While in the airport and waiting for my plane to board, I wanted one last chance to connect with Korean food. Duty free had already switched to American dollars. Everyone started speaking English to me and my annyeong and kamsahamnida didn’t quite get the amused and pleased smiles they used to. Although the tone was changing and my Americanism was vastly approaching, forcing me to reaclimate, I got one last meal to remember Korea.
This last meal made me mindful of my very first meal in the airport. On the first morning, I got sweet pumpkin soup. Since it was morning, I wanted something not as spicy and a little safe since the long bus from Incheon to Gangneung lacked a bathroom and the passengers might not be able to handle a queasy foreigner. I also picked it because though I have a great deal of food courage, I figured I would save the heavy hitter flavors for a time when Kim could talk me through it.
The pumpkin soup was great but so unexpected. Although it looked creamy from the pictures, it was more starchy and glutinous than I would have expected and had big balls of gummy yummy tteok in the bottom. That combination of textures and the amount of sweetness is less surprising now, but at the time took getting used to. It also game with kimchi, which I recognized, gochujang, which I recognized a little but mistook it for sriracha, and a thick looking fluid with a lemongrass slice in it that I did not recognize at all. Sadly, I did not try it because I was worried about a faux paus of drinking something I should clean my fingers with. I eventually learned that I missed my first chance at having a drink made of rice.
Just eight days later, a more knowledgeable Katie sat in full comfort and command of the dish in front of her. I had ordered kimchi jigae, or kimchi soup. I wasn’t sure when my next kimchi fix would be, so savoring one last bowl was an imperative. It came with dry and wet seaweed, green beans, rice, and a variation of kimchi with shrimp. The broth was tangy and acidic while spicy and comforting. Big soft chunks of tofu and chewy meat gave it texture and bulk. There was lots of strong kimichi to create an overall rich, sharp, but calming last meal. And, though only 11:30 in the morning, I had to have one last bottle of Soju (the alcohol of choice in Korea).
The restaurant itself was also a remarkable place. In the area with the low tables, there was a screen on which a back projection displayed a beautiful scene of two people in traditional garbs and with soft petals falling from the treas. At my table was a little greenery decoration with carvings that you find all over Korea because they are meant to scare death away. There were also large kimchi pots in the back as one more linking of food with cultural identity.
I said it in the first post but I want to really reiterate this point. In thinking about what food says about a culture, Korean food reiterates how much pride that culture has. I remember watching the episode when Anthony Bourdain went to Korea. It starts with him pointing out how there are so many food stalls along the route from the airport to Seoul. He took it as a testament to how much Korean food must matter to Korean people that they would want to reconnect with their food as soon as possible.
In encountering just food culture in Korea, enjoying a meal was as much about the cook as about the positive way it represented Koreans. I was asked by lots of Korean about how much I was enjoying the country. They really wanted to hear that I thought well of their country and thus of them. While eating, I often had people take the time to correct me to make sure I was eating the food in the best way possible. In that way, eating Korean food is like experiencing the overwhelming strong sense of culture, heritage, strength, and identity in a way that I have never experienced in any other country. I have experienced pride in personal culinary accomplishment where dish is a positive representation of self. I have also experienced a sense of enjoying a food as an extension of enjoying a country. But, I have never felt pride as both pride in dish, self, cook, and country, all in one bite.
As I sat in the airport, enjoying my very last meal, I was reminded of how much I will miss Korea. And through missing its food, miss the people that make it.