The Sauna

As a slight detour from our gastronomic odyssey from Korea, I offer a no-food-food-for-thought.

I came across a news article reporting that a man has allegedly made and sold thousands of dollars worth of counterfeit North Face down padding jumpers. The man had mad skills, and the counterfeit products were almost identical to the real deal. The only differences were the inside labels behind the neck, the shape of the inside lining, and the type of down filling; while the real North Face products are filled with goose down, this guy used cheaper down from ducks.

What grabbed my attention was the reporter’s focus on the response of so-called “netizens”, online readers of the news site. Many of these readers released their “anger” upon North Face, and not the alleged counterfeiter. The reason? North Face sells their goose down jumpers for over $400 (in Korea), while the alleged counterfeiter sold his duck jumpers for a meager $40. The anger was directed at the fact that the cost of production for the North Face products is less than $100, leaving blown-up margins for the outdoor brand.

Goose versus duck. The cost of production and margin left by the final products goes well beyond the type of bird sacrificed for puffy jackets.

What about “brand value”?

The readers and their comments did not take into account that the name “The North Face” has a certain price tag to it, beyond the actual cost of the bird feathers. It did not take into account that no one has the liberty to re-create a cheaper, more reasonable puffy jacket just because the original product seems a bit too puffy.

Fashion Week rolls around across the globe, and each time, I quietly ask myself of the true “value” of “haute couture” brands and designer labels. Overrated and overpriced? Probably. Puffy? Possibly. After all, you are paying many more times than the cost of the fabric and manual labor that went into producing the garments; you are paying the price to wear “the name”.

Brand value seems to be walking a fine line. As economies are still reeling and struggling to step out from their gutters and sewers, consumers repeatedly and more often ask of “value” and what they are willing to pay for such value.

Intellectual property, must it take a back seat?

Kitfu and injera meant little to me.

Ethiopian coffee culture was foreign to me.

Columbia Pike? I had no reason to drive by.

Now, I crave spicy kitfu and sour injera.

Now, my tongue truly appreciates Ethiopian Gera coffee.

Now, I count the days to return to Columbia Pike.

I was welcomed, embraced and befriended.

Introducing my newest piece on the one and only

Roads & Kingdoms.

When I worked for Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential primaries, our camp truly thought she would clinch the Democratic nomination, and go on to win the presidency to become our first female president. That didn’t work out, but we did elect our first black president. Great ordeal and I’m mighty proud of it.

South Korea just elected its first female president, surprisingly before we did. This feat is to be congratulated on its face. Park Geun-hye – whether or not people actually think of her as a woman – is indeed a woman. Many take issue with the fact that she is the daughter of former dictator (yes, not president, not strongman, but dictator, say it loud and clear) Park Jung-hee. I, too, take some issue with that fact, although not as extremely as others. Although the former dictator did arguably lay the groundwork for Korea’s exponential economic growth, he did so by maintaining his power using undemocratic and illegal means, to say the least. I hardheartedly disagree with the notion of focusing on the past and on a candidate’s lineage (which she had minimal control over) instead of focusing strictly on policy issues moving forward. However, this point, in my view, was overlooked to a great extent.

What I do take serious issue with is the way in which this election cycle was conducted. I will not (yet) use the term “rigged”. I will, however, discuss one of many fishy incidents that has already thrown this election into murky waters.

Let’s coin this incident as “The Online Crusaders”. The Cliffnotes version of the story is this. Saenuri, the ruling party of president-elect Park, allegedly hired a protestant pastor and a number of part-time workers, with the sole mission of “rigging” the social media arena. The pastor and his minions allegedly posted tweets and replies under fake aliases, intentionally (and allegedly falsely) accusing candidate Moon Jae-in of various wrongdoings. In addition, Korea’s National Intelligence Service (counterpart to our FBI) allegedly had an entire office dedicated to fabricating social media messages in favor of Park and against Moon. And what the hell was that about the NIS employee locking herself in her Gangnam condominium for days while she was suspected of participating in these acts? NIS agents, supposedly the cream of the crop of Korea’s intelligence community, allegedly hired to sit in front of computer monitors to tweet. Simply embarrassing.

I use the term “allegedly” for all of this, as none of it have been proven in a court of law. But as a lawyer who has looked over Korean election laws, the work of the Online Crusaders – both the pastor and his minions, and the NIS – is a clear violation of the law, if proven to be true.

I take issue with this because these alleged illegal acts were discovered and reported just days before the election, leaving no time to dive into the facts and fully inform the voting public. Whether or not that would have affected the outcome is another question, to which I would personally answer in the negative. Now it seems that the NIS, the police, and even the federal prosecutor’s office is on merry terms with the Saenuri party, forcing an even darker cloud over the prospects of a clean investigation into the cold, hard facts.

In all honesty, I could care less about who is elected as Korea’s next president. None of this affects me personally. And I must say that I am not, and never was, impressed with either candidate, and that I am not Park-bashing in any sense.

But I am pissed that the rule of law has, once again, fallen flat on its face in my home country. I am pissed that the majority of Koreans don’t seem to give a shit about the rule of law. I am pissed that we may never know what really happened during and after the election. I am pissed that regional feelings still dominate the political dialogue of my home country. I am pissed that, throughout the election cycle, the focus has been on finger-pointing and on the past, not educated debates on policy issues to bring about genuine change (don’t get me started on the presidential debates).

The election is over and Korea has a new president-elect. Whining and pissing about the outcome does no good, so I hope Korea finds a way to mend broken bonds and move forward, for God knows the country has a mountain of problems. It may take years, decades for true democratic values (like clean elections) to take root in Korea. It takes more than a system, more than oversight committees and government bureaucrats. It takes a democratic “mindset” that values fair dealing and ethical procedures. It takes a democratic “mindset” that values the well-being of others as much as one’s own. It takes a democratic “mindset” that values the courage to do what’s right.

Democracy is still young in Korea.

12:12 12/12/12

It doesn’t mean anything. Just another tick on the second hand on a watch, another minute in a day full of minutes, another Wednesday like the ones before. Just another speck in an endless spectrum we call time.

But it does mean something, for this tick, this minute, this Wednesday, shall not return. That tick of the hand is forever engrained, immortalized somewhere in our distant memories as a speck in a finite spectrum we call time.

I once had two hamsters. When we bought them, my mom and I were told that one was male and the other was female, and that they would start reproducing mini-hamsters within weeks. Turns out the bastard lied to us; both were male, and instead of making hamster love, they ended up biting the life out of each other. Tragic story, really, but my point rests elsewhere: the hamsters’ plastic turn wheel. Turning turning turning, that constant, annoying squeak and rattle, day and night. Their beady little eyes either darting side to side or staring into infinity, as their twig-like legs peddled with no purpose or methodology to speak of.

Working life, a lawyer’s life, seems no different than two male hamsters trotting away on a plastic turn wheel. We are lost in the constant churn, deprived of all alertness as to what truly ignites our true purpose. Objectivity is lost, and subjective amusements paint our palette, defined as the willing ability to justify whatever the hell we’re doing. The abnormal becomes the new norm. Questions cease to be asked, as justification becomes acceptance, the lame way of comforting oneself from one’s inability to break the mold.

In some respect, this is truly a #firstworldproblem. Monotonous labor, be it physical or mental, pays the bills, and hoards of individuals would be more than ecstatic to have such paying jobs. Hamster wheel or no hamster wheel.

But dammit, let us not give up our given rights to question what we do, that endless stream of consciousness, poking and prying at the very purpose of life, what we are meant to do, what we were born to accomplish. This tick, this 1212121212 tick, has already passed into the past. History it is. 1111111111 ticked away last year, and in no speck of my mind do I recall what the hell I was doing at that moment in time. We assume the next tick will always be there, unfaltering, guaranteed. We live as if each tick is nothing more than the one before. We live as if time regenerates itself; immortality is ordained upon our own time.

I once read an essay comparing writing to a woman spreading her legs at the OB/GYN, or a man getting a prostate exam (I’m sure it was stated much more elegantly by the author). In short, she defined good writing as bare, open, uncloaked. Embarrassing and exposed, yes, but true. Genuine. No hiding, no holding back. Just you, just as you are.

Life should be no different.

As this one special tick approaches, I will remember the moment as the time when I mused about time. That moment my mind perused through fields and dreams of shattering the earthen pot grasping my very existence. There will be no 1313131313.

My toes are tapping.

I can’t get that melody out of my head. Correction. I can’t get that thumping piano out of my head. That rhythmic, steady, constant thumping. In 5/8 time. Now enters the alto sax with the melody. I can’t get either out of my head. Dave Brubeck, this is all your fault.

On the “About” page of this blog, I nonchalantly wrote down that I am a “musician at times”. Nowadays, that means I grab my banged up acoustic and belch a few songs here and there. But back in the day, zero-period jazz band was the real deal (band nerd, yes).

I’d heard “Take Five” before, on NPR’s nightly jazz sessions. It was catchy, addictive, toe-tapping even then. I never thought I’d get a chance to play it, so when I first got the sheet music for the solo sax part, the word “exhilarated” does not serve justice to my ecstatic state of mind. Sure, a self-taught saxophonist (I was a clarinetist by trade) cannot paint this piece with the masterful loftiness it deserves. But I tried mightily. I listened to that track over and over again, first to immerse myself in the breathy tone of the soloist, then to be afloat on the rhythm of 5/8 time. My toes were tapping. Non-stop.

It’s hypnotic, that 5/8. In fashion, the highest compliment on styling is “looking effortless”, or trying without looking like you tried. 5/8 is like that. The underlying rhythm needs to be a constant, steady churn, like an undercurrent, supporting – but not blanketing – whatever that’s going on above. The melody needs to glide, float. Effortlessly, tugging ever so slightly at the end of the phrases. A never-ending push and pull with time. Elastic but not gooey. Elegant but not fluffy like damn cotton candy. Indeed, this is a hard trick. But fear not, that was Brubeck and his crew.

Not witnessing Brubeck, in person, in the midst of doing what he did best, is one regret I will carry for quite some time. No LP, no CD will do justice to the true magic he produced. But he lives on – his rhythms are immortal, his notes are timeless. My toes are still tapping, playing witness to the chunk of life he left behind.

5/8. Wholesome.

RIP Dave Brubeck.

* I do not own the copyright to the incorporated image.

Simple is better. For food.

Shorter is better. For writing.

But deceptively, simple and shorter is hard. Very hard. Both in food and in writing.

Can’t go wrong with fat-laced beef ribs, boiled for hours on end, succulent, tender, moist. My wife – Chef de Cuisine and Saucier of our household – literally spent an entire day with those ribs. First draining excess blood in ice cold water, boiling the ribs once to rid of “some” of the fat, marinating the ribs in a masterful blend of soy sauce, garlic, green onions and black pepper, re-boiling the ribs until the delicate meat is ready to fall off the bones.

In the end, this is what it “boils” down to.

A bowl of hot broth that will send your favorite pho joint scurrying away. Chunks of tender ribs, melt-in-your-mouth like Land-O-Lakes butter. Radish, oh that radish, so flavorful after soaking up the beef juices and fat for hours. And a lot of fresh, chopped scallions.

Simple yet a product of one painstaking process.

Twitter is the same way. The 140-character limit for each tweet forces you to extract everything of your writer’s brain, down to the last nibble. Writing ten-thousand word blahs are relatively easy, filled with fluffy fillers and endless jargon. But expressing the essence of what you want to say, in a way that intrigues followers, is damn hard.

As the great Thomas Jefferson once said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

For me personally, editing is dreadfully tougher than writing. Editing – mainly, making shit shorter – takes a surgeon’s meticulous yet crude skills, cutting away of all unnecessary excess, one morsel at a time. Blood spurts, nerves are shocked, but in the end, that one masterful tweet, is one of purity.

So before we curse Twitter’s word limit, let us choose our words carefully.

So what do you know about kimchi?

Most of you have heard of it by now, maybe even tried it. Most likely at some Korean joint as a side dish, along with (I dare say) rather boring cuts of Korean “barbeque”. One thing in this disorganized and chaotic world is clear: Korean carnivorial culture is vastly understated and misunderstood. Misrepresented. That is a topic for another day. Today, we shed light unto a relatively unkown scene in kimchi culture – “gimjang”.

“Gimjang” is an annual familial (or communal) event, where folks gather to make fresh batches (and batches and batches) of kimchi. This tradition originated from times when refrigeration and greenhouse farming were non-existent. Vegetables used for kimchi – mainly, cabbage and radish – were harvested in the fall, and only in the fall. To stash away your vital supply of kimchi for the winter months (yes, I do mean vital), you had to act and act fast. Family and friends all came together, washing, soaking, chopping, sometimes over a few days. After makgulli and unbelievably delicious home-cooked meals here and there, the finished kimchi was placed in clay jars and buried underground. The science is similar to that of underground wine cellars; the cool earth would keep the kimchi refrigerated (but not frozen) for the months to come.

This scene is diminishing. At the very least, few people actually harvest their own cabbage and radish anymore for gimjang. More and more urban dwellers just buy their kimchi (available twenty-four months) at the local grocery chain. Understandably so, since kimchi-making, and especially the quantity involved in gimjang, is a pain in the ass.

I am proud to say that my grandparents still carry out this tradition. To the east of Seoul, on the doorsteps of the majestic Sorak Mountain, away from the bustling, smog-infested city, my grandparents live in a two-bedroom house they designed themselves. Yards away from their home, they have a patch of land – nothing grand but plentiful – to carry out their vegetation exercise. Cabbage, radish, cucumbers, peppers, shiso leaves and much more. Every November, they harvest their organic vegetables for gimjang, enough to feed themselves, aunts, uncles, cousins and many friends.

This is a chronicle of this tradition. A tradition that is becoming forgotten. A tradition that cannot be bought. The vivid images are the courtesy of my mom, a step-by-step memory of what is the only true way to make and taste kimchi.

* * *

Right in their front yard, my grandparents dry the radish leaves and stem. These are a staple in traditional Korean gastronomy, and can be consumed in many ways – chopped and used in kimchi, or further dried and used in many soup dishes. Nothing goes to waste. When times were tough, especially during the winter months when nothing was growing and there were no refrigerators to stash Hot Pockets, these were crucial to survival.

The harvest is here. Many parts of Korea were hit by severe drought and flooding this past year, but these managed to survive. Hundreds of cabbage, radish, green onions, chilies and much more. Everything is organic. They take “from garden to kitchen” literally; go to garden, chop cabbage, carry cabbage to kitchen. If cabbage could move, they would be squirming as they enter the kitchen’s slumber. Fresh has a different meaning out there in the mountains.

The quality of the cabbage is largely determined by the quality of its golden innards. The inside should be a bright, rich yellow, should be firm with a crunch and should have a sweet aftertaste. These are gorgeous. The halved cabbages need to be soaked in sea salt and water overnight. This maneuver both seasons and softens the cabbage. Mind you that this day was one of the coldest days of the year in Korea. Brave men and women. Looks warm in these shots, but sticking your hands in freezing saltwater is no joke. But all is worthwhile for the kimchi stash.

Day two. The salt-soaked cabbages are rinsed (in ice-cold water) and drained naturally. The cabbages are wilted but not soggy. In the first shot, you may notice – besides the rockstar beanies – the huge clay pots in the background. That is the lucky jackpot, holding homemade condiments. Chilli paste (gochujang), fermented bean curd (dwenjang) and soy sauce. You can’t buy this anywhere. Korean dishes live or die by the quality of these pastes and curds, and homemade organic is the best you will find, anywhere. I was told that my grandma even made her own fermented fish sauce for the kimchi. I love my grandma.

As those cabbages bathe luxuriously in the pristine sunlight, awaiting their massage of sexy, red seasoning and filling, the crew works tirelessly, julienning the radish, chopping the radish leaves and stem, in preparation of the red filling that will soon smother the wilted cabbage. They will be wed in holy matrimony, inseparable.

Tub-sized containers are a must to prepare the filling for the hundreds of cabbage that await their fate. The julienned and chopped radish and friends are tossed with red pepper flakes, loads of garlic, sea salt, homemade fermented fish sauce, and some other secret ingredients that I probably don’t remember. All that is held together by a white, serum-like rice paste. Serious upper body strength is involved here. Everything is tossed and tossed until the red is evenly distributed, resulting in a mound of heaping lava-like, salty and spicy creation that is probably delicious by itself with a steaming bowl of rice.

In the end, here is what my parents brought back for themselves. And there were many, many more containers left. Back at my parents’ place in Seoul, these cartons will be placed in refrigerators specially designed for kimchi – called “dimche” – where they will ferment and ripen at just the right tempo. Yes, there exists refrigerators made especially for kimchi. Again, just think back to wine coolers. Fermentation at different temperatures, for different durations, will affect how the kimchi ripens. There are even different temps and humidity levels for different types of kimchi, as cabbage is far from being the only main ingredient for the dish. The vast array of different kimchi dishes is another lesser-known aspect of Korean gastronomy.

After a cold, hard day’s work, this awaits.

Pork belly, boiled with bean curd and onions until buttery soft. A few edible herbs from the mountains, tossed lightly with sesame oil and salt, edible roots tossed in the same way. Bowls of cabbage and bean curd soup. And a whole plate of that kimchi, now cloaked in ruby red, made just minutes ago. Simple yet elegant. Straight to the core. A true workman’s lunch in the quiet, calm mountains of Korea.

Even the local cats know where to find their grub that day.

* * *

And that’s a wrap on kimchi. Done in tradition, done with family and friends, done right. Gimjang is a workman’s feast, a festive occasion where a year’s harvest, through sweat in the freezing mountain cold, is transformed into a dish that embodies the welcoming, earthy element of Korean culture.

The chronicle continues. I can’t wait to see what next November will bring.

It has been days and days since my last posting. My intellectual gas tank – never close to full to begin with, possibly leaking profusely – has run dry. Taking longer and longer to even finish books, and the news has been so depressing that my guts refused to exacerbate the global tendencies by writing about them here. I’m still stuffed with ample dark meat from a fifteen-pound turkey (and the best parts, the skin and the fat gristle). Honey-basted ham, four different casseroles, corn bread, pie, more gristle, more pie, more corn bread.

So my girth is revived, my brained amply moistened with fat, my taste buds flattered, nourished, and spoiled for days to come.

I wake up and head straight for the couch with hot coffee. And the following exchange with my brother personifies the ultimate state of turkey day hangover. Fat-shocked mental

*     *     *

Me: Library?

Bro: Fo sho.

Bro: U know it.

Bro: Whachu up to.

Me: Listening to bagpipes.

Bro: Where?

Me: On the couch.

Bro: That’s cool.

*     *     *

The dichotomy is pristine clear.

My brother, the ever so studious, meticulous, up-at-four-in-the-morning med student who takes joy in spending his nights in the ER drilling holes into skulls.

Me, the lackluster lawyer, drained of all academic curiosity, proud cynic and coffee-at-one-in-the-morning guy.

But bagpipes on the couch with rich Honduran coffee, now that is soothing. That is soul food. We discover our muses on different grounds, in different circumstances, on different couches. Music helps. Music as your muse? Maybe. Bagpipes, though, have an odd medicinal quality. Any motivation-depleted, call-seeking dreamer can tune into holistic medleys of grand bagpipes on an iPhone and be instantly transformed to the green hills of Scotland. Haggis on the side? No more.

What calm, what joy, what hope.

Turkey day plus two.

Children, it seems, have always felt chronically repelled by my presence, more or less. I have nothing against children – especially when they’re three or four years old. Still cute and cuddly yet without too much mischief to cause a pain in the ass. I actually like children, and although it usually takes time, once they warm up to me, they (probably) like me too.

The year before law school, I was mentally at a loss. Confused, out of focus, blurred, foolish. Detached. I had no idea why I wanted to go to law school. I had no idea what to expect, and frankly, I didn’t care. I was teaching English in Seoul, making decent money, not a worry in sight. I was accepted to some no-name school in DC, but it was in the top tier, so I couldn’t complain, given my utter failure on the LSAT.

My shifts were from 6:30 am – 10:30 am, and from 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm. “Odd” is the least I will say about that schedule. Given all my free time during the day, I volunteered to teach an after-school English class at an elementary school in a poorer neighborhood in Seoul.

As an aside, Korean households spend an inexcusable amount of money on out-of-school English education, in addition to all the other out-of-school tutoring expenses, in preparation for the college entrance exams. This could very well be a future post, an exposure of the ridiculous English education system (and secondary education in general) of Korea.

These kids could not afford the hefty price tags on private English tutoring, so we brought our classes to them. I was in charge of ten or so fourth-graders. Adorable. Absolutely delightful. Loud, obnoxious, annoying at times – all of that was true. But I had a blast. Many of these kids were living below the poverty line, some even had head lice. If it wasn’t for the after-school programs, most of them would either be home alone or wander the streets, for there was no one at home to care for them.

Let’s just say that the lessons were not on the forefront. On a good day, we would go through about half of the material I prepared. The rest of our time was spent laughing, at everything and about everything. These kids were so bright and full of life, as if life’s hardships have not yet left a permanent dent in their beings, their souls. If I had one goal during my tenure there, if I could instill one takeaway point in all my lessons, it would be to implant and encourage the hope that they could blossom into anything they imagined.

So, as I ran by a group of toddlers after escaping the office on Halloween night – zebra, pumpkin, hamburger, they were all there – I reminisced those days. Our games, our crafts, our pictures, our ice cream. Our laughs. I wonder where they are now, what they are doing. Are they still in school? How are their studies? How has life treated them? In the midst of societal and familial chaos, I pray my children have the guts to dream on, to hope, to strive, and to not take no for an answer. I pray that they may take life by its horns and laugh at its face.

I miss my kids.

Howling winds continued well into the night, as sky-stretched trees shivered and ached, in fear of being uprooted from the only patch of earth they have known. Rain traveled sideways, thrashing against the window panes. Light bulbs flickered, blinking, as if wincing moments before giving way to nature’s will.

Morning is eerily quiet, calm. Winds have died down, retreated, moved on in remorseless destructive paths. Drizzling is the rain now, the sky ready to close its flood gates, clouds still looming ominously. Droplets of the sky’s remains hang on the tips of red and orange leaves, tugging with what force and wait remains. The air is crisp, on the border of frigid, as if Sandy briskly brushed passed us, leaving a whiff of foul perfume, lingering and settling.

Downed trees still lay upon their wreckage, on homes, cars, roads. Ships are thrown on land, basements and subways are submerged, and millions await in pitch black darkness, helpless but not hopeless, waiting for and through the inevitable.

We live as invincibles. We live as though we shall not falter, as though we demand control of our destinies, our fortunes, our paths. We live as though our logic is supreme over outer forces, known and unknown, as if untouchable, doubtless. We live as though we are trustworthy, as though good innately emanates from within, through all circumstances, more than enough to justify our own sanctity.

Moments like these beg to differ.

We are not invincible. We may falter, and we may very well lose control of destiny, fortune and paths. Our logic may not prove to be supreme, and we may indeed remain doubtful. Justification of strength, of good, of infallible tendencies, may be put aside, rested, to raise eyes to something beyond our grasp, our knowledge, our comfort boundaries.

Acceptable is the confession of weakness. Tolerable is the acknowledgement of vulnerability, of fallacy. For in the midst of a storm, we are nothing but a dot on the radar, miniscule beings, subject to nature’s will and doing. For in these times, we remember compassion, we invoke prayer, we revive communal sanctity. For in these times, we reminisce grace.

Amidst chaotic whirlwinds, the eye of the storm is calm, ignorant to its far away developments. Maybe we all live in the eye of the storm, yet fail to recognize the rings of destruction surrounding us. We are vulnerable, we are fragile. When the storm shifts, drifts ever so slightly to the left or to the right, the full effects engulf our lives, uprooting the foundational beliefs that have anchored most everything palpable.

We will no doubt rise again, mend the destruction, and come out like purified gold, fortified steel.

But when the tides withdraw and power is restored, we will once again return to the eye of the storm, awaiting the next uncontrollable event. Remember our weakness, remember our vulnerabilities. Remember how lives have changed in the blink of an eye, where our logic, our planning, our own goodwill have done so little.

So we live in the eye of the storm as if we are riding Sandy’s tides. Our eyes look to the heavens in humble prayer, for our lives are in firmer hands than our own. Our eyes look to our brethren in need, for our lives are intertwined in more ways than we think.


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