Sometimes, you’re looking for comfort food. Other times, you’re looking for something that won’t break your bank card. From time to time, you wonder, “Will eating an entire pizza cure my hangover?”
In case your geography is a bit off, Seoul is nowhere near New York, Italy, Chicago or anywhere else known for pizza, tomatoes, cheese, pepperoni or dough. Unfortunately, Korea and pizza don’t mesh well.
First off, the Korean peninsula is one of the most crowded places on the planet. If you’ve lived in a small apartment before, you know that an oven takes up a lot space. Few Koreans own ovens. Even though I was the most-popular-coolest dude with hundreds of friends, I knew only two or three people with ovens. If you want to make friends super-duper easily in the ROK, invite over the less fortunate to your place to cook nachos, bake cookies or make a pizza.
Next, boatloads of Italians didn’t start pizzerias in the Land of the Morning Calm, which eliminates some competition. Quick, hide sharp objects! Because plenty of folks across the world believe there’s no such thing as bad pizza. Koreans don’t debate about Chicago vs. NYC pizza or white vs. red sauce. My students thought Papa John’s, Domino’s and Pizza Hut were all good enough for just about anybody.
Whatever you’re cooking, you need good ingredients. Cows need land to make good cheese. There’s not a ton of open land in Korea, so good dairy isn’t a huge thing. Also, rice flour tastes, um, weird. Finding good tomatoes, sausage and olive oil can be difficult. And don’t forget to put corn on your pizza. And maybe mix some sugar in your sauce. What can I say? They like it sweet.
(As a quick aside, I still sometimes pronounce “pizza” as “pee-cha.” In Korean, there is no “zee” sound, so instead you say “chee.”)
Koreans eat almost everything with kimchi, which has many variations but is usually spicy, pickled cabbage. And Koreans love pizza with sweet pickles. In fact, our allies think Americans are bizarre because they don’t eat their pies with gherkins. It’s like dipping tater tots in Kool-Aid.
Many foods in Korea are associated with health benefits: chicken feet beautify your skin, pork lowers your chance of Alzheimer’s and kimchi is a superfood. My ex-ex-ex-ex-ex-girlfriend swore potato pizzas cured hangovers. If you’ve ever drank soju and beers until school started in the morning, you definitely needed a strong hangover fighter.
As for toppings, order sweet potatoes, steak, Buffalo chicken wings, barbecue chicken, Korean barbecue and even quesadilla pizza. There are definitely weirder pizzas. After living in Asia for six years, I can’t remember if shrimp pizza is weird or mundane. Is mayo and Heinz 57 bizarre to put on pizza?
One of the first things I wanted when I returned to a land with decent pizza was my own large pie. However, there’s one thing Chicago, Italy and New York don’t have: Hongdae’s Monster Pizza. Dear me, the wild stories I could tell about that taste oasis.