Lard, help me!In late December I happened to watch several documentary programs on television that idealized vegetarian diets. I knew that eating balanced meals was an important way to stay healthy, but why vegetarian? I had nothing against those pursuing that sort of food for various reasons, including religious convictions. Still, the sight of poor cattle being raised under extremely filthy conditions and then slaughtered brutally to make meat-eaters feel guilty irritated me.
Yes, I am a meat-eater, and I have no intention of giving up the privilege of savoring all those carnivorous dishes - even after watching those television programs.
The shows did make me want to improve my diet, but without converting to salads three times a day for life. I wanted to shed a few pounds, but there had to be some other way to get slim than eating only broccoli. But how?
That's when the "slow food movement" jumped off my brain's back burner. I remembered reading something about the movement, but I didn't really know exactly what it was. Wondering if this might be my answer to my diet quest, I did some research.
The slow food movement is an international trend that promotes tasting food, and fights against the destructive effects of fast food. Indeed, here's what the slow food movement says about fast food: "It erodes our culinary heritage in the guise of efficiency."
The movement began in Italy in 1986 as a response to the arrival of the first McDonald's store near Rome's landmark Spanish Steps. The international organization now has 70,000 activists in 50 countries.
I didn't know much about slow food, but I did know a lot about the fast kind. During the mid-1990s, l went to college for four years in Pennsylvania. I lived alone in Pittsburgh's Shadyside area, and there were six fast food places within a five-minute walk of my apartment. I didn't have the time to cook much, so I took turns dining at KFC, Burger King, Taco Bell, Raley's, Boston Market and Wendy's. My college friends called me the "fast food queen." I loved corn dogs from Raley's, 99-cent chili from Wendy's, mashed potatoes from Boston Market, and corn on the cob from KFC. Empty calories made up most of that stuff, I knew, but I didn't care. The food always gave me a bloated stomach and digestive troubles, but I didn't care. Of course, I gained weight - lots of weight, in fact. And I cared about that. Even when I returned to Korea, I couldn't seem to kick the meal-in-a-sack habit. What's more, my mother always told me I ate too fast. Too many bad things too quickly. I had to change.
When I read about a university professor who was a leader in something called the slow food movement, I knew I had to talk to him.
"'Slow food' is a contrary concept to fast food," Kim Jong-duk, a sociology professor at Kyungnam University in Masan, South Gyeongsang province, told me on the phone. Mr. Kim said he had come up with the idea of introducing the movement to Korea in 1999 after translating a book titled "The McDonaldization of Society," by George Ritzer.
Mr. Kim explained that the slow food movement in Korea has three goals. "To conserve traditional cuisine and recipes, ingredients and liquors from erosion, to protect the small-ingredient producers by enhancing the quality of their products, to educate consumers, especially Korean children, and in order to develop good taste in good food."
This sounded like exactly what I was looking for. Mr. Kim's enthusiasm spilled over into other areas. "'Slow food is more than a simple attempt to reshape a diet," he said. "The spirit of slow food can be applied to agriculture, environment and to our lifestyles."
I learned that slow food devotees adopted the International Movement for the Defense of and the Right to Pleasure in 1989. In this official manifesto, slow foodies stated, "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat fast foods."
Wow. I knew I had the Fast Life virus. After all, it usually took me less than three minutes to down a corn dog. Most meals were a little longer, but not much. The manifesto, endorsed by delegates from 15 countries including France, Japan and the United States, pledges that "Our defense should begin at the table with slow food. Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of fast food."
Mr. Kim told me that eating slow food meant consuming dishes made of naturally raised seasonal ingredients such as organic vegetables and meats, and cooked in traditional ways, as mothers do at home. "Also, spending a little more time on the dining table is another tip - slow foodies' aim is to slow life down, and eat slowly and well." Traditional Korean dishes such as kimchi and tofu are terrific examples of slow food. There was so much to learn, that I felt, well, hungry. Similarly, I wanted to start my defense against fast food immediately. So what now?
I went to the slow food Web site, where I met Lee Seung-ho, 32. He, too, had lived abroad as a graduate student, where he could have dined daily on fast food, as I had. But he didn't. I wanted to know why. A Ph.D. candidate in public policy at the University of London, Mr. Lee, I learned, happened to be in Seoul for the holidays before leaving for Shanghai to do fieldwork for his dissertation. I telephoned him, we chatted and I told him of my desire to learn firsthand about slow food. When he suggested we go to a restaurant, I jumped at the opportunity. Mr. Lee chose Sanchon, a vegetarian place in Insa-dong. Yuk, I thought. I had been dreaming of beef.
Mr. Lee was fit-looking without seeming to be too skinny. He did sense that I might be uncomfortable with his choice of restaurants. He eased my discomfort: "I am not a vegetarian. I like this restaurant's food because all the ingredients are fresh and no chemical additives are used. The cooking has stayed the same for years." Mr. Lee told me that he had visited Sanchon with his mother for the first time when he was a middle school student.
At the University of London, Mr. Lee works to eat sensibly. "My dormitory doesn't have a cafeteria. So, I cook almost every day."
Hmm. This man had a very different diet from all the male friends I went to school with in the United States. My pals craved Whoppers, monster Cokes, and french fries that dripped grease. "I have lived in London for about four years," Mr. Lee went on, "and I cook dinner every day unless I have to eat out." What he cooks is not exactly authentic Korean cuisine because ingredients in markets in London are different from what are available in Korea. "Each week I spend about 30,000 won ($23) and normally I buy meat - chicken, turkey, pork, beef and lamb - plus fresh vegetables and fruit." Canned tuna is the only preserved food he buys.
He cooks inventive dishes, he said, ones with marinated meat and vegetables with various seasonings, sauces or spices added. "I actually watch cooking programs on TV." The BBC's "Naked Chef" is his favorite show. This really surprised me, for the Korean guys I know generally does not watch TV cooking shows. Lee Seung-ho was definitely a slow foodie.
At that moment, the waitress brought our lunch. A small bowl of rice porridge was served to each of us as an appetizer. Then, at least 10 assorted vegetable dishes, along with soybean and tofu stew, deep-fried vegetables and pancakes and kimchi arrived with steamed rice. The meal was quite sumptuous. Since childhood, I've eaten as if someone wanted to steal my food. Though Mr. Lee said he eats quickly, too, he is a slow eater - certainly slower than anyone I know. He seemed to savor every bite of his steamed rice with different side dishes. The lunch took one hour and 20 minutes, not only because we chewed slowly, but because we discussed how the dishes tasted.
Over dessert - crispy rice cookies and herbal tea - Mr. Lee told me about his friends, family, career, school and of course, food. He said that one day he wants to travel along the ancient Silk Road that once connected Asia with Europe, and that is another reason why he cannot become a vegetarian because most of the nomadic diet consisted of meat and milk from their livestock.
Some may say the slow food movement is nothing more than euphemistic jargon for a feast enjoyed by wealthy people with spare time. I agree that I may not be able to spend more than one hour for lunch each day and afford home-style meals at fancy restaurants using organic ingredients. But I have found being a slow foodie doesn't mean becoming a bon vivant or buying expensive gourmet food all the time, either. Being a slow food junkie - not a junk foodie - is choosing consciously what I eat, enjoying the taste and appreciating the experience.
If a young Korean living alone in London, within steps of fish-and-chips-to-go joints can do it, then there must be something there for me. I am up to it. Death to junior cheeseburger combos. Hello, a healthy - and long - life.
by Ser Myo-ja
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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