Forking in South Korea (with a colleague)

There is something unifying about sharing a meal; you break a piece of bread, clink a few glasses together and gather for a bit of chit and chat around a table filled with eye candy from traditional dishes to beautifully decorated plates oozing gourmet creativity.

It brings people together; strengthen nations and acts as a bridge between different cultures.

A few months ago, while visiting Cape Town, a Filipino family showed their phone to one of the ladies working behind the cold-meat-pies-breads-and-cakes section in a local grocery store; the lady shook her head and the family looked confused while searching for something at a table filled with the previous day’s baked goods.

May I help you?”, I asked them.

They lifted the phone to my face and said, “Yes, we are looking for this”.

On the phone, screenshotted for reference, was a picture of a slice of malva pudding in all its glory.

Ahhh. You want Malva pudding”, I said as I searched between a stack of milk tarts and cakes while they praised the tart’s sweetness.

Usually it is the other way around; usually it is the South Africans who resides in a foreign country looking for scraps to make their favourite dishes from building blocks of ingredients.

While living in South Korea I’ve used a few building blocks myself; I cooked a can of condensed milk imported from Indonesia into caramel, used Malaysian coconut biscuits as a replacement for tennis biscuits and found American peppermint chocolate to make a Peppermint-but-no-crisp tart. Only the cream was a local find.

South African flavours have invaded the world – we have invaded countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and South Korea with our fires, our meat and our sweet treats. Some nations are renowned for leaving a footprint and planting a flag on the moon, others have perfected the art of a braai; proudly shuttleworthing their way onto foreign plates.

But here, in South Africa, a Filipino family was looking for the ultimate malva-drenched-in-custard-pudding heaven.

There is something unifying about sharing a meal; it brings people together; strengthen nations and acts as a bridge between different cultures…

When I first moved to Asia in 2009, sharing a meal in South Korea was somewhat different for me; especially since it was the first time leaving the continent and facing unidentifiable objects, commonly known as food.

Forking in Korea

Before my palate adapted to the flavours of Korean food (which was nothing like I’ve ever tasted), the things I saw, smelt and tasted from the table sent shivers down my stomach. In 2009 Google was not yet my bestie and I had no idea what to expect; I arrived in the country by my lonesome self and my knowledge of their culture, customs, traditions and food did not exist.

For my first Korean meal my colleague took me to dinner and I was met with rice with purple bits in it, soup with feta cheese floating on top, a fish with beady black eyes, a gazillion tiny little bowls, chopsticks and a table lower than a hobbit’s coffee table.

First we took off our shoes and put it on a shoe rack at the restaurant’s entrance.

Like I mentioned, my knowledge of their culture, customs, traditions and food did not exist.

Barefoot, I tiptoed past other patrons to our table. 

Lesson one: Maybe make sure that you finish what you started in terms of painting your toenails.

Then the chopsticks came. Slippery, small, metal chopsticks which had flat sides compared to the round Chinese food chopsticks I used to use to poke my food and to balance one grain of rice from the plate to my mouth.

Lesson two: Learn how to use chopsticks.

(Side note: Two months later, while sitting in a restaurant on day one of my trip to China, I Googled “How to use chopsticks”.)

In front of us a small golden brown grilled fish was on a plate with fins, mouth and eyes still intact. I went for it with my chopsticks and poked around to avoid the head. My colleague did not look pleased and shouted something to the waiter who presented me with a shiny fork wrapped in a serviette, a minute later. 

Lesson three: Do not poke it, fork it.

I moved around on the floor from one side to the other side with pins and needles from head to toe. My feet begged for socks (or baby powder); it was under the table, next to the table and fairly close to my colleague’s nose.

We always wear socks in Korea”, my colleague said.

Lesson four: Wear socks.

I forked the broccoli in the tiny bowl, it was cold. I forked the rice, it was purple. I forked the Kimchi in another tiny bowl, it was spicy.

Lesson five: Stop forking.

I left the soup for last and took one big gulp of soup and feta cheese.

Lesson six: Feta cheese will melt when it is in warm soup, that is tofu you uncultured human.

After losing feeling in both feet I stood up after the meal and nearly stumbled with my pins and needles onto the bald head of an 80-year old man, the fork plummeted to the floor and I bowed my way out of the restaurant – out of shame and respect – butt to door and face down.

Forking in South Korea

This article was written for Traveller24.

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