January 26, Home Cooking

There has been more upheaval with my work documents that left me hanging worriedly on tenterhooks all day and I could do nothing but check my email with a growing sense of dread.

The day was cold and rainy but I needed a walk to clear my head. Down by the beach I drank peppermint tea and finished notes for Korean class. My intention was to also complete the writing assignment but the mental block of possibly not having a job after a year of effort prevented any more than rewriting vocabulary.

In Korea, rainy days are meant for pajeon and rice wine. Next best is Busan’s famous dish 돼지국밥. I hesitated for a moment then pushed inside. An older woman (every mom and pop restaurant I’ve frequented seems to be staffed by an older couple) led me to a big table and took my order– I hesitate to call her a waitress because the person who serves is also often the chef, custodian, owner, and manager. Fun fact: 26% of businesses in South Korea are small, individual businesses, compared to 6% in the US.

“I’ll have the pork and rice soup, please.”

“Spicy?”

“Yes.”

“Are your sure?”

“Yes.”

I don’t know if I’ve been desensitized or if Koreans are simply convinced the national palette outranks the rest in terms of spice tolerance.

But I have upgraded my hot sauce to buldak so who can really say. (And now I’m laughing at the romanization of 불닭, fire chicken, to “buldark”. The “r” is silent…)

In just a few minutes the woman set down a large metal disc with a steaming bowl of soups and side dishes.

The two small dishes contain sauce for the soup: fermented bean paste (nothing like that terrible brown mistake I ate in Japan; this is a nutty garlic paste that Americans go wild for during Korean bbq) and salted shrimp. Do not be a fool like me when I first came up one these in Seoul: I dumped the whole spoonful in and made my sundaeguk nearly inedible. I like salt but damn, not that much.

The four dishes in the back, from left to right, are: radish kimchi (one of my favorite kimchi vehicles), raw onions/garlic/pepper (there are two kinds of peppers that look nearly alike but one is hot and the other is like a bell pepper, it’s always a mystery to me which kind I’ll bite into), cabbage kimchi, and… cold chives? I’m not sure, but I really like this one. It comes in a mild sweet pepper sauce and is the perfect complement to a hot dish.

The main star is dwaeji gukbap* and I want you to know I died a little inside writing that in English. It’s a broth based soup with rice, pork slices, and garnishes. I like to fish the pork out and dip it in the bean paste.

The other patrons left and then it was me, the woman from earlier wiping tables, and a rainy street. She paused between tables to ask if the soup was spicy.

“I like spicy things,” I answered happily. We got to chatting and I told her I used to live in Seoul but moved to Busan. My knee jerk reaction in response to any nice Korean is to tell them how unfriendly Seoul people are. Oops. But if it lifts morale of the smaller towns, I’ll never stop. She commented on my good Korean then asked if I like Busan better.

“Yes!” She reported this quietly to the women through the kitchen window but seeing as I was the only straggler, my eavesdropping ears were honed. My vision was broken by a magical sight, however: a miniature coffee vending machine.

My friends up north love Korean restaurants in America for their 25 cent coffee almost as much as their 25 dollar barbecue. My impression from all those tasty late night Korean restaurants in Virginia was that every restaurant here would supply little cups of vending coffee. And yet, I’ve seen it only a handful of times and was never comfortable enough to ask before today. I feel that a major milestone was achieved.

As for the job, it was finally cleared up… but it’s 2020(1) and I won’t be satisfied until I have my new visa in hand.

*Can also be romanized as dweji gookbap, doeji gukbap, dwaeji kookbap, and every combination thereafter… The phonetic pronunciation is “dweh-jee gook-bop” but Korea doesn’t give two shakes about that. The biggest offender I’ve seen in Busan is romanizing ㅈ (j) as z. There is no /z/ sound in Korean. At all. Busan people just think it looks “cool” (I think it looks dumb and if I can’t go around obnoxiously saying 찜찔방 as “zzimzzilbang” then what’s the point?)

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