Soju bombs and veggie epiphanies: Slow Food Korea

We begin with soju bombs. A Korean friend shows us how to line up two metal chopsticks on a mug of beer, and balance a shotglass of soju on top. Then, she bangs her fist against the wobbly table dislocating the chopsticks so the shotglass falls into the beer mug. “Now drink,” she grins. We obediently lift our soju-spiked beer.

I’m in Namyangju, a lush-green town about an hour away from Seoul, in South Korea to attend Slow Food’s first AsiO Gusto, which brings together small-scale sustainable producers, chefs and opinion-makers from 40 Asian and Oceanic countries. While most of the days are devoted to conferences dedicated to finding ways to protect food traditions and their custodians, mealtimes are reserved for exploring local food. Barbeque and soju bombs, just like Psy and Gangnam may be Korea’s best known exports, but they’re just one facet of an ancient, traditional and sturdy food culture.

Of course we try the barbeque, though. Popular culture is popular for a reason — it’s fun. At night we walk to an open air restaurant close to our hotel, drawn by their dramatically crackling fire. It’s cold and the owner — noticing us shivering — runs into the kitchen and emerges with bright fluffy blankets for each of us. The little round metal table has a cavity in the centre, into which a waiter places a tray of hot coals, covered with a grill. While the kitchen prepares the meat, we go into a side room, dominated by a loud television, and fill bowls with the traditional line up of starters: kimchi, sprouts, mushrooms, spring onions to take to our tables. When the pork belly and chops arrive, they’re spread on the table grill to finish cooking, after which we pull out the blistering pieces with long tongs and eat them wrapped in lettuce, along with fat green chillies, sharp fresh garlic and a dipping sauce made with sesame oil.

Contrary to the Korean food stereotype, it’s not all meat. Lunch is often bibimbap, a bowl of rice artfully topped with bright vegetables, julienned cucumber, dark spongy mushrooms, long crunchy sprouts, emerald spinach and intensely orange-red bigochujang (chili pepper paste.) Salt is minimal and nothing is fried, but the vegetables are fresh, local and organic so flavours are intense. Slow Food’s focus is re-introducing people — especially children — to the joys of unprocessed food. Epiphanies from home-grown vegetables sound ridiculous, till you actually taste one. I become a convert at a silent lunch, served by cooks who walk into a conference on ‘Food and Spirituality’ bearing flowers and candles. They hand each of us a clay tray. My heart sinks as I survey the meal: raw vegetables and barely-salted sticky rice with beans wrapped in a lotus leaf. Then I bite into the pumpkin, and my eyes widen at its sweet, intense, powerful flavour. The lotus stem is crisp, yet moisty. The mushroom, firm and juicy. For the first time in years, I cheerfully finish all my vegetables. And I don’t even need a soju bomb to end the meal.