- As I Boil Ramyŏn
I'm a devoted eater of ramyŏn, kimbap, and tchajangmyŏn. They are cheap and easy street bites, ideal for solo eaters, just like knife noodle, spicy beef soup, tchamppong, and udon. For army stew, spicy braised chicken, and meat and lettuce wraps, you need at least two people. All these flavors are etched deep down my existence. Shabby holes-in-the-wall are my kind of restaurants. A glance at the exterior sign or the interior ambience yields a sense of the tastes offered. A tacky name written on a rundown signboard hanging over an entrance reeking of food indicates taste. I can't prove this rule scientifically, but that's usually how it goes. In unfamiliar villages, I eat based on the restaurants' signs.
A haphazard menu listing countless dishes pasted on a glass window is an invitation to mediocrity. Bustling restaurants center their menu with a couple of specialty dishes they excel in, and accompany them with an assortment of side dishes. Despite the variety in the genealogies of ramyŏn and kimbap, a haphazard menu spells out tasteless food.
Koreans have invented an integrative eating method called a mouthful. We grill pork belly, wrap it in lettuce, place a slice of garlic dipped in soybean paste, and stuff the wrap into our mouth until our jaws stretch wide. We also eat slivers of raw fish this way, with a wrap of perilla leaf. In a single punch, this mouthful feeds [End Page 123] us everything—rice, meat, vegetables, sauce, and spices. Picnic parties for employees and last suppers for families sending away their conscripted sons tend to feature grilled pork belly with a few shots of soju. In a blink of an eye, these packages of tastes wrest and quench our desires.
Rather than swallowing these packages, I prefer chewing disparate ingredients of food. On sultry summer days, when my mind and body are muddled from fatigue, I eat spoonfuls of plump salted sakura shrimp with rice in water. These lunches soothe my sodden mind and stomach. When I eat watered rice with well-ripened and crisp pickled cucumber dipped in pepper paste, or when I eat minced and brined kimchi floating on cold water with sprinkled vinegar and powdered pepper, I feel refreshed. With these foods, I physiologically expel greasy and cloying elements. Cool rice soaked in soup infused with radish kimchi are my favorites. It tastes simple and clear. Its taste is of a dawn that predates the genesis of taste. It's the most primordial taste with which nature has endowed men.
While Master Toegye of the sixteenth-century Chosŏn dynasty devoted himself to scholarship at Dosan, he only had three side dishes during meals. When his student Kim Sung-il visited, the only side dishes served with rice were radish, eggplant, and seaweed. Though his pupils could barely veil their discontent, the master ate heartily with a blissful countenance. The three side dishes were probably either pickled, wild, or raw.
As for Toegye's text, my mind and my body remain separate no matter how much I delve into the tomes of the sages. I have no hope of retracing their steps. Nevertheless, I find solace that at least in my palate, I resemble the sages. If my palate touches their periphery, then perhaps I can gaze from afar on their cardinal virtues even though I can't emulate them.
These days, fusion kimbaps fattened with cheese, salad, bulgogi, crabmeat, and sausages are the rage. I detest them. My kind of kimbaps are lined with a single row of pickled radish, spinach, or [End Page 124] burdock. I also like kimbaps stuffed only with vegetables, such as salted radish, green onion, perilla leaf, and sweet potato bud. These kimbaps are refreshing when I chew. Japanese-style kimbaps rolled with sesame leaf or vinegar-soused plum are also neat. A kimbap needs embellishing tastes surrounding a main pillar of taste, and a kimbap with a weak center or a center jumbled with the periphery is unsound. It must be smallish enough to pop inside the mouth without...