The Korean Mystery Lunch: Gamjatang at Onedang (a.k.a. how to order in a Korean restaurant without an English menu)

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:

If you're looking for a place that serves authentic local food, find the ones with no English translations (unless you're in like, an English-speaking country - again, is that joke still funny?).

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:

At the time, I had no idea what this supposed bestseller was.

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.

Here is the nice ajumma helping us silly tourists out with cooking our lunch

Ready to eat!

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:

The Fork of Shame that mocked our obviously-not-from-here foreigner skills with the Korean chopsticks-and-spoon combination. To preserve the little dignity we had left, we subconsciously ended up not using them.

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.

Home stretch! Bowl on the left with the ladle is the "before", bowl on the right with the bones is the "after", I guess.

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.

Tiffy posing with our new friend. Thank you, ajumma, for the great meal and for being so patient with us! ^^

OneDang Restaurant
Hongdae, Seoul

Note: apparently there are two branches of OneDang restaurant in Myeongdong that might be more accessible to a Seoul visitor.


Wends of Journeys and Travels said...

nagugutom ako haha. I wanna try eating Korean good food. :)

Daene | Filipina in Flip Flops said...

Hello! Sobrang namiss ko din 'to, so I researched for a recipe in Youtube and tried making my own version last night. Ok naman siya! It turned out better than I expected (and I am by no means a good cook). Super okay ng Korean food. My friends and I wanna go back to Seoul just to eat!

Thanks for visiting the blog!

rissee said...

given how good the food we had all throughout the trip, i'm kinda sad i missed this! :) keep 'em coming!

Daene | Filipina in Flip Flops said...

Rissee! This is why we have to come back next year! And try the good Korean restos in Manila. See you soon! Mabs says we ought to do a world premiere of our video at your place once it's done. Haha! :)

CMBT said...

nice post!

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Daene | Filipina in Flip Flops said...

Thanks so much for the kind comments! :)

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