Saturday, July 8, 2006
Stomach Linings are for Sissies
It seems that everyone and their grandmother here is suffering from stomach cancer. Korea has the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world (if statistics, particularly the ones we've read, are to be considered true), and it's no real surprise when the men drink gallons of soju. (Soju is an alcoholic beverage much like vodka but uses rice instead of potatoes - at least in its original form. But the common, cheap stuff you buy in tetra packs, bottles or multi-litre sized jugs from the convenience stores (what everybody drinks) is in fact made from watered-down ethyl alcohol - silly North Americans... we were always told that stuff'll make you blind...wait, maybe it does, as that would explain their driving habits). Aside from the soju, which the women don't drink nearly as much of as the men (they use it as a cleaning product), you have the gochuchang, or the ubiquitous red pepper paste (or, as Matt calls it, the very fuel that all of Korea runs on). It is piled into pretty much everything they eat - it's a key ingredient in kimchi (the national food), soups, stews, barbecue dishes and is a product other than soju which can be purchased in pails of 20 litres or more.
Our personal favorite dish that uses gochuchang can only be purchased from the restaurant in the main floor of our apartment block. We don't actually know the name of the place, because... well, we've never really bothered to learn it (the sign is in "fancy-lookin'" Hangeul (Korean), so it is simply known to us as the "Spicy Tofu place"(where's the echo button? asks Matt).
The story of the spicy tofu began on New Year's Eve. We prepared an elaborate dinner, including pickled, spicy sesame leaves, ramyen (mmm...instant noodles), kimpap (Korean "sushi" - don't EVER call it that, though!), kimchi (of course), rice, and the legendary "Tofu.....fu....fu...fu".
When we ordered the food, the cook and the waitress both tried to discourage us, saying it was much to spicy for foreigners, but we managed to convince them we could handle it. We had no idea what we were getting into....
Matt accused me of trying to kill him with the spiciest food he'd ever eaten, and I think we both had several heart attacks after the first three bites (the crazy thing about spicy tofu, though, is that you can't stop eating it once you've started). So, with eyeballs sweating, and barely able to breathe, we made it through the first encounter. Matt prayed it would be our last.
But once that tasty MSG/BBQ spicyness bites, you can never go back!!! The craving for Spicy Tofu can get so intense, that some nights, when they would run out of tofu, I would run down to the tiny, family-run restaurant with a brilliant smile and a block of tofu from home in hand, and the owner/cook would spy the tofu, clap her hands and laugh. But she'd cook our tofu for us, in her inimitable spicy way, AND give us a discount! (The language of "Spicy Tofu" relies not on words).
Now, we have become trusted customers. If they have no tofu when we order our beloved dish, the cook will unhesitatingly send out her daughter (also the waitress) into the monsoon rains to buy a block of tofu from a shop down the street.
It's been nearly seven months since that near-death experience on New Year's Eve, and Spicy Tofu has quickly nestled its way into our hearts and through our stomach linings.
We love you Spicy Tofu!!