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A popular dish in Korean cuisine is bibimbap (bibim means “mix” and bap means “rice”). It is a dish of rice, vegetables, meat, and egg. The vegetables and meat are stir-fried and arranged in individual circles on a bed of steamed rice. The fried egg is placed on top. When eaten, diners will mix everything together, sometimes adding chili or the many side dishes that accompanies a Korean meal.

Bibimbap is emblematic of many Korean dishes, in the sense that it consists of a staple (in this case, rice), that is mixed with other main ingredients and is served with a multitude of side dishes. It is one of my favorite foods, but I have never made it myself. This changed last Friday, when I took a bibimbap cooking class together with other artists at the Food and Culture Academy Korea.

The similarities of bibimbap and design nagged me throughout the process, from preparation to consumption. For me, Korean cuisine is quite an apt metaphor for many steps in design, both from the perspectives of the designer and the consumer.

DSC01781

basic bibimbap ingredients

Preparation: Bibimbap and Design from a Chef’s Perspective

1. Simplicity

The ingredients in Korean cuisine are very simple. In a basic bibimbap dish, there are bean sprouts, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, onions, doraji (a Korean root crop) and an egg. (A little bit of beef is given to meat-eaters, but not for me; I’m pescetarian.) For me, the best products and experiences are those with few features.

2. Purpose

The ingredients in bibimbap all have a function. Their number and colors are important as well. The nutritional value of the food matters as much as the presentation of the dish. In comparison, the best products and experiences are those whose building blocks and functions are clearly articulated. Each piece has a purpose, and those pieces that do not are removed from the final design.

Consumption: Bibimbap and Design from a Diner’s Perspective 

3. Flexibility

Korean cuisine is a visual feast. Unlike Western meals where main courses are served one after the other,  everything is served together in a Korean meal. Rice and soup are always at the center of each diner’s place setting, with the side dishes surrounding them. As Korea started out as an agricultural society, all meals are designed to complement rice. Thus, diners can design their own meal to customize their tastes. This framework allows for a wide range of flexibility. One can order bibimbap every night in the same restaurant, yet his experience of the dish will always be different. Similarly, my favorite products and services adjust to my situation. Each encounter with them gives me a different experience. A smartphone enables me to call, send an SMS, take a photo, share a video with a friend, or download a file from an email, depending on my needs.

4. Recovery

Korean cuisine allows for each diner to recover from his “mistakes”. If he eats something too spicy, he can eat a side dish that is a bit more bland. If he is tired of a particular texture, he can move on to something else. The diner is given control of his experience. Moreover, while the chef of a Korean meal may not know of the diner’s tolerance for certain flavors, he gives the diner solutions in the form of complementary side dishes that allow him to compensate. This is in contrast to most Western meals where the diner has to focus on each course and, if he is unsatisfied, just wait for the next one. In design, my favorite products and services give me ways to rectify unpleasant situations. An email service can automatically send spam to a folder, delete viruses before they affect me, allow me to label messages so I can have a more orderly inbox, and so on.

But enough academic musing. Behold, my first (and hopefully not last) bowl of bibimbap I cooked myself:

The first bowl of bibimbap I have ever made in my life.

The first bowl of bibimbap I have ever made in my life.

I feel proud. Even though all I did was slice and stir-fry.

With thanks to the staff of the National Art Studio, Changdong and the Food and Culture Academy Korea!

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hotteok, South Korea

hotteok, South Korea

Annyeong, everyone! I’m starting another project.

During my first three weeks in Seoul, beyond the palaces, the museums, and other beautiful attractions the city has to offer, I learned to fall in love with their street food. I have started some drawing projects over the years, and so I came up with The Movable Feast: A Street Food Project, an interpretative illustration project that celebrates the joys and oddities of street food around the world.

Inclusive cuisine

Street food is arguably the most socially inclusive, yet sometimes unnoticed or taken for granted, of all cuisines. There is neither dress code nor reservation required. Everyone has to wait their turn. Street food is among the best things to eat when one is rushing to work, taking a break in between classes, or being too lazy to cook. It is cheap, easily available, and delicious.

The menu of street food can be simple (such as coconut juice and watermelon slices) or more complex and hard-to-find (such as escargot on the go, lobster sandwiches, and grilled tamales) This system includes a range of members—from the ambling taho vendor (Philippines), the seasonal bocadillo stall (Spain), to scheduled and franchised food trucks (United States). It is a mobile and complex system that consists of the producers of raw materials, the makers of the actual dishes, the transportation and infrastructure that bring them to the venues in which they are served, the governing bodies that allow their selling, and the vendors and consumers themselves.

Globalization and diaspora

In many ways, I have discovered that street food is a symbol of globalization and diaspora. Many of them hail from other countries, but with local flavor. Consider goroke, the Korean version of the French croquette. Or hotdogs in Iceland. Or shawarma in Canada. It is also a symbol of urbanization—as the population who move from rural to urban areas increase, so does the need for alternative sources and ways of distributing food.

Street food as identity

I believe that street food is a vital part of the culture and identity of a city. It is indicative of the sustenance immediately afforded by its geography. But more than that, it is a symbol of a people’s resourcefulness, creativity, and survival. They tell us stories about ourselves.

Eating and perception

Eating street food fires up all the senses, which are the center of my larger body of work. Street food conjures up memories of childhood and gives strangers a shared experience of a meal. These drawings themselves are interpretative; more than documenting what they are, I also draw how they’ve made me feel, and write the memory I have about them.

Follow the project’s Tumblr here.

P.S. Drawings up every Monday!

P.P.S. As I am based in Seoul, many of these posts will be about Korean street food, though I will draw all the other street foods I’ve eaten in other countries, past and future. But if you wish, you can submit photos of street food from your country and I can try it out and draw it. Or submit your own drawings, following the format I’ve started. The link to submit is here.

The Movable Feast, where eating means research. Thank you for checking it out.

As a poet, I will be among the first to say that poetry can be difficult. It can be abstruse, incomprehensible, and consequently irrelevant to most people. I’ve often felt that this was unfortunate, because I believe that poetry can be very powerful. As Susan Stewart, author of Poetry and the Fate of the Five Senses, wrote:

“Poetry makes tangible, visible, and audible the contours of our shared humanity.”

But what if we had a different gateway to poetry? What if we can explore verses not just through reading text, but through accessing it via an “easier” medium?

This is what is being explored in a project called EatPoetry. It is a dining event where we ask a chef to create a dish out of poems—literally translating the poem into food—so people can readily have an association between the poem and the dish.

Why food? Simply because taste is a sense that is both social and intimate. It might not be easy to have an opinion about a poem, but it is easier to have one about something you are eating. Eating is usually communal and social; thus, the idea of having a conversation around something you are consuming (whether this consumption is through hearing a poem or eating a dish) is an organic process. An event such as EatPoetry also triggers all five senses: the sight, smell, and taste of the food your are eating; the feeling of the texture of the food; the sound of the poetry being read.

This week, I’ve tried a simple experiment where I’ve gathered a group of people to find out their reactions about two different experiences: hearing poetry with and without food. The food were simple supermarket treats, just to see whether this was a concept that was compelling enough for people to enjoy and to find meaningful.

Supermarket treats for prototyping

It was a small group of six people who rated themselves on whether they liked poetry and how much they think they understand it. I had participants who rated themselves as a 1 (the lowest) on how much they liked poetry and how much they think they understood it. I also had participants on the opposite side of the scale; they liked poetry (5) and believed they understood it. One of them wrote poetry herself.

For the poetry alone, here are the poems I read:
1. “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams
2. “After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost
3. “Figs” by D.H. Lawrence (an excerpt)

For the poetry paired with a dish, here are the poems I read and the treats that went with them:
1. “The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife” by Michael Ondaatje paired with cinnamon buns
2. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens paired with mint chocolate chip ice cream
3. “Cake” by Gertrude Stein (from her book Tender Buttons) paired with soft chocolate chip cookies

For both cases, I’ve asked them to recall the poem and write down as many words as they could remember. I’ve also asked them to write anything that came to mind, be it their thoughts about the poem (or in the second case, the dish), or their own poem.

Here is what happened:

Poetry and memory

In general, participants were able to recall most of the poem, or at least the ideas in the poem. “This is Just To Say,” “After Apple- Picking,” “Figs,” and “The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife” were visual and concrete poems; you could almost see the scene/s that were being written about. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”, although visual, used more obscure words, as well as those that had nothing to do with ice cream. “Cake” was the most difficult, as it had a nontraditional syntax and the words didn’t seem to form sentences that “made sense.”

Expectedly, the ones that had the least recall were “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and “Cake.” What was unexpected, and more interesting, were the comments, original poetry, and drawings that came out of the session:

Part A: Poetry, No Food

1. This is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams

Sweet, but cold
life it is.

Forgive me, but I’m not sorry.

And they were not far from
reach, these plums,
alive and red, burning
and freezing.
Forgive me, they were
delicious and cold.

Not really asking for forgiveness
Plum metaphor for person? Personality? (sweet yet cold)
Delicate, not long-lasting

Perched on the verge of summer,
I want to work on my thesis.
But thoughts of sweet, cold plums
Keep frolicking in front of my vision
It rather gets in the way
Of writing poems in code.
Doesn’t it?

I ate the strawberries
from the ground
when I was 3,
My mom got mad
at me.

2. After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost

Giving up is easy,
easy to say at least
But you know your heart won’t rest,
until it finds what it’s looking for.

I am done with apple picking now,
There isn’t the time,
To look at the shadows,
Or shadows the time,
Let tomorrows rise,
I let yesterday fall,
For that is all
there is to living small.

Reminds me of the apples
Waiting at home
To be made into apple crumble.

My desk is covered in Apples. Big ones,
Small ones, glistening, cold, smooth
Not unlike ones fresh-picked in Autumn,
But these you cannot eat.

3. Figs by D.H. Lawrence

A secret that each one must unveil,
A different one, for each,
A secret not quite
Revealed in a bite.

If I were to write a
thinly veiled sexual metaphor about fruit
in the form of a poem
I too would probably choose
a fig.

Societies make rules
It says this is good, this is bad.
Rules are objective &
Good/Bad is subjective
If your heart feels differently
break the rules!

Part B: Poetry with Food

1. The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife by Michael Ondaatje paired with cinnamon buns

Sliced cinnamon buns with chocolate sauce

If I were a cinnamon peeler’s wife
my clothes drying in the courtyard
would bring many a wandering man,
back to my carousel; I
talking amidst them in the market
would proclaim, the love in my veins.

Is the cinnamon peeler’s wife a
cinnamon bun?
I feel awkwardly voyeuristic
But it’s so delicious,
I will just eat and eat some more.

World looks you through a lens
And the lens has a name.

2. The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens paired with mint chocolate chip ice cream

Mint chocolate chip ice cream

The emperor of ice cream,
sits on a beam, with mint
chocolate dip and lots of cream.
The only emperor is the
emperor of dreams.

You know what’s colder
and sweeter than
a summer plum?
Mint chocolate chip ice cream
that’s what.

3. Cake by Gertrude Stein (from Tender Buttons) paired with soft baked chocolate chip cookies 

Two chocolate chip cookies

Automatic, non stop,
in a way again, come,
these thoughts, flat jab
as a needle in sea, the
sea, that hides, in me.

A tragic baking accident!
It was a little hard to understand
the words as they were
being read. I kept wondering
about homonyms. Maybe some
meaning was lost. I want to read with my eyes, next time.
But the cookies were solid, sweet, and decidedly
non-abstract. I wonder if they helped or
hindered by focus on the poem?

I also got some feedback on the process itself. Was it an enjoyable experience to hear poetry and eat at the same time? Did they like the poems? Did they want other poems to be read next time? Were they able to make associations between the food and the poem? Here are some; highlights are my own.

I don’t know many poems to make suggestions. I probably need to read the poems myself to understand them better. Never “listened” to poetry before. I wish I understood the ice cream poem, because the ice cream I ate was really good. 

I enjoyed the poems and the food, except for the cookies. Not sure if I was supposed to establish a correlation between the food and poems, or remember the poems better because of them. Perhaps that’s what you’re testing? I don’t now. Concentrating on the poems to remember them kept me from enjoying the poems—just made me anxious that I wouldn’t remember / test poorly.

I think more physical, sensual poems worked better for this experience. For the fig poem, I really wanted a fig. I’m not a big fan of G. Stein normally, but I could enjoy it if I were held still for a long enough time. For poems like that, I would maybe pair it with a slow-to-eat food, not something you’d wolf down. (A lollipop perhaps?) Her words take time, more so than W.C.W.s poem which is clear-cut and non-abstract. I really enjoyed it! Thanks, C.

Enjoyed this. Ice cream—favorite food. Robert Frost poem was my favorite, best captured a mood and a place. Although the food was delicious, it distracted from understanding the poems. Gertrude Stein—least favorite; embodied everything I dislike about poetry. (Note: This was from the participant who disliked poetry the most.)

The food was overpowering; the first two poems worked the best, mostly because of the length. Food made it difficult to read anything. Gertrude Stein was beautiful sounding words, which is why the words were all I remember. Shorter poems would be the way to go. Loved the concept as an artwork / performance piece.

Some of my conclusions:

1. Participants generally enjoyed the experience, and giving them a way to express themselves after the poem was read was great. It allowed them to express their opinions on the poem, unlike regular poetry readings where the poem was just read, and that was that.

2. Food was a deterrent in recalling the actual text of the poem; having to taste something distracted from trying to understand something being read. While the participants will likely remember what the ate more than the words of the poem.

3. While eating didn’t facilitate the recall of the poems’ text, what it did do was create an association with the poem. For example, while few understood “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” most enjoyed the ice cream served to them. I enjoyed the drawings a lot, particularly because it came from the participant who had a clear dislike for poetry.

4. It would have been better to be as literal about the food as possible. I served cookies for Stein’s “Cake,” mainly as a wild card, and because the words such as “mussed ash,” “two,” “dirty,” recalled something dark and earthy.

As with prototypes, there are some additional questions raised from this session. Should the poems be projected on the wall instead of just read? Should they be read first and then have the food served, since having them together increased the friction in understanding the poem? How can we facilitate the participants’ own creativity, as to me, one of the more interesting results was the marginalia that they scribbled about the experience? More to come, and soon.