Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Nostalgic Diner in Insa-dong

Just three months ago via a stateside friend I "met" a fellow anthropology graduate, Leah, who ventured to Korea and this past week welcomed her mom for a brief visit to her new country of residence. Somehow I met the mom over the internet too and we three decided to finally meet in person and have an afternoon hiking adventure behind Sungkyunkwan University. After a hike up the hills in the steamy weather and down the other side, we ended up in Insa-dong where we had to decide which Korean food would be most appetizing as an introduction to the mother. We settled on a bi-bim-bop restaurant to treat Josephine to some vegetables and rice prepared with a pungent soybean soup.

To attact foreign clientele, menus in the touristy Insa-dong are posted in both English and Korean on A-frames outside their respective restaurants. It used to be there was no menu except the one hung on the inside wall, but touristy areas post their menus outside their restaurants, and many restaurants in the bigger cities now offer booklet menus to guests seated at tables [the concept borrowed from the West]. Looking at the pictures of the food spreads on an A-frame, I was explaining the bi-bim-bop to Josephine when suddenly a Korean woman interrupted and spouted how she'd like to recommend the bi-bim-bop to us because it's such a traditional food and loved by all Koreans and blah blah blah. Errrrgh, sometimes I get very annoyed with people who interrupt conversations, especially when I'm in a deep in a conversation and am completely devoid of a blank lost look ...

The female passerby probably thought she had really recommended a classy meal to the "poor, uninformed" foreigners because we did go in. Not only did the food look tasty on the A-frame posting, but also the restaurant can easily market itself for ambiance with its rich wooden decor of a hanok-style construction somewhat reminiscent of 50 or more years ago. We sat in a courtyard, with a cheap plastic canopy overhead to keep the air conditioning in and mosquitoes out; I rather think that those two functions were its only functions as the looseness would certainly not hold water in any kind of rain shower. The food was splendid, and Josephine enjoyed her introduction to one of the choice cuisines of Korea. The place was really crowded with more Koreans than "foreigners", which is a good sign of a good restaurant. But at the cash register, the restaurant took on a more historical charm for above the register was a wall hung with old photographs of Korea, pictures of daily social interactions, dress attire, means of making a living and most were representative of the working class, and not the yangban class! When the cashier saw me looking at the wood framed photos, she got excited and volunteered explanations on many of them. I was especially enthusiastic about the pict of a peasant carrying a amount of large baskets on his A-frame carrier; I'd never seen or heard of anything like it!

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