Black papers from Korea

Contributor: Chang Soon-hee

“Open your bag, please,” said a young officer standing behind the customs inspection table at John F. Kennedy airport. A pungent smell of the seashore…

Topic: cultural exchange, Food, traditions
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“Open your bag, please,” said a young officer standing behind the customs inspection table at John F. Kennedy airport. A pungent smell of the seashore of Korea blew over his face and mine when I opened my luggage.

“What are these stacks of black papers?” he asked.

photo of seaweed sheets

He must be a debutant, as most of the customs officers at the airports in the United States knew that a lot of Korean visitors bring in “gim” (pronounced kiim) or seaweed, or 海苔 nori in Japanese, along with some airtight glass jars of kimchi. The customs canine even recognizes it’s not harmful and rather seems to have been fond of the sea smell.

“It’s a dried seaweed called “gim,” I answered. “What are you going to do with whatever you call it?  That look like a bunch of carbon copy papers,” the young man is still puzzled. “We eat with boiled hot rice,” I said. The officer found it wasn’t on the list of the controlled items. “Thanks, you may close the bag.”  Fortunately, he didn’t ask me to open the kimchi jar, still the young New Yorker wasn’t impressed of the smell of Korean shoreline.

Koreans in foreign countries miss the dried seaweed and I found it’s the best gift to my grandchildren who live in New York City and usually eat hamburger or pizza for lunch. Japanese consider Korean “nori” as a precious eat as they make seaweed sushi (寿司), one of their favorite and expensive food items. While Koreans slices an A-4 paper sized gim into the size of a dollar bill for a bite with rice, Japanese slice it down to the size of a stamp and get a sniff of it.

Once Korean gim was famous among the actresses in Hollywood as it was known to contain some ingredients that glaze over women’s hair. Glossy black-haired Korean women carrying a lot of gim disembarking at Los Angeles airport might have something to do with the Hollywood rumor. Gim, however, because of its paper shape in black couldn’t have an appealing effect on American dinner tables in Beverly Hills. And it’s not fitting to go with steak, pizza or sandwiches. But it goes fine with pasta.

Gim needs seawater to grow and it must be exposed to the sunlight and air. The calm and clean sea waters around the west and south coasts of South Jeolla Province are ideal places for seaweed farming as they have a suitable range of tides that move the seaweed nets in and out of the water regularly and further ideally controlling the life cycle of the seaweed algae. The seaweed farmers say that gim reacts to the moon’s gravitational pull.

There are grocery shops just outside of the main gate Camp Humphreys and in Pyeongtaek City. You should be able to get a pack of A-4 size black papers at about $12, which would make a unique gift to your loved ones back in the states. (Please check with the military rules first)

Oh, you can’t eat gim with spoon or fork, you should use a set of chopsticks. If you haven’t accustomed with in operating the two sticks, there is an article “Chopstick culture” in this website that teaches you how to use them.

By Chang Soon-hee.  The writer had lived in Pyeongtaek town when the Camp Humphreys was called K-6. Her husband was an architect/engineer who had been employed by a U.S. firm Trans-Asia Engineers at the Yongsan base in early 1960s.