Having lived in Korea for nearly three years, I can tell you that Koreans never cease to amaze me. I’m Canadian, and I’m accustomed to the great outdoors (or at least familiar with nature – I am a writer after all!). Canada’s a big place and we have more forest and wilderness than most people can even begin to imagine, and that’s just one reason why Koreans amaze me. They know how to appreciate the outdoors, how to live and love and breathe everything about nature, despite the fact that their country is a mere fraction of the size of mine.
So how do I know that Koreans are appreciating the great outdoors and making the most of the humbly-sized piece of land on which they reside? My answer to that question is, “Look at where they eat”. Koreans dine outside every chance they get. You’ll see them snacking on mountain-tops, on beaches, and, in a pinch, even in parking lots. They dine in the sun, the rain, and in the fiercest of elements. In September, I saw a couple eating outside in raincoats so that they could watch the aftermath of a recent typhoon! Today I’m going to share with you one of the most endearing traits that I’ve noticed in Korean people and that is the seemingly innate ability to picnic no matter the circumstances. They take outdoor dining way beyond the blanket-and-basket picnics of my youth. The Koreans are outdoor-dining pros. They are picnickers without borders, and I am just now getting over the shock of learning this and finally starting to pick up some tips.
My first exposure to Korean picnicking prowess was in the most unlikely of places: Paris, France. I was touring the Château de Versailles, the palace famed for its Hall of Mirrors. It was December and it was cold even by Canadian standards. By noon it was getting crowded but even then it was hard to miss – my first Korean picnic. I didn’t know it was a Korean picnic at the time, but I do remember it was a sight so arresting that I did a double-take. I pried my eyes from the gilded gates, white stone cherubs, and other lofty palatial adornments that surrounded me to watch a man picnicking on a blanket outside of the palace.
Now this wasn’t just a man and a simple lunch – that wouldn’t make much of a story. No, this was a man accompanied by such a sheer volume of food that I thought he must either be the hungriest or the most ambitious man I’d ever seen. Here I was, at a world-famous castle, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of this man and his lunch. I was awestruck. This one man had a feast that I’ve not seen matched anywhere outside of Korea since. His mat was strewn with plastic tubs and silver bowls, each filled with a different culinary offering. His menu included rice, vegetables, meat, and what I know recognize as kimchi, that famous red-peppered staple of the Korean diet, and he ate all of it with breath-taking rapidity. I remember wanting to take a picture, but thinking I shouldn’t. I also remember thinking he probably wouldn’t notice since he couldn’t take his eyes off his lunch – neither could I, but I never did get my picture. I left the palace shortly after, and reported to my sister that I had just seen the most amazing picnic of my life. Of course, I told her about the palace too.
Many months later, I had moved to Korea. I’d only lived in Korea for, oh, about five hours, when memories of that puzzling vision in Paris flooded back to me. I was in a tiny little diner waiting for my lunch, when from the corner of my eye I saw a man seated alone surrounded by silver dishes, eating with chopsticks so furiously you’d think he’d never eaten a day in his life. It was then that I finally realized that lone but mighty picnicker I’d seen in Paris was, in fact, Korean.
In the years since that first sighting, I’ve come to appreciate the skill and fortitude it takes to be a picnic pro. Even if Koreans are born with some kind of fancy picnic-skills gene (which I’m beginning to suspect), they still have to do the work to make that fancy picnic. The pre-planning is one thing (and certainly there is a lot of that), the successful execution of the picnic is another. First you’ve got to make the food (no small feat), or at the very least sort leftovers into the appropriate containers. Then there are the utensils, the jug full of hot water and the tea or coffee mixes, the cups, and the paring knife for slicing the fresh fruit that accompanies each picnic meal. If you’re feeling particularly peckish perhaps you should consider packing a portable gas range and some pots and pans. Who knows? You might just crave some hot soup or some barbecue while you’re out and about. You may wonder what others will think of your portable dining hall. Honestly, no one will look twice. You’ll blend right in with the family making ramyeon beside you.
Of course, it’s not enough to bring food for you and your companions. You must bring enough food, which is to say entirely too much food, so that it can be shared companionably and without restraint. Then there are the seating arrangements. There has to be enough room for everyone, and Koreans do love to gather in large groups for social outings. Folding picnic mats are popular, so are blankets or foam kneeling pads, and sometimes even some child-sized plastic stools kept in the car for just such an occasion. If all else fails, a good sheet of newspaper or cardboard will work just fine.
But where to set up your picnic? If you’re Korean, the setting for a picnic is not too hard to come by. Just plunk down any where you fancy, or wherever you feel hungry, whichever comes first. Of course some locations are better than others, with riversides, sandy beaches and their boardwalks, and hiking trails ranking among the most scenic vistas for a memorable outdoor dining experience. Failing that, a park is good bet, and even eating in a parking lot is far superior to the oh-so-banal experience that is dining indoors.
Now if you can’t be bothered to haul, say, a six-course meal up the mountainside or along the beach, I understand. Don’t fret too much if, like me, you fall into the latter category. Like everywhere else in Korea, snacks are easy to come by. Snack carts, delivery restaurants, and convenience stores are abundant, as are the food tents known as pojangmacha (포장마차), which can be found in even the remotest corners of the country. I was delighted and puzzled to find pojangmacha complete with chairs and lights at the top of a mountain on my first hike in Seoul. I’ve since learned to carry change when I go hiking, and am disappointed if I don’t find a food stall at least part-way up the hill so that I can empty my pockets and fill my belly! Even in the city, pojangmacha line the streets, and every Saturday night, winter included, hungry Koreans fill the tents. It gives a whole new meaning to the term, “night out.”
With your meal of choice, seating, and picnic locale selected, it’s finally time to choose your dining companions. The company, that’s what really makes a picnic something special. Sure, you can go it solo like my man in Paris, but for the family-and-community-minded Korean people, a meal is always best when shared. Young families, gaggles of teens on group dates, and aging hikers gather together and pool their supplies to make a feast fit for a king and large enough to feed an army. Then, knowing that the food and ambiance by way of fresh air is taken care of, you can settle down and get to what’s really important: the friends. And that’s what picnicking like a pro is really all about.
Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly three years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.