Noodles, steam, a rainy day and a melancholy mealIt’s a strange way of identifying one’s acquaintances, I admit, but I have a habit of remembering the people I’ve met mostly by the food we ate together. This was true way before I read Murakami Ryu, who wrote a memoir about the people in his past ― mostly, the women he’d slept with ― in which he compared each of them to food. My favorite passage from the book was about a woman who’d gone through 11 plastic surgeries, whom Ryu compared to “roasted prime rib.”
I can see how these connections might be made more clearly when they’re based on visual associations. For me, however, it’s mostly through the shared experience of eating that I come to identify someone with a dish. I could probably sit here and make a long list of people I’ve met within the past three months, the places we visited and the food we ate.
There was one meal I had not so long ago with someone I knew through my father, a senior journalist at a major newspaper, whom I’ll call Mr. Heo. We had lunch together at a small noodle restaurant across from my office. It was Monday afternoon, and it was raining outside. Just as he opened his umbrella, he suggested we go for kalguksu, a noodle soup.
We’d met mostly to talk about work, but ended up exchanging banal stories about bribery scandals and celebrity gossip. Once in a while, he would try to break the silence with a joke typical of a middle-aged man. But sometimes he sounded strangely nostalgic, saying things like, “People crave noodle soup when it rains, because the noodle strands remind them of streaks of rain.”
He smiled a lot. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist the impression that he was a sad man. His dialect was strangely alienating; his lips were stained with nicotine; he wore a cotton suit and a pair of tinted glasses, which made him look timid under his umbrella.
It might have been the rain, or just the cheapness of the kalguksu we were eating, but I learned for the first time that afternoon that there is something melancholy about slurping noodles. As I looked around the restaurant, people seemed to be engaged in some sad ritual of mourning, as if to endure and swallow arduous moments of their lives. I hadn’t noticed until that very moment how low a person’s head droops when eating noodle soup, as they bury their faces in the steam coming out of the bowl. There was something very sad about that gesture.
It’s difficult to say, but I suspect my perception of Mr. Heo wouldn’t have been the same if we’d had lasagna that afternoon. Regardless, noodle soup hasn’t been the same for me since my lunch with Mr. Heo.
How to Cook
Ingredients: A bag of fresh kalguksu noodles for 3-4 people, 600g beef brisket, 1 medium-size zucchini (sliced into thin strips), garlic, 1 tbsp. sea salt, 1 tbsp. whole peppercorns, black pepper, 1 tbsp. roasted sesame seeds, 3 tbsp. soy sauce, 2 tbsp. sesame oil, 1 green onion, gim (dried seaweed, thinly sliced)
1. To make the broth, boil the beef brisket, an unpeeled garlic bulb, sea salt and peppercorns for about an hour in a gallon of water.
2. When the broth reduces to about half, remove the brisket. Strain the broth and set it aside.
3. Thinly slice the brisket and season it with 3 chopped garlic cloves, soy sauce, chopped green onion and a dash of black pepper, sesame seeds and sesame oil.
4. Boil the broth and cook the noodles in it, occasionally stirring. When it boils, add a cup of cold water and return to boil over a medium flame. Add zucchini, the chopped garlic and optional sesame oil.
5. Add the brisket slices and sprinkle sesame seeds and gim. Serve immediately.
by Park Soo-mee