Korean daze, nights became summer ritual

Food was the centerpiece
The writer is shown in 2012 in Jeonju, South Korea, with a foreign exchange student preparing for American high school.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The writer is shown in 2012 in Jeonju, South Korea, with a foreign exchange student preparing for American high school.

Categories: A Summer To Remember, Special Sections

The best meal I ever had was fried chicken and beer on a Seoul sidewalk. 

The chicken, lightly dusted with rub and thinly battered, was fried to golden perfection, and was accompanied by coleslaw and a trio of dipping sauces that clattered every time I set my frosted mug of Hite down on the rickety, uneven table.

The culinary experience on that searing August night is beyond my ability to articulate. 

Korea is full of chimaek joints, or those specializing in fried chicken and beer. But since that night nearly a decade ago, nowhere has come close to replicating that formula, magic kindled in an unassuming shop in an ordinary neighborhood. 

For a four-year streak between 2009 and 2012, my pals and I worked as camp counselors in Jeonju, South Korea, for Japanese high school students preparing to spend a year abroad in the U.S. 

Every year, we set aside three weeks in August and walked away from our jobs as record label executives, pop culture reporters and screenwriters in Beijing and ventured to the medium-sized city in southwest South Korea.

We considered them working vacations, annual retreats to escape the daily life of Beijing, which — while brimming with vitality, unbridled optimism and endless opportunity — was also one that I loved and hated in equal measures. 

It was a city that gradually wore you out — the smog, the traffic, the corruption, the often-pointless bureaucracy, the visa issues, the general unease and stresses of daily life in a broiling and often perplexing metropolis.

Sometimes our trips were interlaced with current events, which compounded our existential anxiety, like when two trains collided in 2011, killing 40 and injuring nearly 200 in eastern Zhejiang Province. 

The government tried to cover up the disaster — literally — as footage trickled out of bulldozers pushing dirt over carriages, burying evidence and human lives in real time. 

These types of stories always shocked us, prompting another round of brooding over how long it would take to recover from life in a place that we knew was warping our souls in imperceptibly small amounts.

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This tension inevitably came to a head each summer as we prepared for the short two-hour jaunt across the Yellow Sea. Over time, we developed our own rituals as we debarked the flight, shoving all of those thoughts aside. 

Food was the centerpiece. 

While Korea was a veritable culinary adventure that we tackled with gusto, we started with Whoppers in the airport terminal.

Banal to most, sure. But for us at the time, Burger King’s signature sandwiches were an almost unfathomable luxury due to the fast-food chain’s lack of presence in the country.

Same with Dunkin’, where we gorged ourselves on pastries. 

After decompressing in Seoul, we were met by the program director, Mr. Kwon, who whisked us down to Jeonju, which prides itself on its rigid adherence to traditional cooking and its signature dish, bibimbap, or rice topped with vegetables, a fried egg and a generous squirt of gochujang, or bold spicy paste. 

We devoured this version of local soul food at every possible opportunity.

And we did the same with Isaac Toast, which sells toasted egg sandwiches that are shockingly good. 

But our primary means of sustenance were meals at the university canteen, where students and teachers dutifully filed through lines thrice daily, filling their metal trays with rice, a rotating blend of soups (from kimchi jjigae to seaweed and a watery tofu concoction), meat, cold pancakes and kimchi, always kimchi, which the kids always complained was too spicy.

The summer camp and the people I met along the way are fodder for another story, the memories too deep, emotional and complex to probe here. 

It’s far easier to discuss food and nightlife in Hongdae, Seoul’s thriving college district where we’d check into sleazy motels and plant ourselves at the nearest Family Mart. where we’d sit outside, drink beer (and argue which brand was superior, Cass or Hite) and plot our nocturnal adventures, which almost always revolved around eating and drinking.

There were Korean BBQ joints with names like Meat King, where we cooked pork belly and squid on tabletop grills, wrapped the sizzling tidbits in leaves and dipped them in sesame paste before scarfing them down.

We spent one hazy afternoon sitting on the floor surrounded by concentric circles of dozens of banchan, or side dishes such as pickled radish, soybeans and edamame. 

The main dish was baked fish, which we devoured, spitting bones into porcelain plates while fans whirred overhead, carrying away the curls of our post-prandial cigarette smoke.

 

Night markets provided a dizzying array of options to the bar crowd, from deep-fried vegetables, gimbap (sushi-type rolls wrapped in seaweed) and an endless variety of stuff on sticks, stretching down streets where neon signs glittered like jewels following the summer’s monsoon-type rains.

And the city’s ubiquitous convenience stores offered astonishingly good tuna sandwiches, rice rolls, and thousands of snacks and drinks plastered with cartoon characters. 

We ate it all and walked it off, marveling at the dichotomies between the cities.

Beijing was loud, raucous, rough, disorderly, often rude, always passionate and streaked with a punk-rock spirit — and a fair amount of grime and human misery.

Enter Seoul.

Orderly, clean, efficient, well-lit, everything (seemingly) in its right place — and the political freedom was a plus, too. I liked both, but the latter was becoming increasingly attractive. 

Food also plays a central role in Korea’s bars, where drinks are almost always served with snacks, or anju, which could be anything from nuts to rice cakes. 

Among my fondest memories is stumbling up a flight of stairs where we encountered an enormous jazz orchestra happily charging through a rambunctious rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” a performance that was barely held together — much like our lives.

But it worked. And the pretzels were tasty, and complemented the beer perfectly. 

Eating and drinking were intertwined in Chinese work culture, which we were used to.

Korea was no exception, where storm clouds would cross Mr. Kwon’s ordinarily congenial face if we declined to drink — even if it meant you were dreadfully hung over the next morning and couldn’t perform work duties effectively. 

The boss was traditional and a creature of habit.

So every year unfolded with ritual precision, hitting on familiar touchstones — the day trips, the basketball games, the trips to Jeonju’s traditional cultural village, where the kids delighted in taking in the sights and throwing the 10th-century equivalent of lawn darts. 

After the annual talent show closing out the program, Mr. Kwon’s itinerary was always the same. 

An elaborate banquet would be followed by a brief visit to a nightclub shaped like a UFO (a ritual we successfully convinced him to shed) and later a comfy watering hole where the centerpiece was a steaming kettle of makgeolli, or milky rice wine.

The drink is typically paired with food, and at this venue, side dishes grew in complexity with each successive kettle you ordered, starting with, say, kimchi and charred hot peppers before evolving to pancakes, clams and grilled fish.

A live octopus was the equivalent of a final boss. We never knew how many kettles you had to order to get one.

But Mr. Kwon managed to short-circuit the conventional route and soon, we, too, had our very own octopus after we watched with wide eyes a server deposit the creature, tentacles still writhing, at an adjacent table.

That was similar to when a friend and I took a trip to a seaside city whose name I don’t even remember, where we sat on the beach and watched women wade into the ocean, plucking octopus from the depths and presenting them to us in buckets. 

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These working vacations always ended the same.

Bleary from the makgeolli, we’d wave the kids off as they filed back onto their bus at dawn, clutching scraps of paper scrawled with names like “Jacksonville” and “Madison, Wisconsin.”

Then the nocturnal events in Seoul continued: the eating, drinking, the basement rock shows — sucking down beers while hanging out with punks at the park in front of Hongdae University. 

After the harrowing process of extending our visas, we’d grab a Whopper before catching a flight and two hours later, descend back into the smog, the urban chaos, into Beijing, the city I now realize I always loved more than I hated — the loud, raucous, rough, disorderly often-rude metropolis streaked with that punk-rock spirit. 

One that I still miss. Deeply.

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