Written by Janaki O’Brien ETA’06-07

A recent lunchtime conversation with Seunghee, top student and expert on all things worth knowing:

SH: Do you know what this is?
Me: Yes, it’s cabbage.
SH: If we eat a lot of cabbage, we can prevent cancer.
Me: Um… maybe. (“Maybe” being the Korean word for either “absolutely not” or “this is undeniably true.”)
SH: You don’t think so?
Me: Well, you know… genetics, environment, there are so many factors…
SH: But a very famous doctor said it. On TV!
Me: Well, Korean people eat cabbage three times a day, and many of them still get cancer, right?
SH: Yes, you’re right. It doesn’t really make sense.
Me: (self-satisfied shrug)
SH: What about garlic?

Call them avant-garde: restaurant goers in Korea have broken down the fourth wall. The stuffy conventions I’ve observed my whole life, the arbitrary distinction between a home-cooked meal and a eating out — these are things of the past. My host family and I didn’t go out to dinner very often last year, but when we did it was always to the same octopus restaurant, the kind of place where they serve you a plate of writhing octopus, some scissors, and leave you to do what you will.

I can’t figure out why live octopus restaurants aren’t more popular in the States; the day to day costs of actually running a live octopus restaurant seem so low and yet the food itself is so expensive that the place would be guaranteed to turn a profit. Preparation is basically limited to grabbing an octopus out of the tank, giving it a quick rinse, carrying it over to the table and snipping the thing into bits. No need to mess with extravagances like pots and pans. There’s also the added convenience of the one-item menu. Most Korean restaurants are completely unlike American restaurants, involving lengthy ruminations over whether it would be better to get the harvest salad with soup or really go all out for the pasta primavera. Rather, you are seated, the waiter brings you whatever food that restaurant happens to serve. This system is pretty convenient for people with limited Korean skills, far better than those situations in which a long, incomprehensible menu is handed over and ordering becomes a leap into the void.

I always knew we were going to the octopus restaurant if I came home to find my host mother, Fresa, layering sesame leaves and lettuce into plastic containers and wrapping up bowls of steaming brown rice. It usually fell to me to carry all the food into the restaurant, and the first couple of times I felt very nervous about it, furtively sidling in sideways in an attempt, though now it seems a little counterproductive, not to attract attention. After a while I stopped doing this, though, as the waitress setting out all of our side dishes, as well as the restaurant’s admittedly paltry provision of lettuce and sesame leaves, never even seemed surprised, much less disturbed, by the sight of Fresa extracting huge bowls of supplementary food from her shopping bags.

I suppose our waitress’s indifference makes some sense. I’m sure an American waiter would be very displeased if I started setting out my own mini-baguettes and pats of butter to munch on before dinner, but why should he be? Under normal circumstances I don’t pay for all of those breadbasket refills. Korean restaurants are hit especially hard, I think, as a good portion of what people actually eat at dinner comes in the form of a multitude of side dishes, served in little white bowls, endlessly refillable, and provided for free by the restaurant. At the octopus restaurant you might eat vast quantities of pickled radish, spinach, cabbage kimchi, radish kimchi, onion kimchi, mushrooms, corn salad, steamed egg and lotus root while only paying for that one, wriggling octopus. Of course the restaurant wants you to fill up on your own food!

Stranger, then, is the policy on removing food from a restaurant. Here, where I am typically very open about requesting food to be wrapped up to go, my Korean acquaintances are far more secretive, stuffing food remnants into little disposable cups and squirreling them away in purses with hidden pockets, Special care is used when ordering a fresh new round of side dishes and packing away the entirety to be eaten later. I was made suddenly aware of this practice while attending the funeral of a friend’s mother. Korean funerals are a very different affair than those few I’ve attended in America and those many I’ve seen in movies about the Mafia. Visitors first go into a little room where they can leave money for the family (money they will later receive back in their own time of need), bow two and a half times in front of a picture of the deceased and light incense as a farewell gesture. The family stays in this little room for the duration; it’s the first stage in a three-day period of family mourning. After paying their respects, though, visitors go into the next room where they proceed to eat a tremendous amount of food and get very drunk. They play card games and shout and generally try to have a very boisterous good time in order to remind the mourning family of all the pleasure and joy that life has to offer, as well as to celebrate the journey of the deceased to the afterlife. (I wasn’t entirely sure how to react one day when one of the teachers at school told me, “I am hung over. I stayed at a funeral until 1: 30 a.m. It was very fun, very enjoyable.”) I attended a funeral with four of the young, female teachers from my school. After everyone had eaten as much pork stew and rice as they could stomach there was a hushed conference and then one of the women got up to retrieve two more dishes of dried squid, an extra bowl of peanuts and a plate of candied ginger. These were quickly poured into our paper water cups and tucked into Minjin’s giant purse before we got up to say our goodbyes. Stealing from a funeral service! When I expressed my dismay Minjin just said, “Maybe… not in America?” Maybe!