Smile, keep an open mind, trust the friendly ajumma, hope for the best, prepare to laugh at the worst, and you might just be rewarded with a surprisingly good meal.
Disclaimer: results may vary per situation, but that's just part of the fun.
On our first day in Seoul, Tiff and I decided to explore Hongdae after checking in and dropping off our luggage at the guesthouse (read my review of Hongdae Guesthouse here). By noon we were famished and decided to find a place for lunch. There were plenty of options, but we wanted a place that served authentic Korean food (although in Korea, they just call it "food" - is that joke still funny?). Which is how we ended up at this place:
The place looked nice and cozy enough on the inside, and there were a number of students seemingly enjoying their meals (another good sign of authentic food - lots of local patrons), so Tiff and I thought we were off to a good start. Until we were handed the menu - which had no English words on them. At all.
Instead of freaking out and hastily but politely excusing ourselves and bolting to the nearest McDonald's, we put on our bravest smiles and tried to converse with the nice ajumma (a term of respect - though it also connotes a not-so-positive stereotype, which is why one is to use it with extra care - for middle-aged Korean women) who was manning the shop. There were more hand gestures than English words exchanged and somehow she ended up deciding to serve us what we could only assume to be their bestseller:
The ajumma vaguely told us, in part English-part Korean-part hand gestures, that the dish was made of pork and vegetables. It looked delicious in the picture, it sounded delicious from what she said, so we smiled at her, nodded our heads, and settled down at one of the tables. Eventually we were served with a massive pot brimming with various ingredients; the dish was to be cooked thoroughly on the stove installed on our table.
The dish tasted amazing - the soup was full of flavor and steaming hot, which was perfect because it had been chilly outside and we were still getting used to the nippy autumn weather. The meat was tender and easily fell off the bone. The potatoes were also cooked well and tasted great with the broth and the meat, as well as the other vegetables. The different kinds of mushrooms in the stew also tasted great! Tiff and I shared a cup of rice and also gave the different side dishes - mostly different kinds of kimchi - a try.
We ate leisurely and took quite a while with our meal. To be honest, the usual Korean utensils, namely a combination of metal chopsticks and a spoon, were a little difficult to use on the very tender meat and slippery vegetables. The ajumma must have noticed, because after a while she gave us this, otherwise known as The Fork of Shame:
After taking stealthy side glances at nearby tables we noticed that people in groups of threes and fours were sharing the same dish we were having, which explained why we had felt rather full even when we were only barely halfway through the stew. It was nothing a little pacing couldn't solve though - we were, after all, two of the 5-member girl group that once ate through seven kilos of seafood in Jimbaran, Bali, and took on a quest to search for some epic Babi Guling the day after that.
Over the course of our Seoul trip the dish Tiff and I shared remained a mystery to us, until I showed the picture of the menu to a Korean colleague after I came back to work. It turns out that the dish is called (as the name of this post suggests) Gamjatang, which roughly translates to "potato (gamja) soup", though pork is apparently the more customary ingredient, thereby making the dish more widely known as pork bone soup.
Recently, I did a little bit of research on the net and found two useful apps that would've been a big help to our little lunch experience in Hongdae - the Google Translate Android app can already recognize and translate text found in a photo, and Word Lens does the same thing. I ought to remember those apps for my next trip.
Truthfully though, it really wasn't so bad, the so-called "language barrier". In the end we were able to try a dish that turned out to be so delicious, I still long for it now, and made a friend in the lovely ajumma who patiently helped us through our trip's first culinary adventure. Traveling to strange places always affords us the beautiful realization that the absence of a common language is no deterrent in making connections - if anything, the lack of words understood leaves empty the space between people, making room for genuine smiles, little laughs, and unspoken friendships. And no genius app will ever be able to accomplish that.
Note: apparently there are two branches of OneDang restaurant in Myeongdong that might be more accessible to a Seoul visitor.