For the first time in the eight years that I have been in the States, I had an amazing cultural and culinary adventure.
A Korean coworker took me to one of her favorite restaurants, a little eatery tucked away in the corner of a shopping center – Cho Sun Myun Oak. It was a whole new world. I felt transported to an undiscovered land of the undiscovered…
Korean signs adorned the place and the patrons seemed like they knew what they were doing. Chopsticks in hand, conversing in their language, ordering what seemed like lots and lots of food. Little plates, big bowls.
I, on the other hand, was asking for a fork.
As my coworker explained the various dishes on the menu (the photos and part-English descriptions helped), I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the array of choices presented to a vegetarian. I had many assumptions about Korean food — the biggest one being that they don’t eat anything but meat — that were dissipated today.
I ordered the Bi Bim Bab — a mixed rice dish presented in a huge bowl with rice on the side. But before that arrived in a huge white bowl, came an assortment of “relishes.” Ah! Those little plates.
For those of Indian descent reading this, the closest description I have is that of the condiment container you’d find at North Indian restaurants that carries onions, pickle, lemon wedges, and chutney — things that add a zing to your food!
Then came the main dish itself. A big bowl. A colorful assortment of raw veggies with steamed white rice on the side.
It was a visual treat. And a dash of hot chilli sauce and some vinegar coupled with radish kimchi — it was a burst of different flavors coming together in perfect unison — pungent, sour, spicy, crispy, mushy, and delicious.
My coworker had ordered a cold soup — chilled broth with buckwheat noodles, beef and veggies topped with a boiled egg.
I’ve had Thai, Sushi, Mexican, Italian, Ethiopian, Chinese, French, Greek, and Vietnamese food before, but never visited a restaurant with a person from the country whose food I was relishing. It’s a great experience going by myself — but it’s more guesswork than anything else. More hits than misses, yes, but one doesn’t get the cultural advantage that comes with accompanying someone who knows “their” food.
The tables were reversed today.
I was the one asking a lot of questions, while my coworker, in between her Korean conversations with the waitresses, was trying to explain the essence of a dish, an ingredient, the history…
I could see with new eyes what it meant to be on the other side of the cultural fence.
It’s hard to explain to someone what golgappas are or what paapdi-chaat is. Or to describe the recipe for rasmalais. At times I’ve balked at having to explain how “we” eat “our” curry.
But today, I could understand where those questions come from. And why those simple answers seem so revealing.
I realized how lucky I am to live in an area where one can experience world cuisine in a matter of 20 square miles. And with food, comes culture. Tradition. History. The life of a people. Their emotions. Their journey.
When we break bread together, we’re put together the pieces of a puzzle so old — each piece unique, complete in and of itself. And yet, stories when shared, so similar to each other’s.