better, but I cannot say that for others. Try both and see for yourself.

2. Stay Away from Aspirin

Down all the gochoojang you want, chomp on all the chilies you want, drink that late night coffee (ok, these are bad, too, for GERD). But whatever you do, don’t take aspirin, especially when your GERD symptoms seem to be on the rise (trust me, you know when things are about to get worse). I cannot explain why this is, and my med student brother told me some gibberish at some point, which I rarely comprehend. Bottom line, aspirin makes your symptoms worse. If you need pain medication or a fever reducer, try other drugs that do not contain aspirin.

3. Carbohydrates are Your Friend

You should eat your bland carbs (often meaning bland rice) to balance out the spice and heat of the other foods. In addition to all the grilled meats, fish, and stew, a bowl of rice or a slice of bread goes a long way, in my opinion, absorbing excess acid generated from the fiery pork belly and raw garlic that just went into your mouth.

4. Breakfast Does a Body Good

This isn’t your mom nagging you through grade school. Yes, breakfast is good for you, especially if you have GERD. In my experience, an empty stomach is ripe for acid action, especially if that empty stomach is blitzed with heavy, fatty, spicy, delicious creations without notice. Wherever your current destination is, the locals probably know where the best breakfast grubs are. You don’t really know a culture until you sit down with locals for breakfast. So for everyone’s benefit, search for breakfast and enjoy it, regularly.

5. Snack Away in the Streets

For true travelers, I do not have to emphasize the thrill and joy of street food. Street food is not a fad, it is certainly not a “hipster” thing. It does not spring up by every John Doe crowing every street corner with a truck or cart. While they may be serving ridiculously good food too, “street food” is a time-cultivated, history-tested tradition. Folks eating on the streets – while selling and bartering whatever they could find to earn very little – is what created street food. This is certainly the case in Korea, where outdoor markets were (and still are for many) the very source of livelihood. People had to eat while working, and voila, street food. In any event, an empty stomach is bad for GERD. So while you are exploring the explorable (by foot, wherever possible), snack and snack often. Control the acid with regular food intake, and really learn the streets and the people that inhabit them. Tough to learn that in front of tablecloth.

6. Tums for Your Tummy

While drugs like Prilosec are better for long term treatment, Tums can save your ass in an emergency. Carry some with you at all times. But a word of caution: do not rely on them. For me, there were days when each meal was a grand slam; hearty kimchi jjigae for breakfast, spicy monk fish casserole for lunch, snacks, snacks, more snacks. Ah, and dinner was something grilled, intestines perhaps with a little skirt steak on charcoal. Having forgotten to take Prilosec the night before, I took some Tums before dinner. No good. It didn’t seem to work as quickly as I thought it would. But that was one particular day with meal after meal after meal. Tums would have worked wonders on any other day, and if I had taken them earlier.

7. Raw is Good, but Not Always

Sashimi is sexy. It just is. Raw fish in any form – also, beef tare-tare in any form – is plentiful throughout the Korean shores and elsewhere in Asia. But, unfortunately, raw things do not seem to be best for GERD people. My most memorable sushi experience to date has been at Sushi Sunsoo in Seoul (which I wrote about in this post). Cruelly, I was fighting off a nasty cold, and my GERD was acting up again, thanks to many fantastic meals preceding Sunsoo. Sashimi, oysters, nigiri sushi, maki, tempura – divine. But that night, I almost crawled into the ER. Raw fish plus cold plus that mysterious medicine the pharmacist gave me (which I stupidly consumed without reading the labels for aspirin) did not please the GERD gods. So if you are in a region prone to magnificent uncooked foods, schedule your meals accordingly.

*          *          *

There it is.

Travel is meaningless without food. The essence of travel is the acquaintance of and interaction with the people that make up the destination, and food happens to be the universal language spoken across all continents. To reach a soul, the stomach is the quickest route.

Don’t let that acid get in your way.

%d bloggers like this: