From street snacks to museums, Koreans exhibit characteristic humor about the basics | Food column by Mary Lee Vance (Spring 2022 issue)
There’s nothing like being in Korea to desensitize you to poop-related topics. The desensitizing was never necessary for me, however. I am a disabled person, a post-polio survivor, and someone who is professionally connected to ensuring locations and events are accessible for disabled participants. Therefore, I have seen more than my fair share of toilets, for both men and women.
As a well-travelled person, I also have memories of more than my fair share of unique toilet stories and experiences. I used the primitive squat toilets, outhouses, and dirt holes in the ground. I have also sat in contraptions that look like Captain Kirk’s chair, with a gazillion options to spritz water, spray perfume, blow hot air and do other things like play music so no one outside the bathroom can hear the noises you might be making while doing your business. I have developed a fascination for toilets. More importantly, my career has been focused on equal access to toilets and other essential facilities for human beings.
It is hard to believe that in my past trips to South Korea, I somehow missed the now-famous poop emoji, and failed to notice the good-natured South Korean approach to poop-related topics. The more I learn about Korea, the more I have delved into and appreciated some of the quirky sides of my motherland.
Instead of one of my usual more conventional Korean cuisine narratives in this space, readers this time will need to go full circle with the with the digestive system. But bear with me — it is a fun topic.
Few non-Koreans are aware that Koreans are fascinated by all things related to poop. But, for unknown reasons, they are. For example, Korean superstition apparently holds that dreaming about poo means the dreamer will get wealthy.
In the West, poop topics are generally avoided. We are all vaguely aware that if a few days have gone by without a healthy bowel movement, we feel uncomfortable. The opposite condition is also uncomfortable. Beyond that base level knowledge is a world of information that most of us don’t want to know about or talk about, but nonetheless it exists.
A trip to Poopoo Land
That’s why a trip to Poopoo Land should be on everyone’s South Korea travel itinerary. It is a three-story museum in the city of Busan that showcases items like urinals, various kinds of toilet paper, a poo-poo obstacle course and other exhibits that provide larger-than-life simulations of the digestive system and anything else related to fecal matter. Overall, it is a fun, borderline-bizarre experience and perfect for funny photos; there are areas where people can pose in front of bare butts, toilets, and of course, many varieties of poo.
This museum is a real winner for small boys and men who seem particularly attracted to anything related to passing gas, a theme that Poopoo Land also explores, in technicolor. This place is so popular, it is listed in official travel guides.
HQ of the toilet pioneer
Another must-see attraction is the theme park called Mr. Toilet House that, in addition to housing a wide variety of toilets, European bedpans, ancient flush toilets and other toilet and pre-toilet inventions, also provides unique poop-related history. Starting with the entrance, visitors are greeted by a huge gold turd and statues of larger-than-life-size adults and children squatting and standing in various positions for pooping or peeing.
The back story is that the museum was built by one Jae-duck Sim (now known as Mr. Toilet), who apparently started life by being born in an outdoor toilet. He later made a career in plumbing, public bathrooms and toilet sanitation. His particular interest was in improving public toilets in advance of such international events as the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 World Cup soccer championship. He founded the Korean Toilet Association and co-founded the World Toilet Association. He is also a former mayor of Suwon.
His guiding philosophy was that all humans had a right to clean and safe toilets, and that children, the disabled and elderly must be able to access and use toilets equally. This humble cause, the right to for all people to equally access toilets, is reinforced for me each time I fly into the modern Incheon International Airport. I see Sim’s cause in action in its clean, modern rest rooms. The accessible units are spacious for families with children and luggage (and in my case my mobility scooter), equipped with sturdy grab bars, accessible sinks and lots of space to navigate around. There is not only an adult-sized toilet but also a fully-functioning toilet that is lower to the floor and accessible for a child or a small adult.
As a disabled traveler with post-polio paralysis of both legs, I struggled with the squat toilets that are common in most South Korean public restrooms. But, one day an elderly woman beckoned for me to follow her as I entered a restroom and was heading to a stall with a squat toilet. She led me down the row of stalls and stopped in front of the last one, which miracle of miracles, contained a Western-style toilet. Ever since then, I do an inventory when in South Korean public restrooms and I can usually find the special stall with the Western toilet. We have Mr. Toilet’s vision to thank for this form of public toilet equity.
The Mr. Toilet House museum logically, is shaped like a toilet, and was once the site of Mr. Toilet’s home. Being the toilet-minded person that he was, Mr. Toilet made the showpiece of this museum a roomy modern bathroom, installed in the center of the ground floor, behind a full-length glass wall so that anyone using the toilet could see anyone in the adjacent room (and vice versa). Fortunately, there is also a switch that turns the glass opaque when a user needs privacy.
The Korea Record Institute identifies the museum as the largest toilet sculpture. On the grounds are various statues of people squatting or standing, preparing to poop or pee, including statues of the mascot, named Toile. A primary message of the museum is that bodily functions are to be celebrated. Along with other toilet trivia, a little-known one is that on Jeju Island, there is a pork delicacy made from poop-eating pigs.
If all this poop talk is making you hungry, there is a café called Ddo-Ong Café that serves everything with a toilet theme. Coffee is served in toilet shaped mugs, miniature plungers decorate the walls, squat toilets are placed strategically around the grounds for patrons to take selfies, and there are displays of dolls that poop and fart.
At the café, and in many places in larger cities, are food stalls that capitalize on the poop topic with poop bread, a variation of the hotteok. The hotteok, a popular traditional street food, is a raised dough with a cinnamon filling, grilled on both sides like a pancake.
Ddongbang has similar ingredients, but it is cooked inside a special mold, more like bungeopang, the fish-shaped traditional street snack. On the cold streets, the smell of these treats on the grill, often flavored with vanilla or cinnamon, is like the smell of pancakes outdoors at a camp fire — in other words, almost irresistible. Ddongbang, is (not surprisingly) shaped like a mound of poo. It may be the shape the famous poop emoji came from. It is flavored with various fillings, including melted chocolate (logical!) or the traditional sweet red bean paste with walnuts. One location for the ddongbang snack is a place called Ddongah Hotteok in Insadong, but vendors can be found at tourist attractions, bus stops, car rest stops and underground subway shopping areas.
As a hair-raising aside, there is a little-known Korean product, actually a traditional medicine, that is made using human poo. The poo apparently has to come from a child between age four and seven (considered the optimal age for pure poo, who knew?). The poo is then mixed with water, rice, and yeast and fermented. It is known as ttongsul, Korean wine with child feces, and is traditionally used for lower back pain, broken bones and other ailments. It is seldom used any more; most younger Koreans have never heard of the product.
Of course, all kinds of fecal matter, human and animal, is used as fertilizer for the food we eat, then poop out again; that is one of the basics of traditional, sustainable farming. The full circle of food includes how plants need composted plant and animal waste to live; and how animals need plant products to live. Koreans just have more light-hearted frankness about the subject than Westerners do.
Making poop bread at home
To make an authentic poop bread requires a poop-shaped iron (this would take some online research and ordering). However, ordinary stuffed snack breads only require some kind of a bubble iron. Although I searched in vain for a poop bread recipe, my research indicates that a close variation in terms of ingredients would be Korean walnut-shaped treats stuffed with sweet red bean paste and chopped walnuts and then baked in an iron mold. In Korea, this bite-sized snack is shaped like a walnut shell and called hodo or hodo kwaja.
This recipe is geared to the cook times for very small snacks. When using a larger mold, a longer and slower cook time per side is needed.
Walnut bread street snack (hodo kwaja)
1 C plain flour, sifted
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 C.water or milk
3 T. castor sugar (raw)
1 T. melted butter
1 egg Filling
1 can (or package) sweetened red bean paste. Use about 1/2 t. per pastry for a small mold, up to 2 t. for a larger mold.
15 walnuts, shelled and broken into into smaller pieces to fit into the mold
1 T. melted butter or neutral tasting oil for cooking
1. Combine all batter ingredients in a medium-size bowl and mix well. Transfer the mixture into a container with a spout for easy pouring.
2. Preheat a walnut cake mold (or round bubble mold) over low heat. Quickly brush both sides of the pan with some melted butter or cooking oil.
3. Pour the batter mixture onto the mold, covering about 60 percent of the pan. Add the red bean paste and walnuts then add more batter mixture on top to cover the walnut filling. Do not overfill. Batter can drip onto the burner and immediately burn, creating a cleaning hassle. After cooking side one, turn the mold, and increase heat to medium-low to cook side two.
4. Check pastry for doneness, cooking both sides of the mold until the pastry turns golden brown (about four minutes per side for a small mold, longer for a larger mold). Remove the pastry from the mold and cool down briefly on a rack. Trim the edges of each pastry with scissors to make the edges even.
5. Repeat the steps 2 to 4 until batter is gone. Serve while still warm or at room temperature within 24 hours.
Food diva and former Wisconsinite Mary Lee Vance has expanded her R and D on multicultural fare and has conducted secret Spam experiments from an undisclosed Sacramento, California location where she lives and throws virtual dinner parties.