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Kochu (Part 2)

by Everette Busbee

his talk about the theory of Szechuan cuisine is bookish, for I have never sat down to a meal with Chinese friends and so cannot connect the food with any culture at all. Korean food connects. After I was here a few weeks, a man asked me what I liked most about Korea. I answered, "It's roughness. Koreans in Chonbuk Province are cowboys." Makkolli houses in this most undeveloped area of Korea had the feel of a West Texas Honky-tonk, and chicken-stomach stew, or tak-nae-jang, houses had the feel of a Kansas City ribs shack. And the sauces are just as hot.

The side roads near the main gate of Chonbuk National University once offered many choices for makkolli and tak-nae-jang, but the choice is down to one. Gift shops, boutiques, convenience stores, and bars serving only cocktails and bottled beer dominate the area. There is one other tak-nae-jang house in another part of Chonju, the only place I have ever had food that was too hot. But I will admit that it was self-induced. The stew we were served was not hot enough, and we asked for more kochu sauce. After tasting it, we asked for still more. And once again, at which time the adjumma took the pan back into the kitchen to doctor it. We tasted it, looked at each other, and I said, "We have to eat this, but how will it be possible?"

Just as Merle Haggard and Bach can both have a place in life, another kind of eating in Korea relates to a different aspect of Korean life. The low black tables of the more upscale restaurants, tables covered edge-to-edge with bowls of chili-reddened food, connect with business meetings, more refined romantic moments, family affairs, and even heated discussions with co-workers.

The connection between Korean culture and Korean food as I know and like it is weaker when Koreans under thirty are in the picture, especially young women. In 1990, when parking on the main Chonju street was legal and plentiful, college class trips required crates of makkolli. When a 1993 trip to the west coast was OB-based, I drove to a nearby makkolli brewery. There a slow-moving old man warned me repeatedly that it was going to be very expensive as he filled a 20-liter can with Makkolli from a bubbling four-foot-high onggi jar, and then asked me for 6,000 won. The students drank it all in about an hour, with the women doing their share, although most had never tasted it. I would not try this now. Even if the makkolli brewery has not folded, a 20-liter can would likely go almost untouched. Trips in 1997 are Hite-based, and the faculty members and university seniors were served scotch on a recent class trip to Nae-jang Mountain. Trips with whisky and French wine for the freshmen will welcome in the new millennium.

Older Koreans eat a hot kochu a small bite at a time, dipped in bean paste -- samjang. Most young Korean woman would rather stoop to drinking OB than eat kochu and samjang. [Note: At the time of this column, a massive ad campaign by Hite had dethroned OB Beer as Korea's biggest seller. The trend to Hite was almost universal among young people. With a recent ad campaign, OB has regained its former leadership.] It's not just the women who are losing a taste for kochu. In 1990, kalbi houses always served a small bowl of kochu cut into pieces, except in late winter when the market price of three small kochu reached perhaps 1,000 won. Today, even at the peak of the season, a request to the waitress

may be necessary to get a bowl of kochu on the table. I have taken my mother-in-law to gather ingredients for the annual making of winter kimchi, and she spends more time searching out satisfactory chili powder, kochu garu, than she does searching for Chinese cabbage. She pays a little extra to get the hottest she can, and this pushes the cost of the kochu garu above that of the cabbage. She judges the quality of a restaurant by the heat of the kimchi, saying "Mild kimchi is cheap kimchi."

The hottest kochu, the smallest of the varieties in Korea, are identical to the ones Buck delivered in Georgia. But there are others, larger, with a taste like that of the green, or bell pepper, and there is a medium-sized pepper with medium heat. Shijang adjummas say a straight pepper is mild and one with a strong dog-leg is hot. But shijang adjumma pronouncements should be viewed warily. I once went to the market to buy some hot peppers and asked if they were hot. "An-miwayo," they aren't hot, the adjumma replied. And when I told her that I wanted hot ones, she said, "Miwayo," they're hot.

One summer Hwi-jin and I raised kochu on a small scale. When we lived on the eighth floor of an apartment complex, a truck drove up and handed out large rectangular flower pots imprinted with "Help the farmers," and in each pot were five large kochu plants. The balcony sun was good, and we watered the plants, but on the sixth day they wilted. We discovered aphids clumped on the young leaves. Fifteen minutes of crushing aphids was good for only a day. The building guard lent us a spray gun once a week, and we returned it each time with a bottle of beer. The plants rewarded us abundantly with mild kochu.

Greenhouse kochu in the winter require no spray, I have been told by my brother-in-law, who doesn't eat kochu in the summer. Many families have a few prolific tomato plants back in the States, but peppers demand both a longer season and more exacting conditions. Although my father didn't spray, I remember a few successful pepper plants in his garden. A rule of farming is that if the same crop is grown repeatedly in the same area, the pests that feed on that crop will proliferate.

Hot kochu garu does not much figure into the lives of younger married Korean women, and fresh kochu does not much figure into the lives of any young Koreans. I'm not sure what food does. Pizza, of course, but what else? Frozen mandu? Polls show the majority of Korean middle school students do not eat kimchi.

But there are young Korean women with fathers who dedicated a good portion of their lives to eating and shared that interest with their daughters. My wife had meals with her father that left an impression, and she has pointed out restaurants and their specialties as we drive around town, although urban renewal is weeding them out. She once told me that she has discovered that if we eat at a restaurant and she decides her father would like it, then she knows I will like it. And she, like her mother, searches out the hottest of kochu garu for cooking.

New restaurants in Korea are often Western, serving steaks with little flavor and pizza with even less, on white tablecloths. Do young Chicanas in West Texas still laugh in cheap restaurants as enchilada grease runs down their chins? Or do they also now sit quietly at white tablecloths, their napkin dabbing at the first trace of anything untoward on their lips? Do they still eat chilies?

I bite into a hot pepper, close my eyes, and guide my imagination. If I haven't dipped the pepper into samjang, I could be in a small town in Georgia or Texas or Korea, a town growing smaller. A town where mules are no more, or where oxen are almost no more. A town where boiled greens gistening with grease and heavy with salt are for old people, or where kimchi is less and less for the young. A town where outsiders were once Catholics or Mexicans, or where they are now foreigners. A town where definitions of acceptable lovers were written clearly and gripped tightly, or still are even as they slip away.

It is not that young Koreans are casting off the old ways. For them, especially young women, the old ways have simply never existed. But however it has come to be, a young Korean woman drinking chilled white wine from an elegant long-stemmed glass has broken with the past. She is free, and that is good, but her sophistication comes at the cost of things simple, of things often colorful and, at least for the tongue, of things spicy.

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