Trying to have Thanksgiving in Korea poses a few obstacles. First of all, the ingredients. I like to bake, but I couldn't even find vanilla extract here, and ended up getting my current bottle of vanilla from an import store in Seoul. An average Korean grocery store will have ground cinnamon and ginger, but not allspice, cloves, nutmeg, or cinnamon sticks. Green beans? No. Beets. Huh uh. Frozen turkey? Unlikely. They were indeed selling them at Costco (an hour and a half train ride from Gunsan), but there was the issue of transporting it on a train, and the fact that they cost 8,900 won per kilogram. Let's do the math...20 pounds is about 9 kilos, so 9 times 8,900 is 80,100 won, putting a 20 pound turkey at about $70.
Then there's the days off. Most foreigner teachers in Korea work in hagwons, or private after-school academies, so they are often teaching til 8 or 9pm. That means a regular Thanksgiving Thursday dinner was not possible. But Saturday loomed invitingly and taunted us Americans, "Come on! Just try to have a traditional holiday!"
Gunsan has a U.S. Air Force base, which besides the noise of more air traffic than usual, makes me feel much safer about living in Korea. Especially after events like last week's horrible and unexpected shelling by North Korea of the South Korean island Yeonpyeong, I like knowing there is a base so close. In addition to the protection factor, a base means American food and products. There are often Airmen at foreign parties, and a few were invited to Thanksgiving and able to get 2 turkeys and a ham for the feast. There are very few foreigners that even have ovens, much less one big enough to cook a turkey, but the ones that do woke up early to cook the birds.
Since I have a (small convection) oven, I felt it was my moral obligation to bake any and all dishes I would bring. I had recently stumbled across this Roasted Onion and Pomegranate Gremolata from the food blog Not Without Salt. I was enticed by its simplicity and vibrant color, and happy to use the very last of the parsley from my garden.
I have also been eating a lot of fresh persimmons lately because they are in season right now. Well, toward the end of their season, but you see them for sale on street produce stands everywhere, and two different Korean friends gifted me bags of them. They are delicious fresh, but I wanted to bake a dessert, and I had a picture of a rustic tart in my head. Luckily I came across a recipe to match my mental image, and made this Persimmon Tart.
I also had just a few fresh chilies left from the garden, as well as some rare cornmeal, so I made a chili cheese cornbread. All this baking was early Saturday afternoon, after running 10 miles in preparation for a half-marathon next weekend. It was a busy day, but so satisfying to slip my warm dishes on the buffet table next to all the other amazing food and revel in the abundance while sipping a glass of wine. By the time every one trickled in with their food, there were at least 35 guests, and mounds of food from the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, to spaghetti, green salad, and pasta salad, to Korean savory kimchi pancakes (김치전) and spicy clear noodles (잡채) to desserts of sweet potato pie, cheesecake, fruit crumbles, and cookies.
Other teachers, Air Force men, parents, and Korean friends filled this piano hagwon-turned apartment to the brim. The hosts had done an awesome job of setting up as much seating as possible in low, Korea-style tables. There was a ton of food, so much that you had to go back for seconds and thirds just to get a taste of everything!
Surprisingly, with all this food, it was a simple chocolate chip cookie that stole the show. Baked and brought by one of the Airmen, every person who tried this cookie freaked out. (Photo by Lindsay).
Afterwards, of course, we were all in food comas and needed to digest. One friend streamed the Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, so it really felt like America. There was a side room with a heater on and pillows for laying down. I had to take a walk in the fading afternoon light. Upon return, once the game was over, we watched YouTube videos, played charades and had more pie and spiced cider.
So, under unlikely circumstances, the foreign community in Gunsan pulled off a pretty amazing holiday. It was a full day of food, friends, cute kids, work, and play. I am very thankful for all the wonderful people in this little city, and the willingness to put new spins on tradition.