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Connecting Latin America and Korea through Food

An excellent benefit of conducting anthropological research on the migration of Latinos to Korea is being able to share delicious Latin American food with my contacts. During the 12 months I spent in Korea, I not only regularly enjoyed typical dishes from countries like Peru, Mexico, Paraguay, and Ecuador, but I also learned how to prepare them with ingredients available in Korea. In this essay, I will share some of the stories that I heard from my contacts while planning, preparing, and eating these meals, as well as the insider secrets on how to find and cook authentic Latino food in Korea.



Lunar New Year Tacos
Even before my husband (a Mexican national) and I arrived in Seoul at the end of December 2008, some of the Peruvian migrant workers I had met during preliminary fieldwork started sending me emails, inviting us to their houses for the Lunar New Year holiday. For most of my contacts, this was the only break they had from work all year, apart from Chuseok, and they wanted to spend it eating good food with friends. This year, they told me, they wanted to eat tacos. More precisely, they wanted us to prepare tacos for them! In fact, most of my Peruvian friends had never actually eaten tacos. They had just heard about them on the Mexican soap operas shown regularly on the online TV channels popular with migrant workers, such as PeruTV.
Luckily, since no one except for us knew what tacos were supposed to taste like, we were able to substitute some impossible to find Mexican ingredients for those easi l y found in Seoul ’ s Namdaemun market. The following recipe was an enormous hit and not only got us many dinner invitations, but also allowed me access to some very informative interviews for my research project on the experience of living in Korea as a Latino.

Pasta in Springtime
One afternoon in May, a Peruvian woman named Anna, who had lived in Korea for the past 17 years, invited me over for lunch. “I don’t even remember how to cook Peruvian food,” she had told me the previous Sunday when we met at her Spanish-language church. “I love my kimchi, my ramyon!” she always said. However, on this occasion, she had decided to cook a typical Peruvian dish specifically so I could write the recipe down in my notes.
On the day of our lunch, I accidentally got off the bus a few stops too early and had to walk the rest of the way carrying the large watermelon I had purchased in Seoul as a gift. By the time I got to her apartment I was out of breath and 20 minutes late. As soon as I walked through the door, Anna started chopping and cooking the ingredients she had set up on the kitchen counter. She had a thin hardback book, Peruvian Cooking, opened up next to her, which she referred to every few minutes.
“Cook and stir the mixture until you see the bottom of the pan,” she told me, reading from the book. I asked her where she had bought the book, since it was in Spanish. “My mom and sister hid it in my luggage when I came to Korea!” said Anna, while referring to the book. “I open it up whenever I miss them.” Anna had met her Korean husband when she was just 18 years old and working at a factory outside of Seoul. She had lived in Peru, Japan, and Korea, but now had two children and considered Korea to be her only home. “When I eat this pasta I think of my mother,” she said as I transcribed the recipe into my research notebook.



Autumn Harvest and New Friends
When I talk about my research topic, many people are surprised to learn that Korea has a significant Latino community. One thing that brings the community together is its food. In the past five years, a few excellent Latino restaurants have opened in Itaewon, Hapjeong, and Hongdae. Perhaps because Latinos are so far away from home when they are in Korea, these locations play a very significant role in the lives of expatriates. In fact, even migrants who have returned to their home countries still talk fondly of the Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and Mexican restaurants they frequented while in Korea. I learned about El Comedor, a Paraguayan restaurant in Itaewon, while I was conducting fieldwork in Peru two years ago. My contacts told me that if I really wanted to learn about Latino culture in Korea, I had to visit this restaurant.

Every t ime I went to El Comedor, located on the street behind Gecko’s Restaurant in Itaewon, I made new friends in the Latino community. I had many conversations over platters of the restaurant’s delicious Paraguayan empanadas (pastries stuffed with meat, cheese and chicken) about topics like migration, religion, family, love, and loss. Here, over food, social networks were created, reinforced, and extended. So, during my fieldwork, not only did I learn how to cook Peruvian and Mexican food with a Korean twist, but I also learned how to share it with others.



Tacos al Pastor Mexico City (Seoul city style):

Ingredients:
• 500 grams of pork (shoulder meat), cut into small cubes
• 3 large onions, sliced into rings
• 2 large tomatoes (cored)
• 3 cloves of fresh garlic
• 4 fresh green peppers (gochu)
• 4 dried red peppers (gochu) (these can be found in different levels of spiciness)
• 1 onion, cut in half
• Salt, to taste
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 1 bunch of cilantro, finely chopped*
• 1 lemon, cut into wedges
• 1 package of tortillas (either corn or flour)*
* These items are available at stores like Costco, and Foreign Food Mart in Itaewon. Directions: Walk along the main street of Itaewon and turn right at the fire station. Keep walking past King Club. Foreign Food Mart is on the left.

Preparation:
1 In a large skillet, cook the pork and sliced onions over medium heat until the meat is cooked.
2 In a sauce pan, add the tomatoes, garlic, fresh and dried peppers, the halved onion, and salt. Cover with water and boil for 10 minutes or until the tomatoes are tender.
3 Place the entire contents of the sauce pan into a blender and blend well.
4 Pour the blended mixture onto the cooked meat and simmer over low heat until the meat has absorbed the sauce (about 20 minutes).
5 Heat the tortillas one at a time on a skillet. Place a spoonful of cooked pork onto a heated tortilla. Add chopped onion, cilantro, and lemon juice, to taste. Enjoy!


Tallarines en Salsa Roja
Ingredients:
• 500 grams of spaghetti noodles
• 1-1/2 red bell peppers (paprika), seeded
• 1 large tomato
• 1 onion
• 1 carrot, peeled
• Vegetable oil
• Dash of sugar
• Dash of salt

Preparation:
1 Cook the spaghetti, according to directions.
2 Roughly chop the bell peppers, tomato, onion, and carrot. Place in a blender with a little water, salt and sugar. Blend well.
3 In a skillet, heat a small amount of vegetable oil and then pour in the vegetable mixture. Cook and stir with a wooden spoon. When you can see the bottom of the skillet, it is ready.
4 Pour sauce over the pasta and serve with a garden salad.