The red bean paste popsicle convinced me. Koreans do not understand dessert. I'll admit that they've got a solid grasp on sweet red bean paste. The popsicle had that authentic refried beans mouthfeel, with whole beans thrown in for contrast. It was frozen on a stick and described by several highly educated people as "ice cream."
And I thought, something is very wrong here.
Sam, who's generally way ahead of me, came to this conclusion a few days ago over dinner with friends. After cramming us full of barbecue, they ordered dessert. What arrived at the table was a bowl of noodles in iced vinegar broth. Sam suggested that, stricitly speaking, this did not constitute a dessert. I held out because A) we weren't paying and B) the noodles were delicious.
How did we make it this long without recognizing the gulf between the American and Korean dessert mindset? Well, mostly because Korea HAS desserts. It has cakes and cookies. Chocopies. Ice cream. Heck, there are three Baskin Robbins in Chungju alone. And how about those twinkies? It's not as though we've been hurting for sweets.
But it turns out we've been eating them wrong. The appropriate time for sweets is midafternoon. Midmorning's ok too. Remember how fried chicken isn't a meal? Well, cakes aren't dessert. They're gan shik, or "snacks." It is appropriate to stuff yourself on choco pies at any time of day, including 8 am, so long as you haven't just finished a meal.
The post meal treat in Korea is fruit. Sometimes, it's just tea. Or fruit in tea. Or iced noodles. It's always modest and healthy, and utterly unlike the gooey delights that my brain conjures at the word "dessert." But it's a brilliant scheme: eat only sensible, low-calorie meals of steamed vegetables and rice, and cram the pizza, ice cream, and cakes into guilt-free snack times. It doesn't actually explain the slim Korean waistline, but it seems to work for them. It certainly works for me. Which probably explains my waistline.