culinary arts 100: Korean dining experience

It’s really been hitting us these past few weeks that soon we’ll be far from Korea. On Monday we officially received our flight reservations from Seoul to Bangkok and then on to New Delhi. So now we’re in a slightly mad frenzy trying to get all the smaller details for our travel plans in order. Two weeks ago we decided to sit down and write a list of all the things we wanted/needed to do before we say our final goodbye to Korea for who knows how long?!

Of course the predominant thing we thought about was food. We want to eat as much Korean food as we can shove in our mouths in the next three weeks. So we put this list together:

– kimchi samgyeopsal
naengmyeon
kimbap
mandu
– dulgae sujaebi
shabu shabu
– Korean-style pizza
kimchi jjigae
doenjang jjigae
– yeoltan bulgogi

We’ve been able to cross several items off the list already and have more planned for this week. We’ve also been trying to use up all those ingredients that have been lingering in the backs of our cupboards and fridge, so between these two options we rarely eat in the school cafeteria anymore (which is fine by me because the meals there usually consist of some kind of processed meat, two or three carb-loaded side dishes, soup and rice, and sometimes a vegetable drowned in msg and hot pepper sauce).

Last week we ate one of my favorite meals, kimchi samgyeopsal. When it comes to dining in Korea, samgyeopsal is the quintessential experience every foreigner must have. Samgyeopsal is the Korean version of thick slices of pork belly. It resembles bacon except that it’s cut into about 1/4-inch thick pieces. The meat has three layers of fat and meat in it so it’s exploding with flavor. It’s definitely not healthy, but boy is it good!

This version of samgyeopsal requires a long flat tray. We prep it by rubbing a thick chunk of fat all over the surface. The tray is set at a 30-degree angle so that as the meat cooks on the top half of the plate, the fat runs down and fries the kimchi, bean sprouts and potatoes on the lower half before running off onto the drip pan. I love the way we eat this meal! Several side dishes are brought out that can be combined to make a glorified meat and vegetable sandwich! We pick the meat off the grill with chopsticks and dip it in a salty sauce the consistency of syrup.  Next, we place it onto a lettuce or sesame leaf and top it with grilled garlic, thin-sliced spring onions, fried kimchi, a glob of rice and some pepper paste. By the time I wrap my creation up it’s nearly the size of my fist! It’s pretty much impossible to take a bite out of it without the wrap falling apart in my hands. So I end up cramming the whole thing in my mouth, reveling in the wonderful mixture of flavors as I try not to let any juice squirt through my lips. It’s definitely both fun and delicious!

This meal is made so much better by the fact that we get free  refills of doenjang jjigae, a stew made from fermented soy beans containing large chunks of tofu, onions, zucchini and hot peppers. The soup itself has a tendency to smell a bit stinky because of the fermented beans. Although the description doesn’t make it sound so great, truthfully once you’ve tried it you can’t have enough of it. My mouth is watering right now just writing about it!

After we’ve polished off all the meat, there’s a residue of kimchi and sprouts left on the platter. We’re still a bit hungry so we decide to finish our meal with another Korean staple, bokkeumbap (fried rice). We lure one of the servers over by calling “Yo-gee-oh!” which means “Come here please!” She grabs our soju bottle and pours a bit of it on the grill, scraping off any meat that’s successfully clung to the surface for this long. Then she dumps the leftover kimchi in the middle and empties a bowl of rice on top of it. She mixes the concoction with a bit of soy sauce to spread the ingredients, then forms the mixture into the shape of a heart. Awww! I think she likes us! She spoons mounds of dried salted seaweed over the rice and cracks an egg onto the platter. And with that we’re ready to dive in.

Ten minutes later, with full bellies, we stumble over to the cash register and pay our bill. Everyone smiles and nods at each other in that awkward way where no one really knows if the other person can speak their language, so we just rely on gestures. In Korea it’s customary to be greeted at the door, so it isn’t until one of us grabs the door handle and pulls it open that the whole restaurant staff calls out “Ahn-yeong-hee-kah-say-yo!” which means “Goodbye!”

Outside the night is beginning to fall. But that won’t matter because the bright marquees outside every business in this alley will keep the streets as bright as daylight until sun up. We walk down the center of the street, the occasional motorbike whipping around us, blinking lights beckoning us. Even after years of living here we still feel the sense of wonder of being in such a different place; a place as much our home as it isn’t home.

kimchi samgyeopsal

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