Okay, so I'm as American as they come. My favorite dish is a Club sandwich. I like bland things without a lot of spice, or flavor. I'm pretty plain as far as the palate goes, so when I had the opportunity to sit down at a Korean restaurant in New York City's KoreaTown I had to do it.
Because life isn't about being comfortable.
Here's my first impression of Korean food, and how I dealt with the whole fish thing...
Okay so we sit down in BCD, a popular Korean food chain.
I'm with two people who know Korean food and are way more worldly than I. I'm pretty knowledgeable in music, literature and art, but when it comes to food I'm good with a burger and fries. And this place is like fancy, there are glass plates and crystal, a ceiling adorned with gold and my first thought was, "Can I afford this?"
After my party assured me it wouldn't cost me my soul, I started to ease into the idea of new food and a new place. I had always appreciated other cultures and was interested in exploring, but I had never ventured far with culinary things.
The trial and tribulation of figuring out what to order was only the first of many funny things that happened to me during my trip to KoreaTown. I don't know how to use chopsticks, I don't know what any of the dishes mean. Looking down into the abyss of Korean words made me feel completely lost. It looked more like math to me than words. I then realized, that this was going to be harder than I thought.
My friends assured me that the Bi Bim Bop would be a great dish to start out with due to the fact that it had beef, greens and tofu in it, things that would satisfy a bland palate while also giving a taste of the Korean flavor that typifies most of their fabulous cuisine.
But before any of that could happen....
My friend said, "They're gonna give you a fish."
"Is it extra?" I replied, knowing my tight budget wouldn't allow for more than a 25 dollar expenditure.
"No, it just like...comes with."
And sure enough this plopped down in front of me:
A fish. Fully cooked with all the insides and outsides battered in a deep fried concoction.
I sat and stared at it for a moment, knowing I wasn't in Subway anymore.
This is a fish, and I have to eat it.
Apparantly in order to eat this fish you have to rip its spine out. As my two friends went to town gutting and plucking the spine from the little creature, I sat mouth agape. How do you do it? I thought.
"How do I do it?" I finally asked. Thinking that it was too much for me to handle, my friend just gave me her de-spined fish and asked me to taste it, with chopsticks.
I learned how to hold them and fumbled my way through a few bites.
As the food entered my mouth I became proud of myself. I don't try anything new, especially seafood and the fish was awesome. It was light and flavorful. I ended up eating almost the whole thing.
After the Mr.Fishy course, several other complimentary sides and appetizers came out, like a smorgasbord of things I've never seen before.
Plates and bowls of all shapes and sizes were tossed on to the table with reckless abandon. This course is commonly known as Banchan, or the side dishes.
All kinds of flavors and things present. Pickles were the only thing I recognized. In Korea people sit and drink, eat and catch-up for hours. So there are little things to pick and scrape at all the time. Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish, a jello-type substance and some sweet noodles came out. I poked at a few things, but after the fish debacle I just wanted to get to the main course.
And my was it spectacular the Bi Bim Bop was like if Chipotle were really gourmet. It came in a bowl with a perfectly cooked over easy egg in the center, beef cured to perfection and vegetables that were flavorful without being too overwhelming. It was a heraty and healthy meal that I'd definitely try again. And I was allowed to use a spoon!
Fresh rice was added to the bowl by the lovely waitress and I stirred it around melding flavors together with the tofu and veggies that surrounded it. I'd never had something so filling in my life.
I sat and talked with my friends as the hours flew by in KoreaTown, in places you don't normally go, you usually find something different. This time, it was an appreciation for a culture I never really interacted with before.
My first Korean meal was amazing. I learned a lot about the food and the people who love it. I left with a greater appreciation for Korean cuisine, and ultimately realized that I wasn't as afraid to try new things as I thought.
For someone who only eats sandwiches, salads and burgers, this was definitely a great experience. New things are always scary, but if we never try, we'll never know how great they are.