Posts Tagged ‘Samgyetang’

Whine and Dine

Sometimes I wonder what a younger version of myself would ask the present day me. Maybe I would ask about the state of the Lego collection? Where are all the girlfriends, the cool car? Inevitably, after the childish questions I would want to know about life in Korea. What is it like there? What do you do?

As unsatisfying as it is, it is hard to explain what life is like here. I breath, I sleep, and I eat. This afternoon while in a van filled with other teachers and staff headed out for lunch, I had the cognizance that my life is a bit less than normal. Here I was in a speeding van on the southern coast of a small oriental peninsula, thousands of miles from familiarity and surrounded by people I struggle to communicate with. Honestly I don’t even know what a single one of their names is, and have only a vague idea of what each of their roles is within the school. I didn’t know where we were going or what kind of foreign meal awaited me.

The thought was fleeting. There was no panic or fear because this is what my life is. Its the unknown in which I embrace.

Lunch ended up being 삼계탕 (samgyetang) which consists of a whole (young) chicken filled with garlic, rice, scallions, and spices. The ensemble is served as a boiling stew in a molten, ceramic bowl. Now, I enjoy a whole array of cuisines but the “meat and potatoes” German in me finds this dish just delighting. Ironically I had been craving Korean chicken soup for ages now, it seemed things were finally coming around for me (I had yet another flat tire earlier in the week). 

After quite a bit of obligatory fussing about, the final seating arrangement was sorted, with the Principle in the middle of the table, the Vice Principle to his left and the Head Teacher to his right. I was seated at the far end of the additional table they pulled up with the other riffraff (main office secretaries to my right, a school counselor across from me and a technician to my left).

We weren’t seated long before the mini-chicken calderas began flowing out of the kitchen and into our private dining hall.

When it comes to eating, I like to think of myself as a marathon eater. I can eat a lot over a long period of time. I am that customer that prospective buffet owners like to overlook as the unlikely outlier. I have what your grandma would describe as a “healthy appetite”. Koreans on the other-hand are sprinters. When it comes to eating they go hard and they go fast. I have never actually stopped to observe just how they do it, as I fear getting left in the dust. I imagine their abilities can be attributed to some sort of physical adaptation. Perhaps like snakes, their lower jaws unhinge to accommodate the large amount of food. Their stomachs must be comparable to those of crocodiles – able to withstand anything from lava soup, to fish bones, to certain poison (aka soju).

As soon as a blistering bowl of samgyetang was placed in front of each seated person, the contest began.

I failed to mention up until this point that we are currently in a time period called Sambok. Aka – peak summer heat. The temperature has only been in the low 30’s (Celsius) but humidity has been around 70% or higher. Here in Korea it is traditionally believed that you are to beat the heat with heat. If you were wondering why we were eating boiling chicken soup in the peak of summer, that’s your answer. Samgyetang is the traditional remedy for the sweltering summer temps.

The race of consumption was in full swing. I had already eaten a few bowls worth of soup from my auxiliary eating and cooling dish. Despite the air-conditioning, my shirt clung to my back with sweat. My nose ran. Fighting back tears, I glanced over at the cute little secretary’s cauldron of stew. DAMN NEAR EMPTY! Looking back to mine, my eyes fell upon half a chicken carcass, a clove of garlic and a smattering of rice. A quick glance down the length of the table revealed my standing as dead last. Despite my darnedest efforts, I had failed. I finished the remainder of my meal in conquered taciturn.

Moral of the story: you just cant beat genetics. Literally.