Vignettes from my everyday Seoul life #1: 고등어 구이

So I have a thing for 고등어 구이 (grilled mackerel).

On Saturday night I’d planned to return to a very specific godeungeo jib, hidden in the basement of the Amore Pacific building near Sinyongsan station, where I ate the most delicious godeungeo of my life, back in March 2017.

That’s over three years ago now. I was frickin’ ready for this fish.

But when my friends and I arrived, the restaurant ajumma told us that they were closing early because it was quiet…

Don’t worry, my Korean friends reassured me, we’ll find another place—a better place!—their fingers already typing godeungeo into Naver.

We eventually arrived at a famous “halmoni (grandmother) godeungeo jib”, tucked away in a side street behind Samgakji station, hot and hangry.

It’s a small, unassuming place. As the name suggests, the godeungeo is prepared by an (adorable!) halmoni who sits in front of the restaurant.

After we were seated, one of my friends suddenly pointed out the window—

“Look, there’s another one! And they look similar!” 

The two halmonis are sisters and they take turns cooking the godeungeo. With all respect, the cutest grilling duo ever!

And they know what they’re doing. The pieces of fish—seasoned in salt, with no oil, and grilled over charcoal briquettes—were perfectly moist with a flakey, slightly smoky, charred skin.

My friend S turned the fish spine side up, wriggled one end of the spine with her chopsticks and then the other, and then lifted the whole spine in one deft movement. Then she quickly removed a few other large bones with a graceful, surgical precision. 끋. Done.

And the banchan, the banchan! A lightly spiced bean sprout soup, 누룽지 (toasted rice soup), ddeokbokki, sheets of dried seaweed that tasted oiled, grilled, and salted by hand rather than store-bought, various types of kimchi, and a deeply layered, umami-rich kimchi jjigae. Subtle variations in heat, salt, bitterness, sourness, and sweetness create such a range of kimchi and kimchi jiggae flavours that I’m only discovering now.

It’s a real education.

It’s often through food, in these quaint, humble spaces, that I feel so deeply Korean, to my core.

The perfect bite: crisp seaweed, a clump of white rice, oily mackerel, sour kimchi.

On the way out, we sheepishly asked the halmonis if we could take their photo.

“너무 잘 먹었습니다 (we ate so well)…would you mind if…?”

Go ahead, they said. They seemed used to it.

Such nonchalance.

After dinner we walked along the Han, stopping at a riverside convenience store along the way. The half moon in the deep blue sky. The lights across the water. The early summer, not-yet-humid breeze. Ahh, 기분이 좋다! (it feels good!).

We eventually lay our foiled picnic mat on the empty landing of some steps below a bridge. At the river’s edge below, someone is fishing. It seemed like the perfect spot until we heard the trains rattle across the bridge. That’s why there’s no one here, H laughed. We’ll just have to stop talking every ten minutes or so!

We chat over cheap cans of beer and potato chips ripped open down the centre of the bag, Korean style. I ask the others if they have any specific goals for the second half of 2020.

Just start working again, says H, who was furloughed. Just get a job! says S.

Of course, I think to myself…what are goals in the times of coronavirus.

We take some bad selfies—there’s no light under the bridge. They don’t make the Instagram or send-to-a-guy-you-like cut by a long shot, but we laugh over them.

We talk about dating and Korean men, the culture of hostess bars and infidelity, and how women in Korea still undertake almost all of the child-rearing and domestic labour within a household—even amongst younger generations. S wonders where she can find a feminist Korean man like her brother.

I offer up my younger Korean brother like some kind of Jewish mother (I haven’t discussed this with him, of course). He’s a really lovely guy! He’s kind of tall! He likes riding bikes and food—and dogs! He wants to get a big dog! Just meet him for a coffee or something!

Later in the evening, we’re surrounded by others: a group of guys in their early 20s, some couples, and two guys lounging in deck chairs, smoking and listening to music. DJ Khaled’s No Brainer wafts over the breeze.

Soon it’s time to catch the last train home and that’s the end of this story. Just a simple night in Seoul with good food, good company, and good conversation.

What more do you need, right?

Daewon Sikdang 대원식당:

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