I was told many times at the beginning of meals in Korea “eat a lot of rice please”, (i.e. please eat a lot). I’ve just returned from two weeks in the country with my wife (who is Korean), and I think that my stomach is still recovering from the wealth of interesting and spicy food that was given to me, not to mention a variety of alcoholic beverages that it would have been impolite to refuse!
A particular delicacy there is raw fish and everyone, it seemed, wanted me to try it. Some of the raw fish might be already dead when it arrives on the table; some of it might be still wriggling and squirming on the plate, like the octopus legs that were put in front of me in one restaurant. “You just need to chew it to kill it”, I was told! With raw fish the usual routine is to dip it into chilli sauce with your chopsticks; place on a lettuce leaf together with a slice of garlic, a piece of chilli pepper and a blob of rice; take a swig of soju (Korean style schnapps); then wrap up and put the whole thing in your mouth and chew away. The sharing of food was sometimes more simple but no less generous. On top of a mountain peak an elderly man shared his flask of coffee with us and we shared our rice cakes with him. On another peak at a Buddhist temple we were given an entire meal as it was Buddha’s birthday, a feast similar to Christmas. And a group of fellow hikers shared their rice wine with me.
Showing hospitality to the guest by way of offering food and drink is central to Korean culture, as it is to Irish culture (and it was interesting to see Leo Varadkar tweeting this week after his meeting with the South Korean Prime Minister that “Korea is the Ireland of Asia”). I could no more have refused my lovely, kind Korean hosts what was put before me (however much it might have been wriggling) than I could my Irish mother when offering food. Saying no would be pointless: she would give it anyway! And my wife does exactly the same! And as someone who likes his food one of my fondest memories of childhood holidays in Ireland is coming to the end of a day in which we’ll all been very amply fed and then somehow managing to find space for the large plate of soda bread that appeared, accompanied by those immortal words “ah, go on”.
Hospitality is clearly central at the Irish Chaplaincy. In our offices there is always somebody offering a cup of tea and sometimes people bring round little treats like Danish pastries. I was touched when I first started at the Chaplaincy, and still am, by these simple acts of kindness. Food and drink play an important role too in our outreach work with socially excluded or lonely Irish people in Britain, whether that’s having a cup of tea and a bit of cake with an elderly person living alone, or sharing a meal at a Traveller event in a prison.
I’m struck by how many references there are in the bible to eating and drinking. There is the story of Abraham giving hospitality to three strangers who were actually angels in disguise (the moral of the story: we never know when we might be entertaining angels without realising it). And Jesus seems to have always been sharing food with people, and oftentimes it was those people who found themselves on the margins of society that others refused to eat and drink with.
My final family meal in Korea was a true feast (as if all the others hadn’t been). My wife’s eldest sister and her husband had got up early on a Sunday morning to visit the fish market, and on the meal-table later there was not just one or two but three types of raw fish. One of them was a King Crab. I think it was dead: it wasn’t moving at any rate. It was actually very succulent and tasty, the legs especially. You have to work a bit with the chopsticks to get the best meat out buts it’s worth the effort. We ate, we drank, we shared some memories of our wonderful two week’s with these good and very hospitable people. It was with some sadness that we said our goodbyes, but how our bodies and our hearts had been enriched and nourished.