1. Communal eating. Not for every dish, but almost every meal involves communal eating in some form. Some meals, a big dish will come out for the whole table to share. Other meals will have only a component of the meal that is eaten communally, but every meal has kimchi and other small plate appetizers that are shared by the table. So, often I have found myself dipping chopsticks into the same bowl as complete strangers. As far as I can tell, if one gets sick, all get sick.
2. Metal chopsticks. Think you have mastered the use of chopsticks because you have no problem with the wooden ones found in the US? Think again, mon ami. You aint tried nothing until you have tried picking up rice or slippery noodles (or slippery mushrooms, my nemesis) with thin, smooth metal chopsticks. Combine this thought with #1 (communal eating) and you can see how I might make a fool of myself.
3. There are restaurants EVERYWHERE. In Athens, OH, I nearly completed a quest to eat at every restaurant in the small town. Here, I could eat out every day for years and years, and only cover a few blocks (I am tempted to undertake this challenge, but alas, as Haejung reminds us, I am a poor missionary). But seriously, it is startling how many restaurants there are. And most of them are completely intimidating to me because, surprisingly enough, their menus are in Korean. Oh how I love pictures of food on a menu...point and nod.
Now, with these concepts in mind, I shall begin relating my story thus far of Korean cuisine.
Day 1. (Wednesday night)= stopped at a rest stop which was much more akin to a Korean mall food court. Loads of options. I ended up with a tasty breaded pork with sweet potatoes under the crust. With soup and rice and kimchi naturally. Avoided the kimchi.
Day 2. Lunch= After opening up bank accounts, we went out to eat with the bank branch manager. He took us to this place near the bank that is pretty traditional. Yes, take off your shoes and sit on the floor. There are no menus or ordering, you just eat whatever the restaurant made that day. And everything is served in small dishes, eaten communally. 2 kinds of kimchi, some spicy vegetables that looked like cooked spinach, pickled yellow something, crunchy blackbeans, some pickled cucumbers, a spoonful of a tasty beef dish in yellow sauce, mushrooms that were my downfall, and presumably some other dishes I have forgotten. Then, an entire fish was brought out and also a smaller baby version of the fish. And dig in. Slap chopsticks with the bank manager and his two employees. Each person got their own rice and spicy mushroom soup, so I always had those to fall back on (spoon use).
Dinner = Katie and I went with Simon and Haejung to this strip behind our house that is chock full of inexpensive restaurants that serve a whole variety of things. I had a huge bowl of rice, seaweed, veggies, and seafood. (If this info looks familiar, it is because it was in my previous blog post. ) I can't help it, food is that important.
Day 3. Haejung helped us to make dinner. We made a dish called jangjorim which is kinda like pot roast, including garlic, carrots, and onion, with a lot of soy sauce, a bit of sugar, and some sesame seed oil. It was tasty. I don't really understand how eating in is less expensive than eating out. I got the rice dish the previous night for under $4.50 that lasted me two meals. For the jangjorim, the meat alone was just under $10.
Day 4. Had lunch with the Hannam University chaplain. Had an awesome dish called shabu shabu. The reason for this dish's awesomeness is two-fold: a. it is delicious b. it is essentially three meals in one. First, a big pot of broth is brought to the table and set on a burner. When it starts to boil, add vegetables. Then, a few at a time, add the very thinly sliced meat (beef in our case). It cooks in a matter of seconds. Dip your thin, slippery, metal chopsticks into a boiling pot to retrieve said meat without splashing all over the distinguished chaplain (who, as it turns out, is breaking custom considerably by helping us with the dish and serving us. Usually the elder never serves the younger. Oops). Step 2, after the meat and vegetables are polished off, add noodles to the boiling broth. When the noodles turn color, eat them, again with your slippery metal chopsticks. Slurping is not an option, it is a necessity. Step 3, once the noodles are downed and the broth has diminished as well, add rice and different veggies and simmer for a few moments before eating that. Seemingly every Korean meal has rice or noodles. Beautifully, shabu shabu lets the eater enjoy them simultaneously. "low-carb diet"has no relevance here.
Day 5. Lunch with a group of Hannam University students. Went to a "Chinese" (aka Chins as they wrote it) restaurant. Like their American counterparts that are more American than Chinese, Korean restaurants are more Korean than Chinese. I had a dish that I don�t know the name of. But it was noodles (surprise!) in a black sauce with a few onions and maybe other things mixed in. It was not spicy at all and rather tasty. Our table's communal dish was a kind of fried pork that was very enjoyable. I have to say I was doing pretty well eating the noodles. I was happily slurping away until the 4 college-age Korean males I was sitting with pointed out the spots on my white shirt and khaki pants where I had flicked the black sauce on myself. Perfect. From then on out, they had me wear an apron while I ate.
Dessert= after lunch, we went out for a "cool, refreshing Italian shaved ice." Well I was expecting shaved ice ala Susie McArdle. No no. This was a gigantic bowl of, well everything as far as I could tell. Shaved ice, ice cream, red bean paste, mango, kiwi, cereal, tapioca like something, rice cake, etc etc. Susie McArdle, I am taking you there. Well, I had sufficiently stuffed myself, when lo and behold pastries come out. They are hot and steaming and someone pulls one open and out oozes melted butter. Brandon Brooks, I am taking you there. Man it was good. Oh did I mention all this was eaten communally also? Here, dip your spoon repeatedly into this towering sundae of ingredients with this young lady who you have just met. It was definitely worth it.
Just think, folks, this is only day 5. I still have so much to try and report on. I have some restaurants in mind, so be on the lookout for info on kimbap (sushi rolls sans fish), dumplings, bulgogi, bibimbap, and much, much more on kimchi. Stay tuned.