Although it seems a bit of a cop-out to move to a completely different country/culture and still eat the kinds of food you’re used to, I now have a new way of looking at this. Just because you order a pizza doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not trying Korean food. In fact, I think that seeing the Korean take on foods we’re used to eating can be almost as interesting (if not more so!) as trying the traditional Korean foods.
Although the cuisine here is completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced before, I hadn’t realised that even foods that are familiar to me would be so different! Pizza jumps out as the most fun one yet.
First of all, you’ve got to remember that you’re not ordering “pizza”, you’re ordering “pija”. It’s still spelt the same way, but the Korean language doesn’t have a “z” sound, so most of them find it difficult to say something like “pizza”. Pija it is!
And the most popular pizza topping in Korea?
Potato. Yes, potato. That’s slices of boiled or roast potato, or big dollops of mashed potato, or wedges of sweet potato. Crusts stuffed with sweet potato paste (bloomin’ amazin’, BTW). Other toppings include nachos and tortilla chips. Then there are all sorts of interesting seafood toppings, of course, and you’ve also got to factor in the “hot” equation. I am a fan of spicy food. When there’s an option – mild, hot, very hot – I’ll generally opt for “very hot”. Please note: do not do this in Korea!! I have quickly learned that food in general here tends to translate to what we would categorise as spicy food. This means that what we would probably label “hot” or even “very hot” would here be called “mild” or (most likely) have no such label at all. So be warned that if your packet of ramen or sauce or soup or whatever actually goes to the trouble of saying “hot!” on the front, it really means that. Like, really really. The sort of “hot” that makes your eyes sting and your nose run and your tongue sizzle when you pour cold water on it.
In other words, assume that your Korean pizza will be spicy. Do not ask for it to be extra hot like you would at home unless it’s some kind of dare, or you’ve tried that pizza before and know for a fact that it’s not already smothered in crazy pepper sauces.
So, different pronunciation, different toppings, different levels of spiciness. Oh, and not only those, but also your pizza can’t be eaten on its own. That just wouldn’t be Korean! Meal times in this country always involve a table spread with lots of dishes, and even takeaway pizza has to have banchan. You won’t be given a pizza without a side of pickles (which I would never have thought of, but it’s a surprisingly good combination!), some hot sauce, and another sauce of some kind (sometimes garlic, sometimes cheese).
And here’s the final twist: they tie your pizza box with a ribbon and present it to you like a gift, bowing politely to you as you accept your prize. This is my favourite difference. Really, you feel pretty special and excited as you walk home with your giftwrapped pizza!