After a kick ass fencing tournament my club went out to get some samgyupsal (pork korean barbeque). Last time we went out it was an amazing combination of great food, mekju (beer) and soju (rice wine) combined to make SoMek. Tonight was an excellent recreation with a few surprises.
We arrived at the restaurant on the rainy Sunday night and were quickly ushered into a back room with our massive group. The banchan (sides) were already on the table and soup was boiling away in the grill. They provided bags for our wet coats and pillows to sit on; sitting cross legged on the floor takes some getting used to but can be quite fun! Within a few moments the meat arrived and that wonderful aroma filled our room.
The Korean conversation overpowered my naive language skills but I was happy to find a few Koreans with some basic English. We spoke about fencing, told a few fencing stories and I went through my abbreviated bio. They were surprised to learn that the “gold medalist” had only been in Korea for a few months and even more impressed that I could 1) use chopsticks 2) eat spicy food and 3) read Korean at a kindergarten level (or perhaps even lower).
As we passed the onions to drench in the vinegary solution before us and chowed down on banchan I quickly learned that one of the other fencers went to school in Boston. I said I did too but they wanted to know more about New Jersey and the rest of America so we momentarily glazed over that fact before being distracted by the now ever present Somek. A quick “gambei” and the conversation switched to Korean as I sat and listened catching a few words here and there.
A moment later they asked who wanted “bap,” I knew that one! Rice, yeah, I’ll have rice; I raised my hand. Then the asked who wanted “mul naengmyeon,” they translated it to “cold water noodles” which didn’t sound at all appealing. Then they said “bibim naengmyeon” and a quick translation of “spicy noodles.” My hand shot up again! They told me I had to pick rice or noodles and when I said noodles they were shocked. An American wants spicy food?!?
Another round of Somek came before I finally asked Dr. Paik where in Boston she went to grad school. She must have figured I wouldn’t know here alma mater because she asked me where I went. Knowing that she hadn’t heard of it I said “Brandeis” and her face lit up.
“What? I went to Brandeis!”
No freaking way! Across the world I happen to find a fencing club in Seoul and low and behold there is another Brandeisian? A school with barely 5,500 students enrolled at a time and we went to the same school. Turns out she couldn’t fence at school since she was a graduate student but she spoke to Coach Shipman and fenced at Boston Fencing Club in the early 2000’s. She knew Tim Morehouse and we reminisced about some other nerdy Brandeis inside jokes before our noodles arrived.
I took my chopsticks and mixed it up like a pro amid Korean one word shout outs. “Wow,” “True Korea,” “Genius.” Who knew it was that easy to impress them, I hadn’t even taken a bite yet. Maybe I should just sit here and prepare food?
Bibim naengmyeon is pretty good. They are served cold but not in icy water like their counterpart, mul naengmyeon. I was tempted to put them on the grill but didn’t want to appear too crazy; it still had nice flavor and an easy to eat texture. At first it was not very spicy so I gobbled it up, but, the more I ate the hotter it grew. It never got TOO spicy and I would have enjoyed it with more heat (both kinds).
Before long the meat had been devoured and we had polished off a few bottles of Cass and soju and realized that most of us had quite a trip home. We paid, and buttoned up, grabbed our umbrellas and discovering the night’s second coincidence. Turns out another clubmate lives in the same dong (neighborhood) as me and we traveled home together! Carpooling isn’t too common here since everyone takes the subway but when I’ve got a giant fencing bag it could certainly come in handy.