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There : Holy Rice!

March 6, 2008 Leave a comment

It’s difficult to express just how important rice is to Koreans. For an American, there is no analog. They believe that we eat bread like they eat rice. That isn’t true. If it were, we’d buy bread by the kilo, like they do rice. We’d eat it with EVERY meal. We’d eat a lot of it, say, a handful at minimum, and two or three handfuls regularly. But there’s a lot more to it than the amount.

Koreans don’t typically ask how someone is doing. If you think about it, we say “how’s it going” and “what’s up” almost mindlessly after our greeting. Koreans ask if you’ve eaten. I’m told it comes from the not so distant past, when Korea was quite poor, and it was in doubt if someone was getting enough to eat. The interesting part is, the literal translation of the phrase they use isn’t “have you eaten lunch” or “dinner” or anything like that. It’s “Have you eaten (cooked) rice?” (Bap Mo-Guh-So?). Aside from the fact that they have three words for rice in it’s three states (growing, uncooked and cooked), the word for meal is often “rice”.

My friend does not like to eat rice that much. I can’t blame him, it’s everywhere. You can’t not eat it. Kimchi is perfectly ignorable, and seaweed, and tofu. But rice is everywhere, and it’s a part of everything. A meal literally isn’t a meal unless you eat it. I talked to a friend’s father. He asked what I’d been eating. After listing the things I could cook (which was fairly sizable), he seemed expectant. Come to find out, by his (and many others’) standard, I hadn’t been eating. To put it another way, a friend once told me “People think you’re greedy if you eat a bunch of food instead of rice.” It was quite clear, rice is not the same thing as “food”.

Rice is cheap, but it’s not that cheap. It’s probably cheaper in the US. a 1 Kilo bag cost me $10, and that was the cheapest they had. It’s not overpriced, but at Korean prices, it’s not cheap, either. Scarcity also doesn’t factor in much, because there is plenty of bread and potatoes available to Koreans. But they are seen as snacks; certainly they aren’t a key part of a meal.

If you go to a home and eat the rice first, you will be offered more, even if you still have plenty of other things to eat. If you fail to eat your rice, you are insulting their culture. If you don’t want rice, something is wrong with you. It’s quite normal to eat rice with a soup that is full of rice cakes, and then have some rice drink afterwards. I see no reason beyond choice for it to be this way. Korea imports a lot of food. But culturally, they must have rice.

My American friend and I talked about how we would relate the fascination with rice to American terms. I thought it was like having a meal without a drink, something quite rare in America, but common in Korea. But that’s not really true, as no one would think you hadn’t eaten if you did so, and no one would consider you bad for not drinking, or not finishing a drink.
He thought it was like having biscuits and gravy with no biscuits. Strange and certainly not common, but also not the same. Being around truck stops, I’ve seen people order sausage gravy for their pancakes. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to really compare.

Maybe one of the weirdest things, to me, is that the white rice isn’t that healthy. Make no mistake, generic Korean food is pretty darn healthy (despite using a lot of salt) when compared to American food. I eat pretty healthy at home, but my skin is much better in Korea, and I think the average food at restaurants is much healthier. But white rice is like white bread. It’s high is sugars, and lacking in vitamins. Brown rice (rice with the germ still on it), is considered “poor people’s rice” and fairly despised, despite having more nutrients. There have been links to constipation, diabetes risks, increased risk of cancer and liver damage (though many times these presuppose that the person eating the food doesn’t eat other sources of fiber. This may or may not be true of Koreans.) To contrast, Kimchi and Tofu, both very common in Korea, are really quite healthy, but significantly less eaten.

This isn’t meant to be a pro or a con of Korean life. It’s an observation. White rice is everywhere. While I’ve taken a shine to Tofu (which is totally different in Korea, where it’s flavored and salted, and not used as a replacement for meat) and many other Korean foods, it’s hard to keep up with the rice. And while I can eat it a lot more than my friend, I can’t eat half as much as a Korean (or the Chinese students I’ve eaten with, for that matter). Rice might not be a religion here, but if you started a cult based around it, Korea would be the place to come to find members.

Categories: Being There