South Korea is a country with a calendar year jam packed with small festivals, celebrations and special days. Teacher’s Day, Children’s Day, Valentines Day, White Day, Love Day, Peppero Day — the list goes on and on (and on and on — seriously, there are an aggressive amount of festivals).
I lived in the country teaching English for 13 months, and after awhile it was easy to tell when a major holiday was coming by the ten-kilogram cartons of grapes, packages of pears and massive jars of kimchi that took over sections of grocery stores and entire corner markets. Gift packs of ramen, crackers, Soju, lotions and shampoos filled the aisles in preparation for the coming celebrations.
Constantly surrounded by these foreign holidays, my roommate Michelle and I, feeling nostalgic for our own traditions, decided to bring a bit of home to South Korea and take on the challenge of hosting Thanksgiving dinner for our foreign colleagues.
A feat even with a fully stocked North American kitchen and grocery store at your disposal, being in South Korea brought a unique set of challenges to this holiday.
Cooking a turkey was out of the question because none of us had an oven in our apartment (this is a thing in South Korea — most people don't use ovens), so we had to settle on some precooked chickens from the grocery store as our main dish.
It was easy enough to find the vegetables that we would need, and after spending a few painstaking hours combing the foreign markets in Seoul, we managed to track down an ancient looking package of gravy mix and some boxed stove-top stuffing.
It wasn’t until we stumbled upon a lone can of pumpkin pie filling — hidden in a dark, cramped corner of the underground Hanam foreign market in Itaewon (a neighbourhood in Seoul) — that the thought of cooking dessert had even crossed our minds. The sheer luck of finding that can led us to believe that it was our destiny to make pumpkin pie (even though, as you will recall, we didn’t have access to an oven), be heroes to our friends, and host the BEST Thanksgiving dinner made in a foreign country EVER.
You might ask why we didn’t just buy a pie.
The short answer: South Koreans do not eat pie.
The long answer: while there were bakeries in the country, when I lived there, they didn’t make conventional items that would be found in bakeries in the western world. They were full of sickly sweet breads, hard flat pastries, fluffy pink cakes and mystery buns with red or black bean paste concealed inside them (I bit into what I thought was a chocolate croissant one morning to find that I was terribly, terribly wrong). I had never seen anything even resembling a donut, a cupcake or a gooey chocolate chip cookie, let alone something as radical as a pumpkin pie in a bakery. This lack of interest in North American-style baked goods — and the lack of ovens in standard apartment kitchens — also meant there was no baking aisle well stocked with flour, spices, sugar and other ingredients that would be found in the standard grocery store at home.
Acknowledging all that was against us, we did the only logical thing that we could think of — called my mom. Since it was the middle of the night for her, it took me a few minutes to get her to understand that I wasn’t waking her up because of an emergency — I just needed some help making piecrust.
After she stopped laughing, she managed to find and read me a recipe which I scribbled down on the back of a receipt I found in my wallet, and handed off to Michelle who plunged down the small aisles of the foreign market desperately hoping that we would be able to find everything on the list. Luck was on our side, because after a thorough search we managed to find everything but condensed milk, which we discovered was easy enough to supplement by throwing regular milk, sugar, butter and water into a pan (thank you Google).
As we rode the subway home, trying to balance our ingredients haphazardly on our laps, we realized we had to face the elephant in the room and try to figure out how we were going to bake the pie.
After throwing out ridiculous ideas like making an oven out of a box (clearly a fire hazard) or cooking it on a small BBQ (just a bad idea thrown out in desperation), we decided to try and put ourselves in the hands of one of our local bakeries and their industrial sized ovens.
Once we got back to our apartment, we set our plan in action by calling Wendy — one of the Korean teachers we worked with who had offered us her services as a translator. We were hoping to have her explain our situation — over the phone in Korean — to the people working at our local bakery and then have her ask them if they would be willing to bake the pie for us in one of their ovens.
Like my mom, Wendy laughed for a few minutes and thought we were nuts, but agreed to help us.
Early the next morning, after prepping the pie, we carried it carefully to the closest bakery. Luckily the store’s owner happened to be working and once we had Wendy on the phone, we handed it over to him. After a few tense moments, he laughed and nodded at us, handing back the phone and Wendy confirmed what we had already guessed — he had agreed to help us out! Elated, Michelle and I left our pie in his hands and ran home to start preparing the rest of the meal.
After a long day of non-stop chopping, mixing and cooking, I left to pick up the pie about an hour before our friends arrived.
The minute I walked in the door of the bakery and saw the owner’s nervous face, I knew that something was wrong.
He slowly opened the lid of the white square box that had been sitting on the counter in front of him, and pointed inside at a lumpy mess, shaped sort of like a pie. Not even thinking that it needed to be explained, we hadn’t told him not to take the pie out of the pan when it was done baking. He — of course — had, and as a result the pie had completely fallen apart. Seeing how badly he felt and not wanting to make him feel worse, I gave him my biggest smile, bowed and thanked him warmly a few times before I left with my sad lump of pie.
We recounted our saga, amidst tears and laughter, while serving our sorry looking pie crumble to our surprised friends. When I finally sat down and took a bite of it myself, I was shocked to find that — despite its appearance — it was (and still is to this day) by far the best pumpkin pie that I had ever tasted.