Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dinner Music, Of Sorts

Gyeongju closes early. I ventured out a little before 8PM to the restaurant area nearest my guest house, as I didn’t feel like taking the further walk to downtown Gyeongju, especially since the restaurant pickings in that area didn’t seem any more remarkable.

The Chinese restaurant I had my eyes on was closed already, as was the Korean restaurant next door to it, which I had scoped out earlier. I didn’t want to go back to the ssam bap place I had eaten at the night before, nor did I want to go to the bigger, glitzier ssam bap restaurant in the area.

Language is a major problem for the foreign traveler in Korea. Few people speak English, and menus and restaurant signs rarely have names in any kind of Romanization (I know the names of many Korean dishes, but I certainly can’t read Hangul). So in order to scope out restaurants I have to announce the names of dishes I might want and see if I get a nod of the head. I pity the diner who is clueless about Korean food. Ssam bap, I must admit, is a handy solution, since there’s nothing to order.

I was thinking I might have to go to another area of town when I passed a place with no sign. There were a bunch of men, only men, inside, eating and drinking at traditional floor-seating tables. I walked in and took my shoes off. There seemed to be two groups of boisterous soju drinkers, one group behind a screen. I got the impression that this was a pub of sorts. I was greeted by a woman. “Menu? English?” I said.

“Menu!” she said, and pointed to the Korean menu on the wall. “Bibim bap?” she asked. I had quickly learned that’s the first dish to be offered to Westerners, perhaps because it’s an iconic Korean dish that’s pretty easy to put together, and perhaps because it doesn’t have the extreme flavors of a number of Korean dishes. But I didn’t want bibim bap. I don’t really like bibim bap. I figured I’d ask for Korean pancakes, since I’m always up for those. “Haemul pajeon?” I asked, hoping for seafood pancakes. She smiled and nodded. “Haemul pajeon!”

“And a soju,” I added. “Small.” I made a hand motion to indicate small.

Actually, I think all the bottles were the same size, about 12 ounces. Soju, similar to the Japanese shochu (though I find the Korean ones generally sweeter), is a kind of distilled grain spirit, often made from barley, that might be considered vodkalike, though milder, about 40 proof. Still, a small bottle of soju would have the alcohol content of about four bottles of beer.

My soju came and I started sipping. About a third of the way in I started getting a buzz. I was quite enjoying sitting there alone, sipping soju, taking in the social exchanges around me that I could make absolutely no sense of. Then my food arrived. “Haemul pajeon! Korean pizza!” the woman announced (indeed, it’s cut in wedges). It was an excellent pajeon. I ate and I drank. About halfway through the bottle I was getting a serious buzz (I can’t drink like I used to). I slowed down, but kept sipping. I wondered if women were welcome in a place like this, or if it was strictly a male preserve, as it seemed that evening. As a guy alone out for a bite, it was OK with me either way. In my soju-mellowed state I started focusing on the animated foreign sounds emanating from two groups of men in different areas of the room. I embraced it as an odd dinner music of sorts. About two-thirds into the bottle I called it quits.


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