Wednesday, September 12, 2007

There and Back Again: A Dinner Tale

It is amazing how intensely simple things can throw one into a full on anxiety attack. It was a lovely Saturday night and I had spent the afternoon for the most part stitching up so new clothes, talking with friends, reading books, and laying about. Always a good way to spend a day and the evening was closing in. I wanted to get dinner and would have been happy to have dinner at home. On the menu it was decided was Korean Chinese that would be delicious a spicy chewy treat called kam-pong-gi. Its sort of like what a sweet and sour would be in the States except extra spicy.

I pulled out menus from the fridge to find a Chinese place. While there are many places that deliver to my apartment only a few are actually in the neighborhood and most deliveries take about forty five minutes. Thats fine, I dont mind waiting when the food is going to come to me. However you must also understand that I live in Korea. There are exactly four, and I do mean only four kinds of food that you can have delivered at anytime in Korea. The first is pizza. You can always get a pizza delivered and we even have Pizza Hut and Dominos with special Korean style pizza, pizzas with squid and garlic honey butter sauce. Pizzas with sweet corn but without pizza sauce; pizzas that are very doughy or pizzas that lack cheese. What do you want, its Korea.

If you dont want pizza then you can get chicken. Fried chicken and sometimes grilled chicken or what is occasionally called by Koreans barbecue chicken are treats that are not impossible to come by. Barbecue in Korea is more like chicken slathered in a paste made almost entirely from red pepper that uses a red pepper thinner with some corn starch. Mmmmmm, barbecue. Aside from a fried whole chicken you can also get barbecue or deep fried chicken feet delivered. If you dont want to eat feet and you are not in the mood for a whole chicken than you might just want to get straight down to it with some dok-dong-jjim which translates pretty much literally to chicken shit-house. Id paint you a mental picture but Im hoping you can figure out what that is.

While I like pizza on occasion and even enjoy a chicken now and then I wasnt looking for either of those. Since those are the top two deliverable foods the next is easy to guess and that is pretty much anything Korean. You can get your kim-chi jigae, or your bi-bim-bop. Kim-bop, dok-bo-ki, even chees dok-bo-ki, ramen, pajaen, kalbi (Korean bbq beef) and even pork cutlet are pretty easy to come buy. Unfortunately if Im eating in I dont usually want anything that is directly Korean. I can make my own Korean food if I want Korean, or I can go out. Why eat Korean food at home when you live in Korea, is what I usually tend to ask myself.

Having eliminated all the other options Chinese is the final thing that can be delivered. But Korean Chinese is very different from American Chinese cuisine in that it includes a lot of things you probably would not eat or extra helpings of grease. I had decided that what I really wanted was kam-pong-gi and jong-pong. Jong-pong is a noodle dish made with various kinds of seafood. It is determined by the restaurant making the food what seafoods you will get. Ive had places put sea cucumber, sea slug and what we call in Korea sea penis in my jong-pong rendering it completely inedible. Sea penis, we call it that because it looks like a penis that has been detached from the body and spends all its time slithering around in salt water, is not identifiable but it tastes foul. Sea cucumber is not much better and dont get me started about the slugs.

At this point time had passed and it must have been just a hair enough past 9:10 that the three different Chinese restaurants that I called were all no longer delivering. I consulted with the dinner partner and we decided to go downtown and try for Hong Kong which I knew would be open pretty much all night. Its a nice place and the food is good. So out the door we went to arrive at Hong Kong around 9:20. And they were packed. So packed that they would not seat anyone not in a party of four. Fine, fine, I had a backup plan.

There was this Chinese place kind of hidden downtown that I thought would do the trick. It would have food and looked to be a bit pricey which meant that would not pad their jong-pong with sea creatures from the blackest depths. It was about a five minute walk away. Upon our arrival a smiling and very friendly Korean waiter walked up to us. He had menus in hand. I was all excited. Then he crossed his arms in front of his body with this hands to make an X. The universal sign of there is no food here. I started to twitch, but figured maybe Chinese was just out for tonight so lets try someplace else.

Around the corner was the favorite dul-set chim-dok restaurant. Dul-set Chim-dok is a spicy chicken and noodle dish that is pressure cooked at about 750 degrees C in a caramelized sugar pepper sauce. Then this deliciousness is poured into a hot compressed plate where it starts to boil. When I first had it McGlynn pointed to the boiling dish it was served on and exclaimed "Don't touch that, you'd rather lick the sun." The taste is subtle and perfect with a mix of potatoes, onions, leeks, and even spinach that is so unusual in Korean cooking. It is in a single word: orgasmic. We got there and they have two sections. The section where you spend all night banging your knees against the table or the section with big comfy chairs where you can sit down and enjoy your food. Unfortunately for us the only section open was the knee biting section and I wasnt in the mood.

That was when I had my tantrum. I can be so fun when Im hungry and turned out of all my favorite restaurants. At this point I was inconsolable. I didnt want to eat. I was going home. I would stamp my foot, oh yes I would, and that would make it all better. These things are all, of course, not true. So the night wore on. For the next thirty minutes we went from favorite restaurant to favorite restaurant and all were either closed or so full we could not get a seat.

In the end we backtracked towards Hong Kong close to the Lonely Hearts Club and did what any American in their right mind would do at that point in the evening and had Italian. Afterwards I went to a bar where I drowned my sorrows in seven vodkas a few shots of tequila, some magnificent pool, and good company. I explained what happened to the barflies and they all nodded their heads commiserating in my misery. Everyone who has been in Korea long enough has been there. Pats on the back and drinks all around for the long trek of hunger the ex-pat will experience in Korea.

The next day I shook my fists at the gods and ordered Chinese kam-pong-gi at home. It was delicious.


Jill said...

Four seems like actually kind of a lot of different foods to be able to get delivered. Here it's only pizza or Chinese I think.

kodeureum said...

I discovered a great little old-fashioned Korean restaurant in a little alley just across from the main gate of my new university that serves kimchi bokkeumbap with all the sides including kongnamulguk for, believe it or not, only 2500 won! I bet it's real busy at dinner time. I'll find out tomorrow.

Apropos your toaster post: I brought home twelve bagels from Costco yesterday, six cinnamon raisin and six blueberry, only to remember that I left my toaster oven behind for the next denizen of my old Kyungdae digs. Darn. :-(

Saradevil said...

My favorite Korean bi-bim-bap place has raised the price since I first game here so now a bowl of bi-bim goodness costs me five thousand won, but it is so good and so worth it.

I remember when I discovered a place that served bul-mul su-jae-be with a pa-jan on the side, fish, kimchi, all the fixing for like five thousand and that was absolutely great. Unfortunately they closed about three weeks after I discovered them, it's always the way.

How was the dinner crowd? And I know exactly how you feel about the toaster.

@ Jill

What country do you live in again? Surely they have to your door Mexican there?