Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Korean spa noodles

Los Angeles has one of the largest concentrations of Koreans after Seoul, according to a friend, a Seoul-native, who agreed to take me to her favorite spa. I've always loved Japanese onsen but Korean-style baths was a first for me so I decided to do the whole package, including the famed "skin-flaking" massage.

Upon arrival we changed into robes and entered the women's bathing area. There were three pools: warm, cold and ice-cold. I did not see anyone placidly soaking in the water with a towel perched on top of their head, as one does in Japan. Instead people quickly dunked themselves after a spell in one of the searing hot saunas, steam or dry, to tonifying effect.

When it was time for a massage, a woman wearing black lace panties and a bra instructed me to lie down on a table. She splashed water all over me and then began vigorously scrub every inch of my skin. Then she began to knead me like dough, expertly pulling, punching, pummeling flesh. Suddenly she nudged under me a rolled up towel, hot as a steaming bun. Relief came in the form of half-frozen cucumber slices rapidly laid across my face.

Our skins glowing and smooth as peaches, we moved to the common area for men and women. There were three darkened rooms for resting: jade (extremely hot) ice (extremely cold) and clay. We chose clay and lay down on mats near a soft, slow fire. We slept for some time and then, drenched in sweat, came out to a wooden-floored area with low tables. By this time I was dreaming of a bowl of shaved ice. However, what my friend ordered for us was a giant plate of cold noodles heaped high with a mountain of bitter greens.

The muk noodles, made from acorn, resembled Japanese soba in appearance and presentation only much chewier in texture (though not as chewy as the buckwheat naeyn myun which actually require scissors to cut.) Soba is ephemeral; it breaks easily and should be slurped down with nonchalance. Truly good soba is best appreciated plain, without sauce, to get the delicate buckwheat fragrance. Muk noodles, on the other hand, held its own against the strong and spicy dressing, which seemd to blow away our hotness.

As we sat chewing away on noodles I reflected on Japanese and Korean food and bath, which seem so similar yet are so different. While it's always risky to make generalizations about national character, I can't help feeling there's a thread of vigour and tenacity running through Korean culture, and a propensity for contrasts and extremes, that is altogether quite lacking in Japanese.


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