Anyone who knows me is well aware of my obsession with Anthony Bourdain. I’ve memorized every episode of No Reservations, feverishly flipped through each of his books, and am anxiously waiting for the day he discovers my blog and insists for me to be his younger, equally-as-charming co-host.
Yes, you read that correctly. Fish guts. And egg sacs. Together. In a bowl.
It’s called Altang, and it’s apparently a pretty popular soup in Korea; although I hadn’t heard of it until last weekend.
Any culture celebrating some form of excess has a phrase to go along with it. In America, a country of consumers, it’s “shop ‘til you drop.” In Korea, a country of alcoholics and binge drinkers, it’s “drink ‘til you die.” And in Osaka, Japan, a town full of hard-working foodies, it’s “eat ‘til you fall down.”
Kuidaore, a phrase derived from the proverb, “dress (in kimonos) ‘til you drop in Kyoto, eat ‘til you drop in Osaka,” has become synonymous with the Japanese metropolis. It’s not uncommon for a businessman to spend all his earnings on food, nor to eat at three different restaurants in one night.
Soft rock band Chicago once sang, “You bring meaning to my life, you’re my inspiration…” Sure, they were probably talking about some busty brunette; but hey, everyone’s different. The love of my life just so happens to be a pig.
I had been fantasizing about this particular pig since my co-teacher found out I was going to Jeju Island—the Hawaii of Korea—for my summer break. In true Korean fashion, she had stopped by the tourist office and picked up pamphlets, maps, and books to help me enjoy my stay.
I began flipping through the pages later that night, planning the trip: waterfalls, lava tubes, beaches, hiking. When suddenly, my eyes fell on a section marked, “A Taste of Jeju: Truly Authentic and Truly Appetizing.” Colorful, glossy pages full of raw seafood delicately placed next to artfully carved vegetables. A variation of fish stews and porridges. Buckwheat pancakes and local pheasant shabu shabu. And something called Heukdoeji—grilled slices of black pork.
“Indigenous Jeju black pork has long been one of the essential elements of energy and nutrition for the people of Jeju. Jeju grass-fed pork is renowned for its finely textured, light-colored meat and its abundance of high quality fatty acids. Don’t miss the opportunity to try the delectable grilled black pork.”
There was no way I was missing it.
Day one on Jeju Island, and all I could do was talk about pork. “We’ll check in to our hotel, put
down our luggage, maybe check out those waterfalls, then have that black pig dinner,” I told my traveling companion, Chris.
“You are a woman obsessed,” said Chris. “Do you know which restaurant you want to go to?”
“No, but I will,” I responded.
A few hours later, after viewing the beautiful foliage and meeting some new friends over beers, it was time to find the restaurant. “I’ll let my nose lead the way,” I said.
But as soon as we started walking, a team of soccer players with red faces and full bellies stumbled around the corner. They reeked of pig.
“I think we found our place!” I exclaimed.
We walked inside what looked like an abandoned log cabin, finding hundreds of people crammed around grills on wooden floors. Soju (Korea’s version of vodka) was being passed around tables. The smell of succulent pork permeated the air. Some old woman scurried over to an empty grill and signaled for us to come over.
It was time.
Seasoned with sesame oil and sea salt, grilled to perfection, wrapped in lettuce and dipped in hot pepper sauce. My mouth watered and I began to feel light-headed. “This is the most perfect food I have ever eaten,” I said, almost in tears.
Everyone nodded their heads, unable to speak.
“Would it be completely absurd to order another plate of pork?” asked my friend Chris, while scraping the grill for remnants of charred meat.
Our new friends called the waitress over, and ordered another plate. “To the Jeju black pig!” they cheered, raising their shots of soju. “To the Jeju black pig!”
Not this time.
The moment we exited Noryangjin subway station, the smell of fish and saltwater guided us over a bridge and down two flights of stairs—into the largest seafood market in Seoul.
Flounder, snapper, squid, sea cucumbers, giant prawns, sea squirts, monster crabs and every kind of shellfish imaginable were displayed in neat little rows and pristine fish tanks. Some were even shoved in our faces—a sales tactic that didn’t fare too well with my vegan sister.
She wasn’t fond of the man who bludgeoned the fish we chose for lunch, either.
Call me inhumane, but the sight of blood running down the flounder’s scales didn’t stop me from watching the monger slice it into sashimi. Nor did it stop me from dipping it into a homemade garlic chili sauce and picking its bones out of the soup they made with its carcass.
Barbaric? A tad. But boy, was it delicious.
Photo courtesy of Tales of a Travel Addict.
“You are very beautiful, Jennifer teacher, but you are fat.”
I wanted to end class then and there. I wanted to run home, bury my face in my pillow and cry. But the tears wouldn’t wait. I dropped my scissors, put down the construction paper turkey and cried.
I suddenly missed America—the land where a size six was normal—a place where every retail store sold clothes and shoes to fit my body. But alas, I live in Korea, where normal is a size 0 and a 6 is, well, apparently fat.
Last weekend I finally visited a jjimjilbang, or a public bathhouse. For two months I had heard nothing but amazing things about these hot spots—how the large baths contained healing ingredients like ginseng, green tea and clay, how some of the saunas reached up to 160 degrees. One of my Korean friends even told me about a special kind of egg you could only get at one of these places.
I couldn’t wait to rip off my clothes and relax.
But it’s hard to relax when hundreds of chopstick-thin women are eyeballing your naked body—watching your thighs rub together with every step.
It was humiliating.
There was, however, a bright spot…like a moth to a flame, a heavy-set American woman swam up to me as I was cowering in the corner of the carbonic acid pool. “I hated my first jjimjilbang experience,” she said. “But now I can’t get enough. Trust me, you’ll get over the whole being naked thing and learn to love it.”
She shot me a reassuring smile and walked toward the green tea hot tub.
Her butt jiggled the whole way.
It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that my roommate clued me in. “So, did you hear the practice alarms today?”
Once a month, the city of Seoul sounds its sirens—making sure they work for when North Korea decides to attack again. It’s been more than 50 years since the last shot was fired on South Korean soil, but to some, it feels like only yesterday.
A few days before hearing the alarms I visited Seoul Tower, the highest point in all of Seoul, to view its expansive skyline—a sea of grey apartment buildings and office complexes, surrounded by moss green mountains. A stable ominous fog hung over the concrete empire, making the fantastic scene more haunting than beautiful.
Through the lens of the binoculars I saw a modern metropolis—a technologically advanced, thriving city. In my mind I pictured what my grandfather might have seen while he was stationed here. I imagined how the South Koreans felt when they decided to rebuild Seoul. A tear fell from my eye.
The experience gave me a new respect for these people. It made me look at the hardworking produce man down the street a little differently. It made me notice how strong the owner of my school seems, despite her small, delicate frame. The old woman selling seafood pancakes on the corner never stops smiling.
And I smile right back.
This year may be challenging—learning the language, adapting to the culture, being thousands of miles away from my friends and family. But each time I hear those sirens sound, I’ll think of all the challenges the South Koreans have faced, and just how far they’ve come.
Day two in Korea, still jetlagged, I had a 9:30am health check appointment at the hospital. A vision test, hearing test, lung X-ray and four vials of blood later, it was time to pee in a cup.
After being pricked and poked in front of what seemed like half of Seoul, a little urine sample sounded relatively painless.
I was wrong. My first public peeing experience—in a hospital mind you—ended up being in a ceramic hole in the ground.
What way do I face? Do I take my pants off? And if so, where do I put them? How am I going to pee in this damn cup with my skinny jeans around my ankles?
So many questions and so little time. My new boss was waiting for me outside the bathroom. So I planted my feet around the hole in the ground, shimmied my way-too-tight pants down to my knees and peed.
And not a drop of misplaced urine.
After the hospital I was off to see the school for the first time. And somehow, by the time we reached the building, I had to pee again. No ceramic holes, just miniature western-style toilets built for 5-year-olds and a few pairs of shower shoes placed at the entrance. I’m still not sure what they want me to do with these.
A few more facts about the bathrooms in Korea: There is no liquid hand soap. That’s right, these people wear masks everywhere they go and don’t allow outside shoes even at a gym, but they’ll happily share a piece of bar soap at their local watering hole. Sometimes you’ll even see it attached to a metal stick protruding from the bathroom wall.
Toilet paper, if there is any, is usually available outside of the stall. I’ve learned to carry tissue paper with me just in case. I’ve also learned that no matter what the bathroom may be like, sometimes you just gotta go.