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I am known for saying “lawyers are assholes,” but I make a conscious effort to include the word “most” before the phrase. Some of us are creative, some of us are virtuous, and some of us are simply amazing people.

As I often lazily do on lazy mornings, I was browsing through a jumble of news articles when I came across Ms. Miyoun Lee’s story. Two things hit me. First, she’s a lawyer, but her office is combined with a café. Mind blown. Second, she’s a young, solo practitioner, and her practice focuses on sex crimes in Korea. As I read through a myriad of interviews (all by Korean media), I knew I had to contact her and interview her myself, in the hopes that her story would spread further than the natural borders of the Korean peninsula. So I did that.

In a maiden Q&A for i am not a lawyer, I conversed with Miyoun on her creative venture, her passion for helping victims of sex crimes, and why she does what she does – in the small town of Euijungboo on the outskirts of bustling Seoul. Affectionately known as the “Neighborhood Lawyer,” her true colors shine from start to finish. The following is a translation of the original interview, which was conducted in Korean. Thank you Miyoun for taking the time to do this. It was definitely a meaningful opportunity for me, and I know it will resonate in the hearts of many, lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

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INL: A law office and a café. This is a breakthrough combination. As a total coffee addict myself, and as this blog contains many essays on coffee, I’m curious about your coffee preferences and patterns. When and how do you drink coffee throughout the workday? Do you brew your own or have preferences?

Neighborhood Lawyer: By no means am I a coffee connoisseur or snob. I know just enough to detect whether the coffee is weak or strong, burnt. I prefer stronger coffee and don’t really have a preference. As soon as I reach my office in the morning, my sister brews me a strong Americano, and I usually drink about three cups a day.

INL: “Law” and “law firm” sound stiff by nature, which makes the convergence of the law with coffee more intriguing. What prompted you to come up with such a unique combination? Do you take part in running the café?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I couldn’t stand structured bureaucracies, so I didn’t want to work in an established organization. A good thing about being a lawyer is that you have the option to open up your own shop and go solo if you wanted to, and in doing so, I wanted to create a workspace that personally appealed to me. “General Doctor” in the Hongdae area in Seoul is a neighborhood hospital mixed with a café. I was intrigued by that concept and thought, if a hospital can be run like a café, why not a law office? So I discussed the idea with my sister, a gifted craftswoman, and devised our café-like law office. My sister is in sole control of running the café. But at the moment, it’s such a small operation in a small town, so I’m supporting the café financially through my practice.

INL: As I read through the “Neighborhood Law Firm” blog, I hinted a level of pride in the cookies and pastries offered at your café. Do you have any particular treats you’re fond of? Are all the pastries baked in-house at the café? Where do you purchase your coffee? Any special drinks you’re particularly fond of?

Neighborhood Lawyer: My talented sister does all the baking herself. Personally, the carrot cake and peanut butter cookies are my favorite. As for the coffee beans, we purchase them from a small local roaster we frequented before we even opened the café. Our coffee is good, but I’d also recommend our seasonal beverages, including our in-house ginger ale and lemon tea. Delicious!

INL: It’s interesting that your office is right in the middle of a traditional outdoor market in the small town of Euijungboo. Why did you choose Euijungboo over Seoul, and why did you choose a marketplace? Could you tell me more about the market? I’m also curious as to how you found your current building, and how you went about remodeling your office space and café. What are some pros and cons of opening your practice in an open-air market?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I was born and raised in Euijungboo, so returning here for my practice made sense. While many law firms in Korea are located near courthouses and other official buildings, I didn’t want to follow that path, so I expanded my search beyond the usual legal and business districts. I’ve walked these streets in my youth, so choosing Euijungboo came naturally.

My office is in the midst of a traditional outdoor market, known as “Cheil Market.” It’s fairly big, and the “ddukbokki” [Ed. rice cakes, fish cakes, lettuce, and other goodies smothered in smoltering gochujang sauce] is incredible. Everyone in the market is warm and welcoming.

Euijungboo is a relatively small city, with many older buildings still standing throughout the market. Many of them don’t even have elevators. After a long search, we luckily found one renting its second and third floors, perfect for our dual-concept approach. And the landlord cut us a great deal on the rent, which never hurts.

In terms of design, my sister and I researched the layout and interior of several cafes we liked and remodeled our space accordingly, and more importantly, we had to stay on budget. My sister hates dainty things, and I also felt that we could slowly fill the space out, little by little. So our café has a lot of intentional “empty” space.

The "Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe" is on the second and third floors of the building in the forefront, in the middle of the market.

The “Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe” is on the second and third floors of the building in the forefront, in the middle of the market.

INL: Given the location of your office, how would you describe your client base? What were some memorable cases you had this past year?

Neighborhood Lawyer: Even in small Euijungboo, there are many chain cafes around the central downtown area, where my office is located. Most of our café customers prefer our atmosphere over those of the chain shops, and we have regulars who camp down for hours with a MacBook, enjoying our space.

My clients are as varied as the market itself. Some clients stop by while strolling through the market. Others were dissatisfied with the legal service they received at other firms and intentionally looked me up to change lawyers.

Given the type of work I do, I’m frequently asked about the most rewarding cases or memorable moments. To me, every case is worthwhile and meaningful, and every case and client has been memorable. I’m still a young lawyer, so everything is still new, offering valuable learning opportunities at every step.

INL: Why did you choose the law? Did you have any different plans or goals while growing up?

Neighborhood Lawyer: My father suggested that I choose law as my undergraduate major. As a law student, I assumed everyone had to take the judicial exam after graduation. If I’d known how tough that exam was beforehand, I wouldn’t have even started. I spent about five years preparing for the exam. After I failed the first round, I quit, and wanted to write fiction or take up photography for a living. I felt groundless, lost.

INL: Taking the bar exam here was a pain. I’ve heard horror stories about the Korean examination process. Could you tell me more about the exam, the preparation, and what happens after you’ve passed it?

Neighborhood Lawyer: The Korean judicial exam is comprised of three stages. The first round is all multiple choice, the second is a series of essays, and the final round is an in-person interview. If you pass the first round of multiple choice questions, you are granted two opportunities to take the second round of essays. The multiple choice questions cover four subjects − constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, and an elective of your choosing. The essay portion cover seven subjects − constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, civil procedure, criminal procedure, administrative law, and contracts. The essay round goes on for four days, a true killer. Two subjects a day, for four days. I don’t even want to think about it.

If you pass all three rounds of the judicial exams, you now enter what’s called the “Judicial Research and Training Institute,” where you take part in practical training for two years. Specifically, you practice writing judicial opinions for civil and criminal trials, and receive practical training for civil and criminal defense. The first year is mostly spent in the classroom, learning theory, while the second year is spent in real world of courts, prosecutors’ offices and law firms.

Ever since Korea adopted the law school system four years ago, the judicial exam and “bar exam” are being used concurrently. In the law school system, you take a grad school entrance exam, and upon graduating, you take something similar to a U.S. bar exam to earn your license.

INL: Compared to the bar exam here, your judicial exams and the two additional years of training sounds tough. So instead of choosing the big law pay check or a comfy judicial post or prosecuting job, why did you decide to open a solo practice? What were the difficulties of going solo, and what were the rewards of working alone?

Neighborhood Lawyer: As I mentioned, I wasn’t made for structured organizations or bureaucracy. I didn’t think I would be happy in any of those.

Financing was the toughest part of opening a solo practice. I was constantly worried about whether I would earn enough to even keep the office running. My goal wasn’t to make the big bucks, but rather, I wanted something more sustainable for the long run.

Working alone is a perfect fit for me. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I’m not good at distributing work to others. And I really hate people nosing around in my work [laugh]. These traits totally make me sound like I have a personality disorder or something (just kidding, I’m fine).

INL: I’ve heard that you specialize in representing victims of sex crimes. Is that your sole practice, or do you take on other cases as well? What sparked your interest in sex crimes? In terms of client interaction, what’s different about representing sex crime victims?

Neighborhood Lawyer: During my second and final year at the “Judicial Research and Training Institute,” Korea initiated a public defender service program for victims of child sexual molestation. Within the confines of Korean criminal procedure, the victim is usually left out of much of the process. However, in sexual harassment cases, the victim’s testimony is often the most critical piece of evidence, or sometimes the only credible evidence. Taking this into account, there was a great need to assist the victims in the process.

The problem was that, while the victims were getting assistance during the trial, they were actually re-victimized by unrelenting and insensitive government agencies, lawyers and other arms of the justice system. The press certainly did not help protect the victims, either.

So when I started my own practice, I was determined to focus on sexual harassment cases, to make sure that the victims were fairly protected throughout the entire trial process, and not seen as mere nuggets of information. Of course, to pay the bills, I regularly take on other civil and criminal matters as well.

I was first interested in victims of sex crimes in college, when an upperclassman introduced me to some women’s study courses. There were a myriad of different areas within women’s studies, but given my law major, I was more interested in sex crimes. As I researched the issue in depth and read through critical court opinions, I noticed something wasn’t right. So before I started studying for the judicial exam, I spent more time delving into books and documentaries focusing on women’s issues.

In terms of approaching sex crime victims, there isn’t one clear method or checklist. Victims come from different age groups and professions, and the degree of victimization and relationship to the assaulter vary greatly. Also, approaching a client with special needs presents a new situation as well. However, even with innate differences, there are a couple of key things to watch out for. First, to maintain the integrity of the victim’s story or statement, I try to stay away from leading or suggestive questions that would embellish or alter the facts in any way. I also try not to prejudge anything in favor of or against the client. Second, keeping my emotions in check is important. I can’t afford to be too emotionally attached to the victim’s story.

INL: I’d like to ask you about sex crimes and cruelty against people with special needs in Korea in general. What’s behind the never ending news on these horrific crimes? How can Korea, or society in general, solve these issues?

Neighborhood Lawyer: Sex crimes and cruelty against people with special needs can be categorized as “power crimes” aimed at socially vulnerable individuals. The greatest problem is that our society in general is losing sensitivity towards socially weak and vulnerable groups. The current education system, only rewarding “first place” achievers, is also a problem, along with the common recognition that only praises and encourages success in terms of monetary gain or political influence.

There are too many issues, and they cannot be solved at once. To implant a sense of community and care for the socially vulnerable groups, the most important thing is to educate our children in that manner from a very young age. But to correctly educate our children, the parents’ values need to change first. Because of the interconnectedness of the issues, no one educational program or simple approach will present a cure. I constantly worry about these issues, and yet never come up with a clear solution.

INL: Whether in Korea or here in the U.S., I think lawyers are in a tough spot financially, as there are fewer opportunities. Any words of advice for current or future law students, and practicing lawyers who are concerned about their career path? How did you overcome your financial difficulties and expectations of others? Now that you’ve been going solo for almost two years, what are your dreams and goals, both personally and for your neighborhood law firm café?

Neighborhood Lawyer: I’m in the same boat as other young lawyers, with financial debt and a practice that doesn’t yet rake in the cash. I guess I’ll be able to pay off the loans at some point. I try not to let the finances get too much in the way of having fun, though. Getting through school was tough, and studying for the judicial exam and completing the two years of practical training was worse, and I basically sold my happiness throughout those years. I thought I’d be happy after I passed the exam and became a lawyer, but that wasn’t necessarily true. So instead of choosing a particular “job,” I honestly asked myself what it is I wanted to do, and opted to choose a path that was centered on allowing me to pursue what I truly wanted to pursue. I found something that would make me happy in the long run, and I am glad and thankful to be doing that now. My true passion is helping victims of sex crimes, but I also have to take on other cases to keep that passion a reality. Because I know that all of my cases fuel my true passion and calling, every day on the job is fun and meaningful. I am now thoroughly convinced that doing what you love for a living is the greatest blessing of all.

My dream is to stay put in Euijungboo as its neighborhood lawyer, for a long, long time. There will undoubtedly be obstacles along the road, but I will never quit trying.

Ms. Miyoun Lee and the Neighborhood Lawyer and Cafe own all the rights to the images incorporated into this interview.

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.

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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.

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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.

1.

Fewer things are as unpredictable as life. Fewer things are as miraculous, unique and precious. Its beginnings, though often calculated and planned, are nevertheless spontaneous, a result of a rather tenuous competition, or race, ending in a spark that in time changes the lives of others forever. Its endings, though often not calculated or planned, are often dictated by terms within the controls of a system, a system promulgated and regulated by those that were equally “created” by that miraculous spark we call conception. Life begins as a spark – arguably out of one’s control – and yet, oddly, life may end when a third party decides to snub that spark, at a time and in a manner as that third party deems appropriate.

The recently renewed discussion revolving around drone killings shines more light upon life and the right to take it. Lawyers make a living taking sides on arguments, and dubious words and phrases are friends in concocting more dubious explanations justifying the circumstances in which lives may be ended. As any lawyer would know, “legal reasoning” is often another name for “rubber stamp”; it is a sophisticated (maybe not) mean to a desired end, amorphous and easily sculptable. Simply put, it is bullshit – expensive, gift-wrapped bullshit. By no means am I taking sides. There is no easy answer to drone use, and one should stay away from either extreme, as there are always two sides to the equation.

2.

Winter in the Nevada desert is dry. Appropriately so. As the decadent shades of the summer months are dry, so are the winter winds and chills. The cold slaps the outer layers, but fails to penetrate further, bouncing away to some other vulnerable target. Winter on a tiny peninsula, which, by definition, is surrounded on three sides by ocean, penetrates. Frozen air particles drift aimlessly, forming sheets and clouds of ice, and there, the cold wraps around you, clinging to your layers, to your face, to your ears. Humidity is the problem. Sweat and dehydration in the summer, and bone-chilling cold in the winter.

But alas, the enrapturing humid cold is perhaps why Koreans are mad for spicy things and things boiling in hot stews. Russians and their vodkas will also get the job done, but on this particular day, wool scarves wrapped around our faces, we stumbled in for a fire-breathing treat. Space heaters are strategically placed around the tables, but the small dining area is only degrees warmer than the howling winds outside. Taking our order, the lady assures us the heaters will warm up the place in a short bit. A large order of “agujjim” (monk fish casserole) and a order of “gaejang” (raw crab in soy sauce). The friendly lady was right, as coats started coming off and the room, already permeated with the aroma of bean sprouts and fresh fish, started to heat up.

I sat across from a man I have never met before. He looked tired, shoulders slightly stooped, either due to the cold or some weight of life bearing down. And yet his eyes possessed a twinkle, an excitement I only possess when I am awaiting for a plate of food I have been yearning for almost a full year. His twinkle was beyond that.

As recent as forty years ago, the monk fish was thrown away as inedible trash in Korea. Understandably so, given its ugly countenance and rather lackluster amount of fillet. Then fishermen in the Masan area of South Kyungsang province, after hours of battling the waves for the day’s catch, took these beasts to local establishments and asked the cooks to conjure up a creation to enjoy with shots of soju. According to gastronomic legend, for the original Masan-style monk fish casserole, the fish was dried in the wind for twenty to thirty days before cooking, but now that the dish has become a national favorite, simply gutted versions of the fish are used as well. The lightly boiled chunks of fish (fillet, skin and cartilage) are smothered in red pepper flakes, loads of garlic and green onions, alongside bean sprouts, water dropwart and sea squirts.

monkfish

The casserole still steaming, I pour soy sauce over a mound of fresh wasabi. As I have uttered before in this post about monk fish at the restaurant Adour, the true beauty of this creature is not in its fillet, but in its skin and cartilage. Pepper flakes and garlic penetrating the flesh, even the fillet on this cold day is moist and delicate. The wasabi is a surprising match. Chilli spicy and wasabi spicy is different, and the counter play between the two dance on my tongue as I dig into a bowl of steaming white rice. As all of this is unraveling, my eyes are locked on a piece of fish with a generous amount of skin attached. As true gourmets know how to enjoy fish head, if you know monk fish, you know skin and cartilage. The pepper, garlic, wasabi-laden beauties go in the mouth, and chopsticks fly out once more to haul in some of that glistening bean sprout.

Food is a great ice breaker. Even for a table of six and first encounters, a belly full of spicy fish ought to warm the conversation. As our stomachs fill, our small talk about the food, of the weather, and of local politics also blooms, paving the way to something deeper and greater. Not unlike a well-timed shot of vodka, pepper-drenched sprouts and fish simmers a soothing campfire in one’s innards, slowly crawling up and out into one’s mind, illuminating flash-frozen thoughts of past and present. As our bodies thaw, so do our neurons, captivating glimpses of a reminiscent slideshow we call life.

3.

I am against the death penalty.

Arguments for and against this institution are plentiful. The power of the state to decide on the fate of a human life is not to be taken lightly, and there are decades of advocacy on both sides. I am against the death penalty not for those reasons, but because of the man with whom I shared a plate of monk fish casserole. Sweat streaming down the side of my face, and washing down the spiciness with tea, I was in the midst of a meal with the adopted uncle I never had; more accurately, the uncle of stories and yet not reality.

One mistake – one violent, ill-reasoned mistake – landed him on death row for armed robbery and murder. He grew up in an orphanage in Busan; his birth and life before the orphanage is unknown, lost. Maybe it was never lost, because it was never found or realized to begin with. Roaming the streets in Busan with other orphans, my then-delinquent uncle had no reason or purpose to life, listless and restless. Some say the opposite of “love” is not “hate.” Rather, antonym to love is “disinterest.” The potential of disinterest to harbor and nurture hatred is deeper than hate itself. In actuality, this type of hatred may be irrelevant to the common hate, as it is ideally closer to “fear”; a fear of abandonment, a fear for survival, a fear for the cold. The ultimacy of the crime itself – the mens rea, the actus reus – is no doubt the responsibility of the individual. On the contrary, the question revolves around this question: is the act a consequence of the individual himself? Cause is difficult to define, as social justice itself may have no definitive definition to lend support for teenaged orphans convicted of armed robberies. A product of the streets, my teenager uncle, convicted and sentenced to death, arrived at a prison in Daegu, which greeted him with cold bars and a jumpsuit. He was seventeen.

Abandonment hardens the softest of hearts. Prison cells do nothing in reverse, instead pouring superglue over the wounds of hatred and shame. My grandmother, even with years of experience in prison ministry, chiseled away painstakingly slowly to reach out to my uncle. The hardship of reconstructing trust in humankind is no different for death row inmates; the issue of one deserving trust is often so one-sided and disproportionate. Cursed out, neglected, and shut out at first, my grandmother confesses that all he needed was a spoonful of “motherly love” to initiate the thawing process. “Everyone has some good inside them,” she says, “and it is up to us, those of us that appear to be slightly advantaged in the amount of love we’ve received, to caress that good and bring it to the forefront.”

How easy it is to judge upon standards conjured by the select few. How simple it is to draw lines, not in sand but in permanent, black ink. How reasonable it seems to impart indifference to others that fall outside bubbled boundaries. And yet how difficult it is to look over one’s shoulder, to take a second look, to turn around, to walk back, and to reach out one’s hand. How difficult it is.

Fear and emptiness cause hatred. Ironically, the same fear and emptiness causes hatred not only in death row inmates, but also in model citizens under the law. There exists a significant void in our emotional capacity to love. Those closest to us, be it family, lovers and friends, are easiest to love. The socially acceptable, seemingly good folks causing no harm to others, are lovable, but not like our immediate circle. The void has crept in, yet not permanently, for these folks are easily admitted into the circle – a few drinks after work may do. Those that have no connection to us (not even on LinkedIn) are beyond the void. Because “we don’t care.” A simple phrase with devastating impact. Why fill my void with these “others”? Worse, why fill my void with death-deserving convicts. When one does not care, and finds no reason to care, one strikes the gavel, personally condemning others to death. So easy to do so. Because that inmate has no face. And death has no face.

But death has a face.

4.

The most straight forward way to enjoy crab is steaming it with Old Bay seasoning. The best way to enjoy crab, however, is not cooking it at all. Instead, fresh blue crab seeping in a soy sauce mixture for days and weeks creates a succulent delicacy known as “gaejang.” Crab flesh is jelly-like in its raw form, and its natural sweetness is beset preserved this way. Anything that has been seeped in soy sauce is salty, but this kind of salty is counterbalanced with the sweetness of the crab meat and the slight bitter-butteriness of the the crab “brains,” that is, the yellow and green oozy goodness on the shell. The result is melt-in-your-mouth raw crab meat, spoonfuls of gorgeous innards and roe, and a sauce that shall not go to waste, to the last drop.

gaejang

The kind lady prepares a house specialty with the gaejang. Forcefully yet delicately, she squeezes out the crab meat into a gigantic bowl of steamed rice. In a few swift motions, she then tosses in spoonfuls of the crab-indulged soy sauce, handfuls of crushed dried seaweed and dashes of sesame oil. Mix. This “gaejang rice” is beyond human description. The entire experience of inhaling it was as creamy as butter, but there was not an ounce of butter, and it was better than butter. Infinitely. Blasphemous, but true. The soy sauce has absorbed all the flavors of the crab, and in the process, has breathed in the ocean breeze as well. It tastes of the ocean.

Guacamole prepared at the table could be a dining experience, but it is no longer unique and sought after. What makes this rice dish so memorable was how it was made. Slow food (as the crab itself took weeks to complete) as the lady painstakingly removed all the raw crab meat, chatting with us, laughing, adding sesame oil here and there, sprinkling nori. I felt as if I was dining at a home on the shores of Busan.

Death has a face if you choose to give it a face. In spectacular form, food gave me a face for the death penalty; I could no longer speak of it in the abstract, in theorems. Not because he was ultimately executed, but because he was not, because he lived. Hearing his testimony over a meal brought death from the abstract into a name, a face, a wife, a new home, a job – a life. Before him, death row inmates have never been paroled in Korea. While several inmates with life sentences were granted parole, death row inmates evaporated one by one with no hope. But miracles do happen, and after years of transformative interactions and conversations (and probably an intricate pulling of political strings), my uncle was granted amnesty and entered a new world leaving decades of cell-life behind.

It struck me to realize that life illuminates death. One could see how death illuminates life, encouraging one to live to the utmost worthy cause. As a butterfly struggles free from its cocoon, and into a new life of beautiful flights among trees and flowers, a life that should have ended on the end of a noose or in a chair blooms retroactively, the cocoon acting as incubator for something greater and worthier. The narrative I was listening to, from this uncle out of nowhere, would not have been the same from a third-person point of view. If his death sentence had ripened and was carried out as intended, the death would be the only thing illuminated, his life not even worthy of a few lines in a local paper. Yet he lives. And it is his life, the words that came out of his mouth, that struck me as to value the moment of death, that sacred moment when a beautiful life calls it an end.

Whether one believes in creation or evolution, or things in between, life “begins” beyond one’s reach. If your sperm refuses to swim towards the egg, you have no life. We are here because we are here. Capital punishment, for admittedly valid reasons, “ends” life with third-person control. We are here because we are here, but you will no longer be here because we decided against your interest – sums up the issue. Even in death row inmates, the miraculous potential of life still exists. This is one confession you cannot make until death has a face in one’s life. And this face is given not because someone died, but because he lived.

5.

Our plate of monk fish casserole begins to show its bare bottom; I scoop the remaining bits of sprouts and red sauce into my mouth. The gaejang rice, sadly, is long gone, and I reach over and grab a final crab leg hanging out in a pool of that magic soy sauce. Another bowl of rice would have been great (as a vehicle for this amazing crab-infused soy sauce) but what measure of reason left in me politely declined. Such useless politeness, if you ask me now.

The death penalty arbitrarily takes away “potential.” Within parameters constructed by imperfect human beings, we define “worth.” We then measure a life against those parameters and deconstruct it, asking whether the crime in question is “deserving” of death, and whether the person in question is “worthy” of life. My uncle and I shared one of the most memorable meals of my life, both in terms of gastronomic substance and conversation. The culmination of my grandmother’s stories, her news clippings and my imagination was a warm, laughter-filled meal, with an uncle that may have never been. Capital punishment takes away that potential; a full life with a paying job, a new wife and just-blooming memories all cut short and denied with a few poundings of the gavel and some bullshit order by a judge.

How funny it is that one speaks of death over food.

But how fitting it is to realize that food, the very fuel that sustains life, is the perfect medium to reminisce upon the most basic rights to humankind – the right to life.

War so often leads to occupation. In turn, occupation leads to struggles, clashes, and mass accumulation of scars – physical, mental and emotional. Wars started for the best of causes, the worst of causes, or no cause at all, tumble down an unfortunate yet ever so foreseeable path of destruction, for “cause” is purely subjective; good and evil zooming in and out, the mind blooming its tendency to focus only upon a definition that suits itself.

Battle scars are entrenched in the war-torn soil itself, forever rooted in dimensions not easily visible to the naked eye. Armed conflicts begin and end with military presence stamping its mark, one pin at a time on a map. Call it strategic, call it necessity, call it defense, call it offense, call it offensive-defense. Conclusively, those pins on the map meant barbed wire walls, sirens, and barracks. To “keep the peace.”

But even military occupation and colonial over-takings are capable of producing cultural irony. Where those pins marked the barbed wires on some general’s map, occupation has birthed gastronomic artifacts, in controlled chaos-like environments where the seemingly bad and ugly have, miraculously, created enjoyable and even delightful edibles. Take Korea for instance. After thirty-six years of Japanese control, and at the end of the Second World War, the peninsula finally re-gained its independence, but the pure meaning of the word did not last long. In a heated political struggle to gain control in the Far East, the Soviets and the U.S. growled for influence over the newly liberated land. An invisible line was drawn across the thirty-eighth parallel, and the two world powers each occupied the north and south. After a deadly three-year war and the ensuing “time out,” U.S. military forces stayed put in the south to ensure peace and stability.

War and poverty often accompany each other, and Korea shriveled in hunger for years. On a lucky day, one would get one’s hands on leftover rations from a nearby American military base – canned beans, Spam, ground beef, and everything in between. So the lucky lad throws all of this in a pot with some kimchi, instant ramen noodles if available, and other condiments depending on the extent of one’s luck. Voila, the birth of “boo dae jji gae,” or literally, “military base stew.” In the fifties, it was a symbol of hunger and the bitter aftermath of civil warfare; frantic scrambles for whatever and everything one could find from the many U.S. military posts were common. Now, ironically, it is beloved by people of all ages and backgrounds, purely for its taste. Survival instincts have become delicate luxuries of our taste buds.

French influence on Vietnam is tastily personified in the impeccable “bánh mì” sandwich. The occupation there came not from war, but dates back to the era of French colonialism. The term “bánh mì” actually does not depict a particular sandwich. Rather, it means “bread,” particularly referring to the French baguette. As Vietnamese immigrants settled abroad, Vietnamese bakeries also sprang up, serving this “bread” with various meat and fish fillings.

A few square blocks in Falls Church, VA, is home to a slew of Vietnamese pho shops and bakeries, serving some of the most authentic Vietnamese cuisine outside of Vietnam. My obsession with pho (or anything meaty in hot broth) has been well-documented on this blog in the past, as you can see here. What better portrays the Vietnamese communities’ resilience and creative genius are the ways in which they adopted an utmost French ingredient (the baguette) and completely transformed it into a series of sandwiches more worthy than any rusted account of French colonial glory. Like the Koreans transforming canned beans and Spam into a national dish, the Vietnamese took the baguette (arguably a symbol of arrogance, dominance and deprivation of justice – all through colonialism) and embraced it, reconfiguring it to meet their palettes.

Local flavors integrated with foreign flavors. An interlude of Vietnamese and French influences have culminated into these distinct creations right in our backyard. A cold and gloomy Saturday is forever-enlightened by a meaty bowl of pho, an assortment of bánh mì sandwiches (you buy five and the sixth is free!) and a perfectly brewed cup of coffee.

 

The keys to a great bánh mì sandwich are twofold: good bread and mayonnaise. Located at the heart of Falls Church, Bánh Mì DC bakes their own bread, fresh every morning. The outside is just crusty enough (delivering that “crunch” with every bite), and the inside is perfectly soft and fluffy. Combined with a generous layer of mayo, the bread just by itself is rich and buttery, seemingly dissipating in your mouth. What goes inside the bread completely changes the character of the sandwich. Until recently, I was a dire believer that head cheese was the single best filling for a bánh mì. I was wrong. Head cheese is still a dominant contender, but a new world of flavors has opened for me with the sardine bánh mì. Plucked from cans, the fishy sardines go well with the pickled carrots and daikon radish, cilantro and cucumber. If you like “saba nigiri,” then you will definitely enjoy this; it’s a similar oiliness and aftertaste. Sardines plus cilantro makes you say “good.” Add  few slices of spicy jalapeño to the mix, and you would say “perfect.” The mayo’s oiliness is still distinct from that of the sardines; both are ravished with oils, but somehow the two in conjunction retain their distinct flavors, enhancing the other exponentially.

For those that are even remotely familiar with Vietnamese food, Vietnamese coffee – dense, compact and two words, condensed milk! – is addictive, to say the least. They know their coffee. So, to nobody’s surprise, bánh mì goes well with black coffee. Lose the condensed milk (just this once), and choose freshly roasted beans with a balanced flavor, maybe with floral notes. Dark cocoa notes would work too. “Culinary coffee” is something I have been preaching recently, where different beans with different notes “match” well with food – like wine pairing. A full-bodied, balanced cup of black coffee is a great compliment to the baguette, the mayo, the fishy-oily sardines, the cilantro, and just about everything else in that sandwich.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATopics like war and colonialism do not always conceive discussions of culture and cuisine. Understandingly so, pondering upon the reasons and causes of war and occupancy usually conjures more war and more occupancy, leading to more pain and grief. In an imperfect world where internal gains of greed permeate all aspects of decision-making (for both individual and state), there will always be war, and the relatively weak will be occupied by the relatively strong.

However, food has philosophy. Food is philosophy. Even if unintended (and in many cases, perfectly intended), war and colonialism leave permanent cultural imprints. At times, these imprints are mechanisms used to wipe out what remains of the indigenous culture, to be replaced by what the victor deems “superior.” At the center of such indigenous culture lies food, as people of all colors have, for generations, spoken through their food. Heritage has been passed down through food, stories have been interlocked with food, and pride has been instilled in every morsel made and consumed. Food philosophy has faced confrontation. Certainly not limited to Korea and Vietnam, food continued to be made through times of war, famine and occupation. But unlike other aspects of culture, food philosophy as so often bloomed in these times. Instead of crumbling or evaporating to be forever replaced by foreign influences, food philosophy adapted, re-molded itself to entirely new genres of gastronomical galore.

Pondering these things may be the last thing one does when strolling through Falls Church to get a bowl of pho and a bánh mì to-go. But food without a story is not genuine, and food without philosophy is barren. Careful observance of food may lead to grander pictures of the flow of vast cultures. Even the least suspecting bánh mì carries an essence of Vietnamese culture.

Every bite tells a tale. Every bite, therefore, is worth listening to.

By definition, winter signifies a shriveling of life. Retraction takes a grip on trees and shrubs, and even people, as we pull our hands up in our sleeves, pull our coat collars tight against our exposed necks, and bundle up in layers of cotton, goose down and fur. By definition, winter signifies death, the polar opposite of life, of creation. Evidence of life – greenery, warm rain, gently caressing wind – is absent, nowhere to be found. All of life temporarily submits to the cold, awaiting the dissipating frost, awaiting that first sign of sprouts and roots. Yet until then, hibernation blankets the fields, patience seemingly dwindling from the foreground of bustling production.

How ironic, then, that the very symbolization of winter – death – so often creates highly prized delicacies in localities scattered about. From death itself blooms a creation that would not have seen light in the warmth of spring; death nurtures a will to thrive, a will that sparks ingenuity.

It is no surprise that humankind’s wisdom blossomed greatly around food and the preservation of it. After all, no matter what the circumstances. one must eat. For survival or for pleasure, exponential wisdom and know-how has been dedicated to ensure the steady intake of food. Such wisdom was ever more vital during the per-cannery era. Today, at any given Safeway or Whole Foods, there exists entire aisles dedicated to canned foods; anything and everything can be canned and stored for, well, until the apocalypse. If I may digress, my high school building was built as a bomb shelter in the fifties, and according to school legend, there were a complete system of tunnels underneath school grounds, all the way out to the baseball field. And along these tunnel routes rested thousands of canned rations. Russian missiles never did come, and our yearbook staff’s efforts to uncover the myth never led to any solid evidence. Nevertheless, the science of canning food for preservation is a relatively new phenomenon in gastronomic history.

Preservation of fish has played an integral part in human development. From various parts of the world, where civilizations sprouted and blossomed near rivers, bays and other bodies of water, preserved fish was a critical protein source throughout the year, especially during the cold non-growing months. With no refrigeration technology available, fish was preserved using other sources of wit and wisdom – salting, pickling, smoking and drying. Fermentation was extensively used even in hot and humid climates. In Southeast Asia, fermented fish paste, in its many forms and varieties, are used daily as in important flavoring ingredient in countless local dishes (Cambodia’s “prahok” is something I have wanted to try for years). In Japan, the ancient ancestral sushi, known as “nare-zushi”, was pickled by stacking fish with layers of rice, the season-long fermentation process, often lasting months, breaking down the rice and fish to create its distinct taste and funk. Herring has been pickled as a delicacy in the Baltic and Nordic regions, and Alaskan salmon is just one type of fish that has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type personality change upon smoking.

Perhaps the practice of drying fish leaves the least amount of control in one’s hands. No amount of salt, rice or any other pickling agent is used for preservation; in most other methods, variables of similar likeness are under full command of one’s hands. As some may say, “control is power.” Put in another way, the relinquishment of control is a direct loss of power. But the process of drying asks of such relinquishment; all one can do is clean the fish, perform blade work on it as deemed fit, and hang it. The rest is left to nature. Conditions of temperature, humidity and air velocity is beyond one’s reach, and one may dare say that Mother Nature takes over from then on, preserving the day’s catch at her pace in a manner she chooses.

In direct contrast to the central element of its definition, winter bears and births one local delicacy in particular that may only be found in the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula. Affectionately called “gwamegee” by the locals, this air-dried mackerel pike is the offspring of the unique environmental and historical roots of the city of Pohang and the North Kyungsang province.

Although the exact ancestral beginnings of gwamegee is debatable – most say it started around the early nineteenth century – the preservation process and its unique texture and taste have been passed down through generations. Originally, gwamegee was made with herring, as the fish was caught in great abundance in the seas of Pohang and even upstream in some of its rivers. As the supply of herring diminished, mackerel or saury took its place. After being gutted and cleaned, the fish is hung in the sea breeze of Pohang for up to two weeks. The flesh, not fully dry, still retains the essential oils of the fish, compacting its flavor. As it was hundreds of years ago, it is best enjoyed with an array of seaweed and cabbages, often with chives, raw garlic, and spicy vinegared pepper paste. This delicacy was so sought after that, in the Chosun Dynasty, kings ordered the artisans to ship cartloads of it to Seoul before the product could be sold in the general market.

I once again was reunited with this dish in the most unassuming restaurants in Shinsa-dong, part of the now infamous “Gangnam” district of Seoul – miles and miles away from Pohang. There were no waves to listen to, no ocean breeze to walk against. No seagull in sight, not a fish line in before us. Just Gangnam, in all its deceiving glory. As if reenacting the history of supplying the royalty, the gwamegee was personally delivered from Pohang, just days after it was plucked from the drying lines. No kings of Chosun were present at our table, but with each bite, one drew closer to understanding why the well-fed monarchs anxiously awaited their chariots to arrive from the poverty-stricken coast land.

Winter creates. Its harshness is often misunderstood, temperature acting as a deceptively cunning shadow of its true nature. Its slashing winds dig through outer layers, almost seemingly through our bones, but in our modern, everyday concrete jungle, the shrill of the wind is magnified through our man-made wind tunnels. Out in the outskirts of Pohang – and any other quiet sea-side townships – the ocean breeze, even its winter variety, gently caresses the hanging fish, rocking it back and forth ever so slightly. Harshness and shrillness are no longer accurate descriptors. Like a newborn in a crib, like budding leaves and flowers in the early days of spring, the wind here is a nursing mother, cooing her young to the most intimate lullaby.

Winter creates. By no means is the temperature cuddly during Pohang’s winter months. But in creation’s perspective, even the cruel thermometer has its place. During the two-week drying process, the freezing temperatures of the night enraptures the fish and freezes it. Throughout the night, as the full moon watches on, the hanging fish is a cocoon in deep sleep, swaying back and forth at times, and holding still as a rock when the wind retracts itself to the depths of the dark. It awaits. When the morning sun bursts open over the East Sea, the gradual warmth of day re-heats and melts the flesh. As a butterfly breaks into the world, so does the fish stretch from the cold of night into a day’s worth of sun. As this process of freezing and re-heating repeats itself for fifteen days, the natural oils of the fish are harnessed, compacting its flavor and nurturing a wonderfully chewy texture.

Winter creates. The blistering heat of the summer sun would have overwhelmed the tender mackerel, devouring its nutrients and succulent juices. The winter sun warms the flesh just enough to semi-dry it; only the winter variety of sunshine is sensitive enough to preserve the fish’s distinct qualities. In conjunction with the sea breeze and frost, rays of light stroke the fish gently, gliding over every morsel, every molecule with equal due care. The degree of alarm associated with the microwave oven jolts whatever specimen occupies its chambers; on the contrary, the winter sun is in the midst of a delicate ballet with the rows of hanging fish, allowing patience and time to bloom in their roles as facilitators.

Alain de Botton, in his book “Status Anxiety,” quotes the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, in defining and defending art – and thus creation: “Every great work of art . . .  was marked . . . by the ‘desire to remove human error, clear human confusion, and diminish human misery,’ just as all great artists were imbued with the ‘aspiration to leave the world better and happier than they [found] it.’ They might not always realise this ambition through overtly political subject matter . . . and yet embedded within their work, there was almost always some cry of protest against the status quo, and thus an impulse to correct the viewer’s insight or teach him to perceive beauty, to help him understand pain or to reanimate his sensitivities, to nurture his capacity for empathy or rebalance his moral perspective through sadness or laughter. Arnold concluded his argument with the idea upon which this chapter is build: Art, h insisted, was ‘the criticism of life.'” Through plagues, famines, and wars, art symbolized creative vitality. When pressed, humanity responds in full bloom, preserving every percolating ounce of richness.

The worst circumstances draw out the best in humanity. When the fields are barren, stripped of its life-giving capacity, frozen solid three layers deep to the core, winter creates wisdom. The need to survive creates the urge to thrive. The slashing winds are different. The night frost is different. Rays of sunlight are different. Previously perceived as villains of angry blizzards and wind tunnels, nature’s ingredients are themselves transformed into creators. Destruction no longer subdues the fields; although still frozen, humanity thrives in the most frigid of temperatures, the darkest of hours.

All this is illuminated by winter, which by definition creates nothing but death.

“Place” is associated with just about everything that our senses come across. In whatever activity our body and mind take part in, we do so in a “place”; whether or not one recognizes or appreciates such a phenomenon is an entire dialogue on its own. Our daily commute takes place somewhere (train, subway, bus, parking lot-like I-66); our work takes place somewhere (cubicle, hole-in-the-wall, highrise); our mingling chatter takes place somewhere (sidewalk, bar, lunch line at the salad place that for some reason always has a line); our gastronomic activities take place somewhere (Korean deli, at my desk in front of a computer monitor, Indian lunch buffets with unnamed but delicious curry creations).

Coffee epitomizes the imprinting power of place. In turn, place symbolizes an attached ambiance, a feel, a mood, a hue associated with the place that holds the coffee.

A vast number of coffee drinkers, for decades, drank coffee not only for the sake of coffee, but more so for the attached ambiance. The price one paid for a cup of black liquid gold was not limited to the beans themselves, but included the chair one sat in, the light fixtures above one’s head, and the streaming music. I recall, as a youngster in Korea, a time when (before the onslaught of Starbucks and other chains) coffee shops were referred to as “dabang.” These peculiar establishments – now almost unheard of, practically extinct – were the preferred meet-and-greet points for just about any occasion, particularly for blind dates. The servers slash waitresses, affectionately referred to as “madame,” played the roll of hostess more than a mere server. Patrons oft returned to a said dabang just for a renowned madame’s company.

And the coffee. Dabang establishments have left a permanent imprint on Korea’s coffee culture, a tattoo-like presence. The term “dabang coffee” is still used when one would like to sip a cup with cream and sugar, with more cream and sugar. Coffee was first introduced in Korea to the royal family at the start of the twentieth century, and as the beverage began to take to the masses, the unfamiliar and rather bitter taste of this black liquid was understandably pacified by the inclusion of cream and sugar. Like other cultures, coffee was enjoyed as an after-meal splurge, a sugary exclamation point, acting more as a dessert than anything else. The popularity of “Americanos” and black drip coffee is only recent history on the Peninsula. The lasting impact of said dabangs can still be reminisced by Korea’s love for instant coffee; convenient one-pack-a-cup sticks with ground coffee, powdered cream, and sugar.

Coffee influences where and how we converse with one another. Where once a dabang hosted blind dates, a Starbucks or Coffee Bean stands to host chitchatting college students in Gangnam. A lasting similarity, though, is the relatively muted interest towards the coffee itself; as it was decades ago, one pays for one’s seat and right to chat in that specific ambiance.

Greeks had their own association with coffee, as painted here by Nikos Kazantzakis:

“I took a seat in a kafeneion. The coffee and water came. Today is Sunday, services are over, and now the householders proceed to the square. Dressed in their Sunday best, grim and pompous. They sit down, light their cigarettes, sip water and wait with faces turned toward the north. What are they waiting for? The newspapers from Athens. React to the order around you, resist the current, say no! when all those around you are murmuring yes; this is one of the most demanding obligations of a soul that lives in a bankrupt era. Consonance and balance are fertile virtues in creative times; but when the historical moment of dissolution is at hand, a great struggle is needed to keep your soul in order. In order to catch hold, not to be swept away, a good method is to concentrate your mind on a great soul, one which sprang up and blossomed in your native soil. Today as I sit in the Tripolitan coffeehouses watching the people and listening to their talk, I sense that if I were a young man living in Tripolis, I would concentrate – in order to save myself – upon the rich, aggressive, cunning and valiant soul of Kolokotronis.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Journey to the Morea).

Throughout his account of his travels through Greece, Kazantzakis was intrigued by the the substance of people’s conversations while they sipped coffee. Not even “sipped,” but often his subjects would order a coffee, a couple glasses of water, and converse; the sipping of coffee is rarely mentioned in his narrative. The Greeks of the Peloponnesos, awaiting news from Athens, debated politics and the economy; they spoke of struggle, of resistance, of bleak hope. Coffee was the perfect vehicle to deliver such conversations. In the midst of political chaos and uncertainty, the “kafeneion” served as the vehicle of mutual gatherings – whether or not the coffee was consumed was secondary. And the Greeks seemed fond of their glass of cold water with their coffee; reason not elaborated by the author, but indeed for some purpose. Coffee, water and cigarettes, inseparable trio for conversation, at least for the Greeks.

AdourCoffee

Coffee’s sense of place, and its vehicular role of delivering conversation, does not always lack a rising truth: the quality of the coffee. One speaks of paying for the coffee shop ambiance, the seat and the lights, a gathering place of political discourse. But now more than ever, the “taste” of the coffee itself has a sense of “place.”

The cold-brewed coffee transforms one’s perception of the standard morning buzz or after meal coffee; the art of “culinary coffee” should be increasingly appreciated. La Colombe Torrefaction, a personal favorite, steeps its dark Corsica blend for sixteen hours in stainless steel wine tanks, resulting in its Pure Black creation with an ultimate clean and crisp coffee. Its subtle cocoa tones rest profoundly on one’s tongue – throughout the meal, and specifically with red meat. Coffee and meat, lamb chops or a bone-in rib eye for instance, are excellent partners in crime. The natural sweetness in cold-brew coffee sublimely tosses around the iron and fat in a bloody steak. A few swings of the steak knife and a chug of coffee transports one’s senses to Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, wherever the coffee beans have been grown and hand-picked.

Culinary coffee allows a profound shift in the “place” of coffee. No longer limited to the dabang, the Starbucks, or kafeneion, coffee now roams freely from table to table, across cuisines, to be enjoyed in conjunction with a culture’s specialty dish or mom’s home cooking. Coffee’s notes and flavors are vast and numerous like the Greek gods, each with a variant fury. Matching a bottle of some French wine with a Chilean sea bass (which is, by the way, endangered) drenched in truffle oil should now be as ancient and antiquated like the ruins of Corinth. Culinary matching now breathes in the fresh wisp of fresh-ground coffee or a “cold one” from steel wine tanks. The vast bean varieties from growing regions all across the globe presents an unexplored “black ocean” within the art of food.

Some say we are what we eat. One must add that we are what we drink, where we drink, and to what purpose we drink to. Coffee signifies place. Valuation shall not be shortchanged only by the beans’ price tag, or with the real estate associated with the chair one sits in to enjoy such coffee. True valuation, like good coffee, shifts – from table to counter top to cafes and the streets. Where we drink will always add value. With whom we drink always adds conversation, with its own scale of values. What we drink (region, bean, roast, brewing method) levitates our coffee experience beyond our physical presence and transports coffee’s sense of place to unseen and unknown plateaus. In all aspects, coffee is the medium in which one finds common ground where none previously existed, orating stories of people and their places, echoing those efforts of Homer himself.

1.

Expectancy adds minimal value to our travels. Setting out, on a journey for a day, or two, or days on end, expecting the expected is nothing beyond our norm, our due course; comfort, as some may call it. Comfort is the public enemy of a truly memorable trip. Expecting the expected, and cajoling one’s body and mind through the expected events and circumstances when the expected appears and executes itself; comfortable as it may be, it’s leagues away from memorability.

We remember glimpses of our travels through the unexpected. The virtually unknown crab shack (hideously delicious) discovered amidst pure desperation, an unannounced downpour that led to a scurry into a previously hidden vintage shop, road construction and its consequential detour, birthing explosive panoramas of cypresses, pines and willows.

2.

Resting on the southern shores of the peninsula, Busan’s warmth and radiant beaches rarely hint of snow showers. Even in the winter months, when Seoul and its surrounding regions shiver and solidify like chocolate mousse in a blast freezer (minus seventeen degrees Celsius recently), Busan generally sports a gentle southern breeze, its temperatures never threatening or malicious.

After a two-day gastronomic galore, dark clouds swarmed in like horizontal pillars of smoke, and the skies opened up, regurgitating white powder and clustered matter with all its might. My cognizance had never pictured Busan cloaked in white. There is something intensely bothersome about non-accumulating snow; it’s a tease, a master of the push-and-pull, showing you glimpses of purity, yet taking it back before the density of its colors are fully revealed. Exceptions exist, and when an unsuspecting mind meets a wall of white flurries, dusting the windshield, brushing hotel window panes, caressing every barren branch, accumulation is an unneeded luxury to compose the luscious silhouette created by the clouds.

Fish mongers swiftly scurried about, not with panic or urgency, but with inexplicable joy, almost childlike, at this phenomenal downpour of snow. Beaming. Tourists, huddled under canopies or behind glass walls of some multinational coffee shop chain, absorbed the site of purity falling silently, at times at a slant, at times sideways, but always silently. Beaming. A gray-haired gentleman briskly walks with a young boy of no more than five years old, appearing to be grandfather and grandson. The older man’s knit scarf comes off, and he wraps it around the neck of the younger man. Both beam excitedly.

The unexpected snow cleansed our retinas, drawing us closer to the edge of our known comforts, and ultimately unwrapped its purity. Standing, walking, sitting, beamed we did. Giddily. With monstrous snowflakes hitting the sides of our faces, we loaded our luggage one by one, not knowing what the storm would bring to Kyungju, our destination. As we made our way, I was reminded of a Busan I encountered years ago, a city and shoreline on the brink of a mild hurricane. The soot-like clouds seemed abnormally low that day, as if one could grab a chunk if one stretched out far enough. The winds were gathering speed, gusting in some instances. At first, the raindrops were scattered, not menacing at all. But then after a roar or two of a thunder’s cry, I “heard” the rain as much as I saw it; Haewoondae beach and its shallow waters magnified the chorus of raindrops falling on its surface.

Odd as it seemed, a hurricane-infested beach was incomprehensibly more attractive than a sun-infested one in mid-July. Mother Nature’s flakiness, it turns out, memorialized an otherwise uneventful trip.

3.

“With our backs to the snowy mayhem” would be entirely inaccurate. For one, the entire drive from Busan to Kyungju was never snow-free, and secondly, “mayhem” is a relative term. True for the driver, but not so for spectators. “Through white curtains and grayish black slush,” we drove the expected two hours to the ancient Shilla capitol.

As Alain de Botton put it: “Among all the places that we go to but don’t look at properly or that leave us indifferent, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that overwhelms us and forces us to take heed. They possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty. This may not involve prettiness nor any of the obvious features that guidebooks associate with beauty spots; having recourse to the word might be just another way of saying that we like a place.” (The Art of Travel)

Kyungju is just the place. As the capital of the thousand-year Shilla dynasty, it bears the many fruits of the era’s cultural heritage; tombs, artifacts and landscapes. Not unlike Washington, DC’s National Mall and its countless museums, where flocks of students and chaperons partake in the annual summer pilgrimage, Kyungju is the most popular field trip destination for many budding academics. But as de Botton accurately observed, not many look at its fruits properly, and consequently, Shilla’s legacy rarely scratches the innermost corners of our thoughts, and too often leaves travelers indifferent.

A thousand-year history bears a heritage too rich for words. On a clear day, when the yellow and orange sun beams directly above one’s head, eyes dart from left to right, trying to encapsulate the green, the brown, the granite-gray. Too much for a pair of eyes to handle. An inherent beauty of snow lies in its ability to simplify matters, to cloak the distractions, the impurities, and leave standing only what is truly important. As I stepped out of our vehicle, and as my sneakers fell through a seven-inch white abyss only to be stopped by that friendly “squeek” of compressed snow, only two beings occupied by sight; five majestic tombs and the surrounding barren trees.

The sky and snow-covered tombs were inseparable, the whites of both bleeding into one another, their boundaries blurred and unclear. Distinguishing, with any degree of certainty, the end of earth, mound, tomb, and the beginning of sky, atmosphere, air was a daunting task. The color “white,” however, was distinguishable in shades; pale, bright, stern, mellow. This panoramic plataeu of white was disturbed only by specks of black representing far and near trees, standing as guardians of the dead, and even this disturbance was no menace at all, instead adding depth, perception and balance to the otherwise overwhelming display of the shades of white.

4.

To borrow the words of John Ruskin, “No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”

Ruskin was lamenting the speedy haste of tourists, boasting the ability to blast through Europe in a week by train; going instead of being. Kyungju and its royal tombs would be nothing more than a few white blurs from the vantage point of a warm car. Feet sinking in inches of powder, the steam from our breath billowing in clouds of white, tasting the moist winter air – every step draws one closer to Shilla, to the story of its kings, their reign, and their long-forgotten legacies.

Closer to beauty in its absolute terms.

A family of five was busily snapping photos; father shifting left and right for the perfect angle, mother struggling mightily to harness her three boys; and the boys preoccupied with the size of their snowballs. One would hardly guess that this, indeed, is a grave site, laden with death and sorrow. Yet ironically, death, symbolized by the five hill-like tombs, resembled nothing less than pure beauty, the effects of funeral somber nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the white sheet of snow has cast a spell, suppressing whatever gloomy thought squirming to emerge from the underworld, just layers beneath our feet. But on a second thought, even in the spring and summer months, the tombs, with their lush greens resembling pastures more than burial grounds, may be deemed beautiful; even then, the tourists come and go, families pose and smile, children run about. The snow must then have another meaning.

“For a foreigner the pilgrimage to Greece is simple, it happens without any great convulsion; his mind, liberated from sentimental entanglements, leaps on to discover the essence of Greece. But for the Greek, this pilgrimage is fraught with hopes and fears, with distress and painful comparison. Never does a clear and unencumbered thought arise, never a bloodless impression. A Greek landscape does not give us – if we know how to listen and to love – an innocent tremor of beauty. The landscape has a name, it is bound up with a memory – here we were shamed, here glorified; blood or sacred statues rise up from the soil, and all at once the landscape is transformed into rich, all-encompassing History, and the Greek pilgrim’s whole spirit is thrown into confusion.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, Journey to the Morea)

A pilgrim’s confusion is exemplified by layers of snow. How easy it would have been to walk besides those mounds of dirt with no thought, no inquisition; as Kazantzakis explained superbly, “without any great convulsion.” Travel with no convulsion is like locking one’s bedroom door and embarking on an epic journey from one’s couch to one’s bed, then on to the mysterious windows (This was actually done by Xavier de Maistre, written about in his Journey around My Bedroom). Beneath the snow, beneath the layers, exists fruits of history that have been muted indefinitely. For a traveler obsessed with the “speed” of travel, a journey through Kyungju, through Korea, is simple, uncomplicated; but for those who question the “innocent tremor of beauty” – the cities’ flashing night lights, the thumping music, the car-riddled roads and cloud-piercing skyscrapers – one may hear the groans of centuries of invasions, bloodshed and hunger.

A hiatus of invasion or foreign occupation was a rarity for Korean Peninsula; the various Chinese tribes from the north, the Japanese on their ships from the east. Even when Shilla conquered its rivals and built a thousand-year dynasty, blood was poured on the streets of Kyungju and elsewhere to maintain that power. After the Second World War, the peninsula was split in two, and a civil war tore through, permanently scarring the mentality of those surviving and even their unborn descendants. Financial hardship drove people to the mountains in search of food – tree barks, grass, dirt. The economy boomed like no other example in modern history, but at the cost of democracy and individual freedom; even the president at the helm of that exponential growth was gunned down. Bloodshed, pain and tears defined this peninsula, more than any of us would like to readily admit. Much of this has been drowned in “beauty,” perhaps of a misunderstood variety.

Perhaps the “snow” layering the ancient tombs of Kyungju have deeper meaning; perhaps it is a symbol of a new beginning, a cleansing of whatever impurity that lies beneath it, within the deathly mounds; an opportunity to press the refresh button. Free from the costly race that has deceived us with economic fortune, free from the corruption that has become the new norm, free from the pain-drenched conscience of every pilgrim walking the grounds. Perhaps snow is, truly, beauty, and beauty is truly possible. Cloaked in shades of white.

5.

My gastronomic senses instinctively recognize “beauty” when they see it; the nose first detects it, the ears bring in the crowd, the sizzle, the eyes memorialize on first sight, the tongue and mouth take care of the rest. Our footrace through time amidst the snow-covered tombs was only complete with another pilgrimage to a traditional bakery infamous for its “Hwangnam bread”; a delicate dough filled with sweet bean paste, imprinted with its signature logo and baked until the very tips turn ever so crispy. Proportion and texture stands out. Each pastry is hand-molded from scratch, and the dough has surprising density, despite its incredible thinness; Chewy Chips Ahoy after they are heated for ten seconds in a microwave, but better. The sweet bean paste tastes nothing like the sugary black matter easily found in cans. Also handmade from scratch, the smooth yet lightly grainy texture perfectly matches its buttery richness (but, of course, no butter added).

Beauty, so easily found, so easily consumed. But then again, the slushy roads were no easy task to reach this harbinger of beauty, and it is doubtless that its beauty was magnified by each step we took amongst the dead kings and ever-falling snow, still visible just outside the steamy glass windows. Beauty led to beauty, all falling into its respected place, enhancing and never overwhelming.

Exotic lands and voyages across forests and rivers may reveal some layers of beauty, some value not easily discoverable in everyday life, say in one’s bedroom. But beauty’s true shades, its true colors, are closer than we often assume, at times right above us in the falling snow, right in front of us in the tombs of dead kings of bygone eras, and right beneath our feet is squeaky snow. Perhaps the first bite into a steaming Hwangnam bread is all you need to fall into an aesthetic abyss.

Some say you eat with your eyes. I say you eat with your circumstances; why limit eating to the eyes? How you got to the vendor, on what road, in what weather, who took your order, in what plate was your pastry given to you, who partook with you, did you stand or sit, coffee or tea, was there a line – all this accompanies one’s “eating.” Not at all complex, just circumstantial. The surroundings make the food, such a truth in all the gastronomic corners of Korea.

6.

Handing one’s passport and boarding ticket to the attendant at the international departure terminal is an oft-overlooked trigger; memories of all hues and depths percolate in one’s conscious, filtered and recollected. The attendant glances at my passport photo, looks up at me, glances at the photo again, as if the photo is nothing more than an alter ego bearing no resemblance to the man thirty inches away. One last look over my shoulders, crack one last smile; one last wave goodbye, before reentering the vortex called reality.

The annoyance of removing one’s shoes and the ritual of posing within the all-seeing body scan machine shuffles one’s thoughts, not in any particular order, yet cinematographic. A mind does not remember every morsel of detail from a trip, however short or prolonged. Like an artist, it harvests only what it chooses to harvest, carefully picking the highlights of the trip’s crops; and scenes are filtered, some crisp and some fuzzy, to embed permanent sketches into the soiled walls of our conscious. Vincent van Gogh would latch unto this phenomenon in an instant, in which some colors, contours and characteristics are chosen amongst others, brought out into the fore. Yet the exaggeration still represents “reality,” and resemblance takes on a completely different subjective meaning.

Snow-covered tombs of ancient Shilla kings thumped the outer edges of my thoughts as I closed my eyes in my cramped economy seat. Beauty is majesty cloaked in white, the hurt of bygone eras caressed and blanketed by all-forgiving, forgiving and healing layers. Beauty is simplicity in design and taste, balanced under the scrutiny of all one’s senses and with its surroundings.

Travel is beauty, but only if one’s soles are willing to embrace the sound of sinking snow.

The art of sushi, and undoubtedly and specifically of nigiri, rests in the rice.

Accustomed to all-you-can-stash-or-cram buffets and second-rate sushi joints and chefs, we have come to define a restaurant’s quality in the freshness of the fish itself. No doubt this is a crucial factor in determining the success or failure of a particular sushi experience.

The sadness lies in the undeniable truth that the freshness of the fish and seafood used in the panorama of sushi dishes is, or ought to be, an inherent truth, a given factor not susceptible to any level of half-ass culinary gimmick. Fish is fresh? Good, that’s a start. But do not shortchange your pallet solely on that premise.

It is no coincidence that a choice cut of otoro, saba, sake or hamachi rests upon a carefully crafted mound of sushi rice. But do not be mistaken; the rice is no vehicle, no “plate” to present the fish. It serves as its foundation, its root, an unwavering force whose texture and subtle acidity is accentuated by the blooming highlights of the fish, not the other way around.

If tradition is to be given any degree of reverence, sushi rice is to be made from the finest crop, spread out and fanned to relieve the exuberant moisture, and seasoned ever so delicately with vinegar. One imagines a sushi chef’s care in handling the day’s fresh catch; one seldom illustrates the patient soul required in breathing life into the rice.

The most revered sushi chefs are said to know the number of grains between their fingertips, as they ready their senses before wedding rice to fish.

Sushi is a gentle art; it is respectful in all aspects, of all circumstances and opinions. Grains are not forced into others’ company. How unfortunate it is to witness the disruptive reality of “rice cake nigiri”, in which chef’s heed no attention to the exact caliber of force channeled through the rice. Their fingertips are mundane to harmony, asleep to the breathing nature of nigiri.

Delicacy ought not to be overlooked when handling sushi. One, two touches with the fingers and the palm, one touch for the grated wasabi, one or two more touches for the joining. Cold hands are said to be a must-have gift of sushi chefs, as repeated touches with warmer ones disrespects the innate coolness of the fish and fanned rice. Rhythmic movements, swift and calculated, light yet determined. One, two, another one, two.

Texture is the foreground of all sushi creations. Balance. Contrast. The push and pull, ebb and flow. Sashimi presents two opposites. Each fish sings a different melody.

First, in terms of the initial bite and the amount of “chewiness” the fish has. Resistance persists in varying amounts in the countless species. Second the fat content presents a counter melody. Some are so subtle that its sweetness only blushes in the absence of any serious dosage of Kikoman soy sauce. Some are so rich – like the always worshiped otoro or chutoro – that the tip of a giddy tongue is all it takes to burst the buttery bubble in which the fish contains itself.

The inherent dichotomy present in sashimi enters a new plateau with the entrance of sushi rice. Not subdued, not shadowed, but enhanced, uplifted.

An added dimension means added perception. The way we perceive things is limited – or propelled – by our ability to control our internal dimensions.

Skillfully crafted sushi rice adds a third, fourth dimension to fresh raw fish. The contrast in texture is readily apparent at initiation; a contrasting firmness, a contrasting density, a contrasting silkiness. The aroma blossoms after impact. The earthy grains, cloaked in a perfectly proportioned element of acidity, draws out the inherent sweetness in fish.

“Warmth” is not a simple matter of temperature. It is a characteristic, found mainly in the heirs of the earth, which pushed its way into our atmosphere through pounds of soil and dirt. Such heirs spent their afternoons basking in the low-hanging sun, bowing slowly as its head becomes heavy with the season’s fruit.

As contradictory as this may seem, the fine cut of raw fish accentuates this “warmth” in the sushi rice. Describing it as “earthy” will not do justice, but a lack of human words (or simply a lack of a writer’s expressions) does not hold back what is eminent, profoundly thundering across a diner’s pallet: warmth.

Raving reviews of sushi restaurants in town (in particular, Sushi Yoshi in Vienna, Virginia) perplex me. I become inquisitive of the definition or guideline of great sushi. Some standard, I must say, to judge an edible art form that is so much more than raw fish and rice (with mayo, teriyaki, and multiple dunkings in soy sauce).

An institution that heeds so little attention to the greatest of details will stand nowhere near the podium of great sushi, at least in my mind. All it takes is one order of saba nigiri – that first bite, where all dimensions of sushi rest on my tongue – to judge the fate of that eatery.

Ancestry cannot be undervalued in any cuisine. The forefathers of contemporary sushi, such as funozushi, had one purpose: preservation. Fish of all kinds was stacked in between layers of rice and salt, and kept there for weeks, months. In other words, sushi was conceived as a slow calculated art form. In Edo times, sushi became a deceiving “fast” food, as passers grabbed vinegar-ed rice balls with a slab of fish on top. This I say is deceiving speed, in that the preparation of the harvest, the rice, and the blade work skinning and slicing the fish was still inevitably “slow” food.

In the whirlwind, concrete forest known as Gangnam-gu, Seoul, there exists an anomaly of a restaurant. Sushi Sunsoo.

Upon entrance into this cove, the spinning stops. The jabbering stops. Balance predominates. Dimensional food takes on new meaning. Fresh is not fast, only meticulous. Accuracy is pulled out as a noun to describe a bite of nigiri. Accurate.

It breathes as it should.

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?

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