In this edition of Global Gourmet I speak to Julie Campbell from Cape Town, South Africa. After leaving Julie moved to South Korea to work as an English teacher.
Tell me a bit about how you came to live abroad.
I came to South Korea because of a combination of a few factors: I was feeling trapped in my job, I had four years of student loans to pay off and I had a growing desire to travel and get over the quarter life crisis that I was feeling. I come from a family of teachers and academics, and so teaching overseas seemed like a great idea. I didn’t know very much about South Korea but it seemed like an interesting mix of ancient culture and modern technology. They seemed to look after their teachers well and they pay well and give you free accommodation, which is an amazing draw card for a South African of course! So here I am, teaching English to the smartest high-schoolers in Busan, Korea, and loving it.
South Africa is a melting pot of cultures which means the food is as diverse as the people. Which South African dishes did you grow up eating and is it still part of your meal plan now?
My family are mostly simple eaters. When I was growing up we used to eat pizza every Friday night, which has fostered my love affair with pizza. My parents subsequently realised that this was not so healthy, and pizza because reserved for lazy days and special occasions. We also used to eat a lot of pasta (love my carbs), fish, salad, grilled halloumi, meatballs and casseroles. When I went to university my dad and my brother became vegetarian, and my mom and I are more “flexitarian” at home, so the way that we eat as a family has kind of changed.
I definitely eat a lot of things that my parents used to cook growing up, but in my working life I got very into healthy eating and so I started trying to eat more veggie burgers, bobotie, rice pasta, veggie curries and interesting salads, with lots of nuts, seeds, smoothies and superfoods.
What would you say is the best South Korean dish you’ve eaten? Describe the dish and what you love about it.
I LOVE Korean food. I was very worried before I arrived here that I was not going to enjoy it, mostly because I’m not very good with spicy food. But it is totally possible to tone down the spice in your food, or eat food that is not spicy at all. My favourite food is Korean barbecue, where you barbecue your own meat (or if you are me the waiters get frustrated and do it for you) at your table.
The best part of it is that the meat is incredibly affordable, and you get any number of side dishes for free! One of these is of course kimchi, and kimchi grilled in the juice of the meat is out of this world. My favourite types of meat are 삼겹살 (samgyeopsal – pork belly) and 갈비 (galbi – marinated ribs) and they are delicious.
I am lucky enough to be at one of the top high schools in Busan, Korea, and so I am also lucky enough to have great lunches every day because the students are boarders, and eat at school! Other favourite foods of mine are bibimbap (mixed rice and veggies), bulgogi (marinated beef), mulneangmyun (buckwheat water noodles) and all the stews and soups on offer. I really love that we have soup with every meal. I especially love kimbap, which is kind of like the Korean version of sushi, but way cheaper and so delicious. I am currently also obsessed with hoeddeok, which is a deep fried, doughy pancake covered in all the sugary sweet delicious toppings you can think of. And speaking about dessert, patbingsu (shaved ice with red bean and condensed milk) is also amazing. Bubble tea is readily available and while not Korean, has become an Asian staple in my life. Oh and I can’t forget soju, Korean alcohol, which is so cheap and comes in delicious flavours. I could go on forever!
What is your favourite South Korean dish to cook?
OK confession time… I don’t really cook in South Korea. Yes, judge all you want. Because food here is so cheap, my apartment is super tiny, and I’m so busy all the time with school stuff, yoga and socialising, cooking kind of takes a back seat. On weekends I mostly eat out, and on weekdays I often eat good old ramen soup or pick up a roll of kimbap for the equivalent of about R30. I make myself pasta fairly often too because it feels like home. Ok, I’ll admit, sometimes I also eat toast for dinner. We’ve all been there, right?
Have you tried any weird or unusual South Korean dishes and what did you think of it? (Would you recommend or did it make you gag?)
I’m not the most adventurous person around, and I have a shellfish allergy, so a lot of the weirder things in Korea I can’t eat. But to be honest that’s partly just an excuse I use for being scared of octopus, squid, mussels etc. In Busan, which is on the coast, seafood is very popular and one of the popular things to eat is very recently alive octopus, still wriggling. To be honest I haven’t tried it. I was put off by stories from friends who told me that it suctions to the inside of your mouth while you are trying to swallow it. Another thing I have not had the courage (or desire) to try yet is beondegi, which is steamed or boiled silkworm pupae. These can be found all over on street corners etc and they just do not attract me. I have however now tried raw beef, which was a new and enjoyable experience for me. I also tried blood sausage, which doesn’t taste bad at all, but which I struggled to eat because of knowing what it is.
How do the eating habits of the South Korean people you’ve encountered differ from the eating habits of South Africans you know?
Oh, the eating habits are so different. For starters, Koreans eat Korean food almost exclusively. Growing up in South Africa, we get exposed to so many different kinds of food: Italian, Greek, Ethiopian, Indian, Mexican, Portuguese, anything you can dream of. I didn’t realise how much I loved this about South Africa until I came here. In Korea, if you are at home you are eating Korean. If you are out you are either eating Korean, or paying a lot of money for foreign food that is often a bit disappointing. I definitely miss the variety. Koreans also don’t do cereals, or oats, or fry-ups for breakfast. Breakfast is still rice, kimchi and soup basically. Sometimes the smells that waft into my little flat early in the morning make me want to gag and run towards my overnight oats with almonds and berries.
A lot of things here are also very sugary. It is unusual to find even bread that is not sweet. I struggle a lot with that. Salty and savoury tastes are much rarer here. Baked goods are all the same, and finding quality baked goods like we are used to at home is a difficult business. Gourmet coffee is also not a thing here, which is such a change from hipster Cape Town with its amazing coffee shops on every corner. Here people often drink coffee from sugary sachets.
Ramen is hugely popular here, especially among young people. They eat the preservative filled cup ramen, which costs around R10, almost every day. Real ramen here is very tasty though, as is Japanese ramen.
Also, food is incredibly convenient. There is a restaurant on literally every corner. No exaggeration. And food is cheap. Quality is generally very good for Korean food, whether you go to a reputable chain or some tiny family-run stall in a dingy underground food court. There is also a convenience shop on every third street, and most of them stay open all night. Each one has a hot water dispenser (so that you can buy a ready-made coffee cup with powder mix), and a microwave for your ramen noodles. It is not at all unusual to see some people standing at the counter in the window eating their store-bought dinner on the run. This is all part of the bali bali (hurry hurry) culture of Korea.
What foods from South Africa do you miss and what do you miss the least?
I miss cheese. Good quality cheese. Because cheese is life! Cheese here is terrible quality, or if it is decent it literally costs the earth and can only be found at the one Costco in town. Asians don’t eat a lot of dairy products due to a higher prevalence of lactose intolerance, so cheese is just not that popular. I also miss things like pesto, sundried tomatoes and salads, and affordable fruit. Fruit is very expensive in Korea. I miss koeksisters and samosas and milk tart. I miss a good Royale burger as burgers are not popular here and most are expensive. I miss good wine and ciders. But really I think I just miss the choice and diversity offered to us in South Africa. What I don’t miss much (besides its burger form) is meat. As I said earlier the meat options here are amazing.