Ewa Paszkowicz speaks with Magdalena Tomaszewska-Bolałek, culinary culture expert and blogger specialising in Asian cuisines, author of a guide to Polish cuisine translated into Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
Ewa Paszkowicz: I know you specialised in Japanese studies, but how did you become interested in Korea?
Magdalena Tomaszewska-Bolałek: I graduated from Japanese studies, but this is not the only area of my interests. Asia has fascinated me for a long time. Probably my first contact with Asian culture was the Korean storybook titled Diamond Mountains which I loved as a child. Back then the book was translated by a Czech Japanese studies scholar, then perhaps from Czech to Polish and thus it reached Polish bookstores and accompanied me through my childhood. In the meantime, I was interested in many different things, but I have always found culinary art most interesting as a subject of research. Studying the culinary aspect of any country’s culture, just like any other object of research, requires a lot of commitment and preparation, because it is very easy, without knowing the broader context, to make a blunder, for example by writing that some dish appeared in some country for the first time.
Did you pursue your studies on nutrition in Poland?
Yes, I have a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and I wrote my thesis on the culture of nutrition at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw.
I understand your natural interest in Japanese cuisine. But what made you decide to study also the culinary culture of Korea and China?
I would not be able to write about Japanese cuisine without understanding its cultural context, which is closely related to Korea and China. Perhaps in analysing the Japanese cuisine we don’t have to consider the European influence, but the influence of the cultures of these two neighbouring countries certainly has to be taken into account. Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisines have much in common, because in ancient times, just as now, people used to travel, there was a natural flow of food products between countries. We could say that in those days, just as now, people liked to discover new flavours, places and methods of preparing new dishes. Those gourmets, just like today's foodies, after tasting some dishes during their trips, tried to copy them at home. And when the required ingredients were not available, they substituted them with other ingredients that were at hand.
Was there anything in the Korean culinary art that surprised you?
Not really, because before going to Korea I studied Korean culture, history and customs, the entire ethnographic background. I am not easily surprised by extreme food ingredients or dishes, such as dishes made of insects. As for the differences between the Japanese and Korean cuisines, Japanese cuisine is one of the most delicate in the world, while Korean cuisine has a whole range of different flavours. It is not true that all Korean food is spicy. On the contrary, it is very rich and diverse, and the palette of flavours is much wider than in the Japanese cuisine. I must admit that I love Korean sweets, for example yakgwa (cookies made of honey, sesame oil and flour). Generally, Korean sweets are clearly distinct from those eaten in other Asian countries. Interesting are also the differences in tableware, Korean metal dishes and chopsticks are very different from Japanese utensils made of ceramics and wood.
I was also impressed by the abundance of side dishes – groaning tables laden with starters in Korea can really surprise anyone. I would like to emphasize, however, that despite the large amount of food, the emphasis in Asian cuisine is not on meat, as in European cuisine. The advantage of Far Eastern cuisines are different proportions, the fact that the predominant ingredients are vegetables and fermented products, which makes Asian food much healthier than the European.
What do you think a Pole might like most in the Korean cuisine?
I’ve been wondering why Japanese cuisine, so different from Polish one, became so popular in Poland, while Korean cuisine wasn’t so well received, in spite of having much more in common with Polish cuisine, for example large consumption of pork and grilled meat, garlic, onion and pickles. As for the Korean pickles, we should remember that not all of them are spicy. So-called white kimchi, served to children, is very popular in Korea, so I am sure the Poles would like it too. Even my five year-old son loves kimchi, especially Korean pickled cabbage, which is the best recommendation I can think of!
And what a Korean would like to eat in Poland?
I think dishes similar to those the Poles would enjoy in Korea, that is grilled food in the first place. In Poland we have quite a wide range of different kinds of meat. We eat not only grilled, but also stewed meat, which the Koreans are also very fond of. I think that even Polish fish dishes might be a surprise for Asians. Contrary to appearances, Polish cuisine is very rich in umami – the flavour highly desirable in the Far East countries (described as “meaty”, rich, metallic). Examples of Polish dishes rich in this flavour are bigos (stew made of cabbage and meat), all kinds of sausages and cold meats as well as żurek (sour rye soup), which is probably the richest in umami of all Polish dishes. Moreover, a wide range of vegetables and fruits available in the summer in Poland and Polish pickles are also very attractive to foreigners. I think that for the Koreans discovering Polish pickles – Polish kimchi – could be a very interesting experience.
Are you planning any new books, for example about Indian or Chinese cuisines?
I will probably not write about China until I retire, because it would take a very thick volume. It is difficult to write about Chinese cuisine in general, there are many different Chinese cuisines, so the book would have to be divided into several parts. For the time being, I am considering some smaller country, perhaps Malaysia or Indonesia, because I haven’t been there yet. India is also a vast country, very diverse religiously, which has a major impact on the cuisine and makes it extremely rich. Yes, I will definitely save China and India for later.
I would like to ask about your publication on Polish cuisine translated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean, is it available online or in bookstores?
All three language versions of the book – Korean, Japanese and Chinese – are available online at the links below, so that anybody can access and read them.
You are very welcome to explore the secrets of Polish cuisine and cooking!
Magdalena Tomaszewska-Bolałek, Ph.D. – expert in nutrition culture specialising in Asian cuisine, head of postgraduate Food Studies at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw and culinary blogger. She is the author of books about Korean and Japanese cuisines as well as the book Polish Culinary Paths on Polish cuisine, which has been translated into Chinese, Korean and Japanese.