Still hungry in Korea

For half a week I didn’t have a refrigerator and had to just live off of convenience store food and wander around searching for restaurants.  One morning I was starving because I hadn’t had enough to eat the previous day, so I left early and managed to find an open restaurant.

Koreans eat huge breakfasts in their homes that consist mainly of soup, rice, and left-overs from dinner.  There really isn’t much of a distinction between breakfast foods, lunch foods, and dinner foods.  The only restaurants that are open in the mornings are for those that have stayed up all night drinking, and those primarily serve two soups:  haejangguk and kongnammul.  Kongnammul is bean-sprout soup, and it’s really yummy.  Haejangguk is more like collard greens soup (I don’t know what kind of green is in it:  maybe it’s spinach?)

Haejangguk was the only thing on the menu, so I had to order that.  Only this haejangguk had a huge chunk of gray, nasty-tasting liver-like flavored grossness floating in it.  I told Jane about this later, and she told me it was blood.  NOT what I’d want to eat after a night of drinking, that’s for sure.

I went to another restaurant for dinner.  I still don’t know what these dishes are – there are so many of them, and I only know the cheap shitty garbage ones that single people are allowed to order, and that gets really boring after awhile.  It’s really sad to go somewhere and be surrounded by groups of people at tables groaning with an amazing assortment of delicious-looking food and be told you can’t order any of it.  I had a mild case of bronchitis and thought samgyaetang (sp? that ginseng-stuffed chicken soup) would be good for me and got excited to see a place that served it.  I was a little disappointed to see the woman cut open a pre-packaged stuffed chicken soup bag and just dump it into a pan.  But she sat down with me and was teaching me Korean words and taking an interest in me like Mrs. Kim.  She even offered me some of her Kim Chi Chiggae, which was chock full of lots of beef, but I declined.

A few days later, I went back and asked for Kim Chi Chiggae, and she said obpsoyyo (sp?) which means, “NO.  We don’t have any.  Forget about it.”  In my baby Korean I asked, Kim Chi Chiggae, o-di?  Odi means, “where is?”  (so that’s totally spelled wrong and it’s grammatically wrong, but what else can a person do?)  She pointed to another restaurant and I went there.

Only I didn’t see any 김치 (kim chi   ㄱ=k  ㅣ=i  ㅁ=m     ㅊ=ch  ㅣ=i  ) anywhere on their menu and instead somehow managed to mime to the waitress that I’d like whatever she liked/recommended.  She brought me some soup that looked super yummy.  It was some milky, beefy broth with noodles in the bottom with slices of what looked like beef brisket  spread across the top, like the photo hanging on the wall.  Only the beef in my bowl was just surrounded with fat.

I fished out a slice and tried to cut off the fat with my chopsticks.  (yeah, this is how you cut in Korea – you perforate the food with your chopsticks and then insert both sticks in at one point and S-P-R-E-A-D your chopsticks apart and hope and pray you don’t flip the food across the table) The wait staff was very amused by my pickiness.  A lot of the cuts of meat in Korea are through layers of fat, and sliced across the layers.  It’s customary to just eat the meat, fat, and all.  And I always cut it off.

I’m already the slowest eater in Korea, but this is just too much.  Korean etiquette demands that nobody leaves anyone alone at the table, so they hate eating with me because they have to wait long after they’ve finished eating before they can leave.  I tell them, “it’s okay to leave!  I want to eat slowly.  I’ll be ok!”  And then they all thank me profusely with relief…

But this meat – even the meat texture seemed strangely squishy and the fat even seemed strangely squishy.  The waitress, who could speak a little English, asked me if I didn’t like meat, and I tried to show her it was just the fat I didn’t like, as I pushed it with my chopstick.  So much fat!  As I pushed pile after pile of it to illustrate what was offending me.  “Oh!  jelly!  You don’t like jelly!”  I was a little confused, and I asked her, by squeezing different parts of my body, where this meat was from on the cow.  She said, “cow head.”  Cow HEAD?  “Nae. (yes)  Cow head.”  Oh!  The jelly made perfect sense then.  So that is how Suki came to eat cow head.   I returned the following week and just asked for Kim Chi Chiggae, and it was that simple.  They were really pleased that I didn’t pick anything out and I could hear them saying what must have been “at least she likes the kim chi chiggae.”

The school lunch is pretty good.  At the last school, teachers had their own cafeteria and got good food, while the kids got mystery meat and truly disgusting food.  At this school, the principal, teachers and students sit together and we all eat the same thing, and it’s almost as good as the special food prepared for the teachers at the last place.  The food is ladled for you, except rice is all-you-can-eat.  It’s really confusing to me, because the skinny kids and the fat kids all appear to eat the same amount of food.  After a week, I discovered I could also eat dinner at school.  Staying an extra hour and a half to eat dinner sounded depressing, and at first I declined.  But it turns out I am so swamped writing lesson plans I am spending each night working at home on school work anyway, and at 2,500 won (a little over two bucks) a meal, it would be stupid of me to not eat dinners at school and, it’s yet another way to bond with the students and faculty, who I’m sure are envious of the foreign teacher for getting to leave earlier than everyone else.

I had finally started eating a regular breakfast before moving here, and after getting the refrigerator I started up again.  Only in the course of one week eating both breakfast at home, and then lunch and dinner at school, I noticed all my clothes getting tight.  So I’ve cut back on breakfast.  I also take hardly any rice and don’t eat all my noodles.  Except for the fatty cuts of meat, Korean cuisine is really low-calorie and has twice as many vegetables as western cuisine, and the quantity of meat is a lot smaller.  But in addition to twice as many vegetables is four times as much starch.  And most of the beverages are heavily sweetened.  So I think to not blow up I just have to avoid starches and sweets.  Sounds easy – but here, it takes a concerted effort.  The salt?  That’s just impossible to avoid.  They sell it in huge bags, and there are all manners of varieties of salt.

Water with meals is not something Koreans really drink much of.  It’s mostly used as a mouth rinse after eating.  All the vegetable fibers and pepper flakes get stuck in your teeth, and the post eating rinse helps with the most superficial remnants.  There’s also almost always a mirror and everyone will file past, checking to make sure they don’t visibly have something unattractive stuck in their teeth.  After which, everyone rushes to their toothbrushes and brush furiously.

At the last place, I didn’t brush much because I’m still of the western mind-set that brushing is a private practice.  And I also felt harassed at Baekyoung, with everyone constantly watching everything I do and analyzing me and criticizing me.  I just didn’t feel up to having yet one more process scrutinized.  Here, starting fresh, I just brush in public too.  Only I do it to for practical reasons and not as a group socializing thing, and it’s never questioned.  If I miss one time, Young-a is not there to scold me.

Which reminds me – Korean toothpicks are awesome!  At first, I thought they were plastic.  But then I noticed the back-up box they came in, and the packaging said, “starch tooth pick” on it.  That’s right:  they’re basically super hard noodles!  They don’t break off like wooden toothpicks.  They don’t break down into fibers that also get stuck in your teeth.  They keep a needle-sharp point, and they don’t get soggy if you want to chew on one for a long time.  And they’re also a very green product.  The whole world should use Korean toothpicks!

The other day I took Dongja out for dinner, to thank her for all her help and had her pick out a place.  (she has constantly been fielding phone calls from delivery men and intervening on my behalf and arranging things for me and taking care of me)  I always get excited to eat out with another person, as a single person can only order 1/10th of the menus and I, therefore, haven’t been able to truly experience much Korean cuisine.  We went to a restaurant and ordered pork lettuce wraps.  The pork was braised, and the same cut used to make bacon, and spread over a bed of sauteed onion crescents.  Again, I had to cut all the fat off.  The wraps were sesame leaves, (known as perilla leaves in Japanese sushi restaurants) mustard leaves, and red leaf lettuce.  It was served with a sizzling clay pot of dwengjang (fermented soy beans) that had been stewed with jalapeno peppers and mud snails(?) and which you can also mix into your rice.

It seems side dishes are often added onto your rice and mixed in.  If the side is large enough, or if it is a piece of dried seaweed, it is lain on top of the rice.  The chopsticks are spread about an inch apart, and pushed down at the same time.  In this way, you’ve formed a bite-sized package that you then squeeze together and pull off to drop into your mouth.

Shrimp sauce is added by the spoonful into soups to make them salty.  And soy sauce with hot peppers and green onions can be added to make dishes spicier.  I’ve seen ground nuts as a condiment for certain soups as well.  The squeeze bottles of Gochang (red pepper sauce) are usually mostly for bi-bim-bop (mixed rice dishes)

Koreans often take spoonfuls of white steamed rice and dip them into their soups to flavor the rice.  Near the end of the meal, they often take all of the remaining rice and spoon it all into the remaining soup and eat it like a stew.

They usually start with the still boiling soup and alternate between the soup, main dish, rice, and side dishes.  They think I’m weird because I typically eat one thing at a time.  Part of this is because if I find a good thing, I like to stay there, and because finding a place to lay down and pick up my chopsticks repeatedly is awkward.  I also believe it’s healthier to let your digestive juices work full strength as long as possible, so I eat my soup last.

It was really, really good.  The meat you’re supposed to dip in this light sauce, which looked to be soy sauce with jalapeno peppers yet tasted like it also had a little horse radish in it.  There was also a side dish I really liked that consisted of Spinach, sesame seeds, and what Donja said was a two-headed snail (?)  There were about six side dishes in all.  And all very yummy.  Cost per person was 8,000 won, which was about 50% less what it would have cost in Seoul.

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