Boherlahan native Darren Hassett has travelled to South Korea where he has commenced teaching English. In this the first of his columns he recounts his experiences thusfar and over the remainder of the year will share with “Tipperary Star” readers anecdotes and reflections of his times in his South Korean base in Inje
If you remember from last month’s column, I live in a town called Inje. It is a small town in the Gangwon-do province (similar to Munster) and it is referred to by other foreigners as living in the ‘sticks.’ The ‘sticks’ simply means the middle of no-where. It offers an authentic South Korean experience (if one exists): it is rural, surrounded by mountains that offer ample opportunities to hike and has no Western luxuries (like McDonald’s or retail outlets like Tesco). This is a nice context to my anecdote on my experience of eating a live fish in the middle of Korean countryside (the ‘sticks’) and in the middle of a frozen Korean river.
The Inje Ice Fishing Festival took place this month and it proved to be a very real experience of Korean culture. Ice fishing is essentially unheard of in Ireland, but in this country it is an incredibly popular winter activity. The fishing itself involves cutting a circular hole down into the frozen river. Then you place a line into the hole and typically with fishing, you wait. The fish that can be caught are called smelt (in Korean it is translated to bing-oh). The tradition of ice fishing is incredible and it is something held very close to Korean hearts, as well as the tradition of eating the fish. I can manage and embrace the ice fishing festival, it was a wonderful experience, but the tradition of eating the live smelt is one I was a lot less willing to partake in. The other English teachers and I went on the Saturday (the first day of the festival) with the company we work for, called Kwater. So we had to spend a few hours doing promotional work, then we were cut loose. Apart from the fishing there were copious amounts of other activities to be involved in. I went quad biking on the frozen river, that was an unusual experience. Then we played ice soccer, a bizarre sport which involved falling on tender areas. In truth, it was a lot of fun. First we played five other Koreans. So it was five foreigners against five natives. With ice soccer you cannot run; you must slide. If you try to run, you will fall and oh boy did we fall. The game is played with a puck not a ball. We never finished the first game because one of the Koreans took a bad fall and had to be stretchered off. It was worrying because for the first minute or two he was not responsive at all and I didn’t feel I had committed a terrible tackle (I am joking, he slipped with no one around him). We were all disappointed the game had finished until when we were walking down the river five other Koreans asked us for a game. They worked in administration at Kangwon National University, in Chuncheon (a city a little more than an hour away from Inje). The stakes were raised and they said that the losing team would have to buy the first round of drinks and smelt. Now excuse me if I lose all modesty in the next sentence. Essentially, I scored a hat-trick and this feat won us the game, true story. The celebrations were immense, but we were all modest in victory and we had worked up an appetite and a thirst. This leads us nicely on to the incident with the fish.
The Koreans kept their word and bought the first round of drinks and smelt as the bet required them too. We sat at the table talking and getting to know each other. Then the smelt came. The live ones and the deep fried ones. The best way to describe a smelt is that it resembles an earthworm, only it is silver, but you can make your own mind up. The smelt can be seen here in the picture. It was getting tense. This is a prized Korean tradition. How could we avoid eating the live fish without offending them? We couldn’t avoid it because the men had bought the fish and our refusal to eat them would cause insult. It is a cultural thing. In order to maintain the cordial atmosphere we had to embrace the tradition. For some reason (maybe because of my wonderful hat-trick) I was elected the first to do it. One of the Koreans picked the smelt in his chopsticks, dipped him into hot sauce and held it to my face. I could see the fish looking at me, his eyes staring into mine with trickles of the sauce running down over his eyes. SPS, a South Korean news channel had a camera in my face recording the hilarity of a Westerner eating a live bing-oh. So when I went to eat the waggling fish off his chopstick, it didn’t go enthusiastically into my mouth. The fish wanted to survive like any living thing would. So, somewhere between my mouth and the chopsticks hovering over it the fish squirmed free and fell unusually into my hand. I would have preferred if he fell on the floor, but alas there were hundreds of thousands of more smelt waiting to be eaten. While he had escaped my first attempt to eat him, with the second attempt I just lobbed him into my mouth and I chewed as fast as I could until the wiggling stopped and then I swallowed. As if the pain of the hot sauce wasn’t enough for him, I had to tear his flesh apart also. The picture shown was taken the minute after I ate the smelt; as you can see I went green, white and every other colour that best describes someone who has gone pale. While the live ones gave you a horrendous feeling when eating them, the deep fried ones were really tasty.
My experience of the Inje Ice Fishing Festival was one of many hills and a valley. The hills include all the wonderful things I experienced, ice soccer for example and the valley being the live smelt that looked me straight in the eye as I forced him into my mouth. I do enjoy eating fish I just don’t enjoy eating live ones that won’t go willingly into your mouth. My next column will be printed on the 29th March.