The global importance of Slow Food — the food activism movement that was born in Italy in 1986 — continues to spread. Its South Korean chapter — in collaboration with the city of Namyangju and Slow Food International — recently staged an ambitious and highly successful event, AsiO Gusto, the first of its kind to be held in Asia. The impressively organized festival hosted 500,000 visitors over six days.
“Our goal was to gather over 400 artisan food producers and cooks from 40 countries within Asia and Oceania under one roof, to celebrate their diversity and to spread the word about the many unique foods we have in Korea,” says Kim Byung-soo, a member of Slow Food’s International Council and one of AsiO Gusto’s main organizers.
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AsiO Gusto (the capital “O” stands for Oceania) took over a large, modern youth sports center on the outskirts of Namyangju, a city southwest of Seoul that is home to the world’s first organic agriculture museum. Three vast tents pitched on pristine artificial turf pitches formed the nucleus of the show. Each pavilion had a subject: South Korea’s featured more than 100 Korean products, including fermented, eco-friendly and local foods. The International Pavilion focused on foods from 32 Asian and Oceanic countries, including marvelous dried fruits from Afghanistan; Rimbàs black pepper from Malaysia; Palestinian olive oil; Nagasaki yuko vinegar from Japan; Indonesian coconut sugar; Tibetan plateau cheese; heirloom rice from the Philippines; raisins from Iran; Georgian wine and taro and yam from New Caledonia. It also housed six international restaurants and a taste workshop. The “Theme” Pavilion showcased some of Slow Food’s most important projects — the Ark of Taste, Presidium seeds and A 1,000 Gardens in Africa — as well as South Korean temple food and local Slow Food educational activities.
Outside, a large, lively area was given over to street-food stalls from South Korea and beyond: vendors cooked everything from barbecued pork and griddled mung-bean pancakes — made from freshly stone-ground soaked beans — to ash-roasted soya beans and Indian naan breads baked on the spot for thousands of visitors exploring the festival’s “streets.”
An organic vegetable garden was grown on the site, with neat rows of rice, amaranth, squashes and beans on display for the thousands of schoolchildren who visited the fair to learn from. They were also encouraged to enter a walk-in beehive — though not before they’d been covered from head to toe in protective netting; their anxious mothers waited outside until they re-emerged, sting-free. A jovial South Korean farmer made narrow baskets for holding hen’s eggs from rice straw, and used his docile brown cow to give children rides on a converted plow.
Elsewhere, in a gym-turned-hall, visitors attended authoritative conferences on the culture of fermented food, animal welfare and food justice; or witnessed the Korean tea ceremony enacted like a synchronized dance by seven beautifully groomed women in long, traditional dresses, accompanied by their distinctive songs. Music is ever-present in South Korea, from the national passion for karaoke to the lively displays put on during the festival by entertainers from the South Korean armed forces who sang everything from pop to opera and even performed magic tricks on the baseball field where families picnicked and rested in the shade of gazebos.
Buddhist monks’ temple cuisine
One of the most fascinating Korean stands was dedicated to the temple cuisine of the country’s Buddhist monks. Under the discerning eye of the Venerable Dae Ahn, this display showed the remarkable diversity of natural foods — cultivated and wild — the monks eat during the year. Their diet is meat, fish and dairy free, and also avoids foods from the onion family (they’re considered too “hot”). Yet the range of fresh and fermented foods the monks enjoy is impressive.
“In our Buddhist practice, we learn how to cultivate and cook our food,” says Dae Ahn, who also runs the Balwoo temple food restaurant in Seoul. “It’s a central part of our daily lives and is connected to our philosophy of harmony and patience. After all, nothing could be slower than the fermented foods — some of them aged for up to 20 years — that we use to complement our fresh, seasonal ingredients.” The monks also make use of hundreds of wild foods, including pine needles, lotus root, burdock, mushrooms, ginko nuts and acorn jelly. “Our lives, livelihoods and the entire universe change according to what we eat,” she says.
Fermented foods still integral to Korean cuisine
Fermented food is a staple of Korean cuisine and was at the festival in all its guises. Fermented ingredients range from soy sauces to bean and chili pastes (doenjang and gochujang) and kimchi. Best-known as a fermented cabbage dish enlivened with ginger, chili and garlic, kimchi can be made from dozens of vegetables and plants. Traditionally, each farm or household stored its fermenting foods outdoors in large, dark brown ceramic jars. Many still do. Kimchi is served at every Korean meal as a side dish and digestive aid. Fermentation was an important way to preserve perishable ingredients in pre-refrigeration times. These foods are still key elements of the country’s rich food culture.
As with all Slow Food events, the message goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of food to learning about its myriad cultures and sources, and to defending our right to food that is good, clean and fair, as Carlo Petrini, the movement’s founder, maintains. For a first-time visitor to South Korea, AsiO Gusto offered a stimulating chance to experience Korea’s complex, delicious foods and to feel closer to the many heroic artisan food producers from Asia and Oceania who attended it. For anyone interested in attending, the next AsiO Gusto is already being planned for 2015.
Top photo: A young girl studies the Buddhist temple food display at AsiO Gusto. Credit: Carla Capalbo