It was love that first hooked me on Korean cuisine--a music school romance with a flamboyant fellow pianist named Jin-Ho. We were besotted by each other's melancholic, wintry cultures. He played wistful Russian tunes and gulped vodka with a Slavic abandon; my mimicry of Seoul's guttural slang was impressive enough to get me free meals at local Korean restaurants, a talent I abused shamelessly.
That love ended. But I couldn't kick the food habit.
Whenever I returned from a Korean meal--my mouth ablaze with chiles and garlic--I'd feel high on the brazen juxtapositions of spicy, pungent and sweet; on the molten, rust-colored soups trailed by a parade of pickles; on the charred caramel scent of barbecued beef. And for years I'd fantasize about taking a trip to South Korea, intrigued as much by the food as by insiders' reports of a turbocharged street scene, an exotic indigenous culture and a population as style-obsessed as Zsa Zsa Gabor.