Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lost in Translation: Chicken with Bones in Korea

by Bob Eberlein

(Time for something light. Bob is in Seoul attending the System Dynamics annual conference this week. He emailed me this and said, “Thought you would be amused.” And I was.  – Xujun)

Last night, I decided it would be good to do a little bit of souvenir shopping in Seoul as well as watch the town. So far, my experience this time had been limited to the conference hotel, the surrounding park and morning runs along the river. All of this was very pleasant, and it was fun to see all the Koreans out and moving around, but their direction was consistently purposeful. Not to get to someplace quickly, nor to explore some new area, but really to walk because they knew it would be good for them to do so. I applaud the sentiment and the devotion they have to their duty – I saw very few overweight people, at least till we got to the chicken with bones.

As I was leaving the hotel, I ran into a young man from India, who was also attending the conference. He suggested a good place to go, by subway, to do souvenir shopping. That sounded good and, when he suggested he might come along, I offered to buy him dinner.

So we set off on Seoul’s subway, a marvelously complicated contraption, and a few train changes later found ourselves in Myeong-dong, the shopping epicenter of Korea. Lots of stores, lots of street vendors and lots of people. Though some were walking with purpose, it was clear that purpose was not exercise. It was a new Seoul for me, and I like to think other parts of the city would be equally different.

After wandering a while and picking up a couple of souvenirs, we decided to look for dinner. The first place we looked at was pure Korean beef. Neither of us had objections, my friend’s Indian heritage notwithstanding, but neither did it really appeal. So we wandered a bit more, past an old woman who was selling things from the sea, which looked more like decorations than food to me, and came across a really crowded restaurant that had a picture that looked really good.

The crowding, it turns out, did not slow us down much. We watched as people ate, briefly paused to wipe their mouths, then abruptly stood up, paid and departed. While I have often noticed Chinese people being impatient to get up and out after a meal, I had never seen anything like this. I suspect it was the restaurant, and not just Korean culture at play here. This was a serious eating place and, if your weren’t eating, you just didn’t blend.

They sent us upstairs, sat us down and gave us a menu. It was all in Korean and the only things I could understand were the prices. There was a picture of something that looked delicious, but it was not obviously associated with anything on the menu. Soon, however, they brought out their “English” menu. In reality it was Korean, English and Chinese. The main entries were “chicken without bones” and “chicken with bones.” My rudimentary Chinese allowed me to figure out that there were two sizes, for 1-2 people and  for 3-4 people. The chicken without bones was a couple of dollars cheaper and this puzzled us. Wouldn’t it be more expensive to debone the chicken?

When the waiter returned we pointed to the picture, still not associated with any entry, and asked which one it was. We then pointed to the smaller size “chicken with bones” and ordered that, though neither of us was very fond of picking over bones. When it arrived, it included the chicken, shrimp, octopus, clams, mussels, potatoes and rice noodles all cooked up in a really nice, and somewhat spicy, sauce. Between the two of us we managed to finish about half the food that was there.

With the bones, it seems, comes an awful lot of seafood. That restaurant was, in fact, one of the few places I noticed a number of overweight people. Perhaps they were capable of finishing the serving size that was offered.

No comments: