You can tell a great deal about a people by looking at what they make and what they eat, at the geography and climate and growing conditions that made one or another kind of product dominate, about wars and occupations and history that disrupted and changed what was eaten or made, about trade that altered and influenced the native foods and goods, about scarcity and ingenuity that allowed for survival. What started more than two thousand years ago as a secret sneaked out of China (sericulture) ends up in today’s markets as beautiful goods and unusual food in modern-day Korea.
It is interesting to note that what in one culture is a delight – say, cheese in France or fermented fish in Asia, are thought by other cultures to be disgusting. The very word – disgust – comes from a Latin origin of gustare, to taste, by way of Middle French: des – opposite of, and gouster – taste, literally, distaste. My French brother-in-law shudders at the thought of eating raw octopus, and I have seen Asian guests at my parents’ table politely refuse cheese in a way that made it clear they couldn’t believe anyone would eat such stuff.
All of this comes to the forefront when you are traveling. Doing in Rome what the Romans do might be easy if you grew up on pasta and pizza and find the local cuisine relatively familiar and delicious. But it is more of a challenge when venturing into foreign climes where the cuisine is different, and where many foods are unrecognizable or of unusual texture or consistency. My father’s mantra was always, eat first and ask afterwards – he conducted very successful business in this way, and squeamishness was simply not a part of it (although his harrowing tale of eating monkey brains somewhere in southeast Asia still make me wonder how he did it).
In Korea, squid and octopus are very popular and omnipresent. Although often known for their beef barbeque, Korea is a small, mountainous peninsula surrounded by the sea. It makes more sense that seafood would be prevalent than land-hungry, grain and grass consuming cattle. Squid and octopus are served many ways, in soups and pancakes, stews, stir-fried, marinated, battered and deep fried, grilled, roasted, steamed, and of course, raw. Seeing the little guys swimming in tanks in the markets, waiting to be chosen and scarfed down, is no different than the lobsters that lurk in tanks in some popular U.S. restaurants.
And then there are the silkworms. Served a soup of mostly seafood and encountering an unknown, small brown object of rubbery consistency, I followed my father’s instructions and ate without asking. My hostess was eating the same, after all. A few days later, in the same market where I found some of the most exquisite silk I’ve ever seen, I noticed baskets of dried silkworm pupae for sale and recognized what had been in my soup. Eaten most often as a snack and sold as street food, dried silkworm pupae are also used in soups. As the process of sericulture requires the cocoon to be boiled before the moth emerges, in order not to damage the silk threads, it makes sense that over time people would have found gastronomic use for these many millions of dead, protein-rich worms.
Unquiet meals make ill digestions, says Shakespeare in Comedy of Errors. My silkworm ingestion did not make me ill, and the company at lunch was congenial. The only disquiet was in my mind. In being a good guest in new places, in travel in general, the mind must sometimes be set aside, for who knows what might delight?
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.