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Posts Tagged ‘Korean Customs’

We are just beginning to try all the different kinds of street food, so we often point and hold up a single finger to ask for one. It seems to be impossible to order just one of anything.

When I point to a circle of mandu and hold up a single finger, the vendor nods and smiles immediately, like she knows what I want, and then puts eight mandu in a box. When Anna and I tried to order a single bungeoppang (goldfish bread, sweet waffle batter pressed into the shape of a goldfish and filled with sweet red bean paste) the woman acknowledged our single finger and then gave us four. Good thing they only cost 1000 won, or about $.83.

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Soup bubbling away

This is going to be the start of a new series on Seoulful Adventures. Traveling to any country involves learning the customs of the culture, and invariably many of those customs will revolve around food. Koreans have many customs and traditions when it comes to food and drink, and we are slowly learning them. Some customs are essential to learn to avoid embarrassment, but for us many are essential just to eat your food. So this series will be full of our polite apologies to waitresses and our breakthroughs about how to order and cook traditional Korean foods. Some will be short revelations and some will be lessons learned from lots of trial and error. First up – The Soup Place.

A couple blocks from our apartment is a restaurant we call The Soup Place. The front window advertises, in English, “fresh vegetables and meat,” which is always a good sign for a restaurant. All of the tables have a large hot plate in the center and small control panel. We pointed to the cheapest thing on the menu, which looked like a plate of raw vegetables and a plate of thin slices of beef. What we got was that and and half a dozen other plates of things we recognized, but didn’t know what to do with.

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We received kimchi (of course), a bucket with scissors, tongs and a ladle, a plate of frozen orange noodles and two pieces of mandu, cole slaw, some pickles and cabbage in broth, hot sauce, a small bowl of bibmbap-like veggies with rice, and a bowl with a raw egg. The waitress placed a large metal bowl half full with broth on the hot plate and set it boiling. She motioned for us to cut up the vegetables and put them in the broth and then hurried off, there was only one other waitress in the restaurant.

We followed instructions and cut up the onion and leafy greens and plopped them into the bubbling, yellow liquid. We watched the leaves wilt and turn dark green as the onions faded to translucent, but then our waitress returned with a reserved scowl. I’m still not sure if we were just going to slow or doing it wrong all together, but for the rest of the meal she came over and did all the cook-at-your-table stuff for us.

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Our typical restaurant strategy is to steal enough glances at how other tables of Koreans are doing it for it just be just a little awkward. The high booths and mostly empty restaurant didn’t let us do that at The Soup Place. I think the waitresses might have been doing some of the cooking for the other tables, but she seemed to be unhappy at us and didn’t trust us at all, even after we figured out the system: make things smaller with scissors, put in broth, eat.

The soup was delicious, and we figured out that the paper thin beef slices needn’t be much more than immersed in the boiling broth before they were done. We also explored the small gelatinous rice cakes in the broth that were shaped like pieces of penne pasta without the hollow center (rather chewy, maybe they helped with the soup consistency?). The bright orange noodles and mandu made for a round two of soup after the beef and greens. We’d been tossing more things in the broth and periodically glancing at the raw egg and bowl of chopped vegetables and wondering aloud what they could be for.

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After we’d finished off both soups our waitress returned and turned up the heat to send the shallow pool of broth bubbling furiously again. She then performed a table side magic act that I’m sure some smart restaurateur will soon import to the US. She ladled the rice, bibimbap vegetables, and raw egg into the remaining broth which she then transformed with a series of quick swipes with her ladle into a rich and creamy kind of Korean risotto. The egg has been essentially whisked onto each grain of rich, not clumped like in fried rice. The product was rich, warm and so smooth that we ate it off the end of our spoons like it was a thick chocolate pudding we’d ordered for dessert. The broth had been infused with the flavors of each set of ingredients and then it had all disappeared into a final rice dish. A neat finish to such a get-your-hands-dirty meal.

If an Italian restaurant doesn’t start serving risotto at your table out of the last drops of a rustic bean soup, I just might have to start writing menus instead of blog posts.

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