The first time I ate in a restaurant in Korea was an interesting experience, and one that set me up for the next few months of what can only be described as blind dining. It was my first night in Seoul and I had just arrived in the city following a fourteen hour journey from Dublin. I’d already slept a little, so my new co-workers led me across the street from my new school for dinner.
It was a regular Wednesday night and as far as I could tell no one was in the mood for introducing me to anything particularly notorious. We crossed the street as they discussed different options, when they eventually decided on what was described as a little Japanese place.
Inside, we took the lift to the fifth floor and walked into a relatively busy eatery and took our seats at a table next to the window, but I can’t imagine it was for the view. Menus were passed around and I looked down on what I now know is simply Japanese style donkas, which is a sliced breaded pork cutlet and assorted side dishes, as opposed to the Korean style which is a larger breaded port cutlet served on a big plate with oddly chosen sides and drowned in sweet brown gravy of origins unknown.
A discussion developed between the restaurant owner and my co-workers as to whether or not any of the dishes included chicken, as one of them didn’t eat meat except for chicken. They proceeded to ask “chee-ken, chee-ken” to the man.
Now while they could have mentioned 닭고기, I wouldn’t have known any better. It was this repeated chee-ken that caught my attention. I was baffled by how anyone could not know what the Korean for chicken was after spending over a year in the country. Little did I know that after six months in the country the only animal meat I could be certain of would be samgyubsal.
While the first weekend kind of happened and it’s a wonder I even remember it, it didn’t take long for any excitement of arriving in Korea to wear off, and I began finding out how to live in the city. One of my first steps was to visit the supermarket. When I walked into the small one around the corner from my apartment I began to cautiously inspect the contents of the shelves.
From a distance they looked unsurprising. There were plenty of vegetables I recognised, although I had no idea how much they actually cost, there were eggs, fruit, and there was a busy butcher’s counter. I soon found aisles full of jars and bottles of sauces and some recognisable condiments, and what seemed to be an entire section devoted to instant coffee and tea, which was impressive for such a small supermarket. Then I found breakfast cereal, noodles, drinks, beer, toilet roll, and toothpaste. It all looked quite normal. I was relieved.
Returning to the fresh food I picked up some interesting looking mushrooms which were cheap, broccoli, peppers, and probably some onions and eggs. Then I went to the meat counter and had a look. My eyes lit up at the sight of stacks and stacks of delicious looking bacon. Here was another relief. I could hardly go hungry in Korea with rashers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right? I asked for a several hundred grams worth, then paid and went home to cook.
After chopping up some of the vegetables, I lit the stove and threw them all in along with the previously discussed bacon. After allowing it to fry away for fifteen minutes or so, I started to get the impression that something wasn’t right. There was very little of that familiar breakfast smell, and the meat was not really taking on a darkened cooked look, but maintained the pale just turned look.
As I sat down with my plate of vegetables and bacon my room mate entered and looked on the table.
“Are you having samgyubsal for lunch?” he asked puzzled.
“What? No, it’s bacon” I replied.
“No it’s not. You can’t buy bacon like that in the market here. That’s samgyubsal. Fatty pork that you grill for dinner and get drunk over”.
“Oh. Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine like this”.
“Maybe”, he said as he left the room.
As I took a bite I knew that I wouldn’t be finishing the pork, which was clearly not bacon, any time soon. There was literally no taste to it, and the frying had basically turned it all to rubber. It was probably one of the least enjoyable meals I would have in Korea, but a valuable lesson was learned.
I gradually became accustomed to the food in the supermarket, but in my increasing curiosity and half boredom with spending long hours at home I took an extended journey into Myeongdong in Seoul, which I’d heard was usually busy with a lot to see. After negotiating the subway for the first time without going the wrong way or getting off at the wrong station too often (not to mention getting on at the wrong station – don’t ask), I emerged in the busy central shopping district.
I didn’t have much of an agenda other than to walk around and look at stuff, which I proceeded to do. I really didn’t have much of a clue about anything I was looking at or experiencing, and just did my best to take everything in. It didn’t take long for me to feel hungry, and with that my problems started.
You see, I don’t really have any problems eating food and I never have, but what I really struggled with was picking up the courage to actually ask for something to eat. For around two hours I walked around looking in windows at restaurants, many with picture menus of course, but completely terrified by the prospect of having to pick something I didn’t have any idea what it was. My wandering began to get more and more obsessive. I stood practically paralysed looking in restaurant windows salivating at the food. A few times a person even opened the door for me but I scampered away, afraid of looking (even more) like an idiot.
As I walked around I kept passing a long stall that was selling all kinds of cooked street food. This stall is no longer there, but it had a long rectangular vat of bubbling red sauce with thick black sausage cooking away inside. I walked by a few times and most people seemed to be enjoying it. I figured that I at least could point and grunt at this and hope for the best.
The sausage itself was what really intrigued me. It reminded me of black pudding, a kind of sausage we have in Ireland which is made mostly from pigs blood but which we slice and fry until it’s crispy on the outside. I was pretty sure that this looked like black pudding, and if it wasn’t it was clearly some form of sausage, and I wasn’t wrong I suppose. I figured I’d be alright.
As the steaming orange sauce coated sausage was scooped into a paper bowl for me, the guy serving me was eyeing me cautiously. I took a little wooden skewer and handed him two thousand won. I poked my skewer into one of the sausages and the first thing I noticed that it was soft, like an over ripened tomato might be. I punctured through the skin, lifted the sausage up, shook some of the excess sauce free, and then put it into my mouth.
I was instantly bombarded on three fronts as soon as the sausage passed my lips. For starters it had a very soft and squidgy texture that was very far from the crispy, tenderness I was dreaming of. The sauce was not the tomato based one I figured would be the obvious compliment, especially considering it was red, but a sweet and spicy one. To really tie the knot and ship me off was the heat of it, and I mean the temperature, as it touched my tongue it literally scalded my entire mouth. In between the burning feeling, I was trying not to wretch from the texture and keep a normal face at the same time.
All I know is that my eyes shot open wide as I tried to battle off the pain from my burning mouth and the unpalatable texture of the sausage. The fella who handed it to me originally continued looking at me warily, and I did my best to remain normal, probably unsuccessfully. I looked around for some water to help cool my mouth but I had to buy that and I didn’t know the Korean for water, so I stood there pretending everything was normal. I ate two or three more pieces, and as soon as the man who sold it to me turned his back I turned and bolted in a panic searching for a shop to buy some water for my mouth.
I’m sure that it was theorised that the spiciness was what got me, but the spiciness was fine and I quite enjoyed it, but it was the texture and the heat which turned me off, and to this day I still can’t stomach to even look at sundae, let alone eat some.
My adventures with Korean food following this experience were often limited to escorts by Korean people or people who had an idea what they were doing. In my neighbourhood I soon discovered the local E-Mart and Costco, so I frequented them regularly. I also learned how to say kimbap (this took a few months) and started visiting a local restaurant that sold it.
My excitement reached overload when I was introduced to a former teacher of the school I worked in who took me around and showed me a few places with either English menus or picture menus, these included the local restaurant where I bought my kimbap. With lunch now costing no more than 4,000 won, I soon stopped visiting the supermarket so regularly and even found the confidence to take the bus to meet people I knew nearby to have dinner and a few (ahem) drinks. At the weekend I would go to Itaewon and fill up on burgers and other foreign delights, including oceans of beer.
Then I met the woman who my regular readers will know as Herself, and everything changed. All of a sudden I was propelled from random dishes and mediocre western food to the real culinary world of Korea. I was amazed as we went on dates that I never had to choose the restaurant as a selection had already been carefully researched and a route was prepared where we would decide on the best option. I ate soups, stews, cold dishes, spicy dishes, fusion dishes, street food, sea food, Indian, Thai, Japanese, French, Chinese, to the point that I completely forgot about my previous nightmares in eating.
I would go to restaurants and the symbols and lines and squares and circles were suddenly translated into recognisable words which could be closely associated with food I might be familiar with. We would wander down greasy alleys and step over people welding steel in the doorway and take our seats among a throng of fifty-something year olds and soon have a delicious meal plonked down in between us. It was a bizarre transition where I had suddenly gone from looking in the windows to actually sitting in the restaurant and enjoying the food provided.
Another thing that happened was that I developed an opinion on the quality and taste of the food. I was no longer a patron of the local kimbap shop or the mediocre Japanese styled restaurant (a different one, the one at the start of the story had closed down), because now when I went there I could actually taste the difference. I knew why they charged only 5,000 won for certain dishes, so I started to look further afield for better examples of the food I wanted to eat. And I was a better man because of it.
I don’t think I would be lying if Herself found a way to my heart through my stomach, as I suppose this is partly true, and my appetite has certainly been a feature of me establishing myself in her family’s hearts. Of course this isn’t the only reason I love Herself, but back in the day she really did take me by the hand and make me know and understand so much more than I didn’t beforehand. This is especially the case for Korea, and it is equally relevant to food, and most importantly Korean food. And my life is better because of this.
I read this post today on a website called Seoulistic, the post, 30 Delicious Korean Foods You’ve Never Heard Of got me thinking about my own experience with Korean food. After reading through the list I was fairly sure that there were only a few of these I hadn’t tried and I was familiar with all but one of them (which I later found out I had actually eaten several years back).