A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Colour your palate patriotic

"Teacher! Canada is very clean?"

"Very." (TO? Tar Ponds? Forgetaboutit...)

"Teacher! Canada is very peaceful?"

"Very."

"Teacher! I want to be a Canadian and eat hamburgers for breakfast!"

...oh?

This is one Korean boy's vision of Canada: a great northern giant, full of clean air, wildlife, smiling people and... hamburgers on tap.

Is that an entirely flawed picture?

Coming from West to East, the most obvious difference is multiculturalism. We North Americans may be neophytes with regards to... well... civilization... but diversity is a real strength when it comes to cultural currency.

Korea has been here for thousands of years with a firm sense of national identity, tempered through umpteen invasions and subjugation from foreign nations. As a recovering(?) "Hermit Kingdom," the insular tendencies still remain.

When I'm asked about Canadian food I find it a little hard to give the kids original answers. What is fundamentally Canadian food? Everything "traditional" is borrowed from Ma Briton with a frontier bent, and most everything else is a spread of necessity and world cuisine. Korean food is Korean food, straight up; a rich tapestry of soups, rice and side-dishes to last until the end of time. After 150 years of just stuffing whatever was around into our faces, doesn't that just seem like an after-dinner belch in comparison to a cuisine that's been kicking around since majorly BCE?

I tell them about standard fare like fish, lobster, fruit and meat pies, stews, salads and potatoes of all persuasions. "Famous" offerings like Montreal smoked meat sandwiches, donairs, Lumberjack breakfasts and other iconic heaps (a uniquely North American form of presentation). Not to mention a table of diverse ethnic items which came as ingredients and wound up part of the greater stew.

We're free to eat a little of what everyone eats, with the benefit of it being prepared (generally) by those who hail from the food's country of origin. Greek food from a Greek family, Indian from 2nd-generation family secrets, a hodgepodge of flavors and cooks all fitting nicely into a microcosm of that "melting pot" to which we so frequently refer. That bias tends to draw attention to Korean-style Western food, which seems to generally be conceived from a picture, rather than a recipe. To those other expats who've shoveled in a mouthful of baked potato only to find the sour cream was in fact whipped cream— you fully appreciate what I mean.

That's not to say there aren't foreign restaurants in Korea. Far from it. But the majority of people's diets I'm sure is made up of traditional Korean fare, with some Western injections.

Sometimes kimchi comes off looking like a secondary flag; a symbol of national pride, albeit fermented. Time, patriotism, tight borders and shifty looks come together to spell out "I'm Korean, what else would I eat?"

I hope this isn't coming off judgmental or condescending. It's just a complete shift in perspective for me, coming from a country where we're all immigrants in one way or another, to one with, like, 99% ethnic homogeneity.

It's just a case of "you are what you eat" I suppose.

I'm eager to hear opinions though— those of you at home, if you were me, what food would you miss? To those here, would you (like myself) kill for good cheese?

7 comments:

Pam said...

I'd miss beef stew, potato scallop, toast and marmalade and a nice hot cuppa Earl Grey tea!
...and popcorn.

Shane Patenaude said...

I totally miss stew, and mashed potatoes, greek food, lemon loaf, pumpkin pie, and homemade fish and chips. Awww, yeah.

You're right. There are no good cheeses here. Every cheese on hand is completely wrong. Plus, what's the deal with pizza in korea? It's like they throw everything on there. Corn, squid, sweet potatoes, cookie dough? Lord save me from hodge podge pizza.

Gillian said...

Cheese was huge for me. As were berries and fresh, green vegetables. When I drank milk, I also missed that terribly while living in Africa. Cereal was another big thing.

I haven't eaten meat in nearly 10 years, but I still miss sweet and sour chicken balls and donairs, for sure.

Gillian said...

Oh, and good desserts are also sometimes hard to find when living in countries that are not included in Europe.

And candy!!

Tim said...

I would miss pizza and any dessert that Stephanie makes, especially pie! I know there is Lucy's there, but I know that it couldn't come close.

Aaron said...

Whenever you get back I'm going o take you to a place in Dartmouth called John's Lunch. Best seafood on earth. Real canadian food.

/rach said...

I miss Red River cereal...do they have that outside of Winnipeg? And...tomato juice without sugar in it.