In the summer of 1999, I flew to Korea to begin a year of teaching English there, and after much research and seemingly endless questions to Korean friends, I thought I was prepared for the experience. Alas, I'm not sure a person can ever fully prepare for any new experience, in their own country or out of it.
Between a new work schedule and adjustment to a thirteen-hour time difference, the first month of my contract flew by, and I survived on a modest diet of Fruit Loops (called Hoo-root-eu Lings there) and black tea that I had brought from home. Some time in mid-September, I found myself tiring of this simple, albeit tasty, cuisine. I yearned for some food--any food--that was healthy and familiar. Since it was fall, there were many fresh vegetables available in nearly any food-selling enterprise, be it the large stores like E-Mart (similar to Walmart), the convenience stores (like 7-11s), or the freestanding markets (akin to farmers' markets). I had been in Korea long enough to learn that they had many of the same fruits and vegetables that we did in Pennsylvania but that they just didn't look the same. Their pears were much larger and more apple-shaped than ours. Their grapes were the size of shooting marbles and not their smaller companions. The eggplants were long and thin like cucumbers and not large and husky-ended as ours were. So when I walked into the market, I picked up vegetables that looked pretty much like ones I knew from home--onions, zucchini, an enormous carrot, a yellow squash, and something similar to a tomato but with a strangely shaped leaf at the top.
I wasn't feeling ambitious for dinner. I was just going to saute a few fresh vegetables in a pan. I began chopping everything uniformly and setting it aside. A quarter of an onion-check. A third of the carrot-check. Eggplant, zucchini-check, check. Things started to go downhill with the yellow squash. Everything looked just fine as I peeled it and scooped out the seeds, but it smelled...hmm...it smelled kind of sweet. Surely it couldn't be sweet, could it? I stared at the little squash and figured it was just the extra sweetness from having been freshly picked. I diced half of it and set it in my bowl of other vegetables. Finally, I was down to the tomato. Try as I might, the leafy top simply didn't want to come off the way I was used to. In fact, pulling off the top brought a large pit out of the center of the fruit. What was this? I set it aside, stared at it, and then decided to leave it. I was hungry, and I did not have time to play games with a tomato before work.
I set about sauteing the rest of my vegetables with a little oil in the small Cracker Barrel cast iron pan that I had brought from home. The room filled with a smell. Alas, it wasn't the smell of sauteing vegetables. A strangely sweet odor competed with the scent of zucchini and onion. I tasted the mixture and abruptly spit it back out again. I dumped the rest of dinner in the food garbage and bagged the two strange vegetables to show to the people at work.
Disappointed, I ate yet another bowl of Fruit Loops before learning that I'd tried to saute an Asian melon and a persimmon, not a tomato and a yellow squash.