Neon food


Up to his mid-twenties, my brother only wanted three things for dinner: fried chicken tossed in a sweet chilli sauce, family-sized pizzas with cheese baked into the crust, or the classic Korean-Chinese restaurant combo—jajangmyeon and tangsuyook. I still remember the four of us huddled around a fold-up table on a weeknight, waiting for dinner to be delivered. It usually took no more than 30 minutes before the man would show up. With a knock or a chime, he would announce, “Your order is here,” and that was a sign for my brother to start flailing his arms like a gas station blow-up doll. 

It was always a man, and he always came with the metal “tote bag.” Comprised of three levels, it had a door that opened vertically like a garage shutter, or a set of blinds. As he unveiled the plastic wrap covered bowls and dishes to lower them onto the floor, re-runs of X-Man, or the still popular and running Infinity Challenge would hum on the bulbous TV screen. Often times, Dad would thank the delivery man for the disposable chopsticks and the complimentary dish of gunmandu—fried dumplings. With family orders, it was almost an expected exchange. At sit-in restaurants, there was always a group of older business men who would haggle for a plateful with their order. “Ajumma, we ordered a lot, didn’t we? How about a plate of gunmandu on the house?” Including our family, no one paid for these dumplings. It just happened to be on the menu.

Growing up in Seoul, it was a natural progression for me to discover jajangmyeon before tasting its authentic mother dish. Korean-style Chinese cuisine is still one of South Korea’s beloved cheap eats, although prices have acclimated since my childhood. I don’t think I am old and wise enough to make such statement, but back when I was young—stills hurts to say it—a bowl of jajangmyeon was, at most, 3000 won, which about three dollars in USD. It came served with julienned cucumbers or a scatter of green peas for texture, but such price and toppings are hard to find now. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the side dish trio. With any dish you order at a Korean-Chinese restaurant, you get a bit of raw onions, chunjang (a black bean paste sauce to dip the onions in, but also the main ingredient of jajangmyeon) and danmuji, a sweet pickled radish. This bright, yellow pickle is a symbol of Korean-Chinese cuisine and Korean street food. 

Although I am not a great fan of the sweet and slightly acidic palate cleanser, I cannot imagine eating, or more precisely, seeing jajangmyeon without it. Depending on the restaurant of choice, it’s either the shape of a full or half moon, sliced thinly from the radish log as is, or cut in half again. In kimbap, a Korean take on sushi roll that is nothing like the Japanese kind, the danmuji log is cut lengthwise in strips to match the cut of the seaweed. In both cases, the danmuji brightens the complexion of the dishes served with its radiating color. Against the black of the seaweed or the jajangmyeon sauce, it gives out a yellow, almost neon-like glow. Just as I went straight for the yellow crayon to call a colored circle a moon, I never questioned its color or identity as a child. But now as I pick out a vacuum-packed package of danmuji in a supermarket, I can’t help but lose my appetite for a second. Why is it so goddamn yellow? The fresh radish I just saw in the veggies section had a subtle gradation, from white to light green. Did it take a dip in a neglected pool of radioactive waste?

Danmuji, or rather takuan in Japanese, is most widely believed to have been invented, or popularized by a Japanese Buddhist monk named Takuan Soho. Although some Koreans argue that the monk is of Korean descent, the first trace of takuan zuke was recorded in Japan. In fact, when it was first introduced to the masses in Korea, it used to be called by its Japanese name, rather than its current name, danmuji, which translates to “sweet radish pickle.” Recognizing that takuan is a Japanese pickle, the color of the takuan, and that of other tsukemono (Japanese pickles), seemed to make sense. Here is why. 

Historically, mastering a craft or a trade has been an important aspect in defining Japanese culture. An artisan will dedicate his life towards planing the thinnest wood shaving possible and similarly, a family will care for a robotic dog till death. This is because the Japanese believe that there is a sort of spirit engrained in all living and inanimate objects alike. The same kind of principle, or attitude, applies to their aesthetics as well as lifestyle. Tokyo is known for their immaculate city streets and their smooth, quiet roads. I mean, how else would the taxi driver of 1Q84 listen to an orchestral score in peace on a highway? And have you seen the ekiben, the lunch boxes sold specifically on trains and stations? From the rice to the pork cutlet or the marinated clams, every element is so neatly organized and cared for that I feel a bit of shame in my past, insensitive days. This must be why the Japanese dye their takuan yellow, traditionally with the seed of an Asian variety of Gardenia, but now more commonly with tartrazine, a yellow food coloring. When fresh radishes are sun-dried, buried in a mixture of rice bran and salt and left to sit until they are ready to eat—the resulting pickle is not a fluorescent yellow, but a dark, brown color. This traditional variety is hard to find now, but I think it’s safe to say that the Japanese started to dye their takuan for the sake of beauty. And the Koreans, similarly, care a lot about color when it comes to dinner time.

While most of America and Europe to have their food served in course meals at restaurants, Koreans prefer to have all the food on the table at once, to share amongst family and guests. In fact, a Korean meal is not divided by course, but by three or four main elements: the rice, the soup, side dishes called “banchan,” comprised of marinated greens, pickles and various types of kimchi—and if it’s a special day—a meat course or two. The meat dish is often optional, as from time to time, a salty soup like jiggae will take on the star role. This is why you’ll hear your Korean friend say, “All I need is a bowl of white rice, and maybe some kimchi. That’ll make me happy.” You can almost say the everything on the Korean table, including the most frivolous banchan, is an entree. 

The reason why I am taking the time to paint a lively picture of a Korean meal is to get you to imagine the potential colors exhibited on a typical dinner table. The steaming rice will most likely be white, and the roasted seaweed, a pure, natural black. There will be always some sort of kimchi on the table, which is a bright, mouthwatering red. The slow cooked eggs in an earthen pot, gyeranjjim, would be a pale yellow, and the namul banchan, like spinach or local spring greens tossed in a garlic, soy and sesame oil dressing, a dark green. These five colors, in order, resemble the colors associated with the five elements of Wu Xing: Metal, Water, Fire, Earth and Wood. Although a Chinese theory expressed in both fengshui and yin and yang, its philosophies and practices remain instilled in Korean culture, as well as that of Japan. Not only is Chinese medicine still sought after as a wise remedy to strengthen the weak body, but in ancient Korea, the royal families used to enjoy a soup dish that is an adaptation of the Chinese hot pot. Taking the name of Sinseollo, the light broth is served in a bundt shaped pot, artfully topped with omasum, white fish, rock tripe, meatballs, mushrooms, walnuts, red chilli peppers, gingko, eggs and pine nuts—and you see what I am doing again—naming the swatches of the Five Elements in order. 

The Five Elements may have nothing to do with the fact that takuans are yellow now, but it’s kind of crazy that the Koreans eat their Chinese food with a Japanese pickle. Taking wisdom from the north, Koreans have whipped up their own kind of black bean noodle that is more sweet and saucy than the original. Similarily, they’ve taken takuan from Japan and rolled it into a hearty kimbap, one of Korea’s representative street food. The Japanese love their tsukemono, and so do the Koreans, as their table top stays heavy with seasonal banchans. But the Chinese? They don’t eat their zha jiang mian with takuan. Everyone goes by their own rules. 


짜장면을 시켜도, 같이 온 친구에게 짬뽕을 부탁해도, 늘 그것이 함께 나왔다. 검은 춘장 옆, 유독 빛나는 노란 단무지. 어릴 땐 김치처럼 집어 먹었는데, 김밥을 쌀 마음이 생길 나이가 되고 보니, 마트에 진열된 무짠지가 다시 보이더라. 고구마 더미 옆에서 무게 잡던 무는 분명 아기 얼굴처럼 뽀얗고, 은은한 광을 띄었는데. 어쩜 넌 지나치게 화사하고 섬뜩하다. 과한 물광 화장의 피해자인지, 방사성 물질에 푹 익도록 목욕을 하고 나온 것인지. 영문은 알 수 없지만 김밥의 아이섀도우 역할 정도를 맡은 넌, 인위적이고 군침을 돌게 한다. 색깔 본연의 감성 때문이 아니라, 형광 노란색이 주는 상징성, 그 향수 때문에.  

아마도 너의 역사 때문일 것이다. 단무지의 첫 번째 이름은 다쿠앙이다. 조선에서 온 승려가 일본으로 넘어가 단무지를 발명했거나, 대중화시켰다는 소문이 무성하지만, 다쿠앙은 한국이 아닌 일본 역사에 먼저 기록되어 있다. 출산지만 따지고 봐도 국적은 엄연히 일본이다. 달달하고 살짝 시큼한 것이, 맛도 딱 일본 음식 답다. 만드는 과정에도 일본의 감성이 묻어 있다. 햇볕에 잘 말린 무를 쌀겨와 소금, 그리고 지역에 따라 다시마, 마른 고추나 감 껍질 등을 함께 묻어 오랫동안 삭히는 게 정통적인 방식이다. 이렇게 자연과 기다림이 합을 맞추면 무는 보통 갈색으로 변하는데, 이 착색 현상을 막기 위해 치자 열매로 노란 물을 들이기도 했다. 그래서 재래식 단무지는 땟깔이 좋고 꾸덕꾸덕하다. 요즘은 다르다. 제조 과정이 공장화되면서 무를 말리는 과정은 생략되었고, 대신 시간을 줄이기 위해 생무를 염장해 숨을 죽인 후, 식초, 단맛과 황색 색소를 섞어 휘리릭 절인다. 이것이 오늘, 김밥에 넣고 중국집에서 내놓는 단무지의 모습이다. 샛노랑에 식감은 아삭아삭하다. 사실 '치킨무'와 다를 게 없다. 뭔가 억울하지만, 겪어보지 못한 과거에 오래 머무를 방법을 모른다. 그리고 옛날 단무지가 그리우면 무말랭이를 사 먹으면 된다. 이쯤에서 다쿠앙이 불러온 다음 추억으로 넘어가겠다. 잠시 도쿄로 떠난다. 

2016년, 도쿄에서 고마쓰로 떠나는 기차역. 열차에 탑승하기 10분 전이라 상황은 긴박했다. 처음 보는 캔커피와 각종 간식거리에 현혹되는 바람에 에키벤(역이나 기차 안에서 파는 도시락)은 맨 마지막에, 조개덮밥과 돈까스 정식으로 급하게 골랐다. 당시에는 처음 맛본 조개덮밥에 감동했지만, 오늘 다쿠앙이 지목한 추억은 돈까스 도시락이다. 다시 찾아 본 사진 속에는 그때는 알아보지 못했던 신선로의 지혜가 엿보인다. 검은 깨를 올린 흰 밥, 붉은 우메보시, 노릇하게 튀겨진 돈까스와 그것을 감싸는 푸른 양상추. 이 작은 에키벤에는 음양오행설에 얽힌 다섯 가지의 색이 가지런히 담겨 있다. 모형 같으면서도 원래 그런 듯 자연스럽다. 달리는 기차 안, 점점 멀어져 가던 도쿄는 말할 것도 없다. 건설 업체와 택시 회사가 함께 약속이라도 한 듯, 오묘한 파스텔 톤으로 맞춘 도시의 색감, 겉으로 봤을 때 크기는 같아도 속에 담기는 용량은 작은, 상대적으로 적게 먹는 여성들을 위해 제작한 텐동 그릇, 자로 잰 듯 반듯하고 새파란 미술관 앞의 뜰. 모두 도쿄에 가보니 이해가 되더라. 고속도로 위, 택시에서 흘러나오는 야나체크의 ‘신포니아’를 조용하게 감상하던 <1Q84>의 아오마메가 된 기분이었다. 눈에 거슬리는 게 없다. 생애 본 도시 중 가장 깨끗하고, 정성스럽다. 

일본 사람들은 사사로운 물건에도 영혼이 깃들여 있다고 믿는다. 그래서인지 이들이 삶을 대하는 마음가짐은 참, 매끄러운 고속도로 만큼이나 유별나다. 세상에서 가장 얇은 대팻밥을 가공하기 위해 온 인생을 바치고, 가족처럼 키워 온 로봇 강아지를 잘 보내기 위해 장례식을 치른다. 이런 의식 때문에 일본은 늘 아름답고, 맛있고, 믿음직스럽다. 뒤늦게 대기표를 뽑았던 스시집에 끝내 들어가지 못해도 크게 연연하지 않고, 무작위로 근처 식당에 들어갈 수 있으며, 처음 발을 들인 생소한 속옷 전문 상점에서 실크 양말을 선뜻, 한 켤레에 만원을 주고 구입할 수 있다. 뭘 해도 마음이 놓이는 곳. 그곳이 내게 도쿄다. 그래서 이번 여름에도 작년 여름과 같이, 일본으로 떠나려 한다. 단무지가 왜 꼭 형광색이여야만 하는지는 모르겠지만, 그것의 역사에 담긴 일본 특유의 장인 정신에 홀려, 또, 간다.