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.