This week’s ‘Massida!’ is not so much about the food as it is about the people. This is good news! Although there is always an opportunity for great food in Korea, a meaningful conversation with someone local is a rare thing indeed. Unfortunately, for the most part, my daily interactions outside the classroom are coloured by nothing more interesting than ‘Annyeong haseyo’ or ‘Kamsahamnida’ (‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ respectively).
But sometimes you meet someone that is prepared to match their limited English with your limited Korean: and sometimes the result of this is greater than the sum of its parts.
Before the evening got going, I expected to eat tea with Tom (my English flatmate), go to E-Mart to do a food shop, and then round the evening out with a game of pool. None of this ended up happening: instead, we stayed in the restaurant for 2 hours, then moved onto another place to eat chicken wings and drink beer. What we thought would take half an hour ended up taking 3 hours, and all our plans were laid to waste.
The architect and sponsor of this turnaround in the evening’s events was a charismatic and personable Korean, who, despite having almost no ability to speak English, genially imposed himself and his initially very embarrassed son on our evening. This person identified himself only as…‘Man’……but before I get into that, let me tell you about the ‘samgyeopsal’.
Tom and I arrived at the restaurant at about 7.30pm. We were looking at one restaurant that served ‘galbi’ (grilled ribs, a popular Korean dish and definitely a future ‘Massida!’), when we realised that we were actually stood in front of a more unusual-looking eating establishment. So we walked in and sat ourselves down next to the heater, because it’s absolutely Baltic in Korea at the moment.
The waiter came over and we sheepishly indicated with virtually no Korean words that we would probably eat whatever he brought us. This caused much humour and drew attention from the other diners. In the end the waiter just nodded and laughed and went off to fetch us something. We had no idea what food was coming our way, but the whole place smelled like bacon, like really good bacon.
The table set-up was typical of a ‘galbi’ restaurant: a hot plate in the centre of the table, a stove underneath it and a dial to control the temperature. The idea is that fresh meat and vegetables are brought out to you and that you then grill them yourselves. Both Tom and I had eaten at places like this before, so we knew the ‘grill your own’ drill: we just didn’t know what exactly we would be grilling…
The waiter brought out the side dishes, and then came the ‘samgyeopsal’ itself. This is what it looked like:
The lardon-esque meat cooking in the middle was originally two huge slabs of meat that were peppered with a vivid and unidentified green powder. Turned out it was a very spectacular pair of pork belly steaks: ‘samgyeopsal’ roughly translates as ‘three-layered-flesh’. The waiter kindly did all the precision work for us: first he grilled one side of the meat, then he turned it over and cut the slabs into slices around 1cm thick. This was the point when I took the photo above – and it was also the point when ‘Man’ introduced himself, but I’ll come to that in a minute because the focus drifted from the meal after this photo was taken.
Starting with the bowl of green stuff and moving clockwise around the centrepiece of sizzling pork belly: the green stuff is actually seaweed in hot water. The resulting oily seaweed stock was a nice counterpoint to the other flavours in the meal; as was the sloppy seaweed itself. Above, a bowl of sliced raw garlic. The garlic, when grilled, is a tremendous accompaniment. To the right of the garlic is something called ‘ssamjang’ (쌈장): a blend of chili paste, soybean paste, sesame oil and other things. This was one of three dips. The other two can be seen at 2 and 6 o’clock, one for me and one for Tom. The murky green one had a sweet and sour sort of flavour, with chunks of ‘white kimchi’; a sweeter variety of kimchi to accompany spicy food. The other dip was a spicier affair, with a smoky flavour to it. All three dips were delicious.
To the left of the 6 o’clock dip (really wish I could just point at stuff for you) is the classic cabbage kimchi. This was a very average affair, nothing extraordinary. Grilling it however, made it something more enjoyable. To the left there is a pair of scissors and barbeque tongs and just above that, coming back round to the seaweed, there is a bowl of bean sprouts in a sweet and spicy sauce.
What isn’t in shot for some reason is the bowl of lettuce leaves – I think it was because it simply wouldn’t fit on the table! The lettuce leaves are the bread and butter of the meal – you take a leaf and place a piece of grilled meat on it. You then put some dip on it, maybe some grilled garlic, kimchi or bean sprouts (or maybe all of them!) and then you wrap it all up in a lettuce bundle. You then shove it all in your mouth, and enjoy. And it was very tasty indeed! As the meal went on the meat became more delicious, as pork tends to do when it is cooked slowly and over longer periods of time.
This concludes the ‘samgyeopsal’ section of this post. After the waiter had departed and left our meat cooking, ‘Man’ came over. He was ostensibly on his way outside to have a cigarette, but stopped for a chat with us, no doubt because of the scene we had caused when ordering the food earlier. He was jovial from the offset and clearly ‘half-cut’, but not in an offensive way at all. We told him that we were teachers and that we were English – he seemed happy about it all and amiably went outside to smoke a ludicrously thin cigarette, leaving us (or so we thought) to our meal.
When he came back in, the meat was ready to eat, but he invited himself to sit down and chat with us while we ate. At this point he introduced himself as ‘Man’ (although I’m fairly sure this wasn’t his real, or full name), and he also introduced his son and daughter, who were sat on another table at the other end of the restaurant, by long distance. He beckoned them to come over and meet us, barking Korean over the hubbub of the restaurant in a delicately slurred manner. His children refused to come over; much in the same way that most English teenagers, mortified by their parents in such situations, would be horrified of enduring a conversation with two strange foreigners, brokered by their drunk father. This was a source of great amusement for Tom and I; and soon after for the children; and, belatedly, ‘Man’ himself.
He told us about his children mostly. He had 4 children in total – he patted his heart with pride as he told us. He told us that he worked at a restaurant, and we worked out that he was a maître d’. There were many moments of silence. There were also many moments when he would talk to us and we would simply have to nod and smile. Such behaviour is actually essential in Korea, as I have recently discovered. This uniquely Korean ettiquette is rooted in a pair of fascinating concepts called ‘kibun’ and ‘nunchi’, both of which I will elaborate on elsewhere very soon.
Eventually his son came over and sat with us, after ‘Man’ had gone back over to his table and had a word with his son and daughter. His daughter vanished at this point – I think ‘Man’ had decided that what was to ensue was not fit for women. In South Korea, the life of a woman tends not to be too similar to that of a man.
Once ‘Man’ and his son had seated themselves at our table it became clear that he was very keen for us to speak to his son in English. Tom and I were still eating, so we took it in turns to initiate conversation with Park-Jeong, as he turned out to be called. He was a nice lad, typically capable of understanding high level English for a boy his age, and also typically respectful. It’s important to listen to your elders in Korea, and give much thanks and praise, both of which Park-Jeong did to Tom and I. He had some funny answers to some questions: I asked him why he liked Korea and he said because you can get good internet connection! He also said that pizza was his favourite food – this is quite a rare thing generally speaking. Most people I have asked this of tend to choose a Korean dish, in line with Korea’s robust sense of patriotism.
‘Man’ was smiling approvingly and slightly drunkenly while all this was happening and he ordered a bottle of ‘soju’ for we three men to enjoy. Soju (소주) is a Korean spirit that is served with food (as all alcohol is in Korea traditionally). It tastes like a sweeter version of vodka, but does not have quite as high an alcohol content. Drinking is a particularly social activity in Korea, and it was a mark of ‘Man’s’ approval to invite us to drink with him. And drink we did – I’m not the biggest fan of soju per se, but it goes well after a spicy bout of pork. Moreover, refusing a drink of any kind is a big no-no in Korea.
Eventually Tom and I finished our meal – we didn’t really savour it as much as we might have had ‘Man’ not been there and we ended up charring a lot of the garlic and some kimchi unfortunately. ‘Man’ saw this, and generously offered to buy us some more meat. Tom and I gladly and politely accepted, and we stepped up our conversation with Park-Jeong, to reciprocate ‘Man’s’ kindness. I think at this point ‘Man’ was satisfied that he had set the necessary wheels in motion, and so he flitted around the restaurant, talking with the owner and smoking again. At one point he told me that me and him were similar, and I’m always a sucker for that sort of brotherly camaraderie. He was a charming guy with a twinkling demeanour and I liked him.
Eventually, 2 hours after getting there, ‘Man’ suggested/commanded that we all go next door to drink beer. Tom and I agreed and I remarked to Tom that the whole thing felt like we were being ‘picked up’. He certainly was a smooth operator, and a generous guy too – he actually paid for our entire meal! We politely protested but he was having none of it. He seemed genuinely grateful for the free lesson we were giving his son and glad of our company.
So we went a couple of doors down to a Korean drinking establishment. As I said, in Korea you tend to eat while you drink, so ‘Man’ invited Tom and I to choose something from a menu that featured several variations on the idea of spicy chicken wings. Our Korean benefactor ordered a bottle of soju for himself – Tom had excluded himself from the alcohol by this point, as he is running in the Seoul Marathon in March and is on a strict training regime; and I had accidentally put myself out of the running for soju because I had carelessly asked the waiter for more water at the previous restaurant. I think this had been interpreted as me not wanting soju, so I was delivered a bottle of beer instead.
Tom is actually running the Seoul Marathon in memory of his grandmother and is raising money for the Alzheimer’s Society, a very worthy cause indeed. Find out more about Tom’s personal challenge, and donate here.
The drinking, eating and talking continued for another hour. I tried a couple of chicken wings but I was pretty much full from the meal I’d just had. In any case, the wings were a bit too ‘zinging’ for my pallid palate – but they were good nevertheless. There was more outpouring of gratitude for our presence (which we duly reciprocated), an understanding of a Buddhist proverb that roughly translates as “this was meant to be” and a pep-talk for Park-Jeong, who his father deemed lacked confidence. ‘Man’ began to use the phrase ‘step-by-step’ with increasing regularity, citing Bill Gates and Warren Buffet as two exponents of his mantra.
At one point I took my jacket off and ‘Man’ approvingly patted my chest, showing that he thought I was a well-formed, muscular guy. The way he was patting me was actually more like softly stroking my left nipple. It was a very odd moment, but some of the children I teach do that sort of thing too, and I think it’s just the way things are around here. I guess you just have to take these things with a pinch of salt, culturally speaking. Bodily contact beyond handshakes and hugs in England is confined to the bedroom more or less, so it takes some adjusting to Korea’s own set of etiquettes when it comes to this area!
One of the most intriguing moments came when I passed ‘Man’ a business card for the school where I teach, the ECI (English Campus Institute). He immediately recognised Mr Kim’s name and looked at the business card with a slightly curled smile, something I interpreted to be mild derision. Mr Kim is a well-known person around these parts Tom later explained – it is most likely that ‘Man’ is aware of Mr Kim and from my guess, doesn’t like him too much. Dunjeon is not a big place, and it was the first time that I had really felt that so keenly, that small town mentality.
After an hour or so had passed, we exchanged phone numbers with ‘Man’ and the affable Park-Jeong, promising to meet again in the future to mentor him. ‘Man’ indicated that there would be more food on the table if that were to happen. This was evidently the sealing of the deal, as very shortly after this had happened father and son made their excuses and the evening was wrapped up. There was enough time for a prolonged farewell and a photo to remember the evening by, 3 hours after it had begun: