Nowheresville, Korea sans hometown kimchi stewVirtually anywhere you go in Korea there is a regional food that makes the locals proud. Jeonju bibimbap, or mixed rice with vegetables, is so big that even the convenience stores there sell instant bibimbap in a plastic bowl. Near the beach on Anmyeon Island, street tents selling barbecued prawns and clams are everywhere. Even Damyang, a county of less than 52,000 inhabitants, is famous nationwide for its dish of rice steamed with bamboo shoots.
So when I decided to visit Milyang, where 75% of Koreans named Park ― including myself ― originally came from, I held out hope for a homey meal. The city, however, was far from what I imagined.
In fact, it seemed dubious whether the people of Milyang even eat out. A few convenience stores were selling snacks that have long disappeared elsewhere. The city itself was more of a sprawling town ― with rice paddies and highways connecting various small neighborhoods.
After finishing some reporting work nearby, I asked an old taxi driver to drop me off where I could try some regional food.
Unexcited, he said there is no such thing as a regional food in Milyang. Then he went on grousing about people leaving the town in search of a better life.
Usually, taxi drivers in Korea are the evangelists of local tourism. When you ask about their town, they talk until you pretend to put on earphones. Not in Milyang.
It was a depressing glimpse of the reality of the Korean countryside.
By the time I arrived at the train station, the town was dead quiet. In the waiting room a few people were dozing off, while others watched a children’s singing contest on T.V.
I looked around the station for a place to eat. At an empty restaurant nearby, I got a tasteless pot of kimchi stew. (For some truly yummy kimchi stew, see the recipe in the box.) If the restaurant hadn’t been run by a young couple with four children crawling around everywhere, I would have just ordered a bowl of instant noodles for 2,000 won.
The town was only two and half hours from Seoul by bullet train. Yet the emotional detachment I felt from Milyang as I boarded the train to Seoul was much greater than travel time or even geographical distance would suggest.
I suppose I had expected a lot given the town’s connection to my heritage, so my disappointment was acute. I left the place thinking that home isn’t always where you find a homey meal.
How to Cook
Ingredients: 1 can of tuna, 300g of kimchi, 1/2 cup of water, 1/4 onion, 1/2 green onion, 1/3 green chili pepper, 1/3 red chili pepper, 1 teaspoon of chili powder, 1 teaspoon of crushed garlic, a little bit of salt and pepper.
1. In a pot, dump tuna from the can.
2. Cut kimchi into bite size pieces. Add with onions to the pot.
3. WIth sesame oil, stir in the pot on low heat.
4. When the kimchi softens, add water with garlic, red and green chili pepper.
5. Add salt and pepper as needed. Put in green onions just before serving.
by Park Soo-mee