Irish Food: A Musing Inspired by my Classroom


This morning on the radio as I was driving to or from somewhere there there was a discussion about how Irish people are becoming the most unhealthy in Europe if not the world, and how diet related illnesses are going to cause more and more problems in the coming years and decades. There were mentions of the cost to the taxpayer and where was the leadership to direct us away from making our own conscious adult decisions. There was talk of a cultural change and how we as Irish people need to look at what we are eating and make a big difference. As someone who takes pride in eating a varied and at times luxurious diet, I can do nothing but coil and terror at the thought I am being singled out as a bad eater.

I probably am, although I try my best to avoid unhealthy binges, my fondness for cured pork products, cheeses, and it has to be said the occasional pain au chocolat is something I try to address by not actually having them in the fridge in the first place.

My kingdom for a pain au chocolat… (image via flickr)

Just yesterday while teaching an exam class I spoke in depth about Irish food with the students, from Spain and Italy, and the major problems with the Irish diet. The observations continued most of the time with assertions that Irish don’t eat fruit and don’t eat vegetables. I recoiled in horror and expressed that I certainly do, and I take pride in the amount of fruit and veg I eat. Granted I’m borderline obese – in normal persons terms at least, some dieticiany kind of people would say I’m so far over the border I’ve set up residence, but I digress.

The thing is that despite my pride in my diet, I suppose that they are not wrong. They explained that much of the vegetables were boiled – often too much but anyway – and the meat (always meat they expressed) was usually doused in gravy, and gravy which had nothing to do with what they were eating. I’m imagining it was Bisto, which isn’t really gravy, it’s just rehydrated brown stuff with flavourings. At times they had a sandwiched and both seemed to believe that Irish people lived off sliced white bread, and with a tiny slice of ham and a healthy spread of butter or spread. There was much more recoiling at this.

I do think that the food situation has improved remarkably in Ireland. The variety available, and the quality as well are streets ahead from what was once the case. But it is only so deep, and our old habits prevail.

When I first came back to Ireland I couldn’t get over the lack of variety in lunch options. The entire city seemed to operate purely on sandwiches. I traipsed all around Grafton Street and environs just looking for a big bowl of hearty soup – yes it was July but I knew what I was doing – but to no avail. Group after group of foreign students, from the age of fourteen to fifty have all expressed dismay at the Irish diet. It does not help that these are people from Europe, who aside from the culinary, are having a memorable time in Dublin. But food is important, in fact it’s a lifestyle in places like Italy and Spain (not to mention Korea).

I empathised, and told them that we don’t have a food culture here, then in typical Irish fashion I went on to blame the famine and poverty previous to this. Both Italy and Spain were certainly poor in the past, and definitely as fuedal as Ireland so that excuse was stepped out fairly rapidly. I then explained that for some reason we don’t have a food culture, which I can’t understand why, but we don’t. I struggled to explain why we are averse to eating fish, being on an island and all. As a last resort I forced all my blame on the weather, which seemed like a reasonable enough excuse with regard to the inability to cultivate a variety of fruit and vegetables, with the exception of root vegetables.

It goes deeper than that though, and we as a nation do deserve criticism for our diets. Whatever about the past, this is 2014 and Ireland has access to more than its fair share of markets, especially when it comes to vegetables and fruit from the EU. In fact if you visit the supermarket now you will struggle to find fruit or vegetables grown in Ireland. Fortunately we have a thriving beef trade here which more than makes up for the amount of food we need to import.

No shortage of fruit or veg in Ireland (image via flickr)

My students elaborated though on the problems. In the fridges, all you’ll find (for the most part) is line after line of cheddar cheese and ham, both for sandwiches. There is no reason why cheap, pre-packed cheddar should be more available than cheap pre-packed gouda, or edam, or something else interesting. Indeed, the same could be said for other meats and dairy. In Ireland we seem to have a fascination with the ordinary banal diet which everyone else subscribes to. In this case ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch.

Even locally you can see things being just done wrong. In my local Supervalu close to Halloween they put out a large display of nuts, as these are traditionally eaten over Halloween, as are apples and other fruit. As it’s 2014 and Ireland is one of the most wealthy countries in the world – don’t argue, it is – now we give all the kids sweets at the door, and this is grand I suppose, as it’s only one day a year after all. What got to me though was that the local Supervalu thought it prudent to sell all their Halloween jellies and lollipops right in the middle of the fruit and veg. Huge big tubs stacked ten high and five thick were packed into the fruit and vegetables section. Tell me there isn’t something wrong with this, regardless of what time of year it is.

Some of you reading this will be near to forming a lynch mob and hunting me down, but only because I’m offending your own culinary sensibilities. There are no shortage of people in Ireland who know what good food is and how to cook, but for the most part the majority of people on this island are kind of clueless, or perhaps kind of lacking a little inspiration. Is food that complicated that we cannot understand how to make it more diverse, and indeed interesting?

Our unhealthy diets are probably based around a lack of fruit and vegetables in our diet. The most likely reason we don’t like to put vegetables in our diet is because we don’t know how to make them taste good. If we aren’t going to make vegetables taste good, short on dousing them in salt and a ladelful of bisto, then why would we bother eating them? People turn their nosess up at salad because all they see is lettuce and half a slice of tomato, but lets be clear, you are right to turn your nose up at salad if that’s all you get. If that’s all you can make at home, well then you’re missing out. My point here is that if people can’t find enjoyment in food like fruit and vegetables, which are delicious and exactly where we get our notions of taste from, then they are going to resort to unhealthy and processed food to satisfy them, be that from the snack and sweets isle of the supermarket, or indeed the local chipper.

Take the carrot for example. Other than the potato, you’d do well to imagine a more typical vegetable on an Irish dinner table. Yet, if I were to picture the carrot in Irish cuisine, it would be boiled, and boiled to an all but spreadable texture. I can just imagine it now. In fact the idea of a boiled carrot actually makes me half wretch, and for years I wouldn’t touch carrots because they were boiled. Yet if you roast your carrot, or cook it then put it in a blender and make soup, or just serve it raw with some tomato and cucumber, you’ll find one of the most delicious and least complicated vegetables out there.

It’s that simple. (image via flickr)

I honestly believe it’s a lack of understanding about how best to approach food. I may be a lack of creativity, but it can’t be a lack of money, because vegetables and fruit are the cheapest thing in the supermarket. I’m going to give you some simple things to do with readily available vegetables and fruit, that you can do and they are instantly more satisfying and tasty. In most cases all you will need is a sharp knife, maybe a peeler, some salt and pepper, and olive oil.

The Tomato: Where would we be without the tomato? Wash one, slice it, put it on some nice soda bread, dribble a decent dobble of olive oil, then sprinkle salt and pepper on, once this process is complete put it in your mouth and chew. Fantastic and flawless every time.

The carrot: As explained above, put it in the oven. First peel it, chop it into long sticks, place on a backing tray, a bit of olive oil and seasoning, then into the oven at about 200 centigrade, take it out when the skin colour has darkened and the ends are starting to go a little black and gooey – or carmelising if you want to be smarmy.

The Onion: The onion goes well with beef and lamb, but especially a great addition to hamburgers and steak. The onion is also incredible in the amount of nutrients and antioxidants, so you should try to eat some. Slice the onion into rings then fry it until brown on a pan. What you can do is add a tablespoon of balsamic vinnegar and the same again of brown sugar, stir it well, then allow them to go really dark. In fact doing this way may actually kill all the nutrients in them, but they taste really good! If you find the taste or texture of regular too strong I suggest going for challots, which are smaller versions but a good deal milder and easier to eat raw.

Mushrooms: I was afraid of mushrooms until I went to Korea. I don’t know why, but I was. These guys are simple, and all you need to do is rinse them off, slice them, then put them in towards the end of the cooking in any dish. As they’re really delicate if you cook them too long they go to much and taste crap. Again, if you’re having beef, or lamb, or even pork, just add some to the pan and fry them lightly until they change to a light gray. Olive oil doesn’t work great with them, but salt and pepper does!

Peppers, Courgettes, Brocolli, Aubergine: Please, please, don’t boil these. Either try some of the examples I gave above, or just simple chop them up small and add them to your favourite pasta or curry sauce you might use. Every jar of sauce never recommends adding any vegetables to them for some stupid reason, but you should. Don’t let them cook too long though, just leave them until they’re nice and tender.

Another great thing you can do is make soup with all of these ingredients. Just prepare and equal part of each type of vegetable, or more of one if you want a stronger flavour for one, fry them a little, then add water or stock and let them boil away for a good while. If you have any dried herbs like basil or some Italian herb mix sprinkle in some too as these are best used in soups and stews because they bring the flavour out more. Once it has cooked long enough stick it in a food processing and puree it.

Some combinations will be better than others, so experiment a little. Head over the fresh herbs, even the dry herbs, and try a few out. For some like sage and thyme, you’d be advised to check what they’re best prepared with, but ones like oregano, basil, and parsley shouldn’t cause too much consternation. If you’re not sure, give it a sniff and if it doesn’t seem right for you then don’t use it.

If you’re not sure what you’re doing, take your time, check some recipes online (the BBC Good Food site is a great no nonsense source of tasty ideas), cook at a low heat so that you don’t lose control, and keep and open mind.

The more you try, the better understanding you will get of the food’s taste, what goes better with what, but most importantly, what do you like! Cooking and food is not that complicated, but it can be intimidating – I know I never experimented before. However, once you get the hang of it, it’s incredibly satisfying, and great fun. And then once you’re happy with what you cook, you can pay more attention to important things, like what wine are you going to have with your delicious home cooked meal.

What are your most simple go-to recipes at home? Got any tips for budding cooks, or experienced chefs?

If you are so inclined you can listen to a podcast about Ireland and its diet taken from this morning’s radio broadcast here.

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Love to Hate Korea: Costco


It’s no secret that Costco in Korea is the epitome of a modern hellhole designed to rip your soul out, divvy it up with a rusty and blunt axe, chew it, then spit it right back at you, so you you put it back inside, then turn around and do it all over again. This place steals so much attention and causes so much heartbreak and frustration, but let’s not forget that all it is is a bloody supermarket!

But why is the place just destined to constantly infuritate me? I blame people. Because, let’s face it, all the ills of the world are brought about by our fellow humans, and Costco in Korea is a perfect example of this.

To get into the place you have to tackle the car park (because let’s be honest only an amateur would take the bus or train to Costco), where the wonderful Korean driving etiquette phenomenon is magnified. Here, the larger and more foreign your car the more entitled you are to be a fucker, while the little guy who has been bullied really doesn’t care who or what you are, and just drives straight over you. Do you see the difference? That’s right, there is none. Rules out the window to beat the band!

This is a mild description, as the car park is really only a primer for the zoo downstairs. In this Parthenon of consumption every man is equal (but some believe themselves to be more equal than others) and wealth and status can no longer be displayed by the make and colour of your car.

I used to think people were just so damn disgusting towards me because I was a foreigner, but the more I have observed this phenomenon I can steadfastly proclaim that no one gives a shit about anyone but themself in this passage to hades of a glorified 광장시장! In fact it’s worse than there. A. Lot. Worse!

It’s like people take the shopping trollies merely as a tool to beat other people out of the way as they browse. Not only do they not look where they’re going, generally I believe they study the area they want to go before hand, and then plot the most insane crowd inducing route possible, including where they can dump their trolley. I find the people who buy one or two things, like a packet of Calvin Klein underwear and some dried jujube, to be the worst perpetrators.

For else that may be right or wrong with Costco in Korea, it’s the culmination of so many people milling around oblivious to the fact that there are a few million within spitting distance of them, and then when they notice these other people they look at them as if they are something disagreeable inside their shoe, that really makes Costco an awful experience that I would reluctantly wish on my worst enemy.

And I am not even going to go into the details of the food court (and here too!)!

But…

I am a consumer and Costco is fantastic because the stuff they sell there is so much better than any other bog standard Homeplus or Emart, and that’s a fact; (generally speaking) better meat, better fruit, better vegetables, better selection of bread, drinks, alcohol, dairy, and whole lot other stuff. And I like eating nice food and buying over priced goods that I probably don’t need Yes you can find better quality stuff in Korea, and cheaper too, but if you are talking about better quality products at an affordable price then Costco is your man.

(Added bonus tip: Costco has a decent electronics section, which is good value, and they also are very helpful with returns and damaged goods, which a lot of the cheaper websites will not even look at you sideways when you’ve even a whisper of complaint)

Yeah I know I’m repeating the same draft that so many other people trump the place by, and believe it or not, the insane fellow customers are in fact worth the battle to get your hands on all that crap which make living in Korea more doable. Hell, I’d do it every week for the bread and cheese only.

Of course, having and car and being able to take home a whole boot load of food makes this whole experience worth the madness.

A Personal History of Eating in Korea


The first time I ate in a restaurant in Korea was an interesting experience, and one that set me up for the next few months of what can only be described as blind dining. It was my first night in Seoul and I had just arrived in the city following a fourteen hour journey from Dublin. I’d already slept a little, so my new co-workers led me across the street from my new school for dinner.

It was a regular Wednesday night and as far as I could tell no one was in the mood for introducing me to anything particularly notorious. We crossed the street as they discussed different options, when they eventually decided on what was described as a little Japanese place.

Inside, we took the lift to the fifth floor and walked into a relatively busy eatery and took our seats at a table next to the window, but I can’t imagine it was for the view. Menus were passed around and I looked down on what I now know is simply Japanese style donkas, which is a sliced breaded pork cutlet and assorted side dishes, as opposed to the Korean style which is a larger breaded port cutlet served on a big plate with oddly chosen sides and drowned in sweet brown gravy of origins unknown.

A discussion developed between the restaurant owner and my co-workers as to whether or not any of the dishes included chicken, as one of them didn’t eat meat except for chicken. They proceeded to ask “chee-ken, chee-ken” to the man.

Now while they could have mentioned 닭고기, I wouldn’t have known any better. It was this repeated chee-ken that caught my attention. I was baffled by how anyone could not know what the Korean for chicken was after spending over a year in the country. Little did I know that after six months in the country the only animal meat I could be certain of would be samgyubsal.

While the first weekend kind of happened and it’s a wonder I even remember it, it didn’t take long for any excitement of arriving in Korea to wear off, and I began finding out how to live in the city. One of my first steps was to visit the supermarket. When I walked into the small one around the corner from my apartment I began to cautiously inspect the contents of the shelves.

From a distance they looked unsurprising. There were plenty of vegetables I recognised, although I had no idea how much they actually cost, there were eggs, fruit, and there was a busy butcher’s counter. I soon found aisles full of jars and bottles of sauces and some recognisable condiments, and what seemed to be an entire section devoted to instant coffee and tea, which was impressive for such a small supermarket. Then I found breakfast cereal, noodles, drinks, beer, toilet roll, and toothpaste. It all looked quite normal. I was relieved.

Returning to the fresh food I picked up some interesting looking mushrooms which were cheap, broccoli, peppers, and probably some onions and eggs. Then I went to the meat counter and had a look. My eyes lit up at the sight of stacks and stacks of delicious looking bacon. Here was another relief. I could hardly go hungry in Korea with rashers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right? I asked for a several hundred grams worth, then paid and went home to cook.

After chopping up some of the vegetables, I lit the stove and threw them all in along with the previously discussed bacon. After allowing it to fry away for fifteen minutes or so, I started to get the impression that something wasn’t right. There was very little of that familiar breakfast smell, and the meat was not really taking on a darkened cooked look, but maintained the pale just turned look.

As I sat down with my plate of vegetables and bacon my room mate entered and looked on the table.

“Are you having samgyubsal for lunch?” he asked puzzled.

“What? No, it’s bacon” I replied.

“No it’s not. You can’t buy bacon like that in the market here. That’s samgyubsal. Fatty pork that you grill for dinner and get drunk over”.

“Oh. Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine like this”.

“Maybe”, he said as he left the room.

As I took a bite I knew that I wouldn’t be finishing the pork, which was clearly not bacon, any time soon. There was literally no taste to it, and the frying had basically turned it all to rubber. It was probably one of the least enjoyable meals I would have in Korea, but a valuable lesson was learned.

I gradually became accustomed to the food in the supermarket, but in my increasing curiosity and half boredom with spending long hours at home I took an extended journey into Myeongdong in Seoul, which I’d heard was usually busy with a lot to see. After negotiating the subway for the first time without going the wrong way or getting off at the wrong station too often (not to mention getting on at the wrong station – don’t ask), I emerged in the busy central shopping district.

I didn’t have much of an agenda other than to walk around and look at stuff, which I proceeded to do. I really didn’t have much of a clue about anything I was looking at or experiencing, and just did my best to take everything in. It didn’t take long for me to feel hungry, and with that my problems started.

You see, I don’t really have any problems eating food and I never have, but what I really struggled with was picking up the courage to actually ask for something to eat. For around two hours I walked around looking in windows at restaurants, many with picture menus of course, but completely terrified by the prospect of having to pick something I didn’t have any idea what it was. My wandering began to get more and more obsessive. I stood practically paralysed looking in restaurant windows salivating at the food. A few times a person even opened the door for me but I scampered away, afraid of looking (even more) like an idiot.

As I walked around I kept passing a long stall that was selling all kinds of cooked street food. This stall is no longer there, but it had a long rectangular vat of bubbling red sauce with thick black sausage cooking away inside. I walked by a few times and most people seemed to be enjoying it. I figured that I at least could point and grunt at this and hope for the best.

The sausage itself was what really intrigued me. It reminded me of black pudding, a kind of sausage we have in Ireland which is made mostly from pigs blood but which we slice and fry until it’s crispy on the outside. I was pretty sure that this looked like black pudding, and if it wasn’t it was clearly some form of sausage, and I wasn’t wrong I suppose. I figured I’d be alright.

As the steaming orange sauce coated sausage was scooped into a paper bowl for me, the guy serving me was eyeing me cautiously. I took a little wooden skewer and handed him two thousand won. I poked my skewer into one of the sausages and the first thing I noticed that it was soft, like an over ripened tomato might be. I punctured through the skin, lifted the sausage up, shook some of the excess sauce free, and then put it into my mouth.

I was instantly bombarded on three fronts as soon as the sausage passed my lips. For starters it had a very soft and squidgy texture that was very far from the crispy, tenderness I was dreaming of. The sauce was not the tomato based one I figured would be the obvious compliment, especially considering it was red, but a sweet and spicy one. To really tie the knot and ship me off was the heat of it, and I mean the temperature, as it touched my tongue it literally scalded my entire mouth. In between the burning feeling, I was trying not to wretch from the texture and keep a normal face at the same time.

All I know is that my eyes shot open wide as I tried to battle off the pain from my burning mouth and the unpalatable texture of the sausage. The fella who handed it to me originally continued looking at me warily, and I did my best to remain normal, probably unsuccessfully. I looked around for some water to help cool my mouth but I had to buy that and I didn’t know the Korean for water, so I stood there pretending everything was normal. I ate two or three more pieces, and as soon as the man who sold it to me turned his back I turned and bolted in a panic searching for a shop to buy some water for my mouth.

I’m sure that it was theorised that the spiciness was what got me, but the spiciness was fine and I quite enjoyed it, but it was the texture and the heat which turned me off, and to this day I still can’t stomach to even look at sundae, let alone eat some.

My adventures with Korean food following this experience were often limited to escorts by Korean people or people who had an idea what they were doing. In my neighbourhood I soon discovered the local E-Mart and Costco, so I frequented them regularly. I also learned how to say kimbap (this took a few months) and started visiting a local restaurant that sold it.

My excitement reached overload when I was introduced to a former teacher of the school I worked in who took me around and showed me a few places with either English menus or picture menus, these included the local restaurant where I bought my kimbap. With lunch now costing no more than 4,000 won, I soon stopped visiting the supermarket so regularly and even found the confidence to take the bus to meet people I knew nearby to have dinner and a few (ahem) drinks. At the weekend I would go to Itaewon and fill up on burgers and other foreign delights, including oceans of beer.

Then I met the woman who my regular readers will know as Herself, and everything changed. All of a sudden I was propelled from random dishes and mediocre western food to the real culinary world of Korea. I was amazed as we went on dates that I never had to choose the restaurant as a selection had already been carefully researched and a route was prepared where we would decide on the best option. I ate soups, stews, cold dishes, spicy dishes, fusion dishes, street food, sea food, Indian, Thai, Japanese, French, Chinese, to the point that I completely forgot about my previous nightmares in eating.

I would go to restaurants and the symbols and lines and squares and circles were suddenly translated into recognisable words which could be closely associated with food I might be familiar with. We would wander down greasy alleys and step over people welding steel in the doorway and take our seats among a throng of fifty-something year olds and soon have a delicious meal plonked down in between us. It was a bizarre transition where I had suddenly gone from looking in the windows to actually sitting in the restaurant and enjoying the food provided.

Another thing that happened was that I developed an opinion on the quality and taste of the food. I was no longer a patron of the local kimbap shop or the mediocre Japanese styled restaurant (a different one, the one at the start of the story had closed down), because now when I went there I could actually taste the difference. I knew why they charged only 5,000 won for certain dishes, so I started to look further afield for better examples of the food I wanted to eat. And I was a better man because of it.

I don’t think I would be lying if Herself found a way to my heart through my stomach, as I suppose this is partly true, and my appetite has certainly been a feature of me establishing myself in her family’s hearts. Of course this isn’t the only reason I love Herself, but back in the day she really did take me by the hand and make me know and understand so much more than I didn’t beforehand. This is especially the case for Korea, and it is equally relevant to food, and most importantly Korean food. And my life is better because of this.

I read this post today on a website called Seoulistic, the post, 30 Delicious Korean Foods You’ve Never Heard Of got me thinking about my own experience with Korean food. After reading through the list I was fairly sure that there were only a few of these I hadn’t tried and I was familiar with all but one of them (which I later found out I had actually eaten several years back).

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The Institution of Bap


Food in Korea is a national obsession. I used to think when I first came to Korea that all people talked about was money, until I learned some of the language that is. Then I realised that a lot of the time when people were talking about money they were discssing how much a particular dish or food cost. Food and eating has even gone to the point where ‘did you have lunch?’ is a greeting. Korea is one of the few places in the world where there will be a television in the restaurant where there will be a television programme on about food from a different restaurant.

Last year I sat in a restaurant in Gangeung with Herself’s family. I was sitting across from my mother-in-law and Herself’s aunt, and throughout the meal both women went through the menu on the wall discussing how each ingredient in each dish could be made to taste more delicious and how you could prepare it to taste better.

Last January when I was here one of the biggest concerns before we left for our isolated location in the mountains was what would be done about food, with not an eyelid batted with the mention that we would have no communication with the outside world for seven days.

It is an obsession here. Be that a good or bad thing.

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