Cooking Life

23 Bread and Korea: Pain Tradition

I have listened to a fair number of migrants in Korea (or, as they like to call themselves, expats) express their bread angst. Their bread pain.

“It’s all too sweet!”

“Too soft!”

“Too strange!”

“Too hard!”

“Too many flavors!”

Europe developed as a wheat and rye-based agrarian society, which made bread the staple food there. Bread has remained the staple of all European and extra-European societies that were built in the rubble of colonies and empires. In Korea that staple is rice. The way a staple food works is simple. You eat it all the time. With everything. And every proper staple acquires a local stamp.

In Slovenia a proper, solid kilogram loaf of white bread is what I recall from my childhood. Soft and white inside, with a hard light brown crust that turned rubbery by day two. People eat it with goulash, with gravy, with ham and cheese, with Kekec paté, with fish paté, even with pasta.

In the Netherlands proper bread is sliced bread. The greater the volume of the bread, even if it’s airy and full of holes, the better. Dutch folks take their big slices of bread and put tiny shavings of cheese on it. Save the cheese.

In Switzerland proper bread is rich and soft with milk and butter, from the tresse au beurre to the croissant. Almost like there is a confederational obsession with dairy.

In Asia that staple is rice. In Korea, proper rice is fat and glutinous, in Thailand long and thin.

Bread is not a staple in Korea.

It arrived as an exotic foreign food without the emotional ties of an early childhood attached to a single type of bread. It was adopted with gusto and underwent a radical and rapid fusion with local food traditions, from rice cakes to red bean desserts and more.

More generally, I notice that Koreans really enjoy remixing things and inventing new recipes. But that’s a different topic. Back to bread.

Korea is now full of bakeries and bakers. From chains to specialty cafés.

There is a bread café nearby, a very French place. It’s name escapes me, but it wears its Pain Tradition very prominently. It is full of breads with very French names and comfortable tables and chairs. It is quite popular, quite boring, and even this place could not escape fusion: macha croissants and red-bean baguettes.

There is another bakery, named Andersen, near my home in Jeongja-dong. It has a bright green front that is almost grass-green. Almost, but not quite. I doubt it is inspired by the Danish collector and writer, but to me it is a fairy tale place.

It is the kind of bakery those migrants in Korea might lambast. It is an Aladdin’s cave of riotous bakery innovation. Sweet potato bread, nut bread, olive and cheese ciabattas, chewy rice cake bread, chiffon cakes, castella cakes, kaiser buns, whole grain baguettes, onion and macadamia loaves, pecan short cakes, red bean buns, custard and red bean loaves, rye breads, cottage cheese breads, redcurrant breads, tresses, round cakes, lemon breads, magdalenes, chocolate muffins, nutella breads, macha donuts, sourdough breads, panettone, butter sticks, corn breads, cream buns. The list goes on, in ridiculous, artisanal profusion. Variety upon variety, flavor upon flavor.

Food touches all our senses, our minds and our memories. While the Pain Tradition place recreates a fantasy Old Europe in Korea, Andersen creates a magical mystery tour of the world of bread.

Why does an extra-European migrant in Korea moan and complain when faced by this kind of choice and variety? Perfectly natural.

Koreans moan and complain about kimchi in Europe, Frisians miss their cheese shavers in Slovenia, a boy from Tolmin searches for panceta in Ljubljana.

Loneliness and homesickness. Migrants are strangers looking for comfort in a strange land. They are looking for the bread they ate when they were three and the world made sense, with Mother-deity and Father-deity framing their cosmos.

And I would be tempted to say, “Ah, folly of follies. You cannot step into the same river twice. Move along, nothing to see here, only memories.”

I would, if it were not for a bread I found at Andersen.

It is an unassuming half-baguette, black with squid ink and filled with butter and something sweet, possibly honey. It becomes rubbery by day two.

When I was little, grandmother often lived with us. I was the youngest child, and she was the only grandparent I ever knew. She had lived through two world wars and showed her love through food. And the food I remember most were the big slices of white bread cut from heavy loaves, generously buttered and spread with honey that dripped off the edges of the bread onto my hands and my plate. With a glass of milk on the side, I am convinced, no breakfast could ever have tasted better.

That little Andersen black baguette filled with its buttery sweet concoction tastes and smells and chews and goes down with a gulp of milk exactly like my grandmother’s breakfasts all those years ago, back when the world was new.

I never understood the fuss about Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu when we read excerpts in high school, but by the cheery chin-chin of Jove, I do understand the magdalenes now.

I suppose, when someone complains about the food in Korea, I should hear: “I miss my home.”

And I should respond, “I know. It’s ok. It’ll be ok. This is Korea. You will find your magic memory bread, too.”

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