75 posts and lunch for 1

Friday, May 31, 2013

I can’t believe it, but this post marks my seventy-fifth. Seventy-five! The number always makes me think of my grandma’s birthday when all the children and grandchildren pooled together to make her a book. As I think of it now, that might have been for her seventieth. Anyway, today was her birthday. She would have been ninety-two.

There is a simple place in my old neighborhood that caters nicely to the solo diner. Most of its patrons are men who go alone for a quick bowl of haejangguk, or hangover stew, and during the weekend morning hours, an open seat is hard to find. Many varieties of hangover soup exist, but this restaurant serves only sunji haejangguk, called so for its inclusion of congealed cow or pig blood. Served in individual earthenware bowls, the soup arrives bubbling. I took MJ and our friend Richard there last summer, and it was the first time for each of us. We had spent the night and the better part of that very morning dancing in Hongdae, and we each needed our own bowl of stew once we woke up, to say the least.

Usually when I go alone for lunch, like yesterday, I order bibimbap. It is the only other option. I sit down at a long wooden table on a short plastic blue stool. A woman standing in front of the kitchen window asks me what I’d like. I tell her, she tells the kitchen, and then she dips a ladle into a gigantic vat of kongnamulguk, or beansprout soup, also known to be good for a hangover. No matter my state, I finish my bowl of it.

In another minute, she calls out my order and delivers a sizzling bowl that sears the steamed rice inside. Crowned with a single fried egg, this hot pot is all I really need, save for a final dousing of hot pepper paste. Nevertheless, I’m here for bibimbap, so I meet her at the buffet of namul, or seasoned vegetables where I will do the rest.

“Don’t touch here, it’s hot,” she warns. I obey and slide the bowl by the cradling carrier. A pair of tongs leans at the ready in each metal tray of namul. There are ribbons of dried and seasoned seaweed, matchsticks of cucumbers, radish salad, seasoned bean sprouts, and bracken fern made tender by hours soaked in water. I add some of each, beginning at the top and moving clockwise until the rice and egg are both buried. At the end of the line are five plastic squeeze bottles of gochujang, a few pairs of scissors, and a giant electric rice warmer for extra hungry lunchers. I squeeze the hot pepper paste in an outward swirl. By the time I sit down, the rice that touches the bowl has begun to get crispy in true dolsot fashion. Bibimbap, this way, is magical.

I am one of two women in the whole restaurant. The place is full of men who watch Korean baseball and hover over their bowls. I look up and see a guy snipping the contents of his bowl with scissors, and I realize I forget this step again. This means I end up fighting to get the long strips of vegetables from spoon to mouth in a way that doesn’t cover my face with red sauce. I don’t fight too hard, though. I am, after all, dining solo, surrounded by older men who are slurping their food and burping with great satisfaction. I head back to the buffet line for more gochujang, and my lady laughs with surprise.

“You like it spicy?” she asks. I nod, and I reach for a napkin to wipe my nose.

  • maryafischbach

    I just love bibimbap……my favorite lunch also when I’m dining out. The crunchy rice is wonderful. And I do love the sauce also……….and yes……several napkins for the nose! (can’t wait to get my own stone pots and make some at home)

    • Jacqui

      The best. You should come visit the kimchi pot store near my apartment and load up on pots and bowls! With a truck, of course.

  • lillianccc

    I love bibimbap as well and often order it at the Korean restaurants near my house back in the States. I don’t know how they compare to the bibimbap in Korea but I figure it shouldn’t be too far off the mark if the restaurant owners are Korean as well.

    • Jacqui

      I’m not sure either, Lillian, because I’ve never had bibimbap in the States. Bibimbap is as good as its individual components, and there are hundreds of different combinations. If you can see 5 colors in your bowl – white, red, yellow, green, and black – you know you’ve landed at a good place. Koreans believe strongly in the power of these colors together for nutritional balance and their presence on a traditional table is nearly mandatory. Now I’m super curious to know what bibimbap tastes like in your hometown!