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.’
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.