let the ritual roll

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My roommate and co-worker, Kathryn, has become a really close friend of mine since we met last August. She is such a quintessential piece of my chapter in Korea, and the thought of her returning to Ontario in July makes my heart lurch. I try not to think about it very much as her departure date comes closer and closer.

We’ve sat at a lot of tables together around Seoul over the past eight months. There was spontaneous ramyeon in a dilapidated shack before we went paragliding. Fried chicken and stuffed peppers at a garage-like establishment in Gangnam. Grilled pork belly slathered in hot pepper paste and chased with shots of soju. Tap water at Naos Nova, a lounge with an implicit lipstick-and-heels dress code we’d heeded, but that we left after one look at the prices of dinner. A lousy Western-style buffet that seduced us with unlimited free wine. But my favorite place we’ve been is a place we still frequent, largely because it’s a three minute walk from our apartment. It’s the kind of place that’s consistently busy, consistently good, and probably, to hard-core locals, a lot like choosing an Olive Garden in Times Square over Frank in the East Village. For the first three or four months we’d been eating there, I didn’t know the name of the place. It’s a chain, but I don’t care. I like that the music is a random mix of k-pop, club, and Korean covers of work by the Fugees. I like that we’re almost always the only foreigners there. I like the minimal plates of side dishes: chili-spiced bean sprouts, vinegar-soaked lettuce, sliced white onion, and exactly four cloves of pickled garlic. I like the staff of mostly young guys, who’ve recently switched out their hooded San Diego sweatshirts to short-sleeved polos with Manchester United emblems on the front. Sometimes they give us a glass bottle of Pepsi on the house. They always switch out our grill plate before it gets too charred. Uncomplicated efforts like these are what keep us coming back.

And I like our routine. At the table, we’ve found a balance, an unspoken language, and after a day on the job where we’re on center stage, this seamless form of communication feels like a million dollars.

The only parts that vary are where we sit, who orders, and whether or not we’re having beer. We can both order confidently in Korean, and though it doesn’t require much, I’m proud of us. I set out our chopsticks and fill our metal cups with water. One plate of pork, two orders of rice, and a clay pot of bubbling duenjang jjigae, or soybean paste soup, come quickly to our table. Kathryn takes the tongs and handles the grill, masterfully maneuvering the meat around, seeking a perfect golden brown on all sides. I’m happy to leave this job to her. She’s damn good at it. Once one batch of pork is cooked right, she pushes it to the edge of the grill, and we dig in, dropping one piece at a time into a dish of sour sauce where we’ve also been soaking our raw onion. That first bite of pork with a slice of sour-sauced onion is a taste I’ve come to crave. Pure, unadulterated pleasure.

All of these make the place good, but mostly, it’s because of the way it has remained a constant throughout the development of our friendship. We’ve laughed, argued, and discussed across one another here, often with abandon, forgetting that our words might have been understood. We’ll both move on soon, finding new sources of nourishment, with our own versions of the same story to tell. Until then, let the ritual roll. Kathryn, I’ll see you in Canada.