I have this sinking feeling that I did not do my departure from Korea justice. If I can recall correctly, I simply gave one more recipe about bibimbap, then peaced out from that whole year of culinary, cultural, linguistic, social growth. It’s well past time – two months now back in the states – that I revisit Korea and its cuisine.
In a large way, my return to culinary Korea is based in my nostalgia. Now that fall is upon us, the last autumn I remember was full of hiking in a land where I read signs like a second grader and understood even less. I ate apples that I found in markets. I tried squash and kimchi almost every meal. Now, I’m sitting in a very comfortable coffee shop on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, sipping strong, delicious, cappuccino looking out into a rainy Wednesday with a large cooking day ahead of me, and a nice restaurant to play in until the wee hours. Is there a better scenario? Of course not – we learn from every day and every moment, but I’m just slightly nostalgic to the days where I ate spicy food out of necessity not out of choice, where I had to plan out what I’d say at the counter to order my coffee, where a run along the river attracted looks of “what is that crazy white boy doing?”, where grocery stores were a vocabulary exercise, where the food was out of control good and the homogeneity was diverse enough for me not to get through the whole cuisine in a year’s time.
One of the last, and best meals, my friend took me out to still haunts my memory in the best of ways. I’d love to tell the story in chronological order, but the food out was so good that I can’t wait.
We arrived in the pouring rain, threw our names up on the white board outside that listed the next tables available. There were five of us, and we’d love to sit on the floor – sure. Stripping wet boots and umbrellas from our immediate possession, we sat down and didn’t have to order, since this restaurant only offers one thing: the chicken with all of the accoutrement. See: kimchi, radishes, cucumbers, gochujeong, sujebi, buckwheat pajeon, and the chicken. The chicken is prepared by steaming it for hours on end with garlic and root spices, so the meat just falls of the bone with such flavor that it really will haunt your dreams for a while.
The sujebi, a perilla seed based-soup, had such intense, deep flavors that it could have been the stand out dish but nothing really comes close to the chicken. Perilla is a flavor akin to tahini, without the oil-factor. So picture this: a thick, gluttonous soup rich with pepper, sticky buckwheat noodle strips, all coated with the mild but deep flavor of tahini. Dunk your spoon in, and sink slowly into a comfortable satiated womb as you pick up another piece of chicken that will, if you’re not careful, fall from bone to plate atop your kimchi, next to the bowl of rice topped with a cut up cucumber with a touch of red-pepper-sweet-and-delicious-paste. Watch out, it’s all very dangerous, but what are you… chicken?
Now that the main stage has been filled by chicken, the journey there was hilarious. We all met up at exit two (I think?) off line three. It was raining. We all were prepared because, well, it had been raining for the past five weeks, so what was another day? This day, though, was a little more intense. Intense enough that the drains wouldn’t take any more sky water and as we tried to squeeze five people into one cab, we all got our socks damp and the cab driver wouldn’t even take us anywhere. For shame, sir.
Laura and I hopped into a different cab, and were eventually struck with the crude hard fact that our cab driver was not only deaf, but slightly blind, unaware of where he was, and ever so drunk. Driving up the mountain over to the northern side of Seoul, Laura and I realized that it might be a wild ride through the downpour. Stopping off to the side of the road twice, we had to harshly translate our final destination to him, pressing a cell phone to his ear so Jiyoung could really explain it, it was a meal that wasn’t just… easy. It was a struggle to get there, and as we exited from the car, Laura almost threw her shoe at the cab. It was so frustrating, but a perfect example of type two fun: not all that fun during it, but hilarious afterwards.
I wish I could debrief more on Korea, about how I miss it and how the people there are amazing. How I loved the food, and loved learning something everyday. How the clothes were cutting edge and how the mentality of hard-work was inspiring. How the kids there were just brilliant and how people really partied hard. How it was nice to relax with close friends and how it was comforting that I lived so far from what I knew. But, to put that in just one post, well that would be an insult.
Korea, I do miss thee.