SEOUL, Korea -- October 21, 2009
Seoul. Homophonic city of dreams. And everything in Seoul ain't always what it seems. Too much, too much, too many people, too much!
At least that's how I felt when I got here, two years and two months ago. Coming from Japan, it took a long time to adjust. Perhaps differences stand out most when things are similar.
And then there is change... near the end of summer, I start to feel more comfortable. I believe this is the result of many factors: finding a pool, getting off the couch, and perhaps most of all, this:
Finding something I like to eat: Doenjang Jjigae!
Check out the double "j" -- it's the Julius Erving of Korean food.
Say it how you want to say it. I hear it like this: "Dwen-chahng Chee-gay," and have been gobbling it up like it's going out of style. See the two bowls above? There must have been some confusion with my order. First they brought the bowl in the foreground, which is smaller (though it looks bigger), and to which I reacted with fleeting disappointment, having expected a bit more. Halfway through and feeling it might in fact be just the right amount, another waitress brought the bowl in the background, which contained most of what I spooned into the smaller bowl above, and to which I reacted with animated consternation (lots of hand gestures and scrunching of the face), having accustomed myself to the smaller portion. When the second waitress saw I had finished both bowls, her face was conquered by a radiant smile. All this (plus the side dishes & rice) for 5,000 won (currently $4.20) -- which I didn't even have to pay: a generous patron at the table next to mine settled my bill on his way out while I was still eating. In Korea, hospitality is king.
As a foreigner in this land, one is often interrogated with a similar set of questions from every variety of local:
1. Where are you from?
2. What do you do here?/Why did you come here?
3. How do you like Korea?
4. What is your favorite Korean food?
To this last, I used to answer "Bi bim bap," or "Bulgogi," or "Samgeytang." Though I Iiked (and still like) all these dishes, I confess I was never really convinced any one of them was my favorite. And I never really want to eat them all the time. Enter Doenjang Jjigae. I have learned not to underestimate the importance of finding something one looks forward to eating every day.
Back in May, after a meeting at the KBC office, Kyung Hoon Lee suggested we eat dinner at "Huhsuhbang," an establishment down the block that specializes in kalbi and other meaty delicacies. We got our kalbi, and it was good. The nine side dishes and rice would have been good enough. I didn't go back right away, but the place was logged in my palate. Then during the dog days of summer, I got a craving for kalbi and headed over, alone. I ordered a big plate of meat which looked great but turned out to be okay. But they served this bean soup with tofu, red pepper, radishes and zucchini that was fantastic. A couple weeks later I went again. Again, the beef was okay. A week or two later, I came again. The beef was okay. A week or so later, I came again. Halfway through the grilled beef, I realized it had no flavor. I asked myself: why do I keep coming here? I looked around the table. No soup. I got a hold of the English-speaking waitress and asked for "bean soup":
"We don't have bean soup."
"Yes, you do -- I had it last time."
This produced a quizzical look. She ran her finger down the menu; I could find no bean soup.
I changed my strategy: "Tofu."
"Yes, one tofu soup, please."
My waitress nodded and went into the kitchen. Finally I was going to get that bean soup! I busied myself with the nine side dishes.
A few minutes later, the waitress returned with a slab of cold tofu drizzled in soy sauce, scallions and crushed red pepper sauce on a white plate. It looked good, but it wasn't bean soup.
"No, no -- tofu SOUP."
"Yes, tofu soup."
"We don't have tofu soup." She started to take the cold slab of tofu off the table. I pulled it back.
"Yes, you do -- I had it here the other day." By now other waitresses were getting involved. It's amazing how foreign languages one doesn't speak can sound.
"We don't have tofu soup here, but there are restaurants nearby that serve it. I can go get some tofu soup for you from one of the other restaurants..."
"No! You do have tofu soup! It's a soup with tofu in it? I had it here the other day."
"You had tofu soup HERE?"
"Yes." By now the manager was getting involved.
"We can make you some tofu soup. Would you like it?"
"Yes, please." My waitress looked a little exasperated. As she returned to the kitchen, I dug into the cold slab tofu. A perfect August food.
About ten minutes later, my waitress returned with an enormous bowl of what looks like a tofu-egg puree. Like mapo dofu without the meat. "Tofu soup," she announced.
"Not this -- smaller ... spicy ... with vegetables ... and chunks of tofu..."
"Tofu blocks ... pieces ... not mashed ... dark soup liquid ..."
"Y-Yeah, I think--" As my waitress disappeared into the kitchen, I scooped up some of the tofu-egg puree. I was delicate and full of flavor (and so was the puree).
This is how Doenjang Jjigae is delivered by an exasperated good-spirited English-speaking waitress off the clanging main drag on a sultry August night to a foreign guy who wants it but does not yet know how to ask: with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; look back up at the photo, and you can see the rising steam.
Some Korean dishes are so fiery I cannot eat them on a regular basis. But with radish, tofu, beans, and crushed hot and sliced green (Jalapeño cousin) peppers, this has just the right mix of earth, wind and fire:
No meat necessary: the rice soaks up the juice to form a hearty porridge.
The Greens: not quite spinach, not quite kale, not quite leaves: "Mani jusayo!" (More please!)
In the realm of meat, a bean dish has risen...
See: the inverted smokestacks; like chimneys upturned and rewound, they suck up the smoke. I suspect they ferry said smoke to a centralized processing plant located somewhere in the North, where said smoke is solidified into slabs for slicing and use in beef flavorizers.
The Bearer of Fresh Raw Meat is always smiling.
I wanted a better shot of the Bearer of Fire, but The Bearer of Fire is fast. He cannot be stopped. Nor can he be summoned from his volcanic domain without the wanton call of a flesh-eating customer. When flesh-eaters arrive and order, The Bearer of Fire emerges with this pan of molten coals that slips right into the center of their table. Once in place, he returns whence he came, to the depths of Vulcan.
For all you pork-belly lovers out there; repeat after me: "Sam-gyup-sal"
Mush, Mush, Mush in Your Mouth: hate to say it, but there's something wrong with Korean corn. Wrong for me, at least. Looks great, but tastes like mush. Maybe it's the way corn used to be? These kernels don't burst into sweet juice when you bite 'em. They just mush.
All the Major Food Groups: (from left to right) Fish paste skewers, tteokbokki, waffles!