Korea for the curious Seoul

On my second trip, I got a real sense of the country and understood a little of what this very complex society is like

brunch Updated: Nov 19, 2016 20:33 IST
The Dongdaemun Design Plaza designed by Zaha Hadid looks like a spaceship from the outside and is full of fashion and design stalls inside (Getty Images)

I first went to Korea over a decade ago at the invitation of the Korean government. It was one way to see the country: state guest, guide, interpreter, limo with driver, meetings with senior officials and formal dinners in fancy restaurants. Though I went back a few years later for a conference, it was the first trip that stayed imprinted in my mind. I had been to Japan just before I went to Korea and some of the similarities between the two countries struck me as interesting.

Then, a year or so ago, my friend Vikram Doraswami became India’s Ambassador to Korea and insisted I visit Seoul again. Vikram gave my name to the indefatigable Choi Jung Hwa who runs Corea Image Communication Institute (CICI), which holds an annual summit at which around 30 people from around the world are invited to gather in Seoul, see the sights, eat the food and discuss Korea’s place in the world.

The delegates are always a mixed bunch and while some countries send interesting people, the representation from others is, well, not terribly high-level or interesting. Vikram believed that it was time for India to up its game and suggested to CICI that they invite me. (Though on what grounds he believed that I was qualified to represent India remains a mystery.)

But I am glad he did so. This was the first trip where I got a real sense of Korea and understood a little of what this very complex society is like. That’s also due to Choi Jung Hwa who organised a wonderful, if somewhat exhausting, programme for delegates and to my old pal Tony Spaeth, who I know from his time in India for The Wall Street Journal and Time and who now edits a newspaper in Seoul. Tony is a witty and incisive observer of Korean society. And of course to Vikram and his wife Sangeeta who were kind enough to spend hours showing me sides of Seoul that a casual visitor may not always see.

By some coincidence, I went to Seoul a few months after I had been to Japan and was, once again, struck by the similarities. For example, Koreans are like the Japanese in their concern with appearance. No Japanese person you see on the streets of Tokyo will ever be badly dressed. The Koreans are like that but they take it to extremes that I did not notice in Japan.

A customer tries out a lipstick at a cosmetics shop in Seoul. Korea’s beauty tradition is now so world-famous that cosmetic shops in Seoul are thronged with customers. (Getty Images)

To begin with, there’s the obsession with skincare. Such Japanese cosmetic giants as Shiseido have taken Japan’s make-up and beauty techniques around the world. But they have nothing on Korean brands. Korea’s beauty tradition is now so world-famous that cosmetic shops in Seoul are thronged with foreign customers. There’s even a name: K-Beauty – just as K-Pop refers to Korean pop music.

Over a decade ago, a Korean company invented Cushion Foundation, in which the compact consists of a cushion of sponge soaked with foundation. That product has now been copied all over the world, because Korean woman have – or appear to have – flawless skin.

But it’s not just the women. There’s a whole subculture in Korea of so-called “Grooming Men” who are make-up obsessed metrosexuals (i.e. straight men who like girlie things). They trim their eyebrows, wear eyeshadow and contour their noses. There are make-up lines directed at men and it is not considered unusual for guys to wax their legs if they want to wear shorts in summer.

While “Grooming Men” tend to be relatively young, their beauty regimen is treated as essential for all job-seekers. When men go to employment interviews, they usually wear make-up. According to my hostess in Korea, Choi Jung Hwa, “base makeup is essential for a good first impression at job interviews”.

If you have a blemish or a spot on your face, you may not get the job. So men wear foundation, eyeliner and a lip balm with a matte texture so that their lips do not seem chapped.

Yup. It’s all true. I kid you not.

A ‘chocolate abs’, or the Korean men’s term for abdominal muscles as flat as a chocolate bar (AFP)

It’s not just the face. The body is as important. There are few paunchy guys in Korea. They all work out to get ‘chocolate abs’, their term for abdominal muscles that are as flat as a chocolate bar. The women diet and work out to keep their weight below 45 kg and dream of being Korean size 44 – which is US size 2, or a UK size XS. Women who are a size S believe that they are too fat.

You can guess what comes next: Korea is number one in the world for people who undergo plastic surgery. In the trendy Gangnam district, made famous by the song, cosmetic surgery clinics are everywhere. There is no discretion needed: they put up huge neon signs.

Then, there’s the food. For the Japanese, food is like a religion and the search for nirvana is never-ending. The Koreans are slightly less obsessive than the Japanese but the food is terrific. Tony took me to Poom, one of Seoul’s best modern Korean places. And though the food may not be for everyone (Baby Octopus, served raw with slices of fresh pear is a typical dish) there are undeniable parallels with modern Japanese.

The Japanese have Wagyu beef from various districts which is prized all over the world. The Koreans have Hanwoo beef which they claim has similar marbling to Japanese Wagyu.

I suspect Hanwoo is actually a bigger deal in Korea than Wagyu is in Japan because the most popular kind of Korean restaurant is the barbecue place. And high-end restaurants will always offer Hanwoo.

Even the hotel food is great. I stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Seoul which has the Paris Grill, a cousin of the world-famous New York Grill at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. The Paris Grill is not as glamorous as its Tokyo cousin but the food was outstanding with steaks from all over the world and a sommelier who organised a perfect pairing.

Korea is in the middle of a huge food boom. TV channels are full of “cookbang” shows (a made-up word that combines cook with “bangsong”, the Korean word for broadcasting). There are also “meokbeng” shows (don’t ask!) which are popular on online broadcasting media. Some “meokbeng’ shows feature beautiful and very thin (this is Korea, after all) female anchors who are called BJs (short for Broadcast Jockeys, in case you wondered). The BJs consume obscene quantities of food on camera but still stay thin. (No, I don’t know how they do it. If I did, I would follow their techniques!)

An example of K-Beauty at work (AFP)

There are many other parallels with Japan. There’s the electronics industry (which has actually now overtaken Japan’s own), a symbol of national pride. I was in Seoul when the first Galaxy 7 exploded (or at least, when the news first hit the papers) and there was the sense that a national catastrophe had struck… Samsung is to Korea what Sony used to be to Japan in the 1980s and the Koreans are extraordinarily proud of its success.

The Koreans have their own Sakura festival though I’m a little surprised by this. The first time I was there, the cherry blossoms were blooming and nobody seemed to make too much of it. Now, however the Korean Sakura season offers an affordable alternative to the Japanese version.

There is also the same mixture of tradition and modernity that you find in Japan. Though the country has yet to throw up an Issey Miyake or a Yohji Yamamoto, I imagine it is only a matter of time before this happens because Korea is a fashion-obsessed society. One of the most striking buildings I saw in Seoul this time was the Dongdaemun Design Plaza designed by Zaha Hadid, which looks like a spaceship from the outside and is full of fashion and design stalls inside.

But there is one thing that the Japanese don’t do well and which the Korean excel at: dessert. Korea has more dessert/pudding restaurants than any other city in the world. Almost without exception, they are excellent.

On my last night in Seoul, Vikram took me to an astonishing place with ice-cream, cakes, pies, macaroons and a delicious pudding. I made a complete pig of myself and the next day, as I headed out to Incheon Airport, my final memory of Korea was much, much sweeter than I had ever thought it would be.

From HT Brunch, November 20, 2016

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First Published: Nov 19, 2016 19:44 IST