Monday, September 7, 2009
If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?
If she knew what she wants, he'd be giving it to her. If she knew what she needs, he would give her that, too. If she knew what she wants, he'd be giving it to her now. The lyrics from a 1980's Bangle song played unhelpfully through my head as I ended up in yet another awkward restaurant predicament.
I'd been walking alongside the Han River, having taken a short hike above the city that ended in a well-developed path along the river. The path was marked by a vivid green covering similar to astroturf. A replica of an old-fashioned wooden watermill and a pretty, man-made waterfall were alongside the river. I enjoyed walking there, but then again, I also enjoying watching romantic comedies starring Meg Ryan, so my tolerance (and appreciation) of too-cutesy is rather high. At any rate, I was getting hot and restless in my river stroll, so I decided to come up on one of the riverbanks and see what was in this area of Seoul.
I passed by a place that had an open door with a jumble of shoes in front of it. Curious, I poked my head inside the door frame and saw that it was a traditional Korean restaurant with low lying tables that had hot plates nestled in their centers. I was about to withdraw when a woman noticed me. “Come, come, come,” she gestured, saying something in Korean. “Um, that's o.k. I was just curious,” I mumbled, but she understood me no more than I understood her. “Come, come, come,” she gestured again, getting the attention of a number of other people in the restaurant, who all then stood and motioned for me to step inside. So I did.
The people assembled around me appeared to be the owners, along with assorted family members and the cook. One of the women laid a mat on the floor for me, gesturing that I should sit. Someone else handed me a menu. They then conferred in Korean, presumably asking each other what they should do with me. Finally, the husband stepped forward.
“Oogle,” he carefully enunciated, pointing at the menu. “Oogle?” I repeated, confused. It didn't sound like a typical Korean word. “Oogle, oogle,” he repeated, tapping his finger in staccato against the menu. As the menu was written entirely in Hangul, this did not clarify things. My thoughts tumbled different letter combinations and sounds, trying to make sense of things. “Do you mean 'noodle?' ” I finally asked. “Yes, noogle,” the husband happily repeated. “Yes, yes! Noodles. I like noodles,” I said, recognizing it as one of the safest possible options. “Noogle, noogle,” the various family members and the cook all told each other. The cook went into the kitchen. Then she came back. No noogles.
The husband chivalrously continued helping me with the menu. “Ifffs,” he said, pointing at another item. This one had me stumped. “Ifffffffs,” he repeated, drawing out the word more slowly for me to understand. I considered an option. “Fish?” I asked. “Yes, ifffs,” he replied. “Fish, like fish that swim in water?” I asked while puffing out my cheeks and pointing at my water glass to verify. The family took this as a negative indicator and after some conference, moved on to a third item on the menu.
“Beak,” the husband offered, pointing again at the menu. “Beef!” I shouted excitedly. We were finally getting better at this game. I was ready to bust out the Pictionary by this point. The family interpreted my excitement as a gesture of interest in beef, and so my meal was decided.
What I was served most likely did have some relation to beef, but what exactly it was difficult to determine. The main dish was a sort of soup with large chunks of bone, possibly hooves, that had small portions of gristle and fat attached to them. The soup also had onions, green leaves, sprouts, and glass noodles in it. In case this didn't fill me, I was also given six side dishes, including one that had the appearance and taste of paraffin wax, though it quivered like jello whenever I poked it with my chopstick. Although I'd been given a set of chopsticks and a spoon before the meal was served, it seemed to my hosts that I needed more help than that. One of the women arranged all my food for me and mimed the appropriate way for consuming some of it. Another woman ran to the kitchen and brought back a fork. I picked up my chopsticks to eat with them, anyways. This made the family and cook burst into a fit of giggles, which they politely but ineffectively tried to smother. A woman went back to the kitchen and returned with a second fork, which she set next to the original fork on my table. Perhaps they'd decided forks should come in a set, like chopsticks.
The food was to die for (in a literal sort of way, mind you) as there were altogether far too many items that I could only identify as “gelatinous,” but everyone there had been so kind and so eager to help that I ate away at it for as long as my stomach could handle it. When I left the restaurant, I was given a big handful of candies and smiles from everyone. Sometimes doing all the wrong things works out alright.