Bulging with Bingsu
An undergraduate journalism intern explores Korea's shaved-ice cafés—and her feelings about being a food writer.
My stomach growls in protest as I gulp down another spoonful of shaved ice and sweetened red bean puree. I pinch my stomach with one hand and quickly jot down some notes with the other: “The shaved ice, made with frozen milk, melted like snow right as it touched the tip of my tongue. The chunky red bean puree wasn’t overly sweet, while the slices of fresh kiwis and crunchy candied walnuts added texture to the otherwise watery patbingsu.”
“This is probably enough,” I think as I storm out the door. Despite my bulging stomach, my footsteps do not lead me home, but to yet another café for yet another bowl of shaved ice. “Why?” you may ask. Because I had to complete a task that had been assigned to me: finding the best patbingsu in South Korea.
As a self-proclaimed food aficionada, I had often dreamed of becoming a food critic, a profession that combines two of my passions: writing and eating. Because of my interests, I joined the Harvard Crimson as a news reporter to brush up my journalistic chops and read food magazines voraciously to pick up some epicurean lingo. After spending a semester as the “HUHDS reporter,” a job that entailed covering Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services and writing about all food-and-dining-hall-related events on campus, I became more interested in the production aspect of the culinary world. However, because I lack fame or reputation as a food critic, no four-star restaurant, nor even a small bakery or a café, would require my presence at its opening event to sample delectable cuisine. So I settled for appeasing my taste buds with a little dollop of curry and a slice of cheddar cheese from the dining hall, and practiced writing my own reviews so I could learn to convey the taste of food with words.
Then, this summer, my dream became a reality when I had the opportunity to intern as a reporter for Chosun Ilbo, the largest daily newspaper in South Korea, with a circulation of more than 2.2 million. Though I did not know which department I would be placed in or what kind of articles I would write, this mystery did not dampen my excitement; I was far too ecstatic about the prospect of gaining international work experience and seeing my byline in the newspaper I grew up reading.
The internship program, which selected a total of 35 interns from Korean and American universities, began with three days of orientation. During this period, I sat on a cushionless chair for up to eight hours a day, learning about the nearly 100-year history of Chosun Ilbo (the name means “Korean daily news”) and listening to editors from different departments lecturing about journalism. After surviving the orientation, I managed to wiggle my way into the department that was my top choice, Pop Culture and Entertainment.
When I entered the newsroom on my first day of work, I felt intimidated just by the sight of all the reporters talking on the phone and editors typing on computers. The reporters seemed so immersed in their work that I thought my mere presence bothered them. Furthermore, because I grew up in the United States, I was initially unsure how to behave in front of my Korean elders in a professional work setting. Through observation, I learned to bow down to say hello to anyone I encountered, to be the last to exit the elevator, and to avoid direct eye contact with the adults because that is considered rude in Korean society. Fortunately, the editor of my department, Mr. Shin, understood my unfamiliarity with proper Korean etiquette and made the newsroom a comfortable place.
During a meeting one day, I suggested writing an article on where to find the very best patbingsu, Korea’s favorite summer dessert (shaved ice with red bean puree, rice cake, fruits, and other toppings). We initially thought about covering just Seoul, but because the entire area of the country is slightly smaller than Kentucky, I figured I would cover the entire region, from the capital, Seoul, in the northern half, to coastal Busan, near the country’s southern tip. The editor gave my pitch a green light, and so began my patbingsu adventure.
Sadly, the reality was not as sweet as I had expected. Because I had only a week to visit as many patbingsu cafés as possible, I skipped lunch and dinner to leave enough room in my stomach for two to three soup-bowl-sized patbingsu every day. At first I enjoyed the sweet and savory treat that immediately cooled my heated body in the humid Korean summer. However, after repeating the same procedure for a few days, I had all but overdosed, and my stomach longed for something warm. The sugary patbingsu tasted bitter all of a sudden, and I wanted nothing but to end my ‘patbingsu diet.’
Five days, 15 patbingsu, and 10 extra pounds later, I finally finished reporting. Despite the thrill of being a published food critic, I have realized that food tastes best when paid for with your own money and shared with your family and friends, not when dissected in detail and recorded in pen. If I had invested money from my own wallet and eaten them with no burden of writing a review afterward, I think I would have enjoyed consuming more than 15 patbingsu. This summer has taught me that the job of a food critic isn’t all fun and glamorous, but stressful and upsetting to the stomach as well. Though I don’t have the courage to consume another shaved ice this season, I will leave Korea with a confident answer to an important question—should anyone ever ask me where to find Korea’s best patbingsu café.
Jane Seo ’14 spent the summer working at Chosun Ilbo with funding from the Jaromir Ledecky International Journalism Fellowship.