Korean food was definitely an acquired taste for me. Having only been exposed to traditional and American take out Chinese foods for most of my life, I was used to the static salty taste that came with most of the meat and vegetable dishes that graced my dinner table. Sometimes I would get lucky when my dad felt up to making something spicy like curry or sweet like a tomato dishes.
So when I went to a Korean restaurant for the first time, everything seemed different. I had recently joined Korean Club in high school and the Korean teacher was tight with a student whose mother owns the Seoul Garden restaurant in San Francisco’s Japantown. Members of the club and students from the Korean language class were able to go to the restaurant and eat a dish at half price one day of the semester. Despite how I had been learning about Korean culture and music already, I never really eaten real Korean cuisine before, so from when I first stepped into the Korean restaurant, I was anticipating everything.
From the food, to the atmosphere, to utensils we used, everything was new to me. The spoon lying beside the chopsticks had a longer handle than the average ones I’ve used, which made scooping from a communal soup dish easier. The wooden frame of the booth we were sitting in was polished but still welcoming with the comfortable cushions that fell flat with the pressure of my weight as I sat on them. The entire room was pleasantly saturated with the scent of sesame oil and it felt comfortable, as if I was beside a home kitchen with a Korean mom preparing a nice meal for me.
What excited me was all of the small side dishes set up for our table. There was a range of cooling vegetables, a variety of spicy kimchi dishes, and my friends’ favorite spicy pressed fish cakes. I learned through my meal of spicy pork and rice that the side dishes were a perfect complement to the hot food I was eating when I needed to cool off between bites. There was a strange harmony with the switches from spicy, to savory, to sour and salty. My first experience was enough to send me back to another Korean restaurant soon.
My first time at a tofu house was a shocker because when I ordered a spicy tofu stew with rice on the side, I didn’t know to expect a bubbling ceramic iron pot of angry red soup to be set in front of me. The soondubu jjigae was like a small stew volcano, the boiling red broth overwhelming the clean white tofu and darkening the green onions. And the smell, my gosh, the smell. I wondered if I would really be able to eat a soup that was so spicy that it was red!
Plenty of caution clouded the experience of my first bite as my spoonful of rice reemerged a brilliant red-orange after I dunked it into stew like I had observed my friends doing. The (temperature) heat was overwhelming and my ears were popping from the sensation, but the meal became less and less intimidating as it cooled and I ate on. It wouldn’t be my first choice on a Korean menu, but it sure appealed to my wallet’s eye.
What I felt differentiated Korean food from all the other Asian foods I’ve eaten in my life was the heartier taste of everything in the meal. Although some Korean meats aren’t marinated like most of the Chinese meats my family makes, Korean food has its own charm in its strong, savory smells, fermented essences, and incorporation of many, many ingredients into one dish. Despite how too many ingredients can be overwhelming sometimes, Korean food ties all the different scents and flavors together into a distinct family of cuisine.
Since my first exposure to Korean food, I’ve visited many Korean restaurants and tofu houses (get to like it like I have! My Tofu House is a cool place for soondubu jjigae!), trying soondubu jjigae with many different ingredients – from ramen, to dumplings, to seafood. The soft texture with a startling spicy taste stuck with me, and I’m hoping create the same zapping taste in my own soondubu.