A few weeks before I departed for Korea we went for Cambodian food with some friends. The talk naturally turned to different food from around the world and the ones we loved. I personally have always been partial to Vietnamese food and Indian food. The talk turned to Korean food and how so few people [...]
A few weeks before I departed for Korea we went for Cambodian food with some friends. The talk naturally turned to different food from around the world and the ones we loved. I personally have always been partial to Vietnamese food and Indian food. The talk turned to Korean food and how so few people actually knew anything about it apart from Kimchi and Korean BBQ. Apart from those two aspects it seemed my knowledge of Korean cuisine was limited to a Korean lunch I had back in my teaching days in Vietnam.
My knowledge of the cuisine was extremely limited. At the time, I had no idea that Korean food dated back to the 12th century and was as proud and unique as the more famous cuisines from its neighbors. I mostly knew that it came with what seemed endless amounts of tiny dishes, all filled with some sort of unique concoction and that they used metal chopsticks, I was told because any type of poison meant for the king would color the metal.
A few weeks later I found myself setting outside an ubiquitous 7/11 on the outskirts of Seoul. I was having a beer with a few of my new colleagues and of course the topic of food arose. Previously that day I had only managed to try a bowl of pork soup for breakfast which left me feeling a tad underwhelmed. My new teaching mate suggested we try our hands a local BBQ place.
“Where to?” I asked.
“Let’s just walk,” my mate suggested. Even though Korea had all the trappings of the developed world it still had at its core a very Asian phenomenon: there is always someplace, somewhere, serving food.
It didn’t take us a long to find a place serving the desired BBQ. While the rest of Yongin City seemed brand new, clean, and modern, the place we found was slightly tucked in under a building, dark and dingy.
As always the meal started with soju. In a Korean BBQ restaurant the grill or cooker is literally on your table as you order. I was fairly familiar with this set-up as it is common in Vietnam as well. The chef brought out our tray of meat, salad, kimchi, and surprisingly whole raw cloves of garlic. We placed the meat on the grill and did not have to wait long for it to cook.
When the meat, which looked like little pink slabs of fatty bacon, was ready my mate instructed me to pick up a leaf of lettuce, place the meat on it with a bit of kimchi, and a whole raw garlic. I was shocked and was initially put off, but soon enough my travel instincts kicked in and I had to try it.
This initial taste of Korean food didn’t have the dull fiery red chili flavor that so many other dishes seem to contain, but it was hard to focus on one single taste. As soon as the garlic appeared to be overwhelming a chunk of meat would stamp it out and the lettuce seem to cut the heart right out of the fat content. It was honestly one of the most curious things I had ever tasted. If nothing else my taste buds would not get bored in Korea and if they did there would at least be some Soju to wash it down.
As I was chewing on this strange concoction my drunken mind went back to a meditation lesson my wife and me had during one of our stays in India. Our instructor was telling us about a being who is hanging back and saving his enlightenment until every other sentient being reaches theirs, a process that will take epochs. As the flavors crunched around in my mouth I genuinely felt that is how long it might take me to understand how that chef created such beautiful flavors.