It didn’t make any international headlines, but a few days back, an international incident occurred in the Myeongdong area of central Seoul between MB and one Mr Kim, owner of a traditional Korean restaurant on a restaurant-filled old side street just behind the Lotte City Hotel.
MB had arrived from Doha via a 9-hour flight to catch up with daughter MB2 and hadn’t slept since God only knows when. On arrival at the hotel, MB discovered (through a WhatsApp message) that MB2, who had arrived in the city 24 hours earlier, had fallen into the company of a young American lady (YAL) of similar age during some museum visit earlier that day. If you’ve seen the Netflix show ‘Emily in Paris’, you’ll get the picture. Anyway, MB2 and YAL were dining out and were just heading to some café, pretending they were young Koreans, because that’s what young Koreans do after dining out.
So, all on his lonesome, MB exited the hotel looking for an authentic Korean food experience. He spotted an ancient side street and could smell the aromas of oriental cuisine wafting from the many old traditional eateries. If MB had been mildly hungry on that particular evening, the smells alone might have satiated the hunger pangs of MB, but on this night, on this street, MB was ravenous.
As MB passed each restaurant, he noticed that no English language was apparent on any of the external signs. Glances inside also did not provide any evidence and it soon became apparent to MB that he would have to eat by his wits.
In the last year or two, when MB2 suggested a trip to Korea, MB bought some Kimchi in his local supermarket in Doha, aware that Kimchi is a revered dish amongst the populace of the Korean peninsula. It’s the go-to comfort food and is served as an accompaniment to almost every other dish. MB just wanted to have the kimchi experience before his travels, not wanting to appear a total greenhorn to the locals on arrival.
And what is kimchi MB?
Well lads, simplistically, it’s cold wet sour cabbage. Most unlike the cabbage you have back home with a few slices of bacon, or our Irish American brothers & sisters might have with their corned beef. Anyway, as far as MB is concerned, MB can tolerate kimchi in small doses, very small doses.
MB finally selected his restaurant of choice. It was lightly inhabited which MB considered might, MB hoped, result in some stress-free workers who would have ample time to explain the menu dishes to MB. On receiving the menu from, apparently, the restaurant owner Mr Kim, MB perused the various listed dishes, and for one of the few times in his life had to admit that he was totally flummoxed. There were no English subtitles on the menu, there were no photos and the entire menu was written in the hangeul Korean alphabet, a form of squiggly character writing beyond the knowledge of MB.
Can you speak English? asked MB of Mr Kim. Mr Kim replied in the local dialect while he stared directly at the menu and it was obvious to MB that Mr Kim’s level of English did not extend to – Do you speak English?, no more than MB’s Korean would have extended to the same phrase in the local lingo.
So, with MB having zero Korean, and Mr Kim, apparently, having zero Irish or English, the two gun-slingers were at an impasse. In desperation and with thoughts of the great Irish famine of the mif 19th century swirling around his brain, MB wagged his finger at one of the menu dishes, not caring what it was. Mr Kim followed the line of MB’s finger, stared at the description for a moment, and then shook his head, an international sign denoting the negative, known well to both MB and Mr Kim. MB’s guess was that they had sold out of that particular dish, and MB must therefore select another. MB duly did. But again Mr Kim shook his head. And so on and so on.
So, what dish do you have? said MB to Mr Kim, shrugging his shoulders and with a hungry plea on his face, hopeful that Mr Kim would get the famine message from the gesticulations and facial expressions of MB.
Kimchi curry, shouted Mr Kim suddenly, in an excited tone, probably assuming that kimchi curry was a panacea for all the world’s ills, food ills in particular. MB was momentarily pleased that Mr Kim had finally uttered some sounds that MB actually understood, but quickly considered that a bowl of kimchi curry would be a Korean bridge too far for MB, famine or no famine.
I don’t like kimchi curry, replied MB, not that MB had ever tasted any kimchi curry heretofore in his entire life. Given that the dish would compose of approximately 97.5% kimchi, MB was sure and certain that a kimchi curry would be far from the liking of MB’s taste buds, so “I don’t like kimchi curry” was not an unreasonable statement to make, given all the factors at play.
MB shook his head. In the negative.
The face of Mr Kim froze in obvious disgust. The other staff members shot dirty glances at MB. MB felt death was perhaps far nearer than he would have guessed some 5 minutes earlier.
Mr Kim pointed MB in the direction of the door and positioned himself such that MB had only one direction to take.
And that’s when MB noticed one of the waiters bringing a deliciously smelling pork and rice dish to the table of 4 young Korean girls who looked like a K-Pop band. What about that dish? said MB, looking Mr Kim eyeball to eyeball. Mr Kim uttered some short Korean phrase to MB, which MB understood clearly to mean ‘OUT’.
MB slouched through the exit door onto the street and entered a similar establishment two doors down. Luckily for MB, there was a large sign with menu photos outside the door and the lady owner and MB jointly selected the main course, which would come with some free side orders.
Moments later, the first of the free side orders arrived.
Post-script 1 – MB2 can read, write and speak Korean. So, thankfully, the following days turned to days of food heaven.
Post-script 2 – MB has found the Korean people to be polite to a fault/polite in the extreme. The encounter with Mr Kim must surely have resulted from some cultural or linguistic misunderstanding. MB is still in Korea so will have the chance again in the coming days to visit the house of Mr Kim. Let’s see!