by Celia Hayes
So, many of the headlines this week concern themselves with Korea, a country which I have some slight connection to; that is where my father was serving a tour when I was born. And a good few decades later, I did a year-long tour there myself. About the very first thing that I realized was that Korea in the 1990s looked nothing like the TV series MASH … and only very little like what my father remembered. Dad and his platoon with their mobile radar set-up lived in several different tent encampments near the DMZ. I spent the year living at Yongsan Garrison, in the heart of a bustling and very cosmopolitan Seoul. The garrison was itself a fairly un-crowded green island in the middle of a very built-up city – rather as if there were a substantial military base set up in half of New York City’s Central Park.
I very much enjoyed the year in Seoul, by the way – and I very much liked the Koreans that I met and worked with; tough, jolly, and rather outgoing. Someone once described Koreans as the Irish of Asia, which I don’t think was too far off. Being that San Antonio is a military-oriented town, and a lot of military – especially Army – have been rotating in and out of Korea for the last sixty years, there is a nice little Korean presence here in San Antonio. I know of no less than three different Korean church congregations in my immediate neck of the woods. Then there is the little ‘TigerPop’ fast food place that my daughter and I sampled a year or so ago. And when I first came to San Antonio, someone told me that the first and best Korean restaurants were all scattered along Harry Wurzbach, Austin Highway and Rittiman Road, in proximity to Fort Sam Houston – because those first restaurants were all started by the Korean wives of retired Army NCOs. Don’t know if it is true or not; but it looks like some the most assuming places with excellent food are along those streets.
Be warned, though – Korean food can be very, very spicy, even to Texas tastes. (Not as spicy as Thai food, though.) The dish that most of us have heard of is kimchee; basically pickled Napa cabbage, but with a kick – or as one of my military friends used to call it, “sauerkraut” with an attitude.” Very closely related to Japanese sushi is the Korean kimbab; cooked rice, and other things, rolled in a sheet of seaweed nori. The difference is that in the Korean version, the contents are most often cooked. And sometimes, they are made with a sliver of Spam. No, really – Spam is enormously popular in Korea; something that I had heard, but never quite believed until I saw assortments of Spam for sale in fancy baskets in Korean specialty groceries. The other very popular Korean snack food among my friends was yakimandu – pan-friend dumplings, which were as much like Chinese pot-stickers as to have no difference at all. Many of these delights were sold from street stalls, to the horror of the military health authorities, but to the best of my knowledge, I never heard of anyone getting sick from eating them, mostly because they came right from the burner to your plate. And against the red peppers and other hot spices, disease-causing organisms never had a chance.
And now I’m hungry for yakimandu … guess a trip down to Koreana on Harry Wurzbach is in order…