[Viewpoint] A mishmash of thoughts on spuds

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[Viewpoint] A mishmash of thoughts on spuds

Most foreigners living abroad in distant lands are at times cursed with pangs for food from home. Koreans abroad may crave grandma’s kimchi, Americans may pray for pancakes, Russians might beg for a bowl of borscht. As for my own food dream, I pine for the potato.

Potatoes have come a long way from the days when they were first cultivated in the foothills of the Andes by the natives of Peru in 2000 B.C. Since they were introduced to Europe by the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585, they have taken Western cuisine by storm.

Having almost never eaten a single hot meal that was not accompanied, in some shape or form, by potatoes, coming to Korea was a jolt for me.

Within a few weeks in this country, I found myself suffering from withdrawal symptoms for an addiction that I never realized I had.

Many other non-Koreans may have experienced a similar shock in coming to Korea. In my first few weeks here, I almost wanted to run out into the street and scream, “Where are all the potatoes?”

The answer to this desperate question: They are in the banchan, the side dishes. Gamja jeon (potato pancake), gamja jorim (potato with soy sauce), gamja guk (potato soup) - these are all accompaniments for main dishes, more akin to amuse-bouches than what the potato is in the West, a staple carbohydrate that is designed to fill growling stomachs.

At first, some Westerners might find the idea of such a romanticization of potatoes to be jarring with their picture of a plate of meat and vegetables supported by the sturdy spud. However, the true test of acceptance of Korean culture must be in the potato.

After all, slices of modern Western history have been shaped by the shapeless potato. In the 1700s, what is now Germany went to war in a conflict that later became known as “The Potato War,” with rival factions attempting to starve their foes by digging up their enemies’ potato crops.

A French doctor even tried to prevent the French Revolution by introducing the potato as a crop for hungry peasants on the verge of rioting.

Marie Antoinette once took to the streets of Paris wearing potato blossoms in her hair.

And the infamous Potato Blight, a fungus that wiped out great swaths of potato farms in Ireland in 1845 resulted in a huge demographic shift for America, as a wave of Irish immigrants fled to the shores of America to escape hunger.

In the States, Thomas Jefferson was such a fan of French fries that he served them to guests to the White House, and potatoes were even used as a kind of currency by the miners of the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s.

The potato is grown in over 120 countries in the world, which is quite a feat for such a plain-looking, relatively tasteless vegetable. Perhaps its remarkable versatility in the kitchen, and its resilience to all sorts of hazardous weather conditions have allowed the potato to keep amassing global support.

Here in Korea, though, a world without the gamja is far from unimaginable. The traditional Korean diet of rice, kimchi and namul (a seasoned vegetable dish) does not require much input from the potato. If it were to disappear from the peninsula, few here would mourn its demise.

The more you eat it as an occasional side dish, though, the more you learn to appreciate the lighter side of the gamja. Instead of chomping down on starchy mashed potatoes and greasy fries, Koreans tend to lightly season potatoes with soy sauce or use them as ingredients for soups, which may well be better for your health.

Objectively, the Korean way certainly seems like a more refined way of consuming potatoes - eating them in moderation, rather than filling every inch of your gut with mash, chips and roasties at each available opportunity, as people do where I am from. However, full acceptance of the potato as a decoration for a meal, rather than the central pillar of it, can be hard, perhaps too hard for me.

This potato angst is not just about food though. You are what you eat, as they say. Westerners in Korea hankering after the familiarity of the potato are not just lusting after a taste, they are perhaps craving the comfort of home.

It is the same for a Korean abroad missing the taste of ramen or doenjang jjigae (bean paste vegetable stew), a Mexican raving about the flavor of homemade tacos, or a displaced Italian pontificating about the quality of their auntie’s tomato sauce pasta.

Our minds are happy to roam around the world in search of endless adventure, but our bodies want to return to the old tastes, the old comforts of familiar surroundings. They are tired of being relentlessly forced to adapt to the new.

Whatever the case, potato banchan are not unappealing dishes; perhaps they even represent the future for food. In more sophisticated culinary countries, like Korea, with all its rich diversity of food, people can eat to enjoy themselves, not just to stay alive.

But, for many like me, the potato will remain an unfathomable, but unshakable addiction - a link to a food culture less developed, but nonetheless cherished.

* The writer is a producer at TBS English FM.

by Tim Alper
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