Exploring Korean Food as a Newbie – My Favourite Memories

I’m going to tell you a secret. Okay, it’s not really a secret as I’ve mentioned it before but if you haven’t heard it… it may surprise you. Before I went to Korea in the fall of 2005 – September 30th to be exact – I knew almost nothing about Korean culture or even Korean food. You see, I’m from small-town Canada and there were no Koreans or Korean restaurants in my hometown when I was growing up. There is a Korean family there now, they own one of the convenience stores and are super nice, but they didn’t move in until after I left for Korea.

So I arrived in Korea with almost no knowledge or experience with Korean food. But man, was it fun gaining that knowledge and experience!

Luckily, three wonderful things happened to make the experience as easy as possible. First, two other foreign teachers started at the same time I did so I had some company exploring for the first little bit. Second, one of the other foreign teachers at my academy and several of the Korean teachers were super friendly and helpful in explaining things for which I will be eternally grateful (they also took me to many great restaurants and introduced me to other great people). And finally, I learned how to read Hangul… in a bar… over a couple of beer… which made ordering food in restaurants and grocery shopping so much easier. And stopped me from stupid mistakes like buying MSG when I wanted to buy salt (true story *hangs head in shame*).

All of those things combined to make my introduction to Korea and Korean food a fun experience. And over my three years in Korea – one in Ulsan and two in Seoul – some of my best memories are because of food. Not just the delicious Korean food itself but also, the fun times with friends – new and old – over lunch, dinner or late night snacks. In fact, during my three years in Korea, I hardly ate alone.

What are my favourite memories of food in Korea?

My first meal in Korea – Even now, years later, I still remember my first meal in Korea. My two newbie co-workers and I wandered around our neighbourhood until we found a restaurant that had pictures as none of us could read Hangul yet. Turns out my first meal in Korea was omurice, which isn’t really Korean food but Japanese fusion although I didn’t know it at the time. It’s basically rice wrapped in an omelette, often with sauce on top. Not my favourite dish but because it was the first thing I ordered in Korea… it’s a favourite memory.

Green tea samgyeopsal, kimchi, garlic, mushroom and sprouts – yummy

My academy dinners in Ulsan – The academy I worked for in Ulsan wasn’t a good one (the one in Seoul was as I did better research for my second job) but we did have some fun and interesting company dinners. The two that stand out the most are my first one – not for the food but the entertainment afterwards. They took us to a booking club that had live entertainment (read: male and female strippers). Just picture me with a permanent blush! The other night was memorable because of the amazing food – lots and lots of different marinated samgyeopsal (삼겹살, thick slices of pork belly that’s barbequed at your table). My favourite was the green tea one.

June and I with the delicious giant prawns

Prawns in Anmyeondo (안면도) – My EG family (co-workers from my Seoul academy who were also great friends) and I went to Anmyeondo, the sixth biggest island in Korea, for a long weekend vacation. It was one of the most relaxing vacations ever and one of the highlights was learning how to cook giant prawns over a bed of rock salt. Wow, so delicious! I loved the experience of going to the seafood market, picking out the prawns (giant ugly-assed shrimp), and cooking them at our pension. Now I love prawns pretty much any way but cooked like this, they were absolutely the best ever!

Becoming a regular at some restaurants in Bangi-dong – By the time I arrived in Seoul I’d been living in Korea for a year and had a basic understanding of Korean food. Oh, I still hadn’t tried everything of course, but I had tried a lot and I could read the menus comfortably (if slowly) by that time. So my two years in Seoul were more about finding the best places – and the friendliest places – to eat the Korean food I already loved. By the end of the first of two years there, I’d become a regular at several places in my neighbourhood and that made my dining experience so much better. There’s nothing like being greeted by name, or getting gently scolded for eating by myself to make everything seem so much friendlier. I miss that!

Eating my first Korean-style breakfast – I’d visited a friend’s home, she lived with her parents, and stayed the night. Her family was super nice and it was a wonderful experience all around. But the highlight for me was breakfast. Now, I’m not a morning person and don’t generally eat much for breakfast normally (I’m a pot of strong, black tea and a small bowl of cereal girl) but I found eating doenjang jiggae (된장 찌개, spicy soybean paste soup), rice, kimchi (김치, spicy fermented cabbage generally but could be other veggies too) and other banchan (반찬, Korean side dishes) fun. Not sure I could do it all the time but it was neat to try!

Those are just a few of my favourite food memories from Korea. I have so many more… and I didn’t even touch the late-night food fun. I just wish I had have taken more food pictures. What about you, my lovely readers, what are your favourite Korean food memories?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Korean Food as a Newbie – My Favourite Memories

  • August 13, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I see that you blog for the Republic of Korea. Well, since you asked about favorite Korean food memories…admittedly, two happened in the DPRK. One, a fine meal of duck barbeque in Pyongyang, and another, a bit of a banquet-style lunch in Kaesong. Though to cross back over the border…I haven’t spent a great deal of time in the ROK, but while there every meal has been nothing short of delicious. AND, I can relate to you being admonished for eating alone! What exactly is samgyeopsal?

    • August 13, 2012 at 4:39 pm

      Yeah, I’m lucky enough to have some of my articles reprinted by The Korea Blog which is run by the Republic of Korea. Samgyeopsal is thick strips of pork belly that you barbecue at your table. It’s probably one of the most popular meals among Koreans (in ROK at least, I’m not familiar with DPRK) and goes well with soju.

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