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EATING & DRINKING

Face stuffing Seoul style

By hungry hack Ignatius Rake

Posted March 10, 2012
a real korean barbecue in seoul
Seoul food: A brief photo pause in a meal very much to remember. © Ignatius Rake

Eating foreign food can be a complicated process. Fortunately, for this particular hack his new mum was on hand to help him out in Seoul.



Jet-lagged and starving, I had only been in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, a few hours when I found myself standing outside a restaurant called Bok Chung.

Where exactly this restaurant was I can't honestly say, although it must have been somewhere fairly near Namdaemun Market, with its mix of bootleg T-shirts and metre-long dried octopus tentacles.

I did check my freebie map every now and then as I ambled about but plotting my exact course was futile: only the city's main thoroughfares have names and even then they're seldom displayed1.

Rather than using the Western address system based on street names, Seoul is simply divided up into districts, each called a gu, that are further divided into neighbourhoods called a dong.

To make matters worse, building numbers bear no sequential relationship to the ones next door.

In effect, this is like living at 123 Bethnal Green-dong, Tower Hamlets-gu, London, right next door to numbers 14 and 75.

To cope with all this, people fax each other maps or phone ahead for directions when they need to get somewhere.

Heaven alone knows how the mail works.

Not that I gave a rat's arse about such matters as I stood there on the verge of passing out.

I needed grub and a sit down.

Sharpish.


FEED ME!
Before the door had time to close, an excited young waitress had ushered me to a table in the middle of the restaurant.

Clearly the presence of a pegin, viz a male white honky such as I, was not an everyday occurrence in Bok Chung.

I sat down, staring blearily at the built-in grill plates stationed along the table's median plane.

Just as I was wondering what they were for, an older, more matronly waitress in her late 40s strode out from a side door and started barking orders about.

Even among friends in Korea there is a rigid social hierarchy based on age and from the exchange of words it was obvious that this older waitress was not happy with where her young subordinate had chosen to seat me.

I would have to move.

To the other end of the table nearest the kitchen as it turned out.

Uncertain as to what was going on, I stood up and relocated accordingly.

My new mum, as I soon came to think of this older waitress, then whipped out a menu with pictures on it.

I had no idea what she was saying so I just said "Cass?", the name of a local lager I had already sampled a few times en route.

This seemed to do the trick as a big bottle of the stuff soon appeared by my side.

The next thing I knew, my new mum was jabbing her index finger at a photo of some raw meat.

"Beef," she said. "Very good."

I looked at the price, the only text I could decipher.

It seemed reasonable enough but personally I like to study menus at my own leisure.

My new mum, however, saw this as an unnecessary indulgence.

"Very good," she reaffirmed.

"Um... Er..."

"Very good!" she urged.

"Er, yeah, hang on."

"Very good!" she ordered, jabbing the picture with increasing ferocity.

Other people might have been intimidated by this behaviour but as a man of iron resolve I was not going to be so easily swayed.

"Oh, all right, I'll have that then," I said, assuming I could now sit back and wait for my eats to arrive.

I was clearly mistaken because she then started jabbing at another raw meat still life, the subject of which she emphatically assured me was indeed "very good".

I looked at the price.

It was more expensive than the previous one.

Was she trying to rip off a foreigner?

"No, it's OK, thanks. Just the first one, please."

This fell on deaf ears.

About five times in fact, but in the end perseverance paid off.

I gave in.


the best restaurant in seoul
Personal service: Bok Chung rules. © Ignatius Rake

THE KIMCHI COMETH
To my credit, though, I did persuade her to at least let me choose a slightly cheaper alternative, a big plate of raw pork that I didn't want either.

She clearly wasn't happy with this compromise but nonetheless switched on the grill plate before me and disappeared to whence she had sprung.

Within a flash she was back, this time brandishing a dozen or so small bowls each containing a different side dish, including chopped onion, bean sprouts, a stack of assorted lettuce leaves and kimchi, the ubiquitous national dish made from fermented vegetable matter, which in this case was primarily cabbage.

After covering the entire table with bowls, she declared "Very good!" and then buggered off again.

Such side dishes, or banchan, are an essential part of Korean cuisine.

However, I didn't know that at the time.

As far as I was aware I'd ordered a load of meat, not half of Covent Garden.

But before I could take stock of it all, the kitchen door swung open and out came the first instalment of carcass, three long strips of uncooked beef.

Whap!

Onto the grill they went.

My new mum looked down at me with smiling eyes.

"Very good!" she said, then added: "Handsome. I love you."

She then burst out laughing, turned on her toes and left me alone to consider her words in the company of a sizzling pile of flesh.

Maybe I'm just some bumpkin from the sticks, but standard procedure in the restaurants I've frequented around the world has been to sit down, order something of your own choosing, wait a bit while someone else cooks it, eat, pay and then leave.

Now, though, I found myself confronted by a major quandary, viz what the hell was I meant to do with all this meat?

Was I meant to cook it myself or was that my new mum's job?

Perhaps if I'd bothered to open my guide book, I might have known that in Korea food ain't food unless you cook it yourself.

Chefs are just there to do the prep work.

They've probably never seen a hob in their lives.

Maybe if I'd known that I wouldn't have sat there like a lemon, wishing someone would pass me the user manual.

Not for the last time during my stay did it strike me that Korean food really ought to come with instructions.


WATCH THE AEROPLANE
Fortunately, my new mum was keeping a watchful eye on me.

No doubt realising she had adopted a halfwit, she reappeared, turned the meat a few times and then cut it into cubes.

After a few minutes, in which she once more professed her love for me, she deemed it cooked.

"Very good," she said.

Now came the hard part.

Eating.

Remaining on hand to show me the ropes, she picked up a chunk of meat with my metal chopsticks2, dipped it in some spicy salt stuff and then deposited it on top of my onions.

With a big expectant smile, she handed back my shiny tucker tools.

And bloody Nora did that beef taste good.

Still chewing, I nodded my approval, confirming it to be "Very good" once it had slipped down my gullet.

I took another lump from the grill and dipped it in the salty stuff.

But then, just as I was about to pop it into my mouth, she grabbed my chopsticks and yanked them out of my hands.

What the...?

Utterly shocked, I looked on as she returned the beef to the grill and nonchalantly picked up a lettuce leaf.

This she placed on her upturned palm before using my chopsticks to smear on some truly fantastic red bean paste.

After that, she positioned another chunk of beef onto the centre of the leaf then wrapped it all up into a neat little parcel.

"Very good!" she announced.

Then rammed it into my gob!

I couldn't believe it.

You wouldn't get that in Pellicci's on Bethnal Green Road3.

"Very good!" she said, laughing like a drain. "Handsome. I love you."

Then she proceeded to do the same thing all over again.

"No, it's OK. I can feed myself," I tried to protest but before I could get all my words out - wham! - she had slammed another parcel of meat into my trap.

What was I meant to do?

No matter what I said or did, she refused to relinquish control of my chopsticks until she'd fed me every last piece of beef off the grill.

All 12 chunks or so.

By which time she was wetting herself.


downtown seoul is ace
Seoul by night: Bok Chung was somewhere near here. Wherever that is. © Ignatius Rake

EAT YER GREENS!
Then she brought out the pork, although she did let me eat most of that myself, standing over me as I did so.

"Very good," she said when I'd scoffed the lot.

But we weren't done yet.

There was the small matter of all those side dishes to get through.

So, once more snatching my chopsticks from my hands, she proceeded to force-feed me bean sprouts, kimchi and Lord knows what else, only this time she invited the whole restaurant to watch.

"Ah, baby!" one of the other waitresses screamed in delight, kick-starting something of a football chant as staff and punters alike downed tools to cheer on my new mum, who was now screaming hysterically.

Perhaps I should have been embarrassed or humiliated but all I could do was grin moronically while trying not to choke on the grub being shoved into my bouche.

"Handsome. I love you," my new mum said again when every bowl and plate sat empty.

As a special treat for eating my greens, she returned to the kitchen and came back with a load of melon.

The crowd went wild.

"Baby! Baby! Ahhh, baby!"

When she had finally finished, I stood up to leave, totally stuffed and completely shell-shocked.

As I paid at the till by the door, my new mum, using both hands, presented me with the restaurant's business card, the address on which was conveniently written in Korean.

"Welcome! Welcome!" said the delighted woman at the till.

"Welcome! Welcome!" my new mum agreed, pointing at the card and miming the use of a telephone.

"Welcome! Welcome!" the other waitresses joined in, waving me off as I made my escape.

I couldn't fault the service but, man, did I need a pint.


Footnotes

1) Seoul boasts the second largest metropolitan area on Earth, or possibly the fourth depending on who you want to believe. Either way, the South Korean capital is one great big sprawler, sitting at the heart of a megacity with a total population of around 25m, more than Plymouth, Truro and Exeter put together. Mind you, it's still a piddler compared to Tokyo, which tops the league at around 35m.

2) While chopsticks in Hong Kong and China tend to be plastics and made of wood in Japan, Korean chopsticks are usually stainless steel. This harks back to the olden days when Korean royalty used silver tableware that would tarnish in the presence of poison. Smart lot, the Koreans. Nice chopsticks too.

3) God bless Nevio Pellicci, Snr, 1925-2008, young man! (And Nevio Pellicci, Jnr. He's a dude as well, as are the whole Pellicci family. God bless, 'em. They rock and their caf is the best in the entire Multiverse.)





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