We encounter daily cultural adventures when dining out and cooking in Korea. On Tuesday night we decided to try our luck at a new neighborhood restaurant so we went to one that is frequented by many Koreans and therefore, we thought, must be great, right? Large fish tanks outside should have given us an idea of the type of food they served and as we sat down with the menu, entirely in Korean with a few pictures of clams and octopus, I said to Joe, “I think it’s all seafood.” Joe doesn’t eat seafood, no matter how many times I ask him to try it the answer is always, “No!” The place was packed, the customers were all smiling as they grabbed clams from steaming broth with their chopsticks and tossed back shots of Soju. Joe thought it must be the Korean version of Hooters, minus the 1980s orange hotpants and white socks paired with pantyhose of course, because everyone was so happy. So as the waitress (sans hot pants) was bringing a large tray of hot clam soup and a bottle of Soju with 2 shot glasses to our table, neither of which we had ordered, I suggested to Joe that we go elsewhere. After asking the waitress, “Gogi (meat)?” while pointing to the menu and she confusingly shaking her head “no” we left. I will go back with Monica when she comes, the food there looked and smelled great. Mon, you do like seafood don’t you?
A walk around the block gave us a few more options, McDonald’s, Kimbap Nara and a bar called Beer O Zone. Do you think it’s Beer ‘O’ Zone or Beer Ozone? Beer O Zone is a bar that happens to serve food, we’ve never eaten here but I walk past every night on my way home from school and see people eating what looks like food so we thought, “What the hell.” Once again, a menu entirely written in Korean. I know it sounds very ethnocentric and ignorant of me to think Korean restaurants would have English in their menus but remember that we live in a small town inhabited by a large American military base so English menus are very common here. I pointed to a picture and our twelve year old waitress shook her head, apparently they didn’t serve whatever it was in the picture. There was another picture of chicken wings and I know the word for chicken so I ordered Joe “dak” and after some comical attempts at communicating the waitress and I agreed I would have a salad with dak. Since Beer O Zone is a bar, we were immediately served some bar food which, in this case was a bowl of colored crunchy rice tubes which tasted like Bugles and a small bowl of what was most definitely bugs. Yes, brown beetle looking bugs about the size of a fingernail! Joe had to hide them behind the napkin holder so I wouldn’t throw up. I looked around the restaurant to see if other people were spearing their bugs with the handy toothpicks they put in the bowl for your convenience, I guess they are too slippery to eat with your hands. An hour later we were served an enormous platter of Korean fried chicken (they love their fried chicken here) with a side of cabbage with dressing on it. After some discussion Joe and I decided that this was both of our orders, his fried chicken and my salad with chicken, all on one plate. We dug in, the chicken was perfect, crunchy on the outside and hot and moist inside. About 10 minutes later my meal arrived. No longer that hungry I sat back to explore the ingredients of my Korean chicken salad. Cabbage is the leaf of choice here and atop my salad were pickles (of course), raisins, carrots, peanuts, mango and pineapple chunks, chopped fried chicken breast and a dressing that resembled honey mustard. It was delicious but I was full already from the crunchy rice tubes and some of Joe’s chicken so I took the rest home and ate it for lunch the next day.
Wednesday night I decided to try my hand at a Korean specialty, Ddeokbokee. This is a steaming, spicy red stew-like dish that Koreans eat as a snack and buy from street vendors. There are a few main ingredients: rice cakes are the first ingredient, and these are nothing like Quaker’s version. Korean rice cakes are pasta tubes made from rice that has been pounded so long it becomes chewy and soft in texture. Like potato gnocchi, a little soft, and a little chewy, you cook them up like pasta, in boiling water. To the boiling pot of rice cakes you add Gochujang or Korean red chili paste and Gochugaroo, Korean red chili powder. The broth is now a bright scarlet color and you let that simmer for a while to thicken. At this point you can add fish cake, which is how Koreans traditionally eat Ddeokbokee but since Joe doesn’t like fish cake I added chunks of chicken breast, cabbage, sugar (to tone down the spiciness), soy sauce and sesame seeds. It was so yummy. Despite the fact that our mouths were on fire for about an hour after dinner I will be making this easy dish again. Thanks to Kate from school for writing Gochujang and Gochugaroo in Hangul for me to give to the girls at the supermarket.