Eating Korea


Book Review
Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance, by Graham Holliday

Graham Holliday’s love affair with Korean cuisine started back in the mid-90’s, when he came to the country to teach English. Delving into the food was a priority for him from the get-go, so much so that when it came time for teaching assignments, he jumped at the chance to go to North Jeolla province after learning that it’s considered the epicenter of Korean cooking.

It turned out to be the right choice. Over the course of a year he was seduced by the pungent, fiery, pickled goodness served up on local tables, and in the end he was hooked for life.

After Korea, Holliday settled in Vietnam, where he started the Noodlepie blog, documenting his headlong dive into the infinite splendors of Vietnamese food. His work eventually caught the eye of Anthony Bourdain, who commissioned him to turn it all into a book for publication on Ecco Press, his personal imprint at Harper Collins. Holliday accepted the challenge (you don’t really say “no” to Bourdain), resulting in Eating Vietnam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table. The book did so well that Bourdain offered him a follow-up. Holliday chose to return to the place where it all started, and Eating Korea was born.

The “glorious shithole” where Holliday decided to take the plunge into full-time writing.

Eating Korea documents Holliday’s two-month trek up and down the peninsula in search of “the food Koreans eat every day.” From the beginning, he embraces the oft-observed notion that Korea is a place where the new and old exist concurrently, where tradition and hyper-modernity are by no means mutually exclusive. The fact that he chooses to begin his culinary journey in a basement joint in Seoul serving up “fruit cake pizza” tells us that he’s not afraid to delve into this new Korea, even if he’s not too thrilled with the results, describing the overly-sweet slice of fusion pie as “some kind of hermaphroditic food form.” He then goes even further: “If there truly were a loving and truly compassionate god, Korea’s pizza trade would have been erased from existence long ago.”

Seolleongtang. Yes, please.

Despite starting on shaky legs, Holliday is soon in the thick of good eats in Seoul, getting down with you-can’t-go-wrong dishes as kimchi jjigae, galchi jorim (hairtail fish braised with radish), and perhaps capital’s best offering, seolleongtang (sliced beef soup). He seems happiest when digging into these standbys, and his words really spring to life once he steps into the hallowed ground of those older restaurants. Despite his obvious love for Korea as a whole, the food’s the thing, and the writing burns brightest at the table.

That’s not to say that this is strictly a food book, since the food serves as springboard for so much more. Holliday gets that we can’t really wrap our heads around a culture until we experience what they eat and how they eat it, and throughout his journey we begin to develop a greater understanding of just what makes modern Korea tick. These lessons often come via his many dining companions, usually Koreans turning him onto local restaurants that they’re particularly proud of. As they slurp and munch their way through meal after meal, his counterparts open up about their own lives. These conversations are candid are sometimes quite critical of Korea as a whole. “We’re a sick society in many ways,” says one woman. “We developed so fast, in such a short period, that we don’t actually enjoy ourselves apart from eating and drinking.”  

Holliday’s exploration of the Korean table covers much of the country, taking him to Seoul,  Chuncheon,  Busan (full disclosure: my wife and I make a cameo), North and South Jeolla Province, Jeju Island, and back to Seoul.  From dalkgalbi joints to raw seafood stalls to the compound of a master concocter of soy sauce (yes, there is such thing), he savors it all. The only major place he skips is Daegu, which, according to him, is said to offer up the very worst in Korean fare.  

It’s unsurprising that the concept of rapid change continually rears its head throughout the book. This is a constant that anyone who writes about modern Korea must contend with, and Holliday looks it squarely in the eyes when he returns to Iksan, the city he called  home in the mid-90’s, only to find the old downtown and traditional market in a state of shabby neglect. “The air now seemed coated in a treacle of nostalgia,” he writes. “It was like I was walking among the dead.”

While Holliday employs a quiet, wry sense of humor throughout, the book enters the territory of laugh-out-loud funny during a scene in the city of Mokpo, where he sits down with two seasoned expats for a meal of hongeo, the notorious regional dish of pee-fermented skate. He describes the scene with hellish accuracy: “It was like I’d severed a critical pipe in a chemical factory. I imagined a bunch of mad scientists running around my head attempting to contain the toxic leak as I felt the ammonia of the fermented piss surge.” Anyone who has been unlucky enough to gag down a piece of hongeo knows exactly what he’s talking about, and that he’s not exaggerating in the least.    

Though it doesn’t win any beauty pageants, hongeo (fermented skate) looks better than it smells or tastes, by several orders of magnitude.

For anyone interested in Korean food, or in Korea through the window of its food, Eating Korea is an essential read. Holliday writes with a sharp eye and a gentle touch, inviting us to sit down with him while he takes the chopsticks to a cuisine that is just as ever-changing and resilient as the people who have been preparing it for centuries. It’s a book that’s as delicious as the food it celebrates, and I guarantee you there’s no way you’re getting through it without taking down at least one bowl of kimchi jjigae.