Eating when traveling in a foreign country can be a tricky thing. Sure, these days you actually have to try to find a city that doesn’t have a McDonald’s in it, but if you want to experience the local culture, American fast food chains just won’t do (although, frighteningly, they are becoming popular with the youth in places like Shanghai and, thus, it could be argued that by eating at a McDonald’s in China you actually are experiencing the local culture. But, I’ll leave that odd bit of globalization theory for another time).
Eating is tricky, then, not only because what you might eat in certain parts of the world contains different bacteria that your body simply isn’t used to and will force you to do a 40-yard dash to the nearest bathroom, but also, and much more importantly I might add, because you don’t want to be the ugly American. Sometimes, though, no matter how hard you try, it’s almost impossible to avoid the label.
A few years ago, my friend Sean and I were in the Hongdae area of Seoul and wandered into a restaurant that was crowded with people. If memory serves me correctly we were given “English” menus which basically just said “pork” or “beef.” We were starving, so we ordered one of each, thinking that if one sucked we’d at least have the other dish.
As we sat there marveling at how cool the area was — it’s filled with clubs, restaurants and bars — an employee walked over to our table and placed some coals in a hole in the center and then laid a small grill grate over it. Unbeknownst to us, we had wandered into a Korean barbeque or gogigui. Still, it hadn’t quite sunk in what was going on or what we were supposed to do.
Neither of us had ever been to a restaurant where the food was cooked at your table, other than a Japan Inn or Benihana, and we were interested to see how it would work here. The employee returned with a bunch of side dishes, including lettuce leaves, garlic, kimchi and what I believe was a spicy scallion or green onion salad. As he placed the dishes around the table, we asked for a green bottle of what we would later learn was Soju, an ubiquitous rice liquor that everyone else in the restaurant seemed to have already ordered.
After a round of shots we started to wonder about the dishes on the table. Do we eat these separately? I thought there was meat involved? Luckily, before we could begin, we noticed the employee returning with two more large plates. Wow, that’s fast, I thought. We had barely sat down and they had already cooked our food.
Turns out, the food wasn’t cooked. The employee simply laid two plates of raw meat in front of us and walked away. We stared at each other and laughed. We had no idea what to do. Embarrassed, we signaled for him to come back over.
Not wanting the two American guys to burn down their establishment, the employee took a pair of chopsticks and laid the meat down on the grill with a look on his face that said, “See. Meat goes on fire. Then you eat.” Oooohhhhhh. We cook the food. Now we understood, or at least we thought we did.
There was still more embarrassment in store for that night. After eating a piece of meat, then a bite of kimchi, then a bite of lettuce, we started to look around the restaurant and noticed that the locals were taking the meat off the grill and wrapping it in the lettuce that they had filled with the side dishes. In a sense, we had basically been eating the hamburger plain and eating the ketchup with a spoon.
Laughing at ourselves, we started to follow the lead of the locals. The food, once eaten in its proper fashion, was, of course, delicious. We left the restaurant using our newly learned bit of Korean to say thank you (kamsahamnida) and I, at least, lamented that we couldn’t truly thank them and apologize in a more meaningful fashion.
A night later we ended up in a similarly packed restaurant, figuring it must be good. This time there were no English menus, so we ended up pointing to something and hoping for the best. We were brought out a bubbling cauldron of red-orange broth and, once more, a plethora of side dishes.
Not again. Do we put it all in the soup? Do we put it all in a bowl and then put the soup over it? This time there was no one to help.
We probably ate the ketchup.
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
♦ The Magic of Monet
♦ Excelling in Obscurity: Kyrie Irving
♦ The Mysterious Case of Alex Ovechkin
♦ Is Football’s Future in Jeopardy?
♦ Beertopia: Cigar City’s Jai Alai White Oak-aged IPA