Even when you don't know the language, it's hard to imagine being frightened of eating out. But eating is taken extremely seriously in South Korea. People picnic everywhere, unwrapping bowls onto mats at the side of the road, between parked cars. Markets burst with fresh produce. Delivery guys zip up the sidewalks on motorbikes, carrying dinner in steel cases; women deliver lunch on foot, trays balanced on their heads. More lively than the bars are " soju tents," orange-plastic awnings set up on streets throughout the city where you can eat fresh-cooked food and drink soju,the national firewater, all night.
Though in three months in South Korea I mastered the alphabet, the tonal language remained a tortuous challenge. But there were other, more essential, cultural roadblocks -- such as learning how to eat. In the markets were foodstuffs I had no idea what to do with, and a slew of things I couldn't stomach: buckets of writhing eels, fried silkworm pupae, boiled pigs' heads, fat, greenish-brown sea "cucumbers." Thankfully the notorious boshintong (dog stew) was served only in dog-meat restaurants -- now extremely hard to find, and beyond most budgets.
In Inchon, the port city closest to Seoul, and a jumping-off point for some beautiful islands, the raw-fish restaurants lack the presentation that makes sushi appealing in the West. Bubbling water tanks are filled with slow-moving marine creatures: octopus, squid, various mollusks, something resembling a human heart. In an indoor fish market in Busan, a salesman recommended to my boyfriend a gastronomic delicacy that looked like a small, pink penis.
With a gesture suggesting virility, he plucked the surprising specimen out and gave it a squeeze, shooting a spray of water across the room.
In three months of attempting to cross this cultural Pacific, I was barely treading water.
Then there's kimchi. It is an acquired taste: Chinese cabbage fermented with salt, onions, garlic, hot red peppers and shellfish juice. It comes with every meal, so you keep trying. You discover its usefulness as a hangover cure. Before you know it, you can't get enough: You're hooked; you're ordering extra.
It has more vitamins than a fresh apple, breaks down fats in the body and has immunizing properties against cancer and heart disease. It's kimchi,not variety, that's the spice of life in South Korea.
South Korean culture is one of the least diluted in the world, even though it is an industrialized nation, and rules of etiquette determine all aspects of life -- including eating.
Never stick chopsticks upright in rice. Pibimbap (vegetables with rice) must be eaten with a spoon, and if you try using chopsticks, the waitress will not hesitate to correct you. Try ordering noodles at a raw-fish restaurant, and you will be ushered out and sent down the street. South Korean cuisine cannot be sampled casually. For weeks, I passed restaurants by, loath to risk inadvertent embarrassment or offence. I feared getting a food I couldn't eat, a bill I couldn't afford, or getting the completely wrong idea -- like the evening in Kongju where I walked into what looked like a nice little bar and found myself sharing a private karaoke studio with two young couples, a bottle of whisky and a huge TV screen showing oiled-up girls in leather thongs.
The first time I walked into a neighbourhood restaurant, I gingerly removed my shoes, sat cross-legged at a table and realized that there wasn't a menu. A helpful patron, a businessman who spoke English, suggested mool-naengmyun. It arrived in a steel bowl: chilled clear broth with a clump of translucent grey vermicelli in the middle, half a hard-boiled egg and a little shredded vegetable, with hot sauce on the side.
When the waitress brought me a large pair of scissors, I knew I was out of my depth. I tried for a mouthful of noodles, but they slid away, sticking together; when I got them to my mouth, they had the elasticity of bungee cords. I was fascinated that anyone would invent a noodle so resilient it has to be served with garden shears.
Our saving grace was Myung-dong, a district in Seoul devoted to fashion and cosmetics, with loud music blasting down its narrow pedestrian streets. Its cheap, cheerful cafés had illustrated menus, so my boyfriend and I could point to the pictures. This opened up a whole new world, including kimbap. The kimbap lady sits by the window pressing rice on to paper-thin black squares and layering strips of omelette or canned tuna and vegetables, rolling it tightly into a fat sausage, then slicing it into bite-sized pieces.
From there, it's a small step to eateries that serve traditional stews and rice or noodle dishes. They're reliable: always 4,000 won ($5), including a handful of side dishes.
South Korean food is colourful: bright red and orange sauces, green leaves, white rice. It smells not of ginger or soy, but of garlic and soybean paste. Cafés are steamy, and busy with slurping and chattering and people shouting Yogi-o! for the waiter to come. Stews such as kimchi tchigae arrive bubbling in black earthenware bowls. In restaurants with barbecues or stoves built into the tables, eating is leisurely and social and everyone dips their chopsticks into the communal pot.
The one South Korean meal I was unable to stomach without shots of soju came just after I'd sworn off the vile liquor for good. I was in the fish market in Busan, South Korea's biggest port on the Pacific, where cheery women with fast knives and gold-toothed smiles squat on the ground shucking oysters, mussels and clams into heaping tureens. Fresh seafood glistened on ice everywhere: purplish squid with cartoon eyes, sleek silver fish, craggy oyster shells as big as fists. Mosquito coils added an incense whiff to air that was as briny as a mouthful of ocean.
At a busy restaurant, open to the street, food sizzled on stoves set in each table. Two diners beckoned us to take the only empty table, giving their meal the universal rating of two thumbs up, so we sat and ordered whatever they were having.
It arrived minutes later, and it was moving. We had ordered skinned, sliced eels, and they were squirming. So were we. They were not really alive, it was just electrical impulses, so really, we told ourselves, it was not so different from eating sushi. But only one thing could provide the numbing effect needed if we were going to eat the alive-looking things in the middle of our table: fortifying shots of soju. Eventually the food stopped moving, and the waitress came by to tell us it was ready to eat, which is what we were afraid of. And we ate it.
It's strange but pleasing to know that now that I'm back in Toronto whenever I crave comfort food I head to Little Korea, or I boil up noodles in kimchi broth. Coming home late at night, I gorge on kimchi straight from the container with my chopsticks -- which I'm sure is against the rules. I make a bastardized pibimbap for lunch, steaming the rice while I chop vegetables, fry an egg, and stand by with laver and thick red pepper paste.
I still haven't scratched the surface of South Korean cuisine, but I can fold a square of salted dried seaweed around a mouthful of sticky rice using chopsticks. And I eat my pibimbap with a spoon.