Gomawoyo, “thank you”, is the first word I learned in Korean. Well, it’s one of the ways to say thank you, but it’s the first way I was told, so I’m sticking to it. Since then I’ve added to my repertoire “Yes” “No” and “Hello”… The progress is slow.
My curiosity with things Korean is recent, having become good friends with some Koreans here in Canada, where we are for the time being. I think our time in Ecuador showed me how much is to be gained by exposing yourself to other cultures and embracing what you find to love about them. One of my favorite things to discover in another culture is (surprise surprise…) the food!
One of our new friends was giving an instructional talk in Korean and invited us to attend. Have you ever had that dream where you break out in fluent conversation and shock everybody? Yeah that didn’t happen. We predictably smiled blankly and laughed at the recurrence of what sounded to us like “queso” but apparently meant “from now on” or “continuously”. (We were mistakenly wondering where his obsession with cheese came from.)
Afterwards we were invited to have lunch at his family’s home. We were greeted warmly upon arrival and saw a bountiful feast of steaming goodness spread across the table. The mother and father were working together in the kitchen, sizzling up endless pork belly and stewing a Korean version of miso soup with tofu. “I’m sorry today we cook Korean food only. Maybe you don’t like Korean food? It’s a Korean barbecue…” his mother looked at us nervously. Korean barbecue??! “We love it!!” Her face broke out in a smile of relief and pleasure. The pork belly let out a happy tsst! and we took our places at the table.
Now, at this point I must apologize. Clearly I am out of the habit of food blogging, because what happened next is almost unforgivable. I took a couple photos, a couple, then put down the little camera and started eating, nay devouring.
Here’s what I remember. Swirling, seasoned scallion. Steamed dandelion, Korean spinach, beansprouts, and watercress. Thinly sliced pickled radish. Matchsticks of spicy radish. Perfect steamed rice. More piles of steamed greens we failed to identify but are apparently good for the liver. Tender slices of white onion and mushroom. Of course the pork belly. And a towering stack of leaf lettuce ready to wrap around our selections.
They explained to us that the proper way to eat the delicious parcels is by shoveling the entire wrap into your mouth in one take. Their daughter laughingly told the story of how this does not make for a good first date meal. Their father, however, took their mother out for Korean barbecue on their first date, and her thoughts were, “This man is not considerate!” But he convinced her of his good qualities in the end. A sweet story. A sweet family. So I stuffed my wrap into my mouth and started chewing with my bulging cheeks. I was praised enthusiastically for my compliance. I grabbed some of the mystery greens by my chopsticks and found the length of what I’d grabbed somewhat daunting. Before I could even put it back in the plate the mother had swept in from the kitchen wielding large scissors and started slicing the greens mercilessly for me. Now, some might have found that alarming. But all I thought was, good hostess!
After serving everyone amply for many refills, always bringing us (the guests) the best piping hot meat first, the son-in-law took over the grill and the parents finally sat down to eat with us. They seemed rather curious about my Frenchman, asking him about Paris and what he thought of Canadian French. They shared some of their impressions of French people: Lively, expressive and so on. Most of this was being translated to us. But then the mother took on a decisive air and she turned to my husband. “You seem to me to be… a gentleman.”
After we had eaten enough to start rubbing our bellies and swearing we could never eat again, the dishes were cleared and it was time for cake. “My mother wants to know if you would like to try the cake. It is very Korean.” The daughter translated. Hey, I was in this thing. “Yes, why not! I answered. The mother smiles and says something in rapid Korean. One of her sons translates. “She says you try everything. You’re not picky. She likes you!” Well, I guess gentlewoman was out of reach, but if this fabulous Korean woman likes me, I’ll take the compliment!
When it was time to leave, they thanked us for coming and we thanked them for having us. It was genuinely one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. Before heading out the door the father brought us a small package. “This is Korean tradition” he said. “My friend makes this.” A lovely compact mirror as a memento. After an incredible meal, amazing hospitality and kindness, they give us a gift. We left feeling how much we have to learn.
Gomawoyo, Park family. Gomawoyo.