For the first time in my life, I’m one of those people who can afford to eat out several times a week – actually, every night, if I wanted to! It’s not that I’m suddenly earning a fortune. In fact, I earn less now than I did in my regular desk job at home. However, I have a rent-free apartment, no car to run, and very low bills, leaving me with the majority of my wages to save or spend. Not only that, but life here is inexpensive. You can have a night out on the town, including a huge meal and more than enough beer and soju, for somewhere around 20,000 won – not much more than a tenner. A meal on its own will only cost you a couple of pounds (as long as you eat Korean food – Western food is ridiculously expensive!). Actually, I’ve found that while in most countries I’ve lived in, it’s much, much cheaper to cook for yourself, in Korea it works out around the same price either way.
It’s a wonderful part of the culture. People eat out – that’s just what they do here. Even in my very quiet neighbourhood, with its dusty side streets and rundown buildings, there are restaurants in every conceivable place. There are so many restaurants that you could eat in a different one every night for a month and still be on the same small street. And they’re always packed – from about 6pm till very late at night, there’s a constant flow of people coming in and out of the steamed-up doors. The restaurants are almost never ‘fancy’: more often than not, you’ll find an undecorated, garage-like space, with simple low tables and a few mats to sit on. But the food… the food is so good that you really don’t care what the eating venue looks like.
So serious are the Koreans about their food, there are restaurants dedicated to very specific dishes. You’ll go to one restaurant for bibimbap, another one for dak galbi, another one for samgyeopsal, another one for soup. I’ve yet to see a restaurant serving more than one kind of dish.
However, the one drawback is that dining alone is a big no-no. It’s not that you’d just get strange looks for eating alone. After all, I could cope with that, since people stare at me all the time anyway here! No, it’s because of the style of dining. It’s a group activity. You sit around a table with your companions, and the food is usually cooked in a pan or on a grill in the centre of your table. You all just help yourselves from that, and share the side dishes. Usually you don’t even get your own plate, simply lifting the food from the centre and putting it straight into your mouth. Dining companions even eat soup from a shared bowl!
While I really love the communal style of eating, it does mean that I always have to be accompanied if I want to go out for my favourite dishes, which are all cooked at the table in this style. I’m not sure what would happen if I sat down at a big table all by myself, but I’m pretty sure they’d ask me to leave – or that I’d at least be obliged to order enough for two people. It’s just not really suitable for single dining.
And besides, eating out all the time would mean that I wouldn’t get to cook – something I still love doing. It took me a while to be brave enough to try Korean cooking, because I found shopping for ingredients very difficult. Still do, as a matter of fact, but it’s getting a little easier to communicate with the market people and recognise the labels on bottles and packets!
Yesterday, after coming back from the market all chuffed with myself for having bought all my ingredients for my first attempt at dakdoritang (spicy chicken stew), I realised that I’d managed to get everything except, erm, the chicken. Still, I love this dish so much and was so eager to try making it that I was able to make myself go right back out and all the way to the market again to try and explain to the poultry man that I’d like him to chop up a chicken for me. I don’t know how to do such a thing, and I’m not particularly keen on trying, to be honest. I returned triumphantly with a bag full of chicken bits, and made my stew.
This was also the first time that I’d cooked chicken in the Korean way – that is to say, using all of the bird, throwing bones and all into the pot. Until now, I’ve shrunk back from this and used skinless breasts as in all my European cooking, but I’m so used to the chewing and spitting out of bones in restaurants now that it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. And anyway, the flavour just isn’t the same when you don’t use the whole thing. And the flavour of dakdoritang is incredible, let me tell you – even though it’s so hot that in restaurants I end up drinking about a gallon of water and with my eyes and nose streaming. Good for the old sinuses, eh?
Dakdoritang… actually, I think I’m calling it the wrong thing, as that’s the name that there’s apparently a backlash against because it harks back to the Japanese days. They’re trying to get the name officially changed to dakbokkeumtang now. Or vice versa, I can’t remember. People and their politics. Regardless of the PC name, it’s a thick, orangey-red, comforting, bubbling, firey, sticky mess, served with a steaming hot bowl of rice.
My version wasn’t bad, for a first attempt, although I’m finding that with Korean cooking I have to have several tries before I get the amounts of things like 고추장 (a hot pepper paste – they use it in just about everything) just right. Every recipe I find gives different amounts, and I’m just not experienced enough at cooking with these ingredients yet to instinctively know how much to put in. This one tasted a little sweet, not spicy enough, and I think I used too much ginger.
Still, I get to eat all the attempts, and practice makes perfect. :)