Two of my dearest friends studied abroad last semester, Etta in Finland and Ara in Korea. As sort of a reunion and because none of us had dates within the city, we decided to have a girl’s night on Valentine’s Day.
I met them at the Korean King a few blocks from my apartment. I had only been there once before, when we said our goodbyes in early August. I was exhausted from working that day and so chose a dish that sounded the most familiar to me. The most American. But today, Etta and I let Ara order for us. She could read some of the Korean on the menus and recognized most of the dishes.
We were seated close to the front, and I realized we were the only customers who were not of Asian descent. And boy were we getting looks. Not bad necessarily maybe just really interested.
When our waters were dropped off at the table Ara ordered samgyeopsal (Please don’t ask me how to pronounce this. I tried and failed miserably). Samgyeopsal is pork belly strips that you grill yourself at the table. It came with a bunch of little side dishes that are collectively called banchan and a soup. Ara choose kimchi jjigoe (kimchi soup), because Etta and I didn’t know the difference between the soups. This is what our dinner looked like.
Ara did the grilling, so we had our own stream of smoke that went up to the ceiling and mingled with the smoke from the other tables. We used the lettuce to make wraps out of the samgyeopsal and banchan as toppings. I saw one of the couples look surprised that we knew how to eat it correctly and I was pleased with myself for all of two seconds.
“You don’t eat it like a taco! You put the whole thing in your mouth,” Ara said when she caught us trying to nibble the corners down to manageable bites. I didn’t look back over at the couple, but I could imagine they probably found our mistake funny. After a few tense moments of choking, Etta and I finally managed to eat wraps the way they are supposed to be eaten and our meal progressed with the tap, tap, tapping of chopsticks.
“Hey Ara, what are those white things in the soup?” I asked, as I served us all a bowl. Its Korean tradition that the youngest person servers everyone else, (they’re supposed to grill the meat too but we were afraid I might start a fire) and I am technically younger than both of them.
“Umm, tofu,” she said.
I stopped and stared down at the white block floating around in my soup. I have never had tofu before, but there was a reason. The white tufts of sponge like “food” have always turned my stomach a little. Ara said I had to try it, so I fished one out with my spoon and set it on my plate. Everything else we had eaten was delicious but this little monster did not look appetizing at all.
The more I stared at it, the more I expected it to move. After a few encouraging words from my friends I squished the blob between my chopsticks and plopped it into my mouth. Thankfully the blob didn’t have any flavor.
I don’t think I could have handled a bad taste along with the horrible sensation of having something instantaneously disintegrate on my tongue. As it was I gulped down as much water as I could to get the texture out of my mouth.
This wasn’t the worst thing I have ever eaten but it definitely wasn’t my favorite. I’ve been told there are different levels of firmness when it comes to tofu. This one must have been the really weak kind. I might try it again, just to see if the others are any better but this kind of Korean food will not be getting many orders from me.
Do you have any surprising experiences trying new food? Tell me about them in the comments, or challenge me to try something new.