A truly Korean dinner

After getting 2nd place at my first fencing tournament in Seoul my club invited me out to dinner.  It was a successful tournament with 5 medalists from our club, Seoul Fencing Club, and I got invited to join everyone for dinner.  One catch; I was the only white guy and they barely spoke English.

The majority of the conversation was in Korean so I clearly understood none of it but was able to follow clubmates to a barbecue joint near the tournament; we sat on the floor filling up this restaurant with our group of 10 fencers.  It was a diverse group with a few highschoolers girls who were “too good to compete today” and were coaching.  After all they are the best team in all of Seoul!  We had a few young adults along with an older gentleman who was very animated and I’m sure hilarious but also embarrassed at his lack of English.

Most of the others could understand me if I spoke slowly and between their joint vocabulary we were able to have some basic conversations.  While I had seen most of them 2-3 times a week at practice this was the first time I’d really gotten to know anyone other than my English speaking fencing buddies.  I went through the basics about where I was from, that I was a teacher and broke the ice with a few funny fencing stories as the bacon-like pork belly, known as Samgyupsal, came out.

CAM00592

More importantly was the arrival of Mekju & Soju (beer & a rice-wine) which we combined for a more potent Somek.  It was delicious and I’m glad I learned a few of the customs earlier like not pouring your own drink how to accept/give a drink while showing respect.  With a quick “ganbei!” the drinks began flowing and the meat started grilling.

CAM00594

The Koreans took care of all the cooking and the banchan came out shortly after.  Conversation went back to Korean and I learned a few new words when a new banchan came out.  I didn’t know what it was but it looked spicy so I grabbed a small portion.  It was tasty and i took a little more.  This time it crunched hard.  Turns out it was fried soft shell crab and the older gentleman and bonded with me over this savory treat with another toast.

CAM00601

The sizzling pork created a delicious aroma and soon was ready to eat.  We dipped each piece into a sauce of our choice (I prefer the red bean paste but there was a sweet soy sauce tonight too), added garlic, potatoes, rice, sprouts, crab or whatever else we wanted to our lettuce wrap and ate up!  As usual I loved every bite; it may have been the Korean touch but it seemed like this pork was tastier than the last time I ate Samgyupsal and followed it up with some bugs…

CAM00599

Tonight, no bugs!  Although the crunchy crab resembled a larger cousin of bundaegi it was much tastier!  The evening got a little crazier when I looked over and half the table was gone.  I saw them huddling by the kitchen when my neighbor explained that one of the girls had a ring stuck on her finger.  I suggested using ice to try and reduce swelling but it was too late, they were already cutting it off!  The poor girl was in tears but a trooper about the whole thing while the older guys chuckled at her unfortunate situation.

I took it as an appropriate time to ask if she was right handed or left handed; upon finding out it wasn’t her dominant hand I told a few stories about some my old teammates punching walls in frustration and injuring their fencing hand.  Tonight may have embarrassed her but at least she wouldn’t leave disarmed while it healed up (oh fencing priorities).

We had a few more glasses and finished up the meal.  I think I successfully impressed my new clubmates with my fencing and 2 month old knowledge of Korean culture!  Can’t wait till the next tournament on the 24th!

Beef Sushi?

Saturday night my coworker’s brother arrived.  A few of us met up with Sejun, our Korean friend, and went out for the usual Korean BBQ.  The evening started off as usual with Sejun and I strolling the streets with a brew.  He informed me that although it is perfectly legal he cannot do it alone.  I can, foreigners can, but if he were to drink on the street alone or with other Koreans it would be highly frowned upon.  Another tradition he gets to avoid with us is being required to order food whenever you sit down at a table.  Most places won’t let you simply drink; everyone has to order food too.  That standard changes for foreigners so when he comes out with us we usually only need 1 dish for the whole table but, I digress.

IMG_20130914_210843

We met my coworker’ Sara, her brother Angelo and his friend Jack near the Hyperion Towers and the Omokgyo subway stop.  They had just gotten off of a 17 hour flight from the states and were excited to get the taste of inflight meals out of their mouth.  Sejun insisted that we have beef sushi; we didn’t quite know what it was but of course were ready to try something new.  We ordered some pork too and the banchan (sides) quickly arrived.

We tacked on a few beers and soju to the order, taught the newcomers “ganbei” (a Korean toast) and started to get to know each other.  Moments later our food arrived; we didn’t realize the beef sushi was in fact nothing like sushi.  It was ground beef with all kinds of seasonings (I recognized oil & garlic but can’t say what else was in it) with an egg yolk in the middle.  Sejun mixed it all up and we dug in; it was delicious!

IMG_20130914_220637

At this restaurant we were given the scissors and tongs and had to do all of the grilling ourselves.  At some BBQ places the wait staff will cut and flip it for you here we did all the grilling.  We ate the meal traditionally by wrapping the meat, some red paste, sprouts, garlic and whatever else we wanted in a lettuce leaf.   The oils dripped out and made a mess for most of us while one of the newbies struggled with chopsticks.  Sejun seemed to be the only one that didn’t have trouble but we certainly all enjoyed it.  The smells coming from the grill kept you hungry the whole meal and we devoured the rest of our order.

IMG_20130914_220827_1

Bacon and bugs

Have you ever eaten bugs?  I had a couple termites in Costa Rica but never anything like last Friday night.  The evening started after work when we walked to a barbeque joint near some of my coworkers’ apartment.  It was picked because of their hanging trays out front and since they served giant slabs of bacon!

image

The meal began with the usual banchan (sides) coming out; we had a sprout salad, red paste, salt and a miso style soup.  The grill lay in the middle of the table with a giant bronze tube above it.  Around the rim of the grill they cracked a few eggs, roasted some garlic and onions & peppers in a red sauce.

image

The waiter prepped the grill with a slab of bacon fat which brought a deliciuos smell to the table as we cracked open the first few beers.  It had been a rough week at school with paychecks being delayed and worries about the school’s longevity rising every day.  All this and its only my second Friday here; it was past time for some brews when suddenly a miracle happened.  No, bacon didn’t shoot out of the bronze tube like my coworker insisted, but it did arrive on our grill giving some sizzle to the tantalizing aroma erupting from our meal.

image

Before long our server had flipped and cut the bacon, scrmbled the eggs and told us (in Korean of course) that we could dig in!  Using chopsticks to procure our greatest desire we made bacon, egg & veggie wraps with the lettuce.  It was fantastic and just what we needed.  Another round of beer and a few more slabs later we were ready to figure out the rest of our evening.

image

After a brief discussion we decided to hang out at the Han River; I was assured there was a great view of the city and we could have an inexpensive evening with beers from a nearby convenience store.  We wandered past a Korean market before embarking on my second public transit trip.  This time I got to use my own Popcard and transfer from the bus.  The public transit here is quite extensive and usually very efficient; except when your popcard doesn’t scan because its too close to a credit card.

image

image

A few stops later we were within sight of the Han.  The lights of Seoul on the far bank provided a beautiful backdrop while we set up a few blankets and got some music going on my tablet.  A few friends join us as our group grew, now including 2 Koreans.  The beers were flowing as we discussed food, music and more when someone asked if I’d ever eaten bugs.

image

image

When in Rome, right?  I told them about the termites I shared with a tour guide in Costa Rica and found myself walking back to the market with Sejun where we grabbed a few more beers and a cup of silk worm larvae.  He ordered the brown ones . They looked like poop and I quickly learned that while Koreans don’t have the same sense of humor as us and rarely get our sarcasm, they have a huge comedy culture surrounding poop.  We all laughed; I stabbed my first bug and crunched away.

image

image

Sejun and I were alone with this challenge, the rest of the foreigners thought they tasted terrible and smelled worse.  Spearing a few more, we ate them one by one.  They had a strange taste but were meatier than I expected.  The texture reminded me of a crunchy protein shake mixed with something that came out of the wrong end of a hot dog plant.  Se Jun informed me that Koreans will often “drink” them out of the cup. I took a few gulps and chewed before admitting defeat.  They were alright, if I’m ever starving in a post-apoclyptic Seoul I know where to get some solid nutrition.  But, seeing as how North Korea hasn’t invaded again, I think I’ll stick to meals without baby bugs for now.

image