How watching Korean food videos can be a restful vacation as the pandemic continues in Milwaukee

I am not a foodie, but I do love food. And I’ve always loved Korean food, especially Kimchi. I could eat those pickled vegetables right out of the ceramic pot after fermenting. But for a real meal I have enjoyed bibimbap and bulgogi for most of my life.

That appreciation came from cultural exposure and many wonderful experiences. In my youth, I was rarely exposed to ethnic foods that were not fully Americanized. So I feel lucky as a young adult to have both a curiosity and an opportunity to discover foods from all over the world.

My exposure to Korean meals came first from friends in the Korean American community of Milwaukee, and later during my time in Seoul, Suwon, Incheon, South Korea. And when I refer to Korean food as a general term, I mean food from Korean culture.

I’ve always enjoyed watching cooking shows, going back to old Julia Child reruns. There is something soothing about preparing food. And in my way of thinking, it’s definitely an art form.

I am fascinated how ingredients combine to produce flavors. And stunned how some food was made. Who was it that thought to take a specific plant and process it in a certain way, then combine it in the right order with other elements and add the right amount of heat? It’s edible science.

But cooking is not like engineering. With a bridge or building I can see a structure and design as it follows a liner plan to take shape. Producing food goes according to a plan, but often turns out to be magical. Combine all these elements in a certain way, in specific steps, then abracadabra. You have a delicious cake and not a vegetable brick.

So many foods are not ready until they are ready. An apple can be picked from a tree, but not a pizza. And unlike a building process, many foods aren’t ready until they’re done. At any step in the preparation process, things can go wrong. After all, a cake is just a thick liquid until heat is applied.

As a child, I would listen to aunts and uncles tell stories about a meal at a corner deli or a special kind of street food in the old neighborhood. Such things had died out by the time I got there, and I was content with mall foods or pre-packaged pre-processed foods.

When I discovered Solly’s Grille, a place that not only made sandwiches, but where I could also sit at a counter, it was like taking a trip in a time machine. That coincided with the late 1990s, when it seemed like cooking shows were getting on cable.

I remember watching some of those programs begrudgingly. Then, get addicted. Many shows were interesting because of the artistry to show how dishes were made. For me it wasn’t like watching Julia Child learn to cook, it was a magic show with edible objects. Then there was a deluge of copycat shows and the focus shifted. To differentiate themselves, those cooking shows were more about the chef’s personality and less about the food preparation process. It reminded me of MTV, which actually started playing music videos.

But around that time, fate brought me to Japan. It seemed like almost every show there was food related. Not so much preparing the food as eating it. People sat around and ate food and talked about the food they ate. The Japanese word for delicious is ‘oishii’. If I heard that once, I heard it a million times. Everything was oishii. It was such a common word that it would have literally been all the Japanese language I needed to be on one of those food shows.

In Japan, and later China, I learned to enjoy food. Really enjoy it. There were a number of chain restaurants so they would be nice to try for comparison. Like McDonalds in Hiroshima or pepperoni pizza at Pizza Hut in Beijing. But most of all I liked to eat locally. The more run down or unusual a restaurant was, the more oishii the food.

The experiences reminded me of those stories of the elders of my family. I went to the corner of the Mom-and-Pop tents. And fresh food was so plentiful. I never considered myself a vegetarian, but I certainly ate more vegetables than ever before in my life. Every morning the farmers brought freshly harvested agricultural produce to the market below.

I often preferred the plain and simple foods, which frustrated my friends. They wanted to eat fancy dishes and not enjoy a ‘peasant meal’. What I liked about street food was watching it being prepared. Mostly so I could understand what I was eating, and its quality. But also because I found the preparation fascinating.

Some of my fondest and some terrifying memories are of those culinary experiences. When I returned to America, and later to Milwaukee, I tried here – as best I could – to find what I loved so much. Downtown didn’t have many Mom-and-Pop tents, but at least what was nearby weren’t suburbia’s chain franchises.

Flash forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its second winter and third year. When I started my fall treadmill workout in September, it became painfully clear that the protracted pandemic had practically exhausted all binge-worthy content of interest to me. So I looked beyond what was produced in English.

I was in Japan in 2001 when the Korean Wave or “Hallyu” really took off. Nearly a few decades later, it finally made it to mainstream America, with K-pop and K-dramas like Netflix’s “Squid Games” and “Kingdom.”

In early 2021, I wrote about walking virtually through half of Japan as a way to exercise and get through the early isolation days of the pandemic.

For the Fall/Winter 2022 season, I was ready to see more of those hiking adventures while on the treadmill. For some strange reason, my YouTube timeline had a segment about how an industrial bakery made candy.

I remember watching a show as a kid about how Japanese candy was made to have the face of a mythical character. Different colors of taffy were stretched and wrapped together in combination. That format was how the face design was created. So I was interested to see what turned out to be a Korean version of a similar candy, which made fruit candy with fruit designs in it. It was fascinating to watch all those dollops of colorful taffy slowly roll into each other and magically create works of art out of sugar.

Some time later another video appeared in my timeline, about how instant noodles are made. As a staple of my diet for many years, I was curious about that production. It went on and on, until I subscribed to those YouTube channels and they worked their way into my workout routine.

The two categories of food production I saw were for street food and factory food. In the factories, the workers go through a hygiene procedure that looks like they are entering a cleanroom at NASA. But no, they just bake bread or chicken nuggets.

And food stalls or small restaurants made the most exquisite local dishes. One slice featured a “flour” pepperoni pizza that made me salivate because the pepperoni absolutely covered it. There were local dishes, many that I was familiar with, and similar foods from other Asian countries.

For example, this year I went to watch Korean cooking shows during my treadmill season. They have not been handed down, which I am grateful for because it is not necessary. Occasionally there will be a subtitle in English explaining something. Otherwise, it is fun and calming to watch the culinary creations.

I admit it seems counterintuitive to look at food preparation while exercising. And it’s a big setup for disappointment. I am walking distance to a great Korean restaurant, but their menu contains a fraction of the types of food I see being prepared – like a cotton candy burrito.

Otherwise, many dishes that are not specific to Korea are prepared in the videos, such as cakes and burgers. I even now live above a restaurant and can go downstairs to eat. And I can get fresh pastries from nearby supermarkets, or ingredients to cook myself. But it’s not the same kind of deliciousness I see on Youtube.

It’s kind of like how samples of food from the supermarket always taste better than when the same thing is made at home. I love cooking, and I love the artistry of the cooking process, which improves my method over time. Street food just seems much more satisfying, which is why eating at Milwaukee festivals or State Fair seems so popular.

Embedded here is a playlist of an assortment of YouTube videos of Korean cooking and food production that I’ve put together, mainly from the FoodyTrip and YumYum channels. They are of various lengths, but most are less than 15 minutes. I often like the short segments as filler, when a movie I’m watching ends and I still have time left in my workout. Or I can look at a bunch and see a variety of food.

So as Milwaukee continues to weather the pandemic, and as many seek ways to keep our brains busy — or at least preoccupied with things that aren’t so terrible — I hope this collection provides a much-needed break with soothing imagery.

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