Unabashedly that I made a confession in my article entitled “Love at First Bite” that I fell in love with kimchi. I have to admit though that with all the luscious Korean… DISHES, I wasn’t faithful to kimchi. I would later fall in love with other Korean foods.
Almost everyday that my new friends and colleagues would introduce me to a new local dish during my first few days here in South Korea. However, when I recalled what the doctor in the Philippines said during my medical examination before I flew here – that I need to lose weight – I slowed down a bit.
Then came the three-layered meat and the realization that losing weight is (and has always been) a “mission impossible.”
Before my first week in South Korea ended, we were given a treat by a fellow professor from the Philippines – Randy. He brought me and two other foreign professors (Deborah and Kenn) to a restaurant serving 삼겹살 (Samgyeobsal). That was after we claimed our Alien Registration Card (ARC) from the immigration office in Pusan to legitimize our stay in this country.
It isn’t enough to just say that I have tasted samgyeobsal that night. For me it was more than just eating pork belly. I don’t intend to sound dramatic but I guess it would be more appropriate for me to say that that night “I experienced samgyeopsal” instead of “I ate it.”
I consider the experience very special.
It’s a culture thing.
As we entered the restaurant, I saw Randy and the other professors remove their shoes. I did the same. We were escorted by an ahjussi (a middle-aged man) to a table and immediately left us after getting our order. There were no chairs, not like the set-up in that restaurant in the hotel where we had the orientation for our students. We sat on the floor. So, for the first time that I would experience eating while seated on the floor. I wasn’t comfortable sitting cross-legged but as soon as the ahjussi returned and placed on our table what sir Randy ordered, I forgot about my discomfort and started salivating.
Along with the slices of pork belly, we were given plenty of lettuce, perilla leaves, and enoki mushrooms. There were also raw onions, garlic and green chili peppers. We were also served with lots of small side dishes which the Koreans call 반찬 (banchan). Not to be missed among the dishes in the small plates is kimchi. There was a plethora of food in front of us. I promised not to eat much that night.
The ahjussi turned the portable gas griller on and the grilling began. As sir Randy held with a tong a slice of pork belly, like a teacher, he explained what samgyeopsal literally means: 삼- sam (three), 겹 – gyeop (layered), 살 – sal (flesh). His impromptu lecture did not end there. When the meat was cooked, he explained how to eat samgyeopsal the Korean way, that was after I excitedly picked up a piece of the cooked meat and had my first bite. He took a piece of meat, dipped it on a sauce then placed it on a leaf. Not done yet, he also added garlic and rice too. Then he rolled it up and stuffed it into his mouth.
“That’s the way the Koreans do it,” he said.
He made another roll and asked me to open my mouth. I hesitated at first because it was a little awkward. He explained that when dining Korean males usually do that and nobody would suspect them of “bromance.” So, I allowed him to stuff it in and returned the favor shortly after.
We learned quickly how to enjoy samgyeopsal . It was either sir Rhandy’s a good teacher or it was just our hunger. It didn’t take long before we had to order another round of pork belly.
There were two varieties of dipping sauces given to us by the ahjussi. Sir Randy told us that one is 쌈장 (ssamjang) and the other one 소금과 후추 기름 장 (sogeumgwa huchu gileum jang).
The kimchi served tasted differently from the one I first tried. There was no trace of sweetness. It was plain spicy.
While we were enjoying the “feast,” sir Randy who has been here in South Korea for a long time, recommended other Korean dishes that he said he was sure I would come to like.
The other customers in the restaurant were enjoying their samgyeobsal with 맥주 (maegju) and 소주 (soju). We wanted to also but we had class the following day.
We were one in saying that it was a sumptuous dinner.
For me, it was not a simple dinner. It was a wonderful cultural experience.
What about my promise not to eat much that night? Well, promises are meant to be broken.
I am a foodie. The extra pounds around my waist is a testament to that. So, when I came here (South Korea) I was excited to finally try the dishes which I saw only on television shows and in movies in my country.
The first food I ate here in South Korea was (drum roll, please)… biscuits from the Philippines. I wasn’t able to eat anything Korean immediately when I and sir Kenn (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, not because of hunger nor my usual craving for caffeine. I just wanted to feel something warm in my hands which started to go numb. It was freezing cold that morning 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 wasn’t thick enough for my body to enjoy the early spring weather trying to give me an icy cold welcome. I didn’t have time to open my travelling bags because we had a bus to catch. It was my fault to believe what some friends back home told me that it’s not that cold here during spring. For a body used to either a hot or a VERY HOT weather, experiencing a negative two for the first time was literally a chilling experience.
As soon as I reached the apartment reserved for me by 경주 대학교 (Gyeoungju University), the first school where I worked here, 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 would make sure that whenever hunger strikes there’s food I could grab from either the fridge or the table.
I waited for another day to officially 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 kept telling me that finally I would have a chance to try the legendary 김치 (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 have my first encounter with Korean university students. 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 to 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 sense of smell was 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” kimchi.
I dived in. The first Korean food I tried was (drum roll again, please)… kimchi.
Despite my struggles with the chopsticks, I managed to pick a small chunk of this famous fermented cabbage. The smell, as I expected, was biting and pungent. Its tanginess was nothing new to me because in the Philippines there are items in our cuisine that 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 came to like kimchi. I don’t know why, let me just say that it was “love at first bite.” It is so hard to explain as to why I would consider meals incomplete without 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 two 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 sir Randy, also a fellow professor from the Philippines, told me that the following day he would make me try 삼겹살 (samgyeobsal).
There is a strong possibility that when we visit a country as tourists or stay there for a long time to work, we might experience culture shock. It happened to me here in South Korea. But mine is a culture shock unlike any other. It was like I was shocked, not to my dismay, but to my delight.
Which part of Korean culture did that?
It’s their FOOD!
That’s right! It’s the food. When I had my initial encounters with this element of Korean culture, I was shockingly delighted. I loved it.
I couldn’t find the right word to describe the experience. So, pardon me for coining a new word – KIMCHITIZE.
Am I the first one to use this word? (Please tell me if not.)
Anyway, KIMCHITIZE is a verb. It means “to cause a foreigner to like (or fall in love with) Korean dishes/foods.”
For the purpose of this essay, I need the past participle form of the verb – KIMCHITIZED.
The first Korean food that landed on my tongue was Korea’s fabled kimchi and the first Korean dish that traveled the full length of my digestive tract was kimchi-jjigae.
It was love at first bite. I was readily kimchitized!
It’s not much with the newness to me of the Korean cuisine. I have actually read a lot of literature about Korean dishes before. Even the Korean dramas we Filipinos are fond of watching in the Philippine give us a glimpse of what South Koreans cook and eat. What I consider, if I may say it again – “shockingly delighting” – are some things that I consider peculiar about the food part of Korean culture.
The first one I consider unusual are the side dishes (반찬 – banchan). No! Not the side dishes per se but the amount. Look at the photos and you’ll see what I mean. That’s a plethora of side items. The main dish is drowned in a sea of side dishes. It’s too many that you can easily say goodbye to weight loss once you see them scattered on a table. So inviting. It’s so hard not to pick one with your chopsticks, spoon or – fingers. You would promise “just this one” until that one becomes two – then three – then more.
The first time I experienced that shocking delight of having lots of side dishes was when for the first time I tried 삼겹살 (samgyeobsal). Aside from the leaves, there were plenty of side dishes like steamed eggplant, soybean sprouts, cucumber salad, and some more I could no longer recall.
Shockingly delighting also, for me, is the Koreans’ romance with green leaves. They love wrapping their meat with leaves, particularly lettuce and perilla. I got accustomed to just dipping grilled meat into a plate of salt or a bowl of soy sauce and vinegar combined then they’re ready to be eaten. For the Koreans, it’s different. They will get a leaf, spread it flatly on their palm then carefully pile there meat, grilled garlic, and a side dish or two. Then they carefully roll it making sure that it’s securely wrapped before stuffing it into their mouths.
It surprised me also to see how my Korean friends would ordinarily munch green pepper and garlic as if it’s just another kind of fruit or vegetable. I am okay with the garlic, though I had to grill it first. I bravely tried the green pepper once my bravery was gone in just a few seconds. My friends laughed at how I perspired and my face turned so red that time. Since then I avoided it like a plague and would politely say no whenever offered.
They say that there are four phases of culture shock namely, honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. In my case, it started with honeymoon and jumped right away to the final phase of acceptance. There were no frustrations at all. But wait! I remember that I passed through the adjustment period anyway.
And here’s what I did in the adjustment period – I needed to punch another hole on my belt because with all the mouth-watering Korean dishes/foods out there waiting to be discovered losing weight is going to be a mighty struggle.
Below is a link to the articles about some of the Korean dishes/foods I have been enjoying here in South Korea.