When slavering over Korean food, most miguks (Americans) only know about Korean barbecue. However, there are plenty of other dishes to consider: the gross, like spicy chicken feet (and other poultry parts); the bizarre, like living octopus walking away from you (don’t forget to chew it well, because it might choke you to death); the often necessary, like haejang-guk (hangover soup); the absolutely delicious, like Korean fried chicken; and the truly uncanny, like budae-jjigae (G.I. Joe Stew), which is a mixture of spicy soup, ramen noodles, SPAM and hot dogs. Long story short, during the Korean War, the American military folks gave their unwanted government-issued food (like processed meat) to starving Koreans who cooked something brilliant out of the garbage.
Generally, Koreans like their food spicy, and gochujang (red pepper paste) complements nearly every dish. Almost everything comes with kimchi, a usually spicy pickled cabbage. It’s pretty tough to explain if you’ve never tried it. When my mother visited me, she nearly starved because everything bit her taste buds too harshly.
Another great thing about living in Korea is the restaurants. I’ve never eaten any Korean food in America that tastes as good as it does in Korea. Some of these mom-and-pop soup shops might actually be run by Mom and Pop. Mom does the cash register, Dad does the cooking and all the little ones serve, wash dishes or bus tables.
Since eating out is a lot cheaper in Seoul, I did it a lot more. Sometimes, Koreans will eat and go. Other times, they’ll make an entire evening about getting some barbecue. Often, I’d eat by myself and read during my lunch breaks or after work or whenever.
Often, the ajummas (old Korean ladies) brought me literally boiling-hot soups like kimchi jjigae or hangover stew. Then only a few seconds later, they would return with surprised looks on their faces. We’d have this hilarious conversation through my monkey-level Korean and their beginner English:
AJUMMA: “Is everything OK with your food?”
KC: “Oh, I’m sure the soup is fine. It is boiling hot.”
AJUMMA: “What’s wrong with it?”
KC: “It’s just too hot for me. I need to let it cool off.”
AJUMMA: “Is the food too spicy for you?”
KC: “No. The food is literally boiling hot.”
AJUMMA: “But if you don’t eat it, it will get cold.”
KC: “But it’s too hot for my tongue. I need it to cool off for a few minutes.”
AJUMMA: “Do you like cold soup? We have cold soup! Very delicious cold soup!”
KC: “No, gross. But I can’t eat soup or drink coffee that’s bubbling hot.”
AJUMMA (laughing to her friends): “Oh this American is so cute with his sensitive mouth.”
Once my soup cooled, I’d start eating. If it was spicy, I might start crying, and the ajumma would return and pat me on the shoulder.
AJUMMA: “It’s OK. My 5-year-old grandson said it was too spicy, too.”
Luckily, the food was almost always delicious and the servers were almost always polite to the extreme, so they received plenty of business from me.