Wednesday, 7 May 2008

The year of eating dangerously

Tom Parker-Bowles is the son of Camilla Parker Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall. His royal highness the Prince of Wales is both his father in Law and godfather and Princes William and Harry are his step Brothers. Tom Parker Bowles spent 10 years in the private education system and so I think it is fair to say he has had a rather privileged upbringing. Tom Parker Bowles happens to be quite a good writer too and it is no surprise that his book ‘The year of eating dangerously’ is a very nice read. But why the family history, why the biography you ask? Surely I am painting him as a spoilt, young cad who has only reached the dizzy heights of literally fame by means of nepotism, aren’t I? Well no actually, I’m making a point about misconceptions and the dangers of playing with stereotypes. The impromptu genealogy lesson was intended to draw away from his skills as a writer and focus on less important things, the kind of things that tabloid hacks might be interested in. This is meant to parallel the chapter on Korea in his book as I think he has done Korea a disservice in his book and didn’t really mean to.

The book is, as the title suggests, about eating dangerously and to this end he travels around the world looking for all kinds of cuisines and events to get his greedy (another admission by the author) jaws around. He travels from Asia to the USA and to Europe, eating all the while and having the kind of gastronomic adventure that many people would relish. The chapter on Korea however, is a little predictable.

The search in Korea focuses on, yes you’ve guessed it, his search for dog meat. The often vilified, yet misunderstood practice of eating man’s best friend is a little predictable a subject. However, his account and research are nothing if not impartial and he delves deep into historical accounts of all sorts of civilizations that considered dog meat to be good eating, among them the Hawaiians and the Aztecs!

The problem in the chapter arises when his search for dangerous eating in Korea starts and ends in Seoul and with poshintang (the aforementioned canine stew). He gives fleeting mentions to other dishes but they are more polite nods rather than critical dissections, this is after he has mentioned his delightful anticipation at being able to sample Korea’s fiery cuisine.   

He talks of his understandable reluctance to try poshintang and even opens the chapter with an account of his childhood canine companions, therefore vindicating his nervousness, but this does little to make me, the reader, feel better about his account of this well trodden path.

Whilst I will agree that moaksal and samgyeopsal are hardly dangerous foods and therefore disqualify themselves from the book there are things in Korea that could, by his rationale, be called dangerous. BBQ’d chicken feet are not for the faint of heart and dak dong jip (chicken poo house – use you imagination) would see off a lot of self confessed gastronomes, as would bool dak, the intentionally mouth blistering chicken dish, created for those of us with less discerning palettes. Sannakji can be a particularly dangerous food at the best of times and is very dangerous when laced with soju. The raw octopus, very recently killed, can wrap its tentacles around your chopsticks and if you are very unlucky it can clamp itself onto your throat and throttle you from the inside, this should surely qualify it as a life threatening food!  These foods would hold their own on a list that includes baby eels (elvers), fugu from Japan and various chillis at a chilli convention in the USA. As for the harvesting of some of the food being dangerous (as is the case with the elvers and the goose neck barnacles), Korea has an entry in this category too. The haenyo are female divers around Korea who free dive for their supper. They dive to catch all sorts of sea creatures to sell as well as trying to avoid the dangers that lurk in the almost tropical waters around Jeju Island, where most of the haenyo now work.

This review is Korea centric for obvious reasons but the chapter on Korea was also the one that left me feeling a bit cheated, but don’t let that detract in anyway from the very descriptive talents of this self aware and self depreciating Englishman. The book is very neatly arranged so that each chapter covers a country and with a very thin narrative it can be picked up and put down at your leisure. The book has what all good food and travel writing needs to have in that it makes me want to go to these places, to eat what he eats and see what he sees, whether it be ribs and brisket in America’s south or bees in Laos (apparently they taste of honey). This book is a success and anyone even remotely interested in travel and/or food should give it a look. 

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