The Jumeok-bap Contest

There comes a point in every Great Adoptee Night Out when the urge is felt to move on to 이차 (ee-cha), or Round Two. 

It was a mild evening in March – when Seoulites breathe a collective sigh of relief that winter is done and spring is here. We tumbled out of the tiny bar and into the backstreets of Itaewon to look for food – a happy huddle of adoptees, walking, talking, and absentmindedly following whomever was ahead. We operated as a group intelligence. “Where can we go?” someone asked. “Who knows this area?” “How many of us are there?” “Who will take a group of 15 drunk adoptees?”

We wandered into a large, unassuming place, with fluorescent lighting and dark wood-panelled walls. It was fairly empty. A friendly ajumma smiled and gestured towards a table large enough for all of us. 

We ordered a few things to share. There were plates of dubu kimchi, saucy, piquant, and sweet – not quite vegetarian, but at least the vegetarians could pick out the pork easily, which is about as good as you’ll get at midnight in Korea. Eggs fried over-easy, their oil-slicked bellies eased onto oval-shaped plastic dishes. Steaming bowls of Jjapaghetti ramyeon noodles, served al dente in golden aluminium pots. Perfect post-drinking food. And, of course, large bottles of Cass beer and Jinro soju. “People have to keep drinking if we’re going to go to noraebang”, my friend L whispered.

The jumeok-bap was an afterthought. But when I see it I have to order it. Hot white rice and salty toasted seaweed, rolled into small balls with a touch of sesame oil. They’re commonly eaten by children in Korea; maybe that’s why I find them comforting. Enough texture to bite through, yet soft and yielding. The preparation is soothing too: first I slip on the thin plastic glove, then I scatter the seaweed flakes evenly over the bed of rice before mixing it through, my fingertips running across the short nubbly grains, still warm.

I think it was L who suggested the jumeok-bap shaping contest – she is a competitive athlete after all – after J hollered, “Can’t you make those any faster?”

We promptly ordered two more bowls. The rules were decided hastily: we had to shape all of the rice into golf ball-sized portions, we could only use one hand, and the first person to finish was the winner. I rolled up my sleeves and took a determined breath: I was born for this.

With my left hand holding the bowl steady and my right hand in the plastic glove, primed for action, I fixed my eyes firmly upon my mound of rice.

Ready, set, go! L yelled. Chaos erupted. J, of course, goaded me from across the table; “Shut the f*** up, J!” I piped back, trying not to laugh while furiously pressing handfuls of rice against the side of my bowl. On my right, I heard words of encouragement: “You’ve got this, Hana! Just keep going, you’re ahead!” On my left, I saw another friend wipe tears of laughter from her eyes. 

After one minute and 21 seconds, J cried “Done!” and slapped her hand on the table theatrically. A split second later, I was done too. We offered our plates of jumeok-bap up for inspection and they were passed around the table. Really, there was no contest. Mine were neat and compact balls of similar size and shape. J’s were balls in the very loosest sense of the word: rough clumps of barely-shapen rice, akin to mud pies made by a toddler. Though J won the race, by a hair’s breadth, my jumeok-bap was judged superior by consistency, beauty, and every other measure. Therefore, and much to J’s objection, I was announced the overall winner.

the proof is in the balls. also i love this photo so much (posted with permission)

After the restaurant, we successfully moved onto noraebang, where we stayed until 4am or so. It was exactly the kind of welcome party I had hoped for my newly arrived friend, R. One for the ages. 

That was over a year ago now. Soon after, R had to leave Korea prematurely, because of covid. Others, too, have left. Friendships have shifted. Couples have separated. I haven’t seen some of those people since then. Somehow, I hope they know that I still think of them.

With four-person maximum social restrictions, I’m not sure when we’ll have group gatherings again. As foreigners in Korea, we’re last in line – a very slow-moving line – to receive the vaccine. I hope our community isn’t dead, but only in a deep slumber, and I wonder what she will look like when she reawakens.

Until then, we have the famous jumeok-bap contest. Everyone remembers that night.

And J still contends that she won.

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