Notes from the Field

Aspects of Market and Culinary Variation

Written by Terry Stocker

Dr Terry Stocker

What will we eat in the future? Certain food issues are preeminent as the world’s population increases. The following is a microcosm of some culinary habits and change in Mexico and South Korea.

This brief ethnographic account of culinary variation needs a timeline. My first anthropological experience was in Mexico, 1970. And going to Mexico on-and-off for 45 years, I have written on certain food topics, for example, “Wild Growing Plant Utilization by the Otomi Indians” (Stocker 1986).

In 1970, Mexico’s wages were double South Korea’s, but today it is just the opposite. My first entry into South Korea was in 1994, spending 13 years in their education system, and my 1997-American Anthropological Association (AAA) Meeting paper was “Dramatic Dietary Change in South Korea.”

Following up on the theme of culinary variation and change, I am trying to project 45 years into the future, based on 45 years in the past. Hopefully, the photos (and text) provided here will prove valuable for others in seeing and explaining certain changes through 2060.

If one visits markets in either South Korea or Mexico, one will often see older women selling food items in the streets, outside the boundaries of actual market buildings. While appearing the same, they are fundamentally different, and the differences are very telling about not just food regimes but semiotic indicators of the entire society.

Still, both sets of women have one commonality, and that is adding variation to their countries’ diets. For example, the Mexican women sell squash blossoms and turkey eggs that are not available in grocery stores or markets.

A Mexican woman arranging squash blossoms for sale. Behind her in the bucket are some squash. Her daughter accompanies her. 


A Mexican woman with several items, including turkey eggs and nopal (cactus) leaves, the latter being consumed in great quantities throughout central Mexico.


The Korean women likewise sell items not available in markets or grocery stores, such as peeled sweet potato stems and peeled taro stems.

A woman peeling sweet potato stems.


Two women peel toran (taro) stems, which will all be used as a side dish in the restaurant behind them. Korea is a nation of much street activity.

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A basic difference is that the Mexican women (in central Mexico) are mainly poorer peasants who gather wild foods from around their homes, including about 12 species of insects and about 15 types of cacti produce: flowers, fruits and leaves. The Korean women are mainly middle class and grow most of their food items, but do gather some wild items, like springtime mountain ferns.

Understanding the Korean system requires two background facts. First, South Korea is a small country, the size of Portugal, with 50 million people (Portugal has 10 million). Being very mountainous, South Korea has only about 30 percent arable land, so any and all edible resources were and are utilized by Koreans. In fact, Koreans still collect and process acorns into a gelatin (muk) sold mainly by the old women. Also, because of limited space, old people use the roofs of buildings for growing gourds and pumpkins.

In an absence of space, people grow pumpkins on their roofs.


Second, as South Korea went from being an agrarian society, only 40 years ago, to an urban electronic powerhouse, people moved to cities. Sometimes the older people live with their children; or the children buy the parents a separate house. In either case, the older people continue to farm wherever there is any open space, no matter how small, including public right-of-ways, (the latter being illegal in many countries.) The Korean system does not work without urban gardens (and men do help with much of the gardening).

A sweet potato harvest on a “large” (triangular) urban lot.


Obviously, not all garden-produce ends up at market; much of it is for personal consumption. Also, no woman can raise enough produce to supply her needs; so she must purchase from other urban gardeners.

Korean cuisine, and the old women’s contribution to it, cannot be understood without “the side dish.” Traditionally, Koreans eat rice and a soup with every meal. In the middle of the dining table are four to eight small dishes (4” in diameter) containing certain vegetables; for example, the root doraji fried in sesame oil (but served at room temperature). These days, for cost effectiveness, restaurants serve side dishes of inexpensive foods, such as sweet potato stems.

The first woman is cleaning the root doraji (a bellflower). It will be cut into small length-wise slivers and fried in sesame oil with garlic and served as a side dish at room temperature.


Semiotics: if we simply look at the photos here, we see the Mexican ladies sometimes accompanied by their daughters. This is never the case in South Korea, because as a Confucian society a very major emphasis is placed on education, and no Korean woman wants her daughter to be a street vendor. The difference in attitude toward education is what permitted South Korea to rise above Mexico in GNP (since 1970). So, the future of the Korean system is doomed simply because the daughters will not replace the mothers, in farming or selling. This means that within three decades, Koreans will not be eating sweet potato stems, which they have for hundreds of years, because peeling away the outer, bitter skin is labor intensive.

Today, in fact, certain foods, which are still consumed in South Korea’s rural setting, are not even known to most of present-day Korean urban youth. For example, much of the older generation has eaten toran (taro), but many of South Korea’s youth have never eaten it, don’t know what it is, and don’t know that it even grows in South Korea.

A woman is pealing a toran (taro) tuber. Some peeled ones are in a bag ready for sale (center front red tub), and some are unpeeled in the blue tub.


At one plant exhibition, I interviewed a mother and daughter by a large leafed toran (taro).

A mother and daughter frame the large leafed toran (taro), which the daughter has seen for the first time, despite it growing in gardens near her home.


The mother had eaten the tuber with extended family members when young, but the daughter has never eaten it, because the mother never cooks it, instead preparing non-traditional items like spaghetti. At the plant exhibition, the daughter “saw” the plant, for the first time despite the fact that it grows in certain urban gardens near her home, and despite having a two-year degree in food science, and having worked as a cook for five years.

Indeed, South Korea’s traditional food variation is being replaced by a newer one; provided by the likes of COSTCO, with its frozen pizzas, European cheeses, and candies from around the world. Mentioned previously, in 1997, I presented an AAA paper, “Dramatic Dietary Change in South Korea,” and central to that paper was the fact that when I arrived (1994) to live, for three years, in one of South Korea’s most rural cities, Naju, there were no fast food restaurants, but upon departure in 1997, 17 dotted the landscape. I was fortunate to have seen and tasted the old Korea, which no longer exists anywhere in South Korea.

One aspect of the transition from rural to urban in South Korea is the gingko tree. The gingko seed is edible (and for me delicious) and a bit expensive. Cities throughout South Korea line their streets with gingko trees, and these provide a source of income for the very poorest of women who go about to gather and sell the seeds.

Unhang (ginkgo) trees along a street of Daejon, a city of 2 million. (The bouquet arrangements on the far street corner are decorative bouquets that friends send to someone opening a new business.)


In Mexico, a different process occurred. Today, Mexico’s middle class continues to rise while shedding status-conscious convictions of foods once thought to be low-class, and now some prices, for items the old women sell, tend toward exorbitant. So these days, the “poor” Indians cannot afford to eat their traditional foods but sell them for necessary cash.

For example, escamoles are an ant larvae (of Liometopum apiculaturm) collected and sold for about 20 days in March. Only a few individuals (mostly husbands of the old ladies selling the eggs) know where those “special” ants live on the desert landscape (with that information being closely guarded).

I ate an abundance of escamoles over the years; but in the last decade, I have rarely eaten them because they are now too expensive. About the year 2000, some entrepreneurial spirit in Mexico City began to advertise them as “the Caviar of Mexico,” and tourists who could afford caviar began the process of price escalation. (So, as one might imagine, certain food companies are now trying to increase the number of those ant colonies.)

As a result, local populations (where I live, around Tula, Hidalgo) no longer eat escamoles as a separate dish by themselves, but they are sparingly mixed in omelets. The main difference between how escamoles are eaten locally and in Mexico City “as caviar” is: fresh and frozen.

The Mexican system will continue, as daughters replace their aging mothers, but items go thought fluctuations as the women hunt out certain breeding population of certain insects and fruits, and have to wait for cyclical regrowth, or find new areas.

Visually, pumpkins grown on Korean roofs will disappear in 40 years. Likewise, will older women using bicycles for transportation, including transporting goods to and from market. Mexicans are amazed when I show them photos of older Korean women, and men, riding bicycles.

A woman returns from market with an empty crate. Older women on bikes is a phenomenon throughout rural Korea but is absent in the larger cities.


Hopefully, the information and visuals provided in this short note will also be of value to those researching food statistics. A complete inventory of foods in both market systems will be necessary to adequately understand culinary change. Likewise, we need to understand food preferences; for example, why do Mexicans eat delicious squash blossoms and Koreans don’t.

And finally, I have never inquired, on such a private matter; but estimating, the Mexican women make more money than the South Korean women, when factoring in the cost of living, which is a ratio of five to one, South Korea being much more expensive. Also, the profit margin is higher for Mexican women, who can obtain their items for free, such as escamoles (ant eggs). And as mentioned previously, the Korean women are in the position of reselling much of their produce, substantially reducing profit margin. The Korean woman’s work is nearly for a love of labor.

About the Author

The author helping to harvest a black sesame seed that will be ground into sesame oil (2014, August).


Terry Stocker, who now splits his time between Mexico and Korea, received his doctorate from the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana in 1983. He has had a long-standing interest in foods and food resources. His 1979 excavations in Peru were reported in “Peru’s Pre-ceramic Menu” (Field Museum Bulletin 1983). His 2012 Kindle book, Food Wars: Should we eat dog, horse, whale, discusses fifty-two different animals humans eat.


Stocker, Terry 1986. “Wild Growing Plant Utilization by the Otomi Indians” Mexicon 8: 69-72.

Stocker, Terry 1997. “Dramatic Dietary Change in South Korea”, paper presented at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Meeting

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About the author

Terry Stocker


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