Life in Northern Ireland had always been about the food. To me at least, anyway: The fish and chips, the fry-ups, the sweets, the burgers and the vast, vast quantities of bread. It’s what I knew. And although I’d always prided myself on being open to new food types, I was never going to be prepared for what I found in Korea. I had no idea what Korean food even was, honestly. The best thing I could do was to focus on all the Chinese food I had enjoyed and hope it was similar to that. They’re pretty close to each other, right?
You see, I’d only ever been in a handful of Western countries so I had no idea what to expect from any Eastern countries, never mind Korea. It was a place that had only been a name in my head up until this point. So my initial culture shock was fairly pronounced and it took me quite some time to settle. But as challenging as the language and culture was, it was the food, and my need to eat lots of it, that caused the biggest concern. I mean, the place I was staying in didn’t exactly have a lot of English speaking people.
It wasn’t a problem initially as my new boss and other teachers took me out to eat a lot, but I was so overwhelmed by this new world and the food sitting in front of me that I never actually stopped to ask what it was I was eating. Even asking what one of the dishes was called would have been helpful. Ah, the benefit of hindsight.
So, on my first day of actual work, I ventured out to eat by myself. Shouldn’t be too hard, I thought. Of course, the fact that I was in a remote and quiet part of the country hadn’t really occurred to me. At least not as yet. It hit me like a train the instant I sat down though.
I’d chosen one of the corner booths in a place with a bright orange sign that I’d seen a handful of times already. Not just here, but in other parts of the town. A chain restaurant, I suppose. I’d been brought here once on my first day and it seemed to be cheap and relatively tasty. Though the main reason I was here, and the main attraction, was a pull out menu each customer was handed as they walked through the door. Although it was in Korean, to order you simply had to tick a box and hand it to the waitress. No language skills required. So to my relief, food was a guarantee. The type of food, however, would be almost completely random.
60 items, more or less, greeted me as I stared at the menu. On the plus side, meal types were divided into categories. Well, it would have been a plus had they meant a thing to me either. Food roulette it was then. I figured starting at the top would be my best bet, but all the items in the first category looked suspiciously cheap. Side dishes perhaps? I skipped to the next category and selected the fourth item, picked up the sheet and waved it in the air. One of the waiting staff arrived with a smile on her face, her neat, orange uniform matching the sign outside. She said something to me in Korean. I grinned back wordlessly and thrust the piece of paper towards her, pointing at my choice. Still smiling, she looked at the paper and then yelled some instructions to the kitchen staff in the back.
Then it was time to play the waiting game.
What arrived was actually pretty good though- a mixture of spicy sauce, rice and vegetables which I really enjoyed. Success! But I wasn’t one to rest on my laurels and order the same thing every day. That would never do. I could use this as an opportunity to sample some of the delights of Korean cuisine AND learn the language So, I took a copy of the menu home with me in an attempt to unlock the meanings of the arcane symbols that covered it. Obviously, this translated into it sitting in my wallet indefinitely and coming to the restaurant, and menu, with no new knowledge at all. So with some inevitability, I ended up playing that game of food roulette for the better part of a year.
It was certainly a baptism of fire into the world of Korean food, but happily I ended up discovering and enjoying a lot more than I could have reasonably expected to. Not to say that there weren’t a few unfortunate choices. Ice noodles may be refreshing on a cool day for your average Korean, but wouldn’t have been my first choice. The dish was basically cold noodles in an iced bowl of spicy tomato soup. Which sounded like the sort of ‘minimalist’ cooking of my student days, the big difference being that those meals tended to be hot. Most of the time, at least.
All of this had a big impact on my love of Korean food in general though and within a month of being home, I missed it terribly. But I’ll always remember the first bowl of random food set in front of me and the thrill of expectation at my next random meal. I would still have a hard time identifying half of the things I ate though.