Saturday, 25 September 2010

Weird and Wonderful

Our first lone venture into a Korean restaurant consisted of Tom and I apprehensively entering a small place right by our apartment. The small family-run restaurant had a fish tank outside and a few pictures on the wall. We had not met any foreigners to give us any understanding of what was going on and we had naively not actually prepared ourselves despite clutching at our Korean travel guide. We were simply Korean food virgins.
We thought this place would be safe as we could point at the fish and pictures and do the general foriegner gesturing. I don't think it was until this point that I realised being a vegetarian might be difficult in Korea. We hadn't even brought a phrase book with us. We had no Korean speaking under our belt so when the woman  came over to take our order, we both just gormlessly pointed at two different pictures of what looked like soup mounted on the wall next to us and said, 'eerr this one and this one??'.

She immediately realised how helpless we were and scurried off into the kitchen and came back after a brief moment with various samples of kimchi (fermented cabbage or radish or other vegetables of choice). We waited for our soup with excitement- what would it be? When mine came it was an almost florescent turquoise colour and one deep plunge into the bowl with my spoon revealed a multitude of black snail like sea creatures! I got the giggles a little at the ridiculousness of the situation. The good thing is, Korean's have a good humour about their food and always try to get you to taste new things or eat the Korean way, if it doesn't eat you first~

Since that moment, nothing has surprised me when it comes to Korean food. On reflection I have come to realise that on many occasions I have remained a spectator and lived my Korean dining experience through Tom. I am squeamish about meaty oddities, but living with a meat lover like Tom has meant I have usually just stared on!

I have put together my top five weird food memories which I hope provide a quick insight.

1) The first one has to be another early time when we went into a Korean bar and we were of course handed a Korean bar menu. By that time I had learned how to explain no meat but we still did not know what things were as we could not read Korean. Tom being a brave soul asked which section was chicken. He then literally spun his finger on this section and pointed at one of the options. The woman just blinked at him and said 'ooh very spicy', but Tom thought he could handle it!
Eventually, the very friendly woman brought me a rolled omelet with mushrooms, very tasty! Tom's face dropped however when out came a mound high plate of incredibly spicy chicken feet! He swallowed down a fair few mouthfuls and although the texture itself didn't really bother him, the spiciness was off the scale. He was chewing them as quick as possible and then drowning it with beer. Of course I didn't help him eat them and he didn't want to leave more than he ate to be polite. I guess the woman was right to warn him, but you would have though she would have at least tried to charade an explanation that it was 'chicken' feet.

2) We have also had the infamous live octopus experience. Our friend Zuleika took us to the local restaurant near her apartment as her family had come to stay and she wanted to expose them to Korean food. We naturally jumped at the chance to witness the unknown. The octopus itself is not actually alive, but it is killed only moments before they serve it to you and it comes raw and squiggling as the nerves fight their last battle against death. The squiggling can die down but be reinvigorated if you poke around with it. It is extremely disgusting but incredibly fascinating. Luckily it was cut into small pieces. We had seen some videos of whole octopus being pushed into a mouth as the tentacles tried to escape. It is important to kill the 'whole' kind with your teeth as they can sucker onto your throat and kill you. I just looked on in horror.

3) At our co-workers leaving lunch, we all went for dinner at an oyster restaurant where we ate delicious oyster soup with kimchi and sticky rice. For some reason though two of the girls ordered a fish stew instead. We were naturally inquisitive about their dish and as the soupy broth disappeared from the big pot to the individual serving bowls, it revealed a coagulated lump of what looked like dry noodles. Tom asked, 'what's that?' to which Lora laughed! 'It's fish intestines, you want some, it's delicious and good for you...' and again Tom said, why not!! He did say it was one of the most disgusting things he has ever eaten. I second that.

4) There is also a Korean delicacy dish named samgyetang. I don't think there is a connection between this name and our town Samgye but I may be wrong. This dish involves boiling a whole baby chicken in a vegetable soupy broth until the meat literally falls off the tiny birds bones. I think there must be something politically incorrect about eating a baby bird but the Koreans fall back on the old, 'healthy food' reasoning and people like Tom relish on it, so I guess who am I to judge.

5) One less carnivorous moment was one winter morning when we arrived as usual in the teachers room at school at 9:45am. I looked round to greet everyone and what a sight I saw! Lora and Miju were spreading strawberry ice-cream on slices of white bread and stuffing strawberries on top. They were literally going to town. This situation was wrong on many levels a) being so early b) being so wintry and c) being so savoury/sweet! When they offered me a bite, I politely refused and instead I took this snapshot.

Finally I wanted to share this cheeky extra one with you.

When we went snowboarding, these tiny crab critters were served as a side dish to our main meals. None of us could bring ourselves to drop one of them down the hatch, they looked too helpless and I cannot imagine they would have been very easy to chew through. I don't think I will ever understand people who can look a little guy in the beady eyes and then bite off it's head. Poor fella.

Thank you Korea for your colourfully carnivorous moments. They have been some of the best memories.

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