I’ve just been inspired by a truly excellent school dinner to write again about food in Korea. What’s that? What did I have? Well, for starters, the kimchi was pretty nice today, and for the first time in a while I wished I’d had more. I had one scrumptious side dish of seasoned spinach, carrtots and beansprouts (I don’t know if this is my imagination but there seem to be two kinds here that look identical, one bland and one delicious and today’s was the latter), and another of mini sausages in a sapid spicy sauce, which overflowed into my rice section. The soup tasted like Thai red curry, which might explain why I slurped it all down with0ut a word or even an upwards glance to my co-teachers.
But I’ve already discussed the merits of eating at my school’s cafeteria, and today I’ll recount some of my experiences with food in restaurants and from stalls. On our very first night in Ulsan, Elizabeth and I were taken for a meal at a small local restaurant near her apartment. The first thing that struck me, after I’d removed my shoes and left them on the floor by the door as they didn’t fit into the designed slots in a shoe rack, was the complete lack of seats at this place. They did have cushions, but these were on the floor next to the tables. Were we supposed to sit on the floor? We were and we did, and for those who don’t already know I’m about as flexible as a piece of dry spaghetti and can’t cross my legs, which made for a pretty uncomfortable first meal with our co-teachers. We ate octopus that we cooked in soup on the table in front of us and it was nice enough that we’ve been back since, although we don’t know how to order anything different.
I had a pretty bad time there once, after I’d got used to Koreans assuming that all white people enter a state of anaphylactic shock when within a 10-foot radius of anything edible and red. I’d had enough warnings about “spicy” food that turn out to be not hotter than a chicken korma to ignore one about a chilli I tried here. I wanted to cover my tongue with ice cubes and throw up at the same time, and I spent the rest of the meal as red as the soup, hiccoughing and barely able to speak, let alone eat anything else. Another thing worth mentioning is the overzealous waitresses: sometimes it feels like if we lay down with our mouths open we’ll be spoon-fed; and on another visit Elizabeth scooped a pile of sauce that I liked but she didn’t from the soup into my separate rice bowl, which was immediately whisked away and then returned seconds later, minus the sauce and at least half of my rice – that’s how eager to get involved they are. I would’ve minded about the rice if it wasn’t so cheap to eat there – about £3.50 each for more than enough main course plus unlimited banchan.
The cost of eating out here means we’ve been doing it a lot – especially towards the beginning of our time in Korea, when everything in supermarkets was alien and the effort of work meant we just plain couldn’t be bothered to cook. We’ve been through phases:
– The first was experimental, as we struggled to work out what kind of food was served at what restaurant and for what kind of price. Walking into places only to look at the menu and leave (either through disgust, disinterest or just incomprehension) was a source of frustration and embarrassment, and so some of the first Korean words I learned were those for pork, beef, chicken and fish (twaejigogi, soegogi, dalkgogi and saengseon). However, we did manage to find a couple of places we visited fairly regularly. At one of these, the usual way to add a bit of flavour to your soup is to pour in a helping of tiny pink worm-like things that look like miniscule, peeled prawns and smell like the sea, and I don’t think we’ve been back since Elizabeth poured in too many and ruined her tea.
– The second started after a trip to Busan where we enjoyed our first ever taste of bulgogi – literally translatable to ‘fire meat’ (fire meaning actual fire, rather than spice) – commonly known to us waegooks as Korean BBQ. You sit down at a table with a big hole in the middle and a futuristic tube hanging over it from the ceiling. You order meat (usually pork or beef, and you hope to avoid “guts” and other unsavoury bits) and then eat kimchi until it arrives, raw. The first few times we went for bulgogi it was mostly cooked for us, but now we do it ourselves: giant tongs in the left hand and scissors in the right; cut the meat into strips and lay it on a grill over either an open fire or really, really hot coals; turn sporadically until cooked thoroughly (if you like your beef slightly pink this is not allowed). When cooked you marinate a piece in an unknown sauce, place it in the middle of a leaf of lettuce, add onions, chilli, beansprouts and doenjang to taste, fold and then shove the thing in your mouth in one. Delicious!
– The third and current phase of restaurant food we’re going through is Western. We go once a month (on payday, because it’s not cheap) to a steakhouse; on Fridays after Korean class we usually go for an Indian (that counts as Western) and the girl behind the till at Pizza Hut is starting to recognise me because I’m there so often (we don’t know how to order takeaway over the phone so have to go in to get it). There was a period not so long ago where we had pizza five times in eight days. If you can’t (or can’t be bothered to) cook there’s not a huge deal of variety for anyone wanting home comforts in Ulsan – that’s my excuse anyway and I’m sticking to it.
Pretty prominent in Korea are street food vendors, where you can buy things ranging from sweet treats and little snacks to full meals. There’s one right near Elizabeth’s apartment that does deep-friend octopus tentacles, prawns, peppers, and hard-boiled eggs, as well as rice cake tubes in a red spicy sauce. Also popular are variosu dried seafood pieces, as well as long, thin sheets of eggy stuff on a skewer, which you dip into soy sauce. We wanted to try them once, so we stood around for ages waiting to be served, until a foreign Korea veteran came and told us you just help yourself and pay at the end, based on how many empty skewers you’ve got left over, so we did. When finished, the owner seemed equally uninterested in taking money from us, despite our looks, calls, and fistfuls of cash waved at him, so we just left (DON’T TELL ANYONE!). For pudding you can usually get fish-shaped pastries from these vendors, and they’re filled with mystery substances – sometimes an apple pie-type filling, sometimes ice cream, and obviously sometimes red bean paste. If you’re feeling especially foolhardy or daring you can ask for a cupful of beondegi. These are silkworm pupae and they taste of what they are – bugs. They’re disgusting. I’ve tried them a few times, despite vowing never to do so again after my first taste, and I’ve regretted every single bite. I’ll leave you with a picture of them, just to be nice.