“Love at First Bite”
What’s the first food I ate here in South Korea? It’s biscuits (Skyflakes). No! I’m not kidding. I wasn’t able to eat any Korean food immediately when I and sir Ken (a fellow professor from the Philippines) arrived at the Busan International Airport. I was not thinking of food at that time. I was looking for at least a cup of coffee then, but neither because of hunger nor thirst. I wanted to feel the heat of the cup of coffee on my hands which started to go numb. It was freezing cold that morning on the 2nd of March, 2013 and hunger was the least of my worries. The only thing I wanted was to reach our destination at Gyeoungju-si and wrapped myself up with the thickest of blanket I could find there.
My jacket was not thick enough to minimize the effects of the early spring weather trying to give me an icy cold welcome. It was my mistake to believe what some friends back home told me that it’s not that cold here during Spring. For a body used to either hot or VERY HOT weather, experiencing a – 2 for the first time was literally a chilling experience.
As soon as I reached the apartment reserved for me by 경주 대학교, the first university where I worked, I immediately unpacked and got myself another jacket. It was only when I was warm enough that I started to feel hungry and realized that I was actually a time zone away from my family. Back home, my wife makes sure that whenever I’m hungry there’s food I could grab from either the fridge or the table. When I flew here, she stuffed my travelling bags with lots of food. So, officially, the first food I ate when I got here were biscuits.
I waited for another day to get introduced to Korean dishes that I had the chance to see only on TV through the Korean dramas that Filipinos like me are so fond of watching. I found it amusing that aside from wishing me well for the Korean adventure I was about to embark on, my family and friends keep telling me that finally I would have a chance to try the legendary kimchi.
Then finally the day came that something Korean would travel my digestive tract. I got that chance during the orientation for the university students held at the Concorde Hotel (Bomun Lake Resort, Bodeok-dong, Gyeongju-si, Gyeongsangbukdo). Of course, I was excited to meet my fellow professors from other countries and at least have a glimpse at how Korean university students look like and how they behave and talk. But I was, I think, more excited to have my first dining experience in South Korea. What made it more exciting was the fact that after that night, the taste of Kimchi would no longer be a mystery for me.
Right after the orientation, I joined the foreign professors and university officials and we all headed to the restaurant of the hotel. As we approached the dining hall, the ambrosial smell characteristic of hotel lobbies was replaced by a savory waft that was unlike any combination of aroma my olfactory receptors were used to. It made me hungrier and more excited.
There were four of us who shared one of the tables reserved. Already there (on the table) before we sat down were lots of 반찬 (banchan), or side dishes, mostly vegetables, including Korea’s “most-talked-about” – 김치 (kimchi). Yes…the first Korean food I tried was kimchi.
Despite my struggle with the chopsticks, I managed to lift a small chunk of this famous fermented cabbage to my mouth. The smell, as I expected, was biting and pungent. The tanginess was nothing new to me because in the Philippines there are items in our cuisine which I could say are perhaps more biting and more pungent than kimchi. What about the taste? It’s garlicky, salty and of course spicy. The first one I tried then had a combination of sweetness and spiciness. I was told that there are more than 100 known varieties of kimchi.
After my first bite, I immediately wanted more of it. Yes… I fell in love with kimchi. I don’t know why, let me just say that it was “love at first bite.” It is so hard to articulate as to why each time I eat I want a serving of this side dish.
The main meal served was a kimchi-based dish called 김치 찌개 (kimchi-jjigae). Kimchi-jjigae is kind of stew where kimchi (preferably older or more fermented) is mixed with pork, seafood and diced tofu. I could handle spicy foods like this one. There are two problems though when I eat them. First, I sweat too much. Second and last, I probably would have up to 2 orders of extra rice. I was a little overweight when I came to South Korea. One of the things I set as goal when I came here was to get rid of the “belt bag.” With foods like kimchi-jjigae, I realized that night that losing weight is an impossible dream.
I completely abandoned my weight concerns when Randy, one of my fellow professors from the Philippines, told me that the following day he would introduce me to 삼겹살 (samgyeobsal).