Exhaustion leadened my weary bones on the seemingly endless drive my first hour in Korea. Outside, only the towering of lights from skyscraper apartment buildings indicated life in the dark.
“In the day, you can see hills,” my boss told me as she zoomed past other cars.
I murmured something and attempted more conversation with a woman I barely knew—a long blur of vague flight details, the experience of my cousin’s wedding, what my family was like—until we arrived.
“Suwon,” she said as she turned down a side street, then another.
We ended up crawling down a bright street hardly two lanes wide with multi-colored awnings set up with a range of wares beneath: silvery fish set on ice, hills of cabbage, pots and pans, hair dye.
Another turn and we ended up on a barely lit street and parking. Without fully comprehending, I was jostled out along with my two suitcases that held my entire life and tattered Kipling backpack.
A woman with blonde hair came out to greet us. She helped me lug my suitcases into my small studio apartment. It was far smaller than I expected.
I looked around the glaringly white space and wondered if it could possibly really be that bright, that small, that empty.
“Are you exhausted?” both she and my boss questioned. “Want to grab dinner?”
“Sure,” I said as I followed them blindly out beyond my apartment and through the market. They sat us down in a chimaek restaurant—a fried chicken and beer place.
With hardly a moment to spare, my blonde coworker rattled something off in Korean to the waiter and we had cold beers sitting in front of us.
I sipped at mine in an attempt to fit into this strange little world where the booths were cut out of heavy wood and a brilliantly hideous red upholstery covered everything. At almost 11 pm, we sat alone under the scrutiny of the staff.
“Korea’s famous for their chicken,” someone explained.
This much I knew. A summer spent living with a Korean family opened my eyes to Korean twice-fried chicken with its crispy outer later and succulent meat in tiny morsels.
The baskets of chicken that came out looked nothing like my memory.
One dripped in a fiery red sauce, the other covered with a sticky gold one and green onions.
Somehow two forks made their way into my hands and I watched in awe as the two women before me tore into the chicken with expert detail with the forks, dipping it in sauce and urging me on.
Tears welled in my eyes as I chewed the red chicken and spicy fire sprouted on my tongue. My hesitant sips of beer turned to gulps.
I shook my head. “Just hit me wrong.”
I think both of us knew that wasn’t true.
After that, I stuck to the sticky, sweet chicken as though it would save my life.
A confession: before coming to Korea, I had only eaten Korean food that summer I lived with a Korean family. I liked Korean-fried chicken, the sweet meat of bulgogi, ketchup-covered omurice. Kimbap I ate because my travel partner guzzled it down singing it praises. The tiny dried anchovies known as myeolchi I can still only handle in small amounts.
My idea of adventurous eating involved trying new things. When in France, I was the first to suck down escargot with my friend’s cameras flashing and video recording the experience. In South Africa, I nibbled at crocodile (impala was quite nice, though). In the South, I ate frog legs.
Those things I tried once for the novelty of it. There was no plan in my life to include those new foods into my daily diet.
Enter my blonde co-worker. We’ll call her Daisy.
Once, we went to an Italian pizzeria together in our neighborhood. In the spirit of Korean meal-sharing, we decided to order two pizzas together. I longingly eyed the plain margarita pizza and avoided eyeing the spicy pizza, the one that looked like a pile of leaves, the seafood-soaked pizzas.
She did not.
“I want to eat interesting food,” she said as she insisted on the pizzas I avoided: the spicy and the overly-leafy one. “I don’t want to be eating the same boring food that I ate in the US.”
Daisy lived by this rule of adventurous eating.
Through this adventurous eater, I began to take my food cues.
My first week in Korea, after work, Daisy led me down the brightly-lit street of the market area to a small shop with a display container of plastic life-sized dishes displayed out front. We stepped in and seated ourselves at one of the wooden tables with the latest episode of a Korean drama blaring away from its perch upon the wall. A small crew of middle-aged Korean women paced the less-than-spotless looking kitchen with their curly hair tied back and aprons over their flower-print dresses while sheets of cooling eggs sat haphazardly on a table.
The menu—totally printed in Korean—hung against one wall. Daisy translated the items for me, but that didn’t clarify anything. Finally she mentioned something I recognized.
“Bibimbap,” I said as I eyed the kitchen warily. “I think I like bibimbap.”
She ordered bibimbap and a chamchi (that is—tuna) kimbap for the table, along with cold noodles drenched in a spicy sauce and vinegar for herself.
My pot of rice and a medley of vegetables came out sizzling hot with a fried, runny-yoke egg on top. As I began to stir it, Daisy rebuked me. “Wait until the bottom rice gets crispy, that’s when it’s best.”
I shrugged and waited until the sizzling deceased before stirring the vegetables and rice together. Away from home, stuck at a strange job I knew nothing about, eating strange food, I resisted the urge to wince. The mix of spicy rice, strange vegetables, and spicy sauce was not what I thought. Yet, I sucked the whole thing down and picked at a few pieces of the kimbap.
Little did I know that this bibimbap would become a go to, a comforting favorite during my time living in the market, along with my favored omurice and cheese donkatsu (fried pork cutlet).
The thing about Korea is, is that I never got away from the Korean food, so I never had a chance to re-adjust my taste buds to something more home-like.
Every day before work, my boss’s fierce little grandmother who could rarely tarry up a smile would cook a soup, rice, and a plethora of Korean side dishes that I followed Daisy to.
Among the soups was a spicy budae jjigae—a soup with a kimchi base and whatever else that could be found, such as but not limited to tofu, pork, hot dogs, spam, and fish, was thrown in.
Another was watery miyeokguk with thick pieces of seaweed and miniscule morsels of pork floating in it. A cup of rice to dash through the broths became a common practice for me.
Among the sides were kimchi, kkakdugi (a kimchi cubed radish), jangjorim (a salted beef dish usually also served with hard boiled eggs also soaked in the sauce), and various other greens.
My favorite side, by far, though was the mysterious tofu the grandmother made now known to me as dububuchim-yangnyeomjang. This dish involved squares of cut tofu to be pan-fried and smothered in a red sauce with thinly sliced green onions sprinkled on top. On the days she made this side dish, it became a battlefield with the other teachers. It wasn’t unusual to find five or six slices on trays and chopsticks warring for the remaining pieces.
Between lunch at school and my adventurous food-loving friend Daisy, and an innate stubbornness to try new things, keeping Korean food in my palette never became much of a problem.
As the stinging winter cold set in Korea, so did the local hotteok lady set up her yellow-and orange tent near noon every day against all weather odds. Without fail at near-noon, she began to unwrap her tent and slick up her hot electric skillet with oil. A mixture of cinnamon, brown sugar, and sunflower seed soon whipped its way into existence next to the skillet, along with a bowl of pancake dough.
For six hours, clad in a hat and puffy winter jacket, she would flip the cinnamon-stuffed pancakes on the skillet, giving customers three large pancakes in exchange for 2,000 won. Though the cold always had me clutching around my middle and dancing around icy patches, after work at least once a week, I would head under the plastic flap of the tent to bask in the warmth of the griddle and wait for three fresh hotteok to be whipped up, usually after waiting in a line of three to six people.
As soon as the paper bag was handed to me, grease leaked from the bottom, causing the white paper to turn splotchy. Unwilling to risk the rest of my fingers to the cold, I would march to my apartment, flip on the heat, then tear into the melted, gooey goodness known as hotteok. Often times, this dessert would be eaten in lieu of dinner as I munched on the crispy outside and the sweet inside. A winter in Korea would not be the same without the pancakes.
Nor would it be the same without our school’s Christmas (*ahem* Year End) Party. For two days, the kids would go classroom to classroom playing themed games in hopes of winning points to go upstairs to the market where a splendid array of foods were prepared pain-stakingly by my boss’s mother and grandmother.
In the center of the market stood a bubbling skillet of spicy red sauce with rice cakes soaking in the heat inside. A teacher would be assigned the duty of swiping a smooth back and forth across the skillet to keep the substance from burning. When students handed over their fake cash, we handed over a steaming hot bowl of tteokbokki.
Once, my high school students had the pleasure of having snacks delivered to them during class by my boss. A stunning array of fried foods, black sausage, and tteokbokki arrived. With eager eyes, they urged me to try one.
“No, no,” I protested. “I’ll probably cry.”
Spicy food has the ability to do that to me. This only made them urge harder.
Finally I gave in and had some. I didn’t cry, which I still consider a win under their eager gazes.
My first full Christmas in Korea, I tried to avoid the tteokbokki station, for I would rather snack on other treats like the tuna sandwiches that were provided. However, one hour other teachers took my favorite station so I was forced to stir the red liquid. And I began to snack.
At first, I snacked because it was there. The spicy sauce and the texture of the rice cakes felt strange against my teeth.
Then, at subsequent hours, I found myself racing to take over the tteokbokki station.
After that Christmas, Korean street food became one of my favorite things to eat given the chance. Tteokbokki isn’t some sort of regular Christmas treat, but rather it’s a regular food found at street stalls in Korea, packaged in the grocery stores, or at chain restaurants. The spiciness could still bring tears to my eyes, but they were a more joyous than embarrassed tears.
One of the first meals after the fried chicken I had when I came to Korea was Korean barbecue aka eating samgyeopsal. It took almost a year and a half for this cut of pork to grow on me, which is far more than the hours or weeks the other foods took. Samgyeopsal gets its name from the three layers visible in the meat (sam means three in Korean). It is a fatty cut of meat. The first night I tried it, I decided I didn’t like it. For most of my young life, I avoided fat on animals.
If a steak had any fat, I cut it off immediately. Once, when cooking chicken, I made the mistake of thinking the cooking parts of the meat were fat and lifted the chicken out to cut off the “new” fatty bits myself only to discover it was cooked chicken.
No, no, animal fat was not for me. I stuck to the safe, non-fatty cut of pork shoulder called moksal. But, slowly, pieces of samgyeopsal would find their way to my side of the barbecue plate and into my rice and kimchi lettuce wraps. After I found myself eating the pieces, I realized that if they were cooked to an almost bacon-y crispness, I liked them.
And that transformed to as long as they were cooked, we were good to go.
Food has a way of growing on you, is what I’ve learned. Enough exposure to a food and you’ll learn to like it, maybe even love it.
Tteokbokki was an unexpected love, samgyeopsal grew on me. But if there was one thing I thought I would never love would be any form of cold noodles. Then I started ordering a combination of bibim-gooksu and fried dumplings from a pancake restaurant basically on a weekly basis.
Cold noodles never seemed quite right to me. When I imagined noodles, I imagined them to be hot in spaghetti or a stir fry, not made even colder with cubes of ice stuck into the bowl. But that’s exactly what happens with Korean cold noodles. There are various kinds of cold noodles, with anything from vinegar sauces to spicy sauces.
Bibim-gooksu lays on a spicy range of cold noodles, sliced carrots and cucumber, along with shredded lettuce throw in with a hard boiled egg. In spring one year, I went to a restaurant attempting to order a bibimbap, only to discover they didn’t have it.
In a blind panic, I looked at the menu on the wall and ordered the first thing that looked familiar under the waiting eyes of the cashier.
“Bibim—bibim—gooksu,” I said.
Maybe I thought it made it look like bibimgooksu was what I planned to order the entire time. I think everyone, including myself, thought that I left my brain at home because bibimbap wasn’t even on the menu at this particular restaurant.
The bowl of noodles in red sauce with ice cubes didn’t appeal to me when it was placed in front of me. And as I swirled the noodles around with chop sticks and stuck them in my mouth, they appealed to me even less.
I made a show of eating more than I wanted to eat, but I left more than half the bowl behind.
Yet, somehow, after ordering enough Korean pancakes (jeon—kimchi jeon, please) to last a lifetime from one particular restaurant, I began to order take-away bibim-gooksu and fried dumplings. It’s healthy, I reasoned, far more than getting a large pancake every week.
The meal grew on me and became a regular craving of my stomach’s soul.
My love of food has grown since coming to Korea. These foods have done a bit to transform my palette, though there are others who have a special place in my heart: tender Bossam wrapped in kimchi, skewers of fish cakes cooked in soup, a good kimchi jjigae, grilled fish (with the skin still on!). And there are some foods my stomach still cannot abide: cheonggukjang (aka stinky soup), anything to do with intestine or animal feet, and sundae, Korean black sausage.
Korean food is very unlike anything I ever ate of Asian food back home. I had a hearty time eating sushi every Sunday after church. American Chinese food is distinctly different than China Chinese food, but it still had some semblance to Asian flavors if you squint enough. But Korean food’s flavor and technique of cooking is so much different than anything I had ever tried. I can’t imagine how I’ll ever live without it.
And yes, kimbap has grown on me like mold in a Korean bathroom. Months of being poor and it being the cheapest food around (1,000 won for a roll) does that to a woman, I guess.
Have you ever had a food slowly grow on you?