Hawker Admits Novelty Trumps Taste Any Time

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Hawker Admits Novelty Trumps Taste Any Time

Walk through Jongno, a bustling street in downtown Seoul, and these days you may stumble across what appears to be a coconut palm tree. There is even a monkey clinging to it. Stop to consider what you were wearing last December and you'll realize this is not a likely sight.

Thanks to an imaginative street vendor, however, the scene has become a reality - of sorts. The only snag is that the coconuts are not growing from the tree, but are tied to it with thread. To your disappointment, the monkey is even more unnatural, just a soft toy. Look a little closer and you'll see that the tree has its "roots" in a handcart.

The street vendor and owner of this amusingly mendacious stand, which you'll find near Seoul Cinema, calls himself simply Kim. Since late May, he has been selling coconuts at 2,000 won ($1.50), mostly to Korean youths, whose interest is piqued by this exotic new summer drink. Kim says business is quite good, and that on weekends he can sell as many as 150 coconuts a day. And it's not much effort. When a curious customer arrives, he pulls out a coconut cooling in an ice bucket. He drills a hole in the shell, inserts a colorful straw - and it's ready to serve.

But whether this new summer drink is suited to the Korean palate is another question. Even Kim himself admits that the coconut milk has rather a bland and "not quite agreeable" taste. Moreover, it is rather heavy to carry the nut while walking down a busy street. For the time being, however, novelty value has ensured that sales are booming, spawning imitators. In Myeong-dong, another commercial district of Seoul, there are more than five coconut stalls in business, though they are not all as beautifully arranged as Kim's.

Other street vendors are sticking to tried-and-trusted fruit snacks, such as melons and pineapples, which first appeared on street-fare menus last summer. The stall keepers peel the fruit and slice them into eight or 10 pieces. Then, adding toothpicks for easy serving, vendors lay them on ice to keep them cool and they are ready to go. Though these fruit slices are usually sold at a standard 1,000 won, they often vary in thickness, so take care to inspect so you get a good deal for your money.

If you want to eat at all on Korean streets, don't think about hygiene or the condition of the coconut man's drill or the water that went to make that ice to cool those melon slices. Just relish the summery taste that Korea has to offer.

by Chun Su-jin

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