Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pica Foods and Diversity

Anthropologists identify pica foods as foods within one society or culture that are considered normal or ordinary, and yet are considered strange, bizarre and sometimes savage by outsiders. I would guess that all cultures have pica foods. In discussion with my students we sometimes talk about what is really acceptable and what is really weird. Pizza is a topic that invariably comes up! When most westerners, myself included, first arrive in Korea, we are royally shocked by how Koreans take our western food and eat it their bizarrely weird way:  For one of a million examples, Koreans enjoy pickles with pizza (NO! pickles are for hamburgers!), and tobasco sauce on pizza (why the killer heat when WE want subtle Italian herb flavors and tangy tomato sauce?), and then we find corn kernels thrown all over the pizza ... (WHAT?! Vegies on pizza, but not THAT vegie!) Well, these are examples of pica foods, although they are rather strange examples as all of the ingredients eaten, but in different contexts, are perfectly acceptable to us.

Then I ask my students what they consider strange, weird and/or revolting that Americans eat. The common food that Koreans used to bring up as culturally weird for them was peanut butter or even the combination of peanut butter and chocolate. Even now some people shake their heads at that combination, but for the most part and especially recently, American foods have been eagerly assimilated into the Korean diet. Yes, often as "fusion food" but assimilated nevertheless.
But usually pica foods are what one cultural palate would absolutely rebel at eating but which another cultural palate considers as perfectly acceptable - for example, edible insects. Then, for the full shock effect of what pica really is, I tell my students about some hidden gastronomical pleasures in isolated areas of the US, the 'prairie oysters' also in other topographies called 'mountain oysters', and when my students don't understand, I simply clarify the meaning by using the more vulgar name 'bull's balls'. Yep, they agree.  THAT'S PICA!

Well, two of my students - Kim Yuna and Oh Chanho - put together a very interesting introduction to pica foods identifying four well-known pica foods in the international setting and then identifying five Korean foods that are culturally disgusting to many other ethnic groups.

World Famous Pica Foods

Norway → "Smalahove" made of whole sheep's head and served on special days, particularly before Christmas. Originally for the poor, now smalahove is considered a great delicacy. One head is equivalent to two servings with the eye and ear eaten first as they are the fattiest and are best eaten when warm. When there is only one head or a limited number of heads, the eye and ear are given to the eldest and the communal eating of smalahove and how it is apportioned is a way of showing family hierarchy.

The Phillippines → "Balut" is eaten in many southeast Asian countries and the practice of eating egg embryo is thought to have been introduced from China where "1000-year-old" duck eggs are enjoyed. In the Phillippines, the egg which has been kept warm in the sun is considered at its best at 17 days when it is said to be balut sa puti, or "wrapped in white", that is, still wrapped in the egg which may or may not be eaten, thus, the nomenclature of "balut", "to wrap". At this point, the undeveloped chick is not old enough to have beak, feathers or claws and its bones are undeveloped. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, prefer their "balut" to be more mature - at 19-21 days when the chick is old enough to be recognizable and with bones firm and yet tender when cooked.

China  → All sorts of fried insects and surprises. China has a reputation as being a country where almost anything can get into the pot. Street stalls vie with their different fried insects (spiders, grasshoppers, scorpions ... ), sea creatures (sea horses, starfish, sea urchins, eels ...), and the list goes on. China does not stop at just fried insects and creatures from the sea, but for this presentation, the list must be short.

France → "Foie gras" literally 'fat liver' is a delicacy in French cuisine. Tasting rich, buttery, delicate and unlike ordinary duck or goose liver, foie gras is now enjoyed in countries outside of France, although France by far consumes the largest of the world's consumption. Even French law states that "foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France". There's a huge controversy over the practice of eating foie gras and it originates from the almost universal act of force daily feeding ducks/geese to create a very unhealthy fatty state, and then the liver is enjoyably consumed by people [the evil irony of giving pain to get pleasure]. People for animal rights heartily protest the eating of foie gras.

Korean Pica Foods

"Bosingtang" → The most pica Korean food known to westerners is the eating of dog meat. Korea has a long history of westerners criticizing the practice, and for this reason, just before the 1988 Seoul Olympics the Korean government tried to erase this negative Korean image by outlawing "bosingtang" (dog meat soup) but which literally means "invigorating soup". Bosingtang restaurants didn't close but euphemisms of dog meat were created to mask the eating of dog from the critical western eye, names like youngyangtang "nutritious soup", meongmeongtang "woof woof soup" and others. Koreans still eat dog meat today but it is not as widely practiced, namely due to the sensitivity of their international image but also and probably more affected by the fact that Korea now has alternative meat selections to choose from for boosting their energy.

Fermented Skate Koreans, being residents on a peninsula, really enjoy seafood and pretty much all seafoods find their way in some kind of Korean cuisine. However, there is one seafood preparation that even many Koreans might lift an eyebrow at, and that is the fermented skate served principally on Heuksando Island in the Yellow Sea. This dish is quite popular for people in Jeolla Province but it is not universally popular. I'm not clear on the preparation as the skate seems to be served raw and yet undergoes some kind of fermentation process, which gives it a tangy flavor created by the ammonia, which is used for the sterilizing action.

Sundae (순대) → Sundae is a type of blood sausage and is made from pig or cow intestines. The fecal matter is scooped out and a preparation of many things like (blood, barley, rice, green onions, garlic, kimchi, cellophane noodles, sesame seed leaves, among others) are stuffed into the intestines and steamed or boiled. Sundae is commonly served as a drinking side dish and/or street food. It is also very commonly found at parks, along hiking trails and near recreation sport centers as well as being a hot item for making soups with.

Chicken feet (닭발) → Chicken feet used to be a very common delicacy and street food. It's still available but not so readily anymore, and this is because Koreans now have access to a wider selection of meats and inside of paltry chicken feet, fat juicy chicken breasts and wings are found in restaurant window after restaurant window now. For the most part now, chicken feet are served as as an anju (side dish) when drinking or along hiking trails. Few street stalls sell them now, but all you have to do is ask, and likely someone knows where you can find these 'tasty' items. For a foreigner's experience on eating chicken feet, check out his "food of the weird" where he comments, "If you are nervous about the chicken feet, try the [silkworm] larvae first."

Live octopus (삼낙지) → Seafood restaurants are everywhere in Korea, and live octopus is frequently sold at them. However, when Koreans take vacations to seaside areas, the seafood restaurants get a lot of clientele from the inland dwellers and the inland dwellers are hot in pursuit for the plates of raw seafood. Octopus is even cooked, but when eating it raw, caution must be taken to chew well so that a sucker on the octopus arm does not get stuck inside the esophagus, which of course results in ... death. But then that's part of the attraction - to wrest with one's food and triumph!

1 comment:

  1. Food from an anthropological perspective, very interesting. I've never had octopus raw, but I loved it when I've tried it cooked.