Monday, June 14, 2010
Just down the street from me, tucked between two old women's clothing stores on the ground floor of a large, multi-story building, is a hole-in-the wall restaurant with four tables run by one assertive woman named Eunkyoung. Eunkyoung has requested I call her "big sister," which is the appropriate name for someone slightly older than you according to Korean custom. For diplomacy's sake I comply, although frankly she's more of an "aunt" than a sister.
Monday through Saturday, 9am-8pm, Eunkyoung is at her restaurant serving up her versions of simple, classic Korean soups and fried rice dishes. The selection is smaller than what you'd find at a Kimbap Chonguk, of course, but the prices are the same and the dishes are twenty times better.
There are lots of reasons to justify the infrequency of cooking since I arrived in Korea, including long work hours and living alone, but really, it comes down to this amiable, round-faced woman who serves up meals that are cheaper and more delicious than I could make on my own. Four dollars for some of the best soondubu (spicy tofu soup) I've ever had! Plus, she makes all of her own gochujang, don kass, and dwenjang sauces.
Most of the restaurant's customers work in the building, and every evening kids taking tae-kwon-do a floor above come in for her candy-like sticks of ddok-bokki (thick, fried noodles in red pepper sauce). Once, when I explained I had a blister from hiking, she made me take off my shoe and sock in the middle of her restaurant so that she could apply ointment and a Band-aid. Yesterday, when I came in after several days of stomach-aches that had forced me to eat porridge until I was mad with boredom and hunger, she served the best version of omu-rice I've ever had (tender chunks of potato, carrot, and cucumber topped with a stellar, home-made onion sauce) and then gave me plum juice and some sort of ball of herbs to take with water.
Not that our relationship is without bumps. I can't stand the texture of algae, but she insists that I eat it as a side dish because, like many Koreans, she claims that it purifies my blood. And once, when she invited me to accompany her to church, I felt so awkward about my inability to respond gracefully in a language not my own that I decided to pretend I couldn't understand her at all. (It wasn't that much of a stretch.) Other times, Enkyoung's readily offered opinions might offend someone accustomed to subtlety. Recently, when a mother and baby appeared in the shop and I lit up, she asked, "When are you getting married? You need a baby."
Actually, Eunkyoung is representative of a lot of interactions I have with older people in Korea; she's a bit pushy and there are some ways in which we'll never understand each other, but I don't doubt that she has good intentions. Knowing that I can count on her for a warm smile, a filling meal, and a Band-aid when I need it makes me feel like less of an outsider in the city where I live.