John Lee has played guitar in aMiniature and Seam. He lives in Korea and hosts a daily radio show.
What was the food highlight of your year?
Living in Korea, I have many opportunities to enjoy great, affordable seafood. That is a joy in life. In the west, we often enjoy our seafood with wine (I love you) and such but in Korea it’s all about the soju. Not nearly as socially refined as wine, but definitely more chemically refined, it’s a taste obliteration. However, its sheer lack of manners is what makes it a nice fit for fatty pork or even the subtleness of seafood. I had a chance to visit Busan, a port city in the south of Korea. They have amazing seafood. Great shellfish, grilled mackerel, blowfish salad and all creatures great and small from the sea. My food highlight was at a clam bar. Somewhat akin to a clam caravan but not nearly as hostile.
The clams were assorted. Some small and some really huge but all alive and not wanting to die on a hot grill with me watching. But the real show, and a rather disturbing one at that, was when the fresh eels came out. They were just pulled from a tank and skinned alive in front of us. These guys were squirming and when placed on the scorching grill, they jumped like any self respecting living organism would do when placed on a scorching grill. It was shocking and gross. I felt like I was watching an execution. My date was poking at them like there was absolutely nothing surreal or dystopian about this. I wanted to cry but held in my tears.
After the eels were definitely dead and nicely cooked, I took a healthy bite. Much like shrimp, the flesh popped upon biting. The flesh was mild and juicy but the image of the not-ready-for-dying-time eels rang in my mind. I grabbed for my shot glass of soju and downed it. My date giggled and reminded me that I’m not a fan of soju and with a sad heart, I asked for another pour.
Upon enjoying my 5th or 6th shot, I was able to fully appreciate the taste, textures and screams of the shellfish and eels. It was of the earth without much adornment. No butter to make it more palatable, no multi-layered sauce to make it more upper crust. It’s familiarity was intense and very personal. You know when you bite the inside of your cheek and taste the blood? It’s not as gross as you imagined it, right? It’s almost appetizing. Don’t lie.
What was the music highlight of your year (and why)?
My band in Seoul played at a “last of” concert series for a really cute bar in an old neigborhood. The landscape of Seoul is changing at rapid pace. Cool old neighborhoods and the great long-standing establishments they cuddle are being “rejuvenated” with “friendly” big box shops and structures. We got to play with my favorite Korean band mukimukimanmansu. Imagine The Roches and Dum Dum Girls and Micachu getting together and jamming in Korean with acoustic guitars and random Korean instruments, while getting loaded and then screaming with righteousness. They were awesome. I say they “were”, because they are no longer. Like the many great dishes we all enjoy, some of the best tastes are fleeting and temporary. We keep chasing these memories but will never find them again. End of tragic Asian prose.
Was there a moment when food and music came together in a memorable way?
Great food and music came together at a birthday party for the owner of a great, tiny music bar in Seoul. He’s an otolaryngologist by day and an indie music bar owner by night. He’s got a great sound system for such a tiny basement bar cuz he’s a music addict. He spins vinyl himself most nights while drinking and somehow gets up to treat patients by day (I’m thinking the same as you, find another ENT).
His birthday was at his place near the bar. A great tiny place on the 2nd floor of a cafe. He has the most massive 1980s Tannoy Westminster speakers in his tiny bedroom. They sound absolutely huge and the vintage and the high end speakers he has in his small living room sound amazing, especially when cranking vinyl versions of The Clash and Miles Davis through them back to back. Vinyl seems to cradle music from different eras differently. It’s such an enjoyable way to listen to music, completely loaded with fellow band people and vinyl lovers. A local sushi chef was hired to keep the bar full of fresh fish and goodies all night long. He stopped making sushi when he got too drunk. Then we all took over and it wasn’t as appetizing as you’d imagine. Drunk, non-expert sushi makers trying to assemble simple slices of fish and rice. Why did it turn out so nasty? The night ended with a trip to a local all night oyster pub at 6am. This place will be the end of me.