Have you had one of those days? One of those incredibly long days where every time you glance at the clock a mere 5 minutes have passed? You just can’t wait to get home and collapse so you count the minutes and as soon as work is done, you rush like the wind back home and plop yourself on the couch in exhaustion.
Oops. But you forgot something. Your stomach’s growling; you have to eat. You weren’t in the mood to eat out – home was too delicious an attraction – but the idea of planting yourself in the kitchen and slaving over the stove? Just the thought of it makes your muscles (and head) ache. Cooking a complete meal from scratch is out of the question. Inevitably, you have to do a quick assessment of 1) how hungry you are, and 2) how lazy you want to be.
Level 1: Moderately hungry and moderately lazy
Raid your fridge for leftover banchan (반찬, side dishes) or pre-cooked meals, throw things into a pot/pan/dish, cook/reheat, set the table, eat. Luckily for you, there is a wide selection of food to choose from that can be kept in your fridge and freezer, from basic soups and stews to the more traditional dishes, and even street food favorites.
But if even that is too much of an effort, then:
Level 2: Moderately hungry and very lazy
Korea is the delivery food paradise, remember?Order in. You have to wait about 15 to 30 minutes after making the call so in the meantime you can change into your sweats and lounge on the sofa, channel surf, or browse the internet. When doorbell rings, open door, receive food, pay delivery person, plop yourself back in front of the TV and stuff yourself. (It’s not worth ordering in if you’re not going to stuff yourself.)
Level 3: Very hungry and moderately lazy
You don’t want to waste any time, your stomach is rioting: taking longer than 10 minutes means you’d probably munch on junk food while everything is being prepared and ruin your dinner, which was so not the point. So ramyeon it is. Less than 5 minutes of cooking, but you still have to take out the pot, fill it with water, set it on the stove, wait until it boils, put in the ramyeon noodles and powder soup and let it cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Too much work for you, perhaps?
Level 4: Very hungry and super lazy
Ah, the main focus. Who has the time to look for a pot? Forget the pot. Forget the pan. You need to eat, and you need to eat now. What is the use of modern technology if you’re not going to take advantage of it? Besides, the microwave oven – which is called ‘electronic range’ (전자레인지) in Korean – has been around for decades and you should be pretty familiar with it.
I don’t think Koreans do a lot of actual ‘cooking’ with it, though. I’m quite sure from when the microwave was first introduced till now; it’s being mostly used to defrost and reheat. Reheating was mostly leftover banchan or main dishes of previous meals. It was in the ‘90s when the microwave finally began showing its potential in the Korean food scene; with the development of refined retort pouch packaging technology, food companies began introducing curries and sauces that could be reheated. Since most Korean families would always have a full rice cooker at home, many dishes were designed to be an accompaniment to rice.
Western style dishes such as hamburger patties and spaghetti were quick to follow. Juk (죽, Korean porridge) was introduced as well. From the late ‘90s onward, product development just exploded, with all sorts of dishes becoming microwavable.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough and the ultimate for the lazy Korean was the release of microwave rice. Nuclear families became standard, the number of single resident households increased: not everyone had a cooker full of rice on standby 24/7 anymore. Not many people “save” leftover rice by putting in the freezer; it is almost always used to put in something else and to be consumed as quickly as possible. Unless you use the once frozen rice to make juk, reheated rice simply doesn’t taste that good. The consistency gets lost in the reheating process somehow, but manufacturers overcame that problem and came up with a product with the texture of rice made in a regular rice cooker. Now that’s innovation.
One of the product pioneers , the brand Hetban (햇반) was such a huge hit that many people still refer to microwave rice as “Hetban”, even though they might mean another brand. (Like “Scotch tape” instead of “cellophane tape”.) These days, rice products vary by type, mixture, and other by- products such as juk, gukbap (국밥, soup rice), and deopbap (덮밥, “covered” rice, i.e. rice with accompanying sauce and other ingredients).
There are three basic components to a Korean meal: rice, soup, and kimchi. Even if you’re the laziest of lazybones, once you decide to have a Korean meal, you’d want to create even a semblance of this trio, so shouldn’t be a surprise that microwave soup and stew products are in abundance. Although the refrigerated kind is mostly the “throw in pot and reheat” variety, the dry packaged kind is easily heated in the microwave after adding water.
The best thing? None of the products take more than 5 minutes to make. Pick product, stick in microwave, set timer, press button, wait a short while, and ping! Your meal is done. You can eat and have your meal done and over with and go back to lounging.
Level “I don’t care, I’m just resting”: Not very hungry and super super lazy
Oh, who cares if your stomach is throwing a tantrum. Soothing it will be enough. You don’t care; all you want to do is let your brain cells rest and stay in a horizontal position for the remainder of the evening, the sooner the better. Quicker and simpler than the microwave? Pour in boiling water and stir. Eat. These cup dishes are the epitome of instant food: noodles, broths, soups, porridges, and even stews. It’s not as if you’re going to set the table with an assortment of these dishes, most likely you’ll just have one to appease your appetite and move on, most likely to the couch. But don’t be surprised when you get hungry in a couple of hours. In that case, microwave another one.
Fast food at home is incredibly convenient. Most of the time, the food is quite tasty, too. Next time when you’re in a Korean supermarket, check out the convenience food (간편식품) or instant food (즉석식품) aisle and pick up a few things that catch your eye. Stocking up on a few items might be a good idea for those lazy days that are sure to come.
And always remember: cooking your own meals with fresh produce or eating proper “slow food” at a restaurant is certainly healthier for you than chomping down on microwave food every day. Be lazy in moderation.
Companies and brands:
CJ CheilJedang : http://www.cj.co.kr
Daesang : http://www.daesang.co.kr
Dongwon F&B : http://www.dongwonfnb.com
Korea Yakult : http://www.yakult.co.kr
Pulmuone : http://www.pulmuone.co.kr
Samyang : http://www.samyangfood.co.kr
Sonsoo : http://www.sonsoomall.co.kr
N.B. All the major large supermarkets have their own in-house brands of instant foods.
*Photos from official sites unless otherwise noted