If I could only have one memory from Korea – and of course, I have many, many fabulous memories from my time there – it would be eating with friends. In fact, almost all of my favourite memories from my time in Korea – or with my Korean friends here in Toronto – center around food and eating together. It didn’t even matter what we were eating most of the time, although it was usually good, as it was the companionship – that sense of togetherness, of community, of almost family – that was important.
Food brought co-workers together, and allowed them the chance to be a little less casual than in the office or the classroom (although there were still ‘rules’ to eating and drinking in Korea, with friends it’s always less structured). Eating out let acquaintances grow into friends and friends become… family. In fact, my co-workers and I grew so close during my two years in Seoul; we called each other our ‘EG family’ (we all worked at an English academy called “EG International School of English”).
So it made sense that when I knew I was going to have a little bit of free time during my fabulous KTO-sponsored trip last August, I contacted my friends and “family” in Seoul to see if we could get together for dinner. I wasn’t able to meet up with everyone unfortunately, as my free time was quite limited but I’m super happy that so many of my friends made time for me and even more wanted to meet but couldn’t. The world – especially my world – is such a richer place with all of you!
One group of friends I was able to meet up with were three members of my ‘EG family’ – June, Erin and Lina – and it was so lovely to see them. When we were organizing it beforehand – yay, Kakao Talk! – all I told June was I wanted to have samgyeopsal (삼겹살, barbecued pork belly) and bokbunja-ju (복분자주, Korean black raspberry wine) with them for our first stage and she found a fabulous place for us. In fact, it was quite close to my hotel.
Now I can hear some of you thinking “why did she want bokbunja-ju with her samgyeopsal?” Yes, I know that soju (소주, Korean rice alcohol) is more commonly drank with it, or perhaps beer in some cases but I love bokbunja-ju and it’s very hard to find in Toronto. Sad beans! Plus we often drank it – or bekseju (백세주, a herb rice wine that may help you live to be 100, ‘bek’) – when I lived in Korea as I’m not really a fan of soju.
After our hugs and girlish cries of happiness – it had been 4½ years since we last saw each other – we sat down for dinner and caught up on each other’s lives. Soon we fell into comfortable conversations just like the time apart had never happened. So happy.
And then the food arrived. Now we do have some great Korean restaurants in Toronto, many of which I eat at regularly. I even cook some Korean dishes at home. But despite all that, I was so very happy to be eating samgyeopsal with them. The memories, the taste, the sheer happiness of the meal. Even though I’d never been to this particular restaurant before, there were still some elements of the meal that you don’t see in Toronto – or at least not often – but that I remembered from my time in Korea. The taste, ahh… I’m getting hungry just writing about it. And I’m craving bokbunja-ju again.
So what did we eat?
So I’ve gushed about the samgyeopsal – and it was worth gushing about. Nice thick slices of pork belly; that I ate with pamuchim (파무침, green onion salad), ssamjang (쌈장, a mildly spicy tangy sauce used with grilled meat), and ggaennip (깻잎, sesame leaves). It’s weird, I don’t really like green onions – or onions of any kind – but in this context, the flavour just works.
Complementing the samgyeopsal was mul kimchi (물김치, a tangy water-based kimchi that comes in almost a soup) which was perfect for the extremely hot weather (it was 35+C my entire trip). It’s just so refreshing. Yes, it’s mildly spicy but it’s more tangy and refreshing than anything. Also on the table was seonjiguk (선지국, similar to haejangguk except with congealed ox blood – and yes, it’s better tasting than it sounds).
After we finished all our meat, we ordered mul naengmyun (물 냉면, cold buckwheat noodles in an icy, tangy broth). Which is always the perfect way to finish a meal in the summer. In fact, after bibim guksu (비빔국수, spicy cold noodles with veggies) which is my summer specialty; mul naengmyun is my favourite summer Korean dish.
Of course, this was only our first stage…