Cuisine in Insadong: Part One

Lonely Planet’s description of Insadong as “a gastronomic centre of excellence” is spot on.

The outside of this restaurant is so unassuming that I didn’t even think to snap a photo, nor do I now remember its name.  As we walk up the cobblestoned pathway to the entrance, Lisa and I try to determine if they’re even open.  We knock gently and then carefully pry open the weathered door to find a small Korean woman talking loudly into a cordless phone.  I am thoroughly overwhelmed by the smell of fish.  Words cannot adequately express how overwhelmed I am.  To me, the scent is so offensive that I desperately contemplate running out the door.  But Lisa is already removing her boots and the woman on the phone is beckoning us into a small dining room.  I reluctantly follow suit, tugging off my boots and placing them on the shelf to my left.  I side-step the kitchen and walk past large jars of pickled root and cabbage before finding my place on the floor at the low table across from Lisa.  We are the only diners present.

Lisa explains that the restaurant must have once been a modest residential home, a hanok as it were, and she gestures towards the pickling pots as evidence of its humble composition.  A thin paper wall separates the dining area from the kitchen where two cooks quarrel loudly with an angry child.  The walls facing outside are made from packed mud and straw.  They are burnt-orange in color but have been partly whitewashed on three sides of the room.  The floor beneath me begins to warm pleasantly and I learn that this is the work of the ondol, or heating system; the ingenious segmentation of the foundation below.  Burning piles of wood can be inserted into these spaces to selectively heat the desired areas of the house above.

Our host is still on the phone, pacing back and forth in front of our table, engrossed in conversation. She puts the receiver to her shoulder long enough to take Lisa’s order and then disappears into the kitchen.  Lisa is graciously merciful when she orders for the both of us.  I know she’s partial to the raw octopus and pickled crab of her countrymen but when I’m around she eats conservatively for my sake.

Neither of us anticipated what subsequently emerges from the kitchen.  Piled high on so many platters, every manner of sea creature and pickled bit imaginable.  The variety is astonishing, an assortment that Lisa will later refer to as “hardcore”.  Twenty-one components presented individually on pearly white saucers.  Lisa digs in but I’m distracted by a pungent odor to my right.  It is the embodiment of the nebulous smell I encountered upon entering the restaurant.  I follow my nose to the offending dish.  It’s wet and shiny: a bulbous pile of raw squid, laced with seaweed and sitting in a pool of filmy sauce.  I urgently beg Lisa to swap plates with me and she eagerly obliges, relocating the squid to her side of the table.

Now, breathing a bit easier, I relinquish myself to the meal.  I begin, cautiously at first, to sample some of the more innocuous-looking options around the rim of the table.  I start with the beef patty and am pleasantly surprised.  Nothing scary about it, just delicious ground meat grilled to perfection with a spicy dipping sauce.  Emboldened, I begin to circle my way into the center of the table.  I encounter salty red kimchi, cubes of green acorn jelly, fried veggie pancakes, salty black seaweed and pickled red algae.  There’s a boiling bowl of miso soup afloat with giant chunks of white tofu and wilted greens.  I help myself generously to a large serving and then pause to have some rice.

The road gets trickier now.  I have to ask Lisa to explain the remaining dishes and they are as daunting as I suspect.  I approach the first: raw octopus tentacles soaked in salty brine.  I breathe, commit, and then proceed.  Success!  Next is spicy crab.  I use my teeth to break through the hard shell and suck out the meat from inside the thorax.  Boom.  Moving right along I reach the fried whole fish.  Lisa shows me how to remove the connecting vein that borders the dorsal fin, exposing the meat inside which I then pull out using my chopsticks.  There is reason to pause here.  This dish is fantastic.  It is crispy and sweet and it melts in my mouth.

I’m thoroughly satisfied and I decide to quit while I’m ahead.  I leave the nefarious squid for Lisa to enjoy and gulp down some water.  I also sip my green tea to help, I hope, aid my digestion.  I feel as though I’ve just completed a monumental task like saving the princess or finishing a lengthy crossword puzzle.  Upon exiting, the frigid clean air is my reward.


V-Day Over Drinks

Alex and I are sitting barside in the hotel lobby, sipping matching double espresso martinis.  I pose the question: “If you could hang out with any three people alive today who would they be?”  I ask because I’m curious.  I figure that between us, at least one answer will overlap and I figure it will probably be Blake Griffin.  I tell him so but he glances quizzically at me and takes a long sip from his glass.

“I’d like to work with Christopher Nolan,” he says, ” and I don’t want to meet him until we are collaborating on a feature film together.”  Alex’s ambition is showing and, as is so often the case, attempts to define the terms of our conversation.  I clarify, “What I mean is, if you could, like chill with someone you admire, do anything with them for let’s say a whole day, who would it be and what would you do?”  I give him an example of one of mine to get us on the right track: Anthony Bourdain, food god.  I explain at length the culinary escapade I’ve been piecing together in my mind for the past year and a half.  The sumptuous food and drink and conversation about food and drink in some exotic locale.  I think Morocco is a good candidate. Tony: recounting his exploits over a tall glass of malt beer, Me: eating with my fingers, convincing him to be my best friend.  “You know,” I say to Alex, “that sort of thing babe.”

He gets the Blake comment now and but we’re not quite there yet.  “I don’t really get off on  meeting famous people,” he says, “what would you even do if you had a day with Blake Griffin?” That’s an easy one.  Obviously make him watch all of my favorite funny movies, shoot some hoops and eat fried chicken.  “Okay, okay,” he says, nodding his head and scratching his beard thoughtfully.  Alex thinks for a moment more in silence.

I turn my head to the bar and watch a Korean businessman in suit and tie swirl his glass of whiskey and down it in one sip.  The attentive bartender registers his subtle nod and replaces the empty with a new glass.  Otherwise the bar is ours, save for the silent eye of the attendant behind us.  I had forgotten she was there.

I return my attention to Alex.  He’s gazing over the city, enjoying the last of his drink.  I can tell that his mind is elsewhere now, perhaps ruminating on the set list he received from Gil the night before.  I reach for his hand.  He smiles and looks at me, “that’s a really fun question babe, I need to think about it some more.”  And so we make like the Korean businessman and finish the night with whiskey; together, high above the city just he and me.

Dog Cafe (not that kind)

In the words of my best friend Chelsea upon hearing my account of this experience, “I don’t even know what to say.” And really, I don’t.  Snoopy got us into this, pointed the way to a hole in the wall up a very steep staircase in an alley off the main drag in Myeongdong.  The cafe is small and has been modeled to resemble the interior of a provincial farm house.

We, eyes adjusting to the artificial light, stumble through a wooden fence and approach the bar to order drinks.  At once, we are enveloped by a veritable bevy of dogs.  They leap and paw and jump,   as excited to see us as we are to see them.  I am immediately peed upon.  Moments later the barista produces a chart with pictures of each resident dog.  “These two,” she explains, pointing to the headshots of two identical pugs,  “pee.”

The waitress continues to demonstrate that others jump and bite and bark.  Some don’t even like people and just want to be left alone.  There is also a small pig, dressed in a traditional Chinese New Year gown, that dislikes hugs.  We are informed that there is a 10 minute wait for a table so Lisa and I take a lap to find the pig.  Turns out he’s not that hard to spot as he’s the only animal wearing clothes and we both take a knee to pet him.  Moments later, Lisa is also peed upon.

Attendants materialize to clean up the mess and to pat dry lisa’s sodden boot.  They spray the area down with a disinfectant that fills the cafe with a sterile odor, one which lingers and never quite becomes familiar enough to forget.  I throw an encouraging look Lisa’s way: we belong now? Lisa’s nonplussed, “Atleast they’re leather.” And I know what she means is at least they’re waterproof.

It’s our turn now and we’re led to a corner table, a tiny cubby already occupied by a small black dachshund and a sleepy maltese who doesn’t even notice that we’ve sat down.  Two additional dogs immediately jump up and sit in our laps.  We settle in, pleased with the present company.  Latte in hand I watch the couple at a neighboring table poke a disinterested English Corgi with a straw. On my other side, three girls in high-school uniforms squeal as a large waffle-colored greyhound lumbers up onto their table and sprawls out, knocking a cluster of bejeweled cell phones to the floor.  One of the attendants immediately appears at their table to scold them for raising their voices.

On the other end of the cafe one of the dogs is becoming increasingly vocal,  offended by the advances of an affectionate Yorkshire terrier.  Now other dogs join in and howl and yip.  They begin to chase one another, whipping even the docile dogs at our laps into a frenzy.  They trace circuits around the cafe, running furiously between table legs, upsetting drinks and jumping from lap to lap.  The school girls to my left start to scream.  They stand on their chairs terrified, trying to avoid being trampled.  Clients at other tables behave similarly.  Lisa and I watch as the attendants nonchalantly go about their business, welcoming in new clients and cleaning the floor accordingly.

Their lack of concern surprises me.  As the fervor subsides, I begin to wonder what desire this place fulfills for those clients still perched precariously on chairs and stools above the throng.  What about the proximity to this perceived danger is so attractive.

I don’t get it and neither does Lisa.  We rise to leave as the maltese and dachshund return to claim their places.  A new group of customers is led to the corner and we squeeze out the narrow front door, letting the hinged wooden fence slam shut behind us.

Day One: Myeongdong

Myeongdong is two train transfers away from our home station of Sindorim, roughly a 20 minute commute.  We emerge from the underground Korail line at the foot of a great Uniqlo which shimmers in the morning sun like a giant white obelisk.  At 11:00am the streets are filled with vendors selling knock-off Tory Burch flats and Ugg Boots, the smell of pork dumplings and fried potato mixed with something fishy and raw.

Lisa and I meander through the crowds, weaving between small children puffed up to two, three times their size by thick layers of down and wool.  Couples huddle close and walk in unison, practically wearing each other to keep from catching cold.  Shops are packed in close between and on top of one another.  What they lack in space they more than make up for in spectacle.  At every entrance and on street corners costumed mascots hawk daily adverts and beckon in wayward shoppers.

I’m severely impressed.  It seems that Korea is in agreement with American hipsters when it comes to shoes, jeans, and eyewear.  This look so thoroughly permeates the street that I wonder if perhaps we stole it from them.  I fight the impulse to buy a new pair of Chucks and mumble to Lisa that we are in a dangerous place.  “Korea,” Lisa declares matter-of-factly, “is the temptation island of shopping.

Somewhere in the bustle of things there’s been a cosmic transference.  I find myself holding up traffic, eyes upward gawking at the surrounding sights, stopped in the middle of the street, giant fold-out map in hand, inconveniencing strangers to pause and snap a photo. The American tourist has arrived in Korea.