At my school, all the teachers eat lunch together, which means that every day I get to take part in a real Korean dining experience.
We sit at a low table with tiny seats – partly because the children use the same room for their cooking lessons, but I think also partly because it’s fairly common to eat at low tables not much above ground level. Everyone is given the staple parts of the meal: one small bowl containing rice (either plain boiled, or with chopped vegetables), and another with soup. The rest of the table is filled with various other dishes, collectively known as banchan (side dishes), and everyone just helps themselves from those. You pick up a piece from a communal dish and put it straight into your mouth – you don’t have your own plate to put food on, as you would at our buffet-style meals. If dessert is served (like the cake we had this evening at the school owner’s birthday meal after school), it’s cut into large portions which are distributed around the table, maybe about one between three or four people, and everyone just digs in with their chopsticks the same as with the banchan.
The food takes some getting used to. Western kids would hate it, and adults who are fussy eaters would probably refuse it as well. The banchan consists of various forms of kimchi, which is basically, erm, fermented vegetables served cold. Seriously. Some of it is utterly vile. I’m diligently trying every single one, and haven’t yet been served the same kind twice – that’s how serious these guys are about their fermented veggies. The horrible ones genuinely do taste as you might realistically imagine anything fermented would taste. The nice ones, however, are pretty addictive – they’re spicy and crunchy, and send your stomach into spasms for a few hours afterwards if you overdo it before your digestive system has adjusted to the shock of a completely new diet. I’ve had a few uncomfortable experiences, and I suspect that I’ve a long way to go before I can scoff unlimited kimchi without fear of cramps.
The soup is decidedly strange. It looks like dirty water with leftover “bits” from the washing up floating in it. Not exactly appealing – but when you get past that and actually try it, it’s surprisingly tasty. And the rice – the rice is fab. Distinictly different in texture and flavour from the rice I’m used to having at home.
Unfortunately, I have yet to enjoy one of these meals without the school cook disappearing halfway through and returning with a fork, which she plonks down beside me with a knowing smile. Sigh. I so want to fit in, but my chopsticks skills are embarrassingly insufficient. I refuse, however, to use the pity fork. I struggle on determinedly with my chopsticks, and am still eating about 15 minutes after everyone else has finished. I am going to master this.
And it’ll probably assist my exercise and eat diet regime, too, considering that I’ve had to leave every single meal unfinished so far due to time constraints…