I seriously love Korean food.
I didn’t at first. In fact, I referred to Western food as “real food” for my first month here! And I most certainly didn’t understand or agree with comments I’d heard on the subject of the infamous kimchi: “it will grow on you, trust me!”; “you will grow to love kimchi”. Kimchi is fermented cabbage, I said to myself, disbelievingly, I will never, ever love fermented cabbage! And yet a few weeks ago I realised that I’d been enthusiastically polishing off the nearest kimchi dish at the lunch table every day. When the school cook got up halfway through her meal and returned with a new plate of kimchi which she then set in front of me, that’s when I knew I was converted. I even eat it at home now, no matter what I’m having. The meal just doesn’t feel complete without a bit of kimchi!
As for the meals themselves, I can’t get enough of the spicy, marinated, tender meats on offer. There is, of course, a favourite that is way out in front. Its name is 닭갈비 (“dak galbi”), and I think I might be in love with it. I’ve found myself craving it and thinking about it during the day. I can almost taste it and smell it. And because I no longer have many caffeine cravings, I think my body panicked and needed to replace those cravings with new ones. So nowadays, I crave 닭갈비.
Fortunately, I think it’s a fairly healthy craving to give in to, which I do, on a regular basis. It’s chicken in a spicy sauce, all mixed up into what my granny would call a styachy (very hard to attempt to spell that one! It means one big messy mixture) with chopped cabbage, sweet potato, onions, scallions, and rice cake.
Everything is brought to your table raw and dumped unceremoniously into the central pan, which takes up most of the table. As it begins to sizzle, the waiter cuts up the chicken with scissors – that’s just how they do things here! You get a pair of scissors with most meals, for cutting up your meat or any troublesome large pieces of kimchi. I often think that it would be a good idea if someone somewhere would invent eating utensils that involved using one of your chopsticks to spear food (perhaps give it some prongs), and the other one for cutting (maybe giving it a blade). But scissors will do the trick until that invention comes to pass.
Anyway, your waiter will stay at your table until everything is chopped, warming up, and coated in sauce. Depending on the restaurant, they might continue to come back fairly often to give it all a stir and adjust the heat. Some places just leave you to take your chances with raw chicken, while others will almost leap at you to take the cooking implements out of your hands as soon as you start to do anything. In the company of Alex or Terri, I frequent a specialist 닭갈비 restaurant down the road from my apartment, where they tend to look after us all the way through – partly because they know that we’re regular customers, and partly because they can’t trust foreigners to cook the dish properly.
Few things can be nicer than sitting cross-legged on your comfy floor cushion, listening to the sizzle of the cooking food, seeing the orangey-red mixture come together and emit the smoky, spicy aroma that you’ll carry home on your clothes and in your hair. Waiting for the chicken to cook is hard. We always start picking out bits of vegetable and rice cake (another staple Korean ingredient – basically a squishy, chewy thing that’s tasteless on its own, but which brings a wonderful texture to this dish) before too long. It is just too good for words.
And when you’re almost finished, you ask for some rice (flavoured or plain), which you then tip into the pan and swish around, scraping all the slightly burnt, sticky bits of vegetables and sauce off the bottom and mixing them in with the rice. Mmmm. I have just returned from the restaurant not an hour ago, and now I’ve made myself crave it all over again. Seriously, I have been here for under three of eighteen months, and I’m already have fleeting moments of panic about what I’ll do without 닭갈비 when I leave.
Mind you, I’ll probably have sickened myself of it by then!