One of the best things about travel has to be the food. Coming from a country which is not renowned for its cuisine, getting the chance to travel to exotic places and taste the variety of dishes they have is such a treat. But food is not only experienced through taste. No! Food arouses all the senses.
Enter an Korean restaurant and your senses are overwhelmed by the noise of the kitchen and waiting staff as they hurriedly plate up and serve the food. The other diners loud in conversation, their laughs echoing around you. You hear food crackling and hissing as it is tossed in hot oil, plates and dishes clinking and clanking, the fragrance of the food rushing through the restaurant as the doors to the kitchen swing open and shut. All the while you sit and wait in anticipation to see what will be served up, sitting there in awe of the pace and momentum of it all. Then it arrives! Plates and plates of food. No other country gives you as much food as Koreans. Side dishes, so many side dishes. Little saucers of garlic, pickled onions, pickled turnip, beansprouts, tiny fried fish, the ubiquitous kimchi (the national dish of Korea) and always a big bowl of steaming hot broth, all placed around the barbecue in the centre of the table.
Korean restaurants don’t cater for the solo traveller. Eating is not a solitary activity in Korea. It is something communal to be shared. You cannot get a dish for one in a restaurant and many restaurant owners, on a busy night, will turn you away should you be on your own. You would be taking up valuable real estate sitting on your own at a table designed for four. When I was in Seoul, I wandered around Gangham (ya, the place made famous in that song) for well over an hour before I found a restaurant that would take me in. I was met with the Korean gesture for no – the two index fingers crossed and a regretful smile and tilt of the head. Eventually, a ajuma (a middle-aged Korean woman) took pity on me and let me in, muttering away to herself, in what I guess was pity for this poor traveller all alone and nobody to eat with. She escorted me through the crowded restaurant past the tables of animated and loud Koreans out to the back where she pointed to a beer barrel with a tray on top of it and pulling over a stool up to it, indicating that this was to be my table. I looked at her. She looked at me. She with a look of this will have to do for you, and me with a look of pleeeease, can I sit with the others? We exchanged these looks, both of us trying to convince the other, neither of us willing to give in. But someone had to, something had to be done.
So, I took the tray off the beer barrel, handed it to her and lifted the beer barrel up (it was empty – I am not that strong or stupid) and walked back out to the main part of the restaurant and plonked it down to the side of a table of bemused looking Koreans and with a this is better, isn’t it? look I smiled at the waitress and hoped she would also smile in return. She did! And I can only imagine what she said to the table of Koreans next to me that caused them all to erupt in laughter. But I didn’t mind. I was hungry and more than anything I was right in the centre (well centre enough) of all the activity and I was going to lap it all up.
She handed me the menu and with the limited Korean I have I ordered Bulgogi, a beef dish that you fry yourself at the table. To accompany this, I had a small bottle of soju (Korean rice wine) and a bottle of Korean beer. As I said, Korean restaurants do not cater for individual guests. My order was a meal for two and luckily I have no problem in putting away enough food for a small family in one sitting. The only problem was that how could it be cooked! I was sitting at a beer barrel. A beer barrel without a barbecue. More laughter erupted and did not subside until the penny dropped for me and I realised my predicament.
With much gesticulation and hope, I managed to order some other food, food which did not need to be cooked at my table and I waited until the table next to me became free and I was able to relocate and use the barbecue there. For the next hour or so, I waited contentedly at my beer barrel taking in the sights, the sounds, and the smells, all the while picking on great food and getting that little bit drunk on Korean soju. I must have been a peculiar sight sat there on my own at the beer barrel, but I loved it!
Eventually, the people next to me vacated the table and I jumped in. I was surprised to see that when they got their coats the waitress sprayed them down. I was baffled as to what was happening, but then it dawned on me that she was using Fabreeze to rid them of the odours of the food and tobacco (still legal to smoke in Korean restaurants). Koreans do service so well! They even think of what will happen to you after you leave. You would not like there to be a lingering odour. Oh, no! So they you spray you down! And a thing I love is that there is no problem in asking for more of anything in a Korean restaurant and the best thing is that when you want your waiter to come, all you have to do is ring the bell on your table and hey presto, they arrive.
The restaurant began to empty out and things quietened down. The waitresses were able to take a little break and the cooks came out from the kitchen to join them. Feeling their eyes upon me I gave them a nod hello and a thumbs up for the great food. They smiled back and bowed their heads. I raised my little shot glass of soju to them, finished it off and gestured for the bill. After paying, I stood up and expected to be sprayed down. Unfortunately, I did not get this treatment. Perhaps, they felt I wanted the experience to linger.