If the Army has taught me one thing, it is networking. Well, and patience, but we’ll keep it positive here. I don’t know how many times I have been talking to someone affiliated with the Army and have found out that we know a related third party. “Oh, you were in Unit XYZ? Did you know Bob? Isn’t he great?” “You’re going to Ft. Rucker? You have to try this Mexican restaurant!” It’s a small, helpful community. We were lucky enough to receive some great benefits from this phenomenon on our most recent move.
This move to Korea has not been easy. There were mounds of paperwork, countless delays, and conflicting reports on what was needed. However, Jared and I were blessed in that we were not alone in our endeavors. We were just one of many couples and individuals, all who happened to know one another, moving to Korea at the same time. I spoke with one of the other wives soon after we got the news of our next assignment. I was happy to know that we would be able to help one another through the process, but even happier when this wife informed me that she has a friend currently living in Korea. Networking score! I was put in contact with my new pal in Korea and was able to experience Army networking at its finest.
To make a long story short, I had a friend waiting for me the day I stepped off the plane. Before I arrived, new friend had helped Jared by giving him a place to stay, assisting in apartment hunting, and giving endless advice. Upon my arrival we were immediately invited on a double date. We did not even have to go into the tiresome standby of “where do you want to go? Oh, I don’t know; where do you want to go?” Instead, I was asked if I like spicy food (yes) and told when and where to meet. Decisive perfection.
We took a taxi from our little neighborhood to Gangnam-gu, made infamous in 2012 by Psy. I finally learned what all the suffixes are at the end of town names. I have seen these suffixes, -si, -gu, -dong, while I have looked at Korea maps, but did not know exactly what they meant. A si is a city, a division of a province, and has at least 150,000 people. A gu is a district within a city, and a dong is a neighborhood within the district. Gangnam consists of 22 dong, and it is one of 25 gu in Seoul. Additionally, are gun (counties), eup (towns), myeon (townships), and ri (villages). These comparisons, “a eup is a town,” are approximate Westernized equivalents as governing responsibilities vary.
So, for my first full day in Korea I ended up in Gangnam-gu and eating an authentic Korean meal! Our restaurant was just a little away from the Gangnam metro station and right in the heart of a lot of activity. As I can’t read Korean yet, I can’t exactly tell you what the name of the restaurant is. Luckily, Jared was smart enough to snap a picture of the place so that we can find it again.
Our chosen restaurant specializes in dak galbi. This delicious meal originates from Chuncheon-si (who remembers what si means?) and is prepared family style right at the table. Dak galbi cooks in a skillet upon a built-in table grill. The meal consists of chicken, sweet potato (but white ones, not the orange yam type), cabbage, onion, bean sprouts, rice cake, and really, really spicy chili pepper paste. When I hear rice cake, I think of a bland Quaker Oats brand one I had the misfortune to eat once. Not here! This rice cake is about the size and shape of a baby carrot, white, and has a soft, gummy texture.
The ingredients simmer in front of you for about 20 minutes while a server occasionally comes to stir the goodness together. The vegetables start out very white and crispy, but as they cook down they become soft and are coated in a red sauce as they mix with the pepper paste. (See top picture) I liked having the food cook in front of me. It makes going out to eat so much more of an experience. In the US, you order a steak, it is brought to you, and you eat it. No finesse. With this meal, we could hear the meat sizzle, feel the heat of the grill, smell the pepper, and looked at one another through the steam that rose from our meal. A little more ambience than staring at the Sweet ‘n Low packets.
Though one of our party would occasionally stir the food together, the servers kept a close eye on us. At one point the food looked ready to eat, and our bellies did not want to be denied any longer. As we began to start dishing it out, a server ran up and chastised us. She took the spatula right out of our friend’s hand and started scraping and stirring again. Apparently, it did not look finished to her! She knew some important indicator of perfection that we were unaware of.
Once the food has cooked thoroughly and the server indicated that we were now allowed to eat, the dak galbi was divided into individual servings. I’ve never been a cabbage or bean sprout fan, but when all the food is mixed together, it’s amazing. The vegetables cook down so that they are soft and slightly chewy. The chicken was already cut in bite-sized pieces so it was easy to get a little vegetables and chicken all in one bite (which is generally how I manage to eat any vegetables).
This is maybe the 4th time I’ve eaten with chopsticks in my life. My family didn’t eat a lot of Asian cuisine when I was younger, and our Minute Rice was always eaten with a fork. Jared and I have gone to Asian restaurants, but Chinese buffets don’t really enforce the chopstick rule. So, with little experience, and being given metal chopsticks (slightly more difficult to grip, I believe), I was happy to get any food near my mouth. I would sometimes manage to latch on to a big portion of dak galbi, but then the next time I would be lucky to get one piece of cabbage. Therefore, whatever food, no matter how much or how little there was, I would instantly shove into my mouth before I lost my grip on it. I’m classy like that.
The chili paste is no joke, though. It made me appreciate small bites. I’ve been warned that Korean food is spicy, and now I can verify that it is! Luckily, I found that soju (rice wine) and makgeolli (a milky white alcohol made from wheat and rice) greatly alleviate the spiciness caused by the dak galbi. There was also a bowl of clear broth soup; I think it is meant to be mixed in with the dak galbi or used to dilute the spiciness. Jared had me try a spoonful (I made a vow to at least try everything while I am here); it was disgusting and horribly salty. Since we were out with people who I just met, I really tried to hold it together, but I couldn’t help shuddering and gasping “No!” when I pushed it away. It would be a bit much to expect me to be a complete convert my first night, right?
When there was a just little dak galbi still in the pan, our friends requested that some rice be added in. The rice went through the same stirring and pan scrapping process that the dak galbi had been put through, and we didn’t have to wait long before it was mixed in well enough to eat. The rice helped bring down some of the spiciness, but made me feel full rather quickly.
It all made an amazing meal- the food, the drinks, the great company. Maybe I still have stars in my eyes from being so excited to be here, but I feel that this meal was more of an experience than what you would typically have in the States. The best thing I can compare it to is dining at The Melting Pot, just less expensive. It’s about going slowly, enjoying the conversation, and involving yourself in the meal. I have been so excited about this move and about living in a foreign country, but I wondered if I had built it up too much, if I would be disappointed. However, I have had my first taste of Korea, and it was overwhelmingly perfect.
PS: Here’s the location of our Dak Galbi restaurant!