After six days in Saigon, Dave and I were off to South Korea. Amid news of the country (or also, perhaps, our own) being smashed to smithereens. Both of our mothers had worried faces while we were Face-timing and rightfully so — we have international news at our disposal– but I can assure you from the safety of Tokyo where American TV is at our disposal: American TV makes things sound really scary and worse. Sorry to make you worry, Moms.
Koreans could not have been less than impressed with North Korea’s bullying and are almost indifferent to the chatter. We watched Korean news in English and the glossed over the danger and basically the reports were “….eyeroll”. Before we knew all this, we shrugged and packed our bags and left the land of lawless traffic, sweating profusely, and herb salads and hopped on a free, four-hour flight (thanks, frequent flier miles!) on Asiana.
We landed and it was 30 degrees Celcius colder than when we landed (Americans — it was 95F in Saigon and 25 or so in Seoul). Literally, as we walked of the plane the chill took our breath (and dare I argue, 1/2 of my tan?) away.
We plodded through the night to our guest house in a hip area of Seoul with many universities, and promptly, and unequivocally fell in love with this city.
We ate our first meal at midnight, in a real restaurant, seated not on a plastic stool. This felt strange. We also didn’t yet pretend to speak any Korean, so a kindly waitress who spoke a little English ordered for us, and helped us cook table-side whatever it was we ate. Pieces of tender steak, cut up pieces of tube-y insides with some sort of delicious meaty-squish inside, tiny mushrooms and morning glory were all stir-fried at our table in a huge cast iron pot. The staff checked on us so we wouldn’t a) ruin it or b) burn their establishment down. We split a bottle of soju. We split another.
Then, the most magical sentence was uttered. “Do you want kim chi fried rice?” IN THE CAST IRON POT. With all the delicious, burnt remnants of our stir-fried dinner.
Duh, kindly lady.
The next few days were a whirlwind of a new routine for us. We had some errands to run, like purchasing sweaters, gloves, and shoes that didn’t have exposed toes.
We most importantly though, needed to have fun. And fun in Korea means boozing face and eating meat. Sound familiar, Americans? It’s like a New Orleans bar crawl, there’s an order to your night and it devolves quickly.
It starts like this. Get a beer from the convenience store. A 7-11, Family Mart, or CU. Crack it open and enj0y it on the table and chairs outside. Then, it’s barbeque time.Enjoy your beef with some soju (or loads of soju) and linger over dinner.
Then instead of dessert and to take a soju break, get a beer and have the table share a plate of fried chicken.
Then, it’s time for karaoke or to collapse — whichever comes first (note: we never made it to karaoke).
I appreciate this. Koreans think it’s bad for your health to just drink. You need to line the stomach correctly. Whatever helps you drink more. We made friends everywhere we went. University students asking us to join them for drinks (or, uh, something like that. we ended up drinking and chatting in broken English at 4am [sorry, Moms!]). People playing carnival games on the streets, inviting us to take a go. People stumbling down the street with a, “hello! welcome to Korea! U-S-A! U-S-A! $%@* North Korea!” (true story).
All of this fun, kindness, and camaraderie however, does not make for a cute next morning. I am over 30. Dave is over 30. I am puffy, slow, and horrifyingly cranky after a soju too many (SORRY DAVE). So what better way to soothe the soul, or perhaps your head, than with dumplings?
You’ll find little tents everywhere along the street run by a kindly ajumma. She’ll be a middle-aged lady with a perm, a puffy vest, a huge visor and a wide smile. She’ll have dumplings, veggie tempura, shrimp tempura, veggie sushi, fish cakes, etc.
She’ll greet you with a hearty, sing-songy ANNIEO HASSEYOOOOOO and offer you a warm cup of broth. Then she’ll fry you up your goodies and by the time the fourth dumpling is down the hatch you are already over the stage where you promise yourself you’ll never drink soju ever, EVER again.
If fried things don’t fix you, than a soup might. We had awesome dumpling soup on a market snack-crawl of sorts which was delicious.
This was followed by bindaetteok, a delicious mung bean pancake, which sounds crappy but tasted like hash browns.
Which was followed by pig face soup.
Then there are all the treats we didn’t take pictures of. Endless kimchi. Delicious salads. Bibimbap. Bulgogi. Bread in the shape of fish with black bean centers. Tube-y forms of gelatinous rice in tomato sauce known as tteokbokki which is revered in Korea but I just don’t understand.
We also ate a raw seafood lunch that was in fact, still alive, but that’s a story for a different day.
And by we, I mean “Dave”. SORRY.