Day 23: Seoul street noodles

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Are you a Russian? the waiter asked. (It was a novel experience having table service at a street food stall.)

No, I laughed, and realised I must look like some stereotypical caricature of what a Russian might wear in a cartoon: big brown coat, fluffy wool hat, wrapped up against the elements.

But my getup was justified: it was damn cold. And a steaming bowl of noodles was the best possible thing I could have had. Clear, light broth, thin wheat noodles, a bit of fishcake-like substance and a dab of chilli. Cheap, filling, good.

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Day 22: bibimbap (just kidding!)

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This blog is fast becoming a noodle-only blog, I’d better find some strangers, and soon. But it hasn’t been easy.

On the 22nd day I tried to talk to a lady gathering gingko berries along the footpath near Noksapyeong Station. It was a fresh autumn afternoon, the weakening sun illuminated the golden gingko trees and their wind-blown leaves dancing to the ground. The footpath was covered in bright yellow leaves and as I shuffled along I noticed a few crushed berry-like things and then, later on, a woman in a hat and gloves, doubled over picking up something from the ground which she quickly tossed into a plastic bag. She found more, again and again, and as I walked closer I could tell her bag was heavy with these somethings – whatever they were, fruits, or nuts, or what. She looked up. I smiled. Anyonghaseyo, I said. She huffed and scowled and, never once getting up from her squatting position, sort of half jump-shuffled so that she was crouching in the other direction. I stood there for a second but it was pretty clear she didn’t want to talk gingko nuts. Okay, then.

I went to a cafe full of Westerners thinking they might be easier, less of a language barrier. There were a couple people my age sitting at a big, long shared table with a few empty seats at one end. I went to ask if a seat might be free, thinking these people might be good to chat to. Oh, no, they said, there are some more people coming, so I ended up having my coffee at the only free seat left, in a corner facing the wall, while this group of Americans read out their short story ideas to each other in order, one by one.

After that I met up with my old flatmate Fiona who now lives in Seoul and, preoccupied with catch-ups and gossip and hangover-relieving Korean tacos (oh yeah, there was that hangover) I didn’t manage to flag down any strangers.

But after a big walk up a steep hill to look at the lit-up cityscape from Namsan Tower and a movie screening of sorts we were kind of hungry. Perfect. Noodle time.

We went to Hongdae, a neighbourhood swarming with students who were all (at 11 at night on a Saturday, at least) lining up to get into bars and clubs of some sort and holding impromptu street celebrations when a car crawled by blaring ‘Gangnam Style’. Also there were a fair few young types eating at a 24-hour noodle bar we passed by. So we went in too.

There was an illustrated menu of sorts on the wall of the restaurant, from which I could tell there were a few different noodle dishes available, one of which was like a noodle version of bibimbap, a rice dish with various vegetables and seaweed and egg and meat and sauce that you mix into the hot rice.

So we went up to the ticket-dispensing machine to order. The buttons were only in Korean, but had helpful pictures to show which button went with which dish. So far, so good. I found the button with a picture that looked like the noodle dish I’d seen on the wall. Then there was another button, with an almost-identical picture – only this one was a bit more expensive, and seemed to come with an egg. Sweet, I thought. I like eggs. I put in my money and pushed the button and handed my ticket to the guy behind the counter.

But when my food came, Fiona looked at me quizzically. Did you get noodles, she said, or is that rice? She was right. Underneath the colourfully-arranged meat and vegetables was not noodles, but rice. I’d ordered my old favourite, bibimbap, not its noodle equivalent. So much for confidently pushing buttons on a vending machine ordering system.

Anyway the bibimbap was delicious, and I’m glad I had it. And luckily Fiona had ordered some kind of noodle soup with twisted strands of fried tofu and nori and sesame seeds and little bite-sized mandu floating in the soup, and gave me a bit so I wouldn’t fail at this project (thanks, Fi!). The soup was refreshing and light – a seaweed-based broth, maybe? with a little bit of that ubiquitous red sauce – the noodles plain and pale, like Japanese somen in flavour but a little bit thicker. It was good, and cheap (about $4 NZ for a big bowl). And I’m a big fan of dumplings, so the little mandu were a plus.

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Day 12: somen champuru

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I wasn’t that excited about this somen champuru when it arrived at the table a steaming lump of gloggy, pale noodles.

I’d ordered it because I’d tried a couple different kinds of champuru – Okinawan stir-fry, often made with goya (bitter gourd) or tofu or green papaya – and wanted to see how the angel-hair-thin somen noodles stood up to the treatment. Also I’m a big fan of somen in its more common forms: served cold and dipped in a soy-dashi broth, or warm in a noodle soup.

Other champuru I’d eaten had a mix of vegetables and meat, but this just came out dotted here and there with a bit of green, a bit of canned tuna. Okay then. It looked like the noodles were all clumped together, maybe a bit mushy, and at first it tasted exactly how it looked. A bit… unexciting.

So I pushed it aside for a little while and focused on the rest of the food we’d ordered at this local izakaya we’d come to on the recommendation of our innkeeper. Everything else was delicious: a platter of incredibly fresh, tender sashimi, a little bowl of mozuku seaweed in rice vinegar, a plate of mustard greens stir-fried with tofu and kamaboko, some “it’s not on the menu, but since you asked” chawanmushi that was exceedingly soft and creamy and full of chicken and mushrooms and prawns: very very good.

And then, towards the end, I started picking at my noodles, now cold. And! What a marvel! They were not only perfectly edible, but almost kind of good. Cooled off, they’d lost some of their steamy glugginess; they were no longer stuck together in a big gluey clump, but rather, each noodle existed as its own individual entity, coated in a delicate seasoning of salt and white pepper and sesame oil. Yes, quite all right, actually. I finished the lot.