Post #22 – What’s on the menu today … has been one of my daily questions while traveling through South Korea. I asked myself that not because I did not know what I want to eat, but because I did not know what exactly I am eating after I ordered from the menu. I hope that in the near future my Korean language skills will become sufficiently advance so I can read a menu in a restaurant without going straight to the English translation, and my vocabulary will encompass many more names of dishes and local ingredients.
Korean food is very complex and even when you recognize the name of the dish you are ordering, it doesn’t mean you will know precisely what will be arriving in front of you. Surprise, surprise! An army of plates full of main and side dishes is landing on your table leaving you little space to maneuver! For a novice like me it was intimidating. Where to start? How do I eat each one? How do I combine them? I adopted the tactic of looking at the nearby tables for clues, and learned a lot in the process, although I might never come even close to knowing everything about the complexity of Korean food traditions and diversity.
Although it is not common to find a restaurant catering to single diners, more often than not you will be allowed in and served, even when traveling alone. The staff might look at you with pity since eating alone in Korea is regarded as a bit sad. I did not have a choice though, and was only turned down once or twice because I was by myself. I made an effort to look for restaurants and eateries where I felt that I was welcome to sit alone at a table that could accommodate more guests.
Aside from the ‘eating alone’ issue, there is another: being/eating alone as a female traveler. I come from a city that never sleeps; a city visited by international tourists from all over the world, predominantly from Latin America. Our restaurants are open until very late, and have plenty of tables for two, where it does not matter if you are alone or with someone. In Korea, restaurants that stay open until late cater mostly to a male audience. Even outdoor sections of restaurants were overrun by men. I felt uneasy to sit down at first. “It is raining men” I thought. And most were not on their first beer can or soju bottle.
For lack of options, and after pacing up and down the street a few times, I sat down anyway, and enjoyed my meal. Sometimes I chose to eat at street carts and stalls that have communal benches, right next to strangers. It affords you a level of comfort that only anonymity can. The rest was … lost in translation. If anyone stopped to chat me up, they soon realized that this migug saram 미국 사람 does not speak hangug-eo 한국어, and they proceeded to say geonbe 건배 and move on. English-speaking foreigners also stopped by. I made some long-lasting friendships in the process. There is a silver lining in every life experience.
So, going back to the food… I don’t think I ever not liked what I ordered. Korean food has a home-made post-war quality that reminded me of my mom’s; those dishes she used to concoct back in Romania with no money, with little ingredients and boiled till tender. That familiarity of poor-people’s humble food, together with some decadent sea-food, foreign spices, and the freshest greens I have ever eaten, makes Korean food so special. It is bland and savory. Simple and luxurious at the same time.
Wherever I went, there was more to discover. Next time around I’ll promise to keep notes on names, ingredients and recipes. For now, I’ll just enjoy and share here the memory of the visuals. I didn’t discriminate on where to sit down and eat – I ate in the street, in coffee shops, at traditional and non-traditional restaurants, inexpensive tourist buffets and traps, at fast food places and at chic dives. One thing is certain, I’ll keep going back.