At twenty-nine, I was a jogae gui virgin.
I filmed the shellfisher one afternoon, his consent given by a cursory nod, cracking and splitting shells: mussels the length of your hand, clams as wide as your palm. His deft knife-work is lascivious: twist, crack, split, twist, crack, split. We exchange smiles on most occasions, sometimes a perfunctory Korean greeting. But too many distractions might send the knife plunging deep into the flesh of his ungloved hand. So I walk quickly on.
It took me a year to go into his restaurant and eat; I needed a dinner date who’d know what to do. Korean barbeque rituals are learned as you grow up. You listen to your parents judging the heat by the colour of the embers; they tell you the grill is not hot enough because the air above it does not wobble. They snatch your hand away if you lean in too close and scold you so you’ll learn. At twenty-nine, I was a jogae gui virgin.
When mussels and other molluscs are condemned to the grill, they reveal their secret weapon, their one and only act of insubordination: self-annihilation.
‘Quick! Take it off before the clam explodes!’ my dining companion commands. I lift the mollusc with the tongs, but am too late and shards of shell shrapnel discharge themselves, narrowly missing my face.
I have burnt the largest mussel on the grill – The Daddy – that the shellfisher had ceremoniously presented at our table. A white plastic bucket sits beneath each round, galvanized barbecue station – a graveyard for the spoiled – into which the blackened shell and its curled, dead remains are thrown. A group of middle-aged men talk loudly and jovially over one another through mouthfuls of shellfish as the air greys with their cigarette smoke. Steadily emptying green bottles of soju – rice wine – clutter their table.
I am still hungry.
At the barbeque station next to us is a well-dressed couple; the red in his check shirt is striking against her livid-green blouse. She is in charge of the grilling and the monitoring. He leans his upper body to the left – still talking – in anticipation of a shellfish-seizure. She whips a clam off the grill with tongs, scoops the torpid contents out with a pair of silver chopsticks, delivers a smudge of red gochujang (hot pepper sauce) and places it, delicately, into her boyfriend’s mouth.
I wore a hairy jumper to dinner and stray fibres keep catching in the heat as I reach across the grill with my tongs. Small, transitory fires on my clothes add to the anxiety of eating jogae gui.
Across the road from the jogae gui restaurant, where an evangelical church with shepherds and cartoon lambs on its double-doors faces the street, is the Bonjuk restaurant – a franchise selling healthy Korean cuisine.
I don’t have to prepare my seafood here.
The day after a shard of shark fin-shaped glass went into my hand and I needed twelve stitches, I went into Bonjuk alone for the first time. I was so grateful for good food you could eat one-handed with a spoon. All the dishes came in large, stone bowls: soups, porridge, bibimbap, and gul jul guy – spicy oyster soup with glass noodles.
Bonjuk saw me through those one-handed weeks.
... little bowls of colourful promise: pickled ribbons of deep green seaweed and hot-pink slices of radish.
Sinpo was my neighbourhood in Incheon – my city by the sea for two years. And you could eat fresh oysters anywhere. Bonjuk restaurants only sell the gul juk gui where oysters are in abundance; the empty shells sound like castanets as they are scraped from the bowl and tumble into the bin.
The first time I ate at Bonjuk the waitress, a woman in her middle years with admirable posture, looked warily at my bandaged hand and asked me if I was meeting someone. ‘I’m on my own,’ I told her. One other lone diner was sat in the middle of the restaurant at a beige Formica table. The waitress laid a place in front of him, took my elbow and guided me into the seat opposite. He looked up, startled by the bandaged foreign woman (Russian? Strips at The Seaman’s Club?). Embarrassed, I insisted I was content to eat alone.
Gul juk gui was a lucky guess; I could read Korean well enough but the nuances of heat, the type of dish it’s served in, and many vegetables were still a mystery. Oyster soup could be anything. A portion could feed two, but I always emptied the bowl. Most of it could be eaten one-handed with a spoon; the noodles with flat chopsticks, ideally with two hands, coiling the noodles into the spoon. Bite down hard on the oysters – they’re more resistant than you think – and their rubbery skins give, releasing a briny piquancy that mingles with the fieriness of the soup and conjures the sea.
The side dishes that come with each Korean meal are little bowls of colourful promise: pickled ribbons of deep green seaweed and hot-pink slices of radish. Along with the oysters, gul juk gui gave me all my iron and zinc. I needed to heal; I’d lost a lot of blood when I cut my hand.
But it would have been nice to share gul juk gui with someone.
Our first date was a traditional Korean meal with all the side dishes carefully displayed in jade ceramics - banchan.
Jae-ik and I met at Culture Complex – the language exchange centre where he was the manager. I liked his thick glasses and sticky-out hair. When I explained the unfortunate name for his language programme, he laughed, and wrote it down in his pocket-notebook under ‘homonyms’.
Our first date was a traditional Korean meal with all the side dishes carefully displayed in jade ceramics – banchan. I asked him lots of questions about the technique, the history and the legends behind everything we were eating: Korean kingdoms adopted Buddhism as its state religion, and court kitchens cultivated elaborate ways to prepare simple, Buddhist dishes. My favourite was the miniature kimchi pancakes.
Jae-ik said that he found my appetite charming.
The bus on the way home was crammed with commuters so we had to stand, swaying unsteadily into one another as it charged around corners. He ran an index finger along the inside of my wrist, and whispered something in my ear.
Jae-ik’s first gift to me was a can of pomegranate juice from the 7/11. ‘It’s good for women—for down there,’ he said, offering it to me with both hands like it was an injured bird.
Jae-ik liked to eat Korean beef barbeque—bulgogi. One evening he sprung it on me that I was to meet his hyun, a respected older male friend, and that we’d all eat bulgogi together. Jae-ik was his dong-saeng, and therefore required approval from his mentor over his choice of girlfriend. His hyun spoke elegant English, better than Jae-ik, but as the soju flowed, the hyun got impatient and before too long both he and Jae- ik were talking in slurred Korean and I couldn’t follow. Not trusted with the barbeque, I sat bored and mute watching the kimchi frying on the hotplate, the edges of each cabbage leaf blackening and spoiling, the hyun’s cigarette ash showering the meat. The men shovelled over-done beef cuts into their mouths and then ordered yook hwe, a raw beef salad mixed with raw egg, and laughed when I made a face.
Jae-ik had red gochujang all over his chin.
On the train back to my flat, after dinner was finally over, I made Jae-ik sit with his head between his knees so he didn’t puke yook-hwe all over the carriage. He looked up through pink eyes, and told me that he was under a lot of pressure at home to get married. ‘I’m the oldest son,’ he told me mournfully, ‘I have to find someone soon. It might as well be you.’ We argued, and then he puked in my bathroom. His final gift to me was an ugly pair of sparkly earrings, an apology that confirmed we didn’t know anything about each other at all.
Where British custom discusses the weather... Koreans ask about your last meal
My apartment block straddled Sinpo and China Town, and my bedroom looked out onto the Incheon port in the East China Sea. I found it satisfying watching the sun sink at different points behind the mountains as the seasons changed. December promised the best sunset. A flash of pink and auburn on the surface of the ocean before the sun dips finally, making room for dusk to move in. Neon Hangeul signs blink to life and take over the skyline.
It was Chinese settlers who brought Jjajangmyeon to Korea. They landed at Incheon and set up their shops on a tiny sliver of the city about a kilometre wide. Jjajangmyeon – chewy noodles topped with a glutinous black soybean sauce – even has its own song. Korean kids learn it in kindergarten and needle their parents for the noodles on the weekend.
In China Town, not far from a weary-looking stone Confucius, an enormous fiberglass effigy of a bowl of jjajangmyeon is on display. Visitors make their pilgrimage to China Town for the day, have their picture taken with the noodles, and then eat a bowl of it in one of the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants. Outside the Jjajangmyeon museum, a colossal statue of a chef in whites is frozen in mid-run, clutching a take-away box of jjajangmyeon.
It is possible to map the evolution of Korea’s cuisine against the country’s own extraordinary evolution from feudal state, to military dictatorship, to capitalist democracy. Contrary to the stereotypes of an inflexible and rigid culture – it was once referred to as ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ – Korea has moved with the times. Jjajangmyeon is a perfect example of this: Koreans have selected the appetizing parts of Chinese influence and turned them into a national dish, complete with its own festival.
American influence has also had its way with Korean cuisine, and this came as a shock – when I found pieces of deep-fried Spam on my tray in the school canteen. Rows of Spam in blue and yellow tins line supermarket shelves, and are a popular gift to take home during the Chuseok holiday. Army Stew – a spicy (and revolting) Spam based noodle soup is sometimes called Johnson’s Stew in honour of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who visited Korea in 1966 and promised economic aid. Spam, an uninviting flabby by-product of a free-market economy, has attained mythical status.
Contrary to the stereotypes of an inflexible and rigid culture... Korea has moved with the times.
Where British custom discusses the weather in meaningless detail before easing into lucid conversation, Koreans ask about your last meal: ‘Did you eat something?’ is the opener for most greetings. If I said ‘no,’ I would be handed a snack dug out of a handbag – usually a rice cake, tteok. And on one occasion, when I said I had not eaten breakfast, I was marched to a nearby restaurant and forced to eat a bowl of bibimbap – rice and bean sprouts – until I was full, pae-bol-oy-yo. I soon learned that the stock answer was always ‘yes,’ in the same way that the British don’t expect anyone to not be ‘fine’.
But I never really got used to this overly personal greeting in the two years I lived in Korea. You could be hurrying past a colleague in a busy corridor, who’d meet your eye and shout, ‘Did you eat lunch?’ and frantically mime spooning food into their mouth, in place of a wave. There’d be no time to stop and answer, so the question was always left hanging, like an awkward expression of unrequited love. I made it my business to email the colleague who’d enquired and finish the exchange: ‘Yes, I ate lunch. Thank you for asking.’
Hannah Garrard. Photographs – courtesy of the author.
Did You Eat Lunch has been selected for the 2015 Words and Women Anthology.