It was in the midst of the Uruguay Round. I guess I was too young to grasp what was going on, but I do remember seeing farmers’ desperate protests on the telly day in and day out. Despite the resistance, however, the Korean agricultural products market was eventually opened up. As an effort to mitigate the yet-to-come consequences, what followed was a nation-wide campaign to persuade consumers that local produces fit our bodies better. This idea was encapsulated in the catchphrase “The body and the soil is one, not two (身土不二)”, meaning that imported produces simply cannot beat local ones because the latter come from the very environment where we were born and to which we are therefore connected.
I am personally unaware of any scientific evidence to this theory, but at the same time I know that there are certain foods and eating practices that I tend to gravitate to wherever I am – especially if I feel less well. A few years ago, a fellow Korean student at my university shared an anecdote that his GP advised him to “stick to simple food such as plain toasts and avoid rice” when he was recovering from a stomach upset. We found it amusing because you would hear the exact opposite in Korea – i.e. Have a small bowl of rice porridge and stay away from bread of any type. In fact, expat blogs and forums display a variety of this kind of contrast in social conventions. Typical examples range from hangover cures to advice for new mothers. As far as my epistemology(!) is concerned, these are social constructs, but social constructs are not random but have come from somewhere.
I don’t know what has just happened this week. One whole day I was in bed with extreme fevers. Now, although I am still feeling weak, nobody would believe that I was shivering and hallucinating. It was so bad that I couldn’t even afford to feel the usual Korean guilt of not working. I had nothing but coconut water for 24 hours, and the first food that I felt comfortable enough to have was a slice of toast. Does this mean I have lived abroad too long? I murmured to myself. Then the next day I felt like I must have congee since I was a patient, so I had some, which seemed to have also helped.
That’s when I suddenly remembered an undergraduate flatmate in Egham, who would drive back home in Spain over the weekend and come back with what she claimed to be ‘real’ olive oil that she couldn’t find in England. I too have my idea of comfort food and cravings for certain dishes, which dictate me to go to the K-town regularly. But how much of all this would be accounted for by personal tastes, how much by the psychological comfort of familiarity, how much by the semiotics of food identity, and how much actually by biochemistry and physiology?