During my solitary stay with my grandmother who could barely remember who I was and asked what my name was every two seconds, my uncle came around 11 AM everyday to take us out to lunch.
I had temporarily come to Korea due to the earthquake in Japan and was staying with my grandmother, whose dementia was getting worse everyday. She had constantly enquired about who my mother was (her daughter), who my dad was, who my brother was, how old I was, where I lived, where SHE lived, etc… repeat 40 times a day.
I took care of my grandmother during the morning and night, and my uncle took care of my grandmother during the day after taking us out to lunch. The menu varied daily, although because my grandmother insisted it wasn’t a meal without eating rice, we mostly ate some form of a traditional Korean meal.
It was nearing my birthday, so my uncle took us out to a Korean eel restaurant in Paju, an hour away from heart of Seoul. It is actually quite close to North Korea.
I believe you cannot have an ‘authentic’ experience without being in an environment that fits the authenticity of the food. The food maybe ‘authentic,’ (right ingredients, right preparation, etc), but for a completely authentic dining experience, the environment that surrounds the diner (place, building, mood, the people, etc) should play a big role as well.
Imagine eating a fancy French cuisine in middle of McDonald’s, overran by over hyperactive children throwing their plastic toys from their kid’s meals across the room. Not the same. Or even, imagine a Shakespearian play such as Macbeth set in 2500… on Mars. Even if the actors are reading the same lines, the experience obviously would totally be different.
So when I entered this space, I felt as if I was in a completely different space from before. The decor was done in traditional Korean fashion.
Inside the restaurant, we were led to middle of the room without any tables. It reminded me of old market place restaurants in Korea. I also thought how awkward this might be for people who were not particularly close with each other, because having a table creates some comfortable distance and space between the people.
And let us not forget, the food.
The ladies grilled the eel outside and young part timers brought in giant TABLE full of food. Not trays. tables.
Customers were allowed to choose between a bowl of rice and a bowl of eel porridge. I asked for the eel porridge, only to be stopped by my uncle, who claimed you can only eat an authentic eel with bowl of rice… I know what bowl of rice taste like, but since I didn’t know what eel porridge tasted like, I argued in my passive aggressive manner until he finally let me eat my bowl of eel porridge. Even having this argument added to the authenticity of this meal (even if you are suppose to eat eel with a bowl of rice!), being surrounded by my Korean family.
Eel was pretty large compared to eels served in other restaurants, and of course, pretty pricey. I wanted to order salt grilled eel and marinated eel, but as always my uncle just ordered without asking.
I look at the next table which had ordered catfish mae – un – tang, or catfish spicy stew. It looks delicious, but we are here for the eel!
The service was your usual Korean service. You don’t tip your waitresses, so ajummas (middle aged ladies) working in these types of restaurants are not as alert to your needs as might want them to be.
When the food was finished, we were served ‘dabang coffee,’ an authentic Korean coffee that is served in every Korean restaurant usually for free… aka 30 cent vending machine coffee mix coffee. I think its truly interesting how almost every Korean restaurant serves this coffee, because history of coffee in Korea is not that terribly long. This overly sweetened coffee drink has become a common after meal drink in Korea and interestingly enough, it added to the authenticity of this meal despite its western origins.
Although I felt that the experience was authentically Korean, I’m not quite sure if I can say that about the food. I heard the eel was imported from China, or at least it used to be. And surprisingly even to me, the experience added more to the authenticity of this meal even more than the food.
PS I don’t know why the author is showing up as lucasgriffin.