Friday, July 27, 2018

"They eat the low-tide stuff"

It's a shame food writer Jonathan Gold has left us.  This short tribute draws attention to the fact that he was one of the first English-language food critics to elevate Korean cuisine through his abiding love of Koreatown joints in L.A.:
"We dove into grilled pork ribs, a steaming bowl of gamjatang (a pork-neck stew spiked with wild sesame seeds) and a small cauldron of cheonggukjang, an extra-fermented bean paste soup that the critic compared, possibly favorably, to a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 'It just takes over your fucking system,' Gold said, declining a bite. We started talking about his recent trip to South Korea, where he attended a kimchi festival and trucked around Gwangju with San Francisco chef Russ Moore. 'It’s so obvious that Korea was such a profoundly poor country,' he said after a sip of Chamisul. 'They eat the low-tide stuff. There is hagfish and sea squirts off every coastline, but only a few will eat it. It’s a cuisine of necessity.'
And necessity is how Gold described the reason a vast number of L.A. Koreans moved to the city in the late-‘70s and early ‘80s, many to build businesses that make up the sprawling Koreatown of today. At that time, while the Korean economy slowly transitioned from an agrarian society to the technological superpower we know today, immigrants flowed into America’s biggest cities in record numbers, hoping to make a better life for themselves. With few entrepreneurial opportunities, due to language barriers and cultural divides, many of the new arrivals opened food-related enterprises like produce markets, small grocery stores and, of course, restaurants that catered directly to the Korean-American immigrant community. It was a 'for us, by us' ethic that has remained strikingly the same, some 30 years later."
One of my favorite books about the Korean immigrant experience in America, and particularly Los Angeles, is chef Roy Choi's L.A. Son.  (His parents moved from Seoul and opened their own Korean restaurant in the 80's.)

And while Gold claims Koreatown joints are as good as Korean restaurants in Seoul, they definitely aren't cheaper.  One of the genuine pleasures of living in South Korea is having access to quality, mostly home-made places that will allow you to stuff your face for less than five bucks.  (Living in a college neighborhood helps.)

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