Friday, July 25, 2014

Eating on a Train

Dear Korean,

Why do Korean eat hard boiled eggs in trains? Every time I took a train with my Korean wife, she always says that we should eat hard boiled eggs. But why? What is it with trains and hard boiled eggs?

Damien G.

Boiled eggs on a train is a tradition of sorts. Korea operated its first train line in 1899, and train has been the dominant mode of long distance travel in Korea all the way until the late 1970s. Trains are extremely popular even today, as the high-speed KTX (traveling at 190 mph) covers Seoul-Busan under three hours. 

Riding a certain mode of transportation for a century would inevitably engender some associated habits. In case of a train, the habit is to have boiled eggs and a soda--either cola or lemon-lime (known in Korea as 사이다 [saida]). Why boiled eggs? Why not? Especially when one considers the early days of train travel, boiled eggs make perfect sense as a snack on a moving train. They are delicious, filling, portable and not overly odorous. Plus, eggs come in their own casing. They are a far sight better than those black protein blocks that certain other train passengers eat.

Re-enactment of a snack vendor on a steam engine train. Boiled eggs are wrapped in red mesh sacks.
Near Seomjin-gang River, a restored steam engine train running on old tracks,
with old school trappings, is now a tourist attraction.
To be sure, boiled eggs are hardly the only popular snacks on a train trip. Gimbab [김밥], a rice roll, is a perennial favorite picnic food and also very popular on a train.

There are other associations of travel and food. The rest stops on Korea's freeways tend to (but does not always) have a uniform look, and the menus tend to be standardized as well. The mainstays of freeway rest stops are udon noodles, "hot bar" (fried fish cake on a stick,) and the walnut cookies (a bite-sized, walnut shaped pastry with sweet red bean filling and bits of walnut.) The rest stops that travel eastward from Seoul to the mountainous Gangwon-do Province also tend to serve pan-fried fingerling potatoes, as Gangwon-do is known for its delicious, chewy potatoes.

When TK took his first long road trip in the U.S.--from Los Angeles to Grand Canyon--he was incredibly disappointed at the West Coast freeway rest stops, which are nothing more than a bathroom in the desert flanked by a few dingy vending machines. The East Coast rest stops are marginally better, but they don't serve udon noodles. Pity, because rest stop udon is fantastic.

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  1. The dried squid on the KTX is a favorite for me. The gayogeum pre-stop alert is nice. Quaint touches that make the Seoul Busan ride enjoyable and the price of the ride- $50, unbeatable. The high speed train is advertised as going 190, I'm pretty sure it hardly reaches that speed having multiple stops. What Korean really needs to kick the railway into another level is Busan to Pyeongyang.

    The development of the Korean rest stop pretty much traces Korea's economic development. None of them in the 70s. A dingy, little convenience store in the 80s, 90s. Now they are event stops, something to look forward to. Really amazing. Great for the goods, people watching, and the people swarm effect. The American rest stop pretty much mirrors America the last 50 years. Which is to say, minimally functional, vacuous, and unchanging

  2. I suppose as a former resident of the American northeast this kinda surprised me. Any rest stops I've been at, on 91, 90, US 1 or a host of other smaller highways have been very accommodating with fully stocked mini-marts, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subway, and a few other restaurants operating in a communal food court. Of course gasoline, tire air, car vacuums, and amply large restrooms are also available. I thought this stuff was standard fare in all but the least populated states.

    I have traveled many more highways and roads in Korea than I have in America. While there certainly are some modern first rate establishments (I find Korean tourist traps to be far more entertaining than what I might find stateside). Many places that I find myself at while on the road in Korea are dingy little shacks that only sell an assortment of sweets, eggs, and dried squid. Some oddball convenience items, but that is pretty much it. Sure enough motoring around Gangwon-do is a better experience as all of Seoul seems to trek here for the weekend. Can't say I've ever been blown away by the roadside convenience though. Then again, all of my travel is by motorcycle and this is illegal on most all of Korea's expressways plus a few others. So it is quite possible that I don't get to enjoy the better facilities due to this.

  3. How can you claim to be a credible food critic with such a high horse treatment towards what you deem as inauthentic Korean food (even when made in Korea, by Koreans, for Koreans), yet claim that rest stop Udon is fantastic?!??!???!!?

    I tend to agree with you on most things, my man, but your narrow criteria for what is Korean food (and other ethnic cuisines from what I gather from previous conversations we've had) is incongruent with your assessment of (in this case) udon, which frankly I have yet to taste a good example of in Korea. Train station Udon in Japan is the very MINIMUM acceptable for what is considered "good" udon, and rest stop udon in Korea is several steps below that.

  4. I thought it means something else. In some country side/provinces in Philippines, whenever I ride a bus (even in the major cities) there are street vendors that sells hard-boiled quail eggs or eggs, but I myself picked up a habit of taking atleast an egg with me when I used to visit my Dad in his provincial home (5-6 hrs, bus ride away from the city). I won't say it's what I saw in Korean films but bcos a hard-boiled egg a cheapest and easier food you can take whenever you go and an egg or two equals a meal in a day, though, I learned not to eat every yolk part -- it's not good for cholesterol.


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