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Archive for April, 2005

“Can you eat spicy food?”

Posted by Brian on April 16, 2005

Jeffrey Miller, contributor to the Korea Times, has been in Korea for at least 10 years but is just now getting around to writing about the way Koreans flip out when foreigners eat so-called "spicy" Korean food. If you have spent time in Korea, you know the drill – you order some tukkboki, talkkalbi, or chigae, and any Koreans you're with will ask you (for the billionth time in my case) "Isn't it too spicy?" Mr. Miller wonders if this is an innocent query made out of genuine concern, or:

However, there are times when the cynic in me wonders if there might be more to the question than whether or not I can eat spicy food. It’s not that I am saying that Korea has the culinary market cornered when it comes to spicy food, but I often have wondered if the question has any cultural implications attached like how foreigners aren’t supposed to speak Korean fluently because it is too difficult.

We all take pride in our culture no matter where we come from and I suppose it’s only natural for some to think that their culture is unique over others _ even when it comes to food. Who knows, maybe when we’re asked an innocuous question like "can you eat spicy food?" it is merely a culinary defense mechanism with a dash of nationalism thrown in. However, in this global age we are living in, I am happy to have my kimchi and burgers at the same time.

Mr. Miller has hit the proverbial nail on the head with his cynical, but accurate, view of the matter.

It's important to remember that the same Koreans who look at you with slack-jawed amazement when you eat tukkbokki are more than likely the same Koreans who will travel to Thailand and eat every meal at a Korean restaurant. Their world doesn't work in strange and wondrous ways: the sun rises in the east; water is wet; Koreans eat spicy food and drink soju; and westerners eat hamburgers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and drink beer. Their black box is organized perfectly, with every little pre(miss)conception about how the world works labeled and arranged nicely on a shelf.

Mr. Miller, to his credit, tries to be diplomatic about handling this:

So the next time I go out with students and friends and we have Korean food, I’ll just smile when asked the question and hope that the proof of whether or not I can eat spicy food is not in the pudding, but in that big steaming bowl of kimchi chigae I am eating and relishing.

Call me pessimist, but I don't think Mr. Miller's plan is going to work. I think the Korean response to seeing foreigners eating spicy Korean food is to view it as the exception that proves the rule.  It's not that the rule was broken to begin with, but that, lo and behold, here's a foreigner who can eat spicy food. Simply amazing! And then the next time they're out with a foreigner, they'll go through the same routine.

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