Ajumma’s Korean pork bulgogi

Among many aspects of life in Korea which took some getting used to during the two years I lived there, common restaurant ordering techniques seemed rude to my Western sensibilities.

Ajumma!’ A diner would shout. Ajumma means something like ‘older woman’, or to put an affectionate spin on it, ‘Auntie’.

Ajumma! Bring me two beers!’

This is one of the first things I learned to say in Korean, but after two years it still made me laugh with discomfort to be so commanding to a perfect stranger.

Ajumma! Bring me more meat!’ Only slightly better were the restaurants with call bells glued down to the tables, so at least you didn’t have to yell at anyone to get their attention.

I learned these commands from one of my first Korean friends, Seban. We worked together at an English language institute on the south eastern side of Seoul, both getting up early for six AM business conversation classes, then finding ourselves awake and with a break by seven. Sometimes we stood on the street outside the institute, eating fusion egg sandwiches from a street vendor on the frozen sidewalk. These consisted of two slices of white bread fried in butter on a griddle, overflowing with cabbage, onions, thousand island dressing, chili sauce, and a fried egg.

Once we had established that we were ‘breakfast buddies’, Seban took me around the corner into a dead-end alley, and led me into a tiny restaurant with only three tables.

‘This is a very delicious place,’ he explained. ‘But it is spicy.’ He ordered Daeji Bulgogi, pork marinated in chilli sauce.

‘For breakfast!?’ I asked.

‘Yes, for any meal. We do not have separate types of food for breakfast.’

Fair enough. I dove in. Seban wasn’t fooling when he said it was spicy. It set my face on fire, right up to the hairline. The ajumma came out of the kitchen to watch me eat, an incredulous smile frozen on her face.

‘Good, isn’t it?’ Seban asked.

We ate there together a few times before I went back alone, this time in the evening. By then I was learning to navigate Seoul by myself, to stump up the courage to order a meal without a translator. As soon as I entered the restaurant, the ajumma appeared by my side.

‘£&$ *^&** $)$$!’ she said.

‘Hello, yes I remember you.’ I replied.

Her round leathery face broke into an enormous smile, and then she did something shocking. She hugged me, a giant ‘I’m-your-Auntie-and-I-haven’t-seen-you-for-years’ type of hug, which I couldn’t resist. I was foreign and lonely and isolated. So we became friends.

After that, I went to Ajumma’s for dinner at least three times a week. She would hug me when I came in, and then sit down next to me at the table.

‘£*&$* &%&&$* !^%£@’, she would say.

‘I know, I meant to come in yesterday but one of my students kept me talking after class for my entire break. Don’t they understand I have to eat dinner before my evening classes?’

‘!&^£&$ £&*(% *£& $$& £()$* £(( (£*£)&^’ she would go on, gesturing wildly, her voice rising and falling. ‘&%&$£ *&!$!’ she would laugh.

Sometimes, if no one else was in the restaurant, we would watch soap operas on TV together.

‘£%$&;& *&;%^ *£%$^!’ Ajumma would say.

‘I know, he’s really evil.’ I would agree. ‘I can’t believe he left her when she was pregnant with his handicapped child!’

We were friends for a year, until I took another job in the countryside a few hours from Seoul. I said goodbye to Ajumma one night, knowing that I wouldn’t be back for dinner later that week. I asked a customer to take a picture of the two of us together, and hoped that Ajumma would realize what was happening. She held my hand and cupped her other palm around my cheek, and said,

‘%£& ;^£.’

‘I know,’ I agreed. ‘I’m going to miss you too.’

Daeji Bulgogi
1 lb boneless pork loin, cut into bite-sized stips
2 T finely chopped garlic
1 T finely chopped ginger
1 T Soy sauce
2 T Gochujang (Korean chilli sauce—look for the real deal at Asian groceries)
1 T Sesame oil
1 T Rice vinegar
1 T Honey
4 Spring onions, sliced into thin strips
1 carrot, sliced into thin strips
1 T Sesame seeds

Mix all of the ingredients in a big bowl, and let the meat marinate for as long as possible, at the very least for an hour. Stir-fry in a very hot frying pan with a little vegetable oil, until the pork is cooked through. Serve with a bowl of steamed rice, and a plate of washed lettuce leaves. Take each leaf in your hand as if it were a tortilla, and place a little of the rice and meat in the middle. Wrap it into a bite-sized parcel, and pop the whole thing in your mouth. If you’ve got some kimchi, by all means serve it as a side dish.


Sue said...

This made me cry. What a lovely tribute to the human race...
Bulgogi sounds delish, too. What became of the photo of you and Ajumma?

Leesy Garden Service said...

You and your kimchi!! This jerked a tear from me, as well!! You can come back to cook at my place WHENEVER you're around!

Joey Mechelle said...

And you think I'm a compelling writer. Pfft.

What a lovely story. I love bulgogi and will attempt to make Ajumma's this weekend.

I also love the kale massaging entry. My grandmother used to do this and her kale was delish. Your blog is going to make me gain 10 stone.

Stephfret said...

Sue- the picture is in storage I think, somewhere on a disc in an attic in London...

Leesy GS- don't you miss the kimchi!? you must...

Joey- Ha, thanks! What did your grandmother do with her kale after she massaged it? Here I thought veggie massage was some kind of new-fangled thing...

Joey Mechelle said...

My g-ma (a true southern lass) was always way ahead of the times. She would chop it up and add salt, lemon juice (and zest), olive oil and garlic. I remember she would just squeeze it with her hands for a while. She always served it with diced up boiled eggs. Mmmmm.

And when she wasn't being health conscience (which I don't think she realized how healthy the raw kale salad actually was), which was most of the time, she would cook the kale with a big hunk of salt pork or ham. She would put turnips and turnip greens in with it, too. It would stew for hours. We'd have it with brown beans, cornbread, fried potatoes and pork chops. I liked it better this way - even though the raw way was superb, too.

Yeah, I'm fat.


Stephfret said...

Well, I will be eating my raw kale with boiled eggs from now on!

Like your g-ma, I am also Southern- though with a slightly fractured sense of regional identity after years of wandering, but I digress- which means I grew up with the hours-long-stewed version of kale too. My Aunt Louise in particlar made it that way, which I have always loved with a little chili vinegar sprinkled on top. Oh, yes.

Post a Comment