Wandering through Seoul Market’s seaweed section, which is just as expansive and visually overloading as the cereal aisle of any Wal-Mart, I’m overwhelmed. Seaweed comes in jars, plastic bags, foil bags, freeze-dried bags, individually wrapped snack packs and family sized jumbo bags.
Seaweed that looks like kelp looms large in a long baguette like bag, and then there’s red seaweed, green seaweed, roasted seaweed, rectangular seaweed and small square seaweed. Asian writing appears on every bag, and although I can’t read the characters, it’s clear from their differing shapes that they identify seaweeds from not only Korea, but probably from Japan and China, too.
Clearly I’m a complete amateur Asian market shopper even in the US. Maybe trying another aisle will be less intense. The noodle shelves are no different: udon, soba, somen, bean thread cellophane, rice, wheat, thick, curly, transparent. Really, what should I expect? Roaming through the noodle section of a standard American grocery store could be mind blowing for someone who is not familiar with Italian pasta.
I had been so confident before entering the Colorado Springs store. After all, I had seen Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode in Korea where he samples fermented kim chee from recently unearthed clay urns. I eat Asian food whenever I can, but I guess I’ve not seen it much in the pre-preparation phase.
“Mom, where’s the ice cream?” my son Eddie approaches me after having cased the somewhat cramped market out. He’s clearly not intimidated. Sensing my paralysis, he leaves and I hear him talk to the shop keeper behind the counter. I peek over and see the woman show him a refrigerated case. Ice cream, that’s definitely doable. I leave the noodle aisle.
I have brought Eddie to Colorado Springs, two hours from our home, for a specialist doctor’s appointment. So I decide to incorporate “Culture Day,” a newly created family tradition, into the agenda. Because we live in a small mountain town, I want to expose my kids to other people besides mostly white outdoors enthusiasts and ranchers.
Also, I need to satisfy my own desire to travel — especially to Asia. On a typical Culture Day, we go to our local library and check out books on a selected nation. Then we visit a restaurant to eat that particular country’s cuisine while we look at the books. We usually talk to the owner(s) and learn how to say “please”, “thank you”, and “yummy.”
“What’s screw ice cream, mom?”
“Why are there red beans in this popsicle?”
“Geez, Bud, I’m not really sure,” I say looking around. The shop keeper is reading a newspaper and seems to have total faith in us or she figures when we get desperate we’ll come directly to her.
“Keep looking at the different kinds of popsicles. I’m going to get the rest of our groceries.”
I am so out of my league, but it’s time to be decisive. Time to actually get something — even if I don’t know what it is. A pink plastic colander doesn’t count nor do any of the other utensils like spatulas, spoons, graters and can openers that are so comforting in their familiarity. Then I see…
• A bag of popcorn — pathetic attempt but at least the package showcases large, bright Korean characters.
• Incense sticks — weak — but they get me going. I head back to the noodles.
• Rice noodles for Pad Thai and Thai Peanut sauce — totally mainstream.
This is a Korean market — time to get something Korean. Time to conquer the seaweed section, where Eddie finds me again to remind me that it’s time to go.
“Eddie, help pick out the seaweed you want,” I default to him.
“I don’t know, Mom…here’re some snack packs. Now can we go?”
“Yes — these will work.” Sooo sushi, but we have our seaweed.
I keep exploring and now curiosity takes over. Red beans show up in several spots. Not quite kidney beans, they are sold on their own and included as ingredients in several sweet items like the popsicle and small white cakes.
“MOM, Come on!”
Eddie holds a melting muskmelon popsicle and I grab a red bean one to see what all the fuss is regarding these little legumes. We bring our items to the cash register.
An older Asian woman is purchasing her products. While we wait, I notice a box displaying a beautiful Korean woman smiling with a pile of bubbled shampoo on top of her dry hair. Fascinated and reminded of the classic Denorex ad, I want to check out this product, but the box is behind the counter.
The shop keeper begins ringing up our items. “What are you going to make?” she asks. “I’m not sure,” I reply, feeling pretty lame with our selections. We still need to eat some Korean food for lunch. Perhaps there is a noodle nook in the back of the shop.
“Excuse me, do you have a deli or cafe where we can order food?” I ask. The shopkeeper shakes her head. Culture Day is steadily going down hill.
“Wait. Do you have any kim chee?” I blurt out. Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier? Actually, I really don’t know what it even looks like. I know it is reddish fermented cabbage.
The clerk looks at me, briefly pausing. I’m sure my question is like inquiring if McDonald’s serves fried food. Kim chee is served with every meal in Korea, and basically, according to Wikipedia, each Korean eats an annual average of 40 pounds of the spicy cabbage condiment.
She comes out from behind the counter and leads Eddie and me over to a refrigerated section that I had passed by several times since I definitely wasn’t ready to tackle fish on this visit.
“Do you heat it up?” I ask.
“No, no. You eat it as is.” She opens the chilly door and reaches for a container. There is a supersize me kim chee tub and then a small one about the size of a cottage cheese container.
“This is your first time eating kim chee?” She is good since she doesn’t let on that I am so completely clueless. However, she grabs the small tub. I’m tempted to tell her I want the big one, but she probably has sussed things correctly.
“Yes,” I say trying to avoid my habit of giving people too much information like the fact that I live in a Wonder white bread community and I’m doing Culture Day with my son and I have seen Anthony Bourdain eat kim chee in his Korean episode blah, blah, blah.
We return to the counter. Like all stores that use effective marketing strategies, Korean markets stock impulse items to buy next to the checkout counter. Consequently, I grab a red bean cake that looks like a white dough blob. Again, I want to discover what the Asian red bean sensation is all about.
When Eddie and I get back to the car, we dig into some of our items. The red bean ice pop doesn’t cut it for Eddie.
“I’m hungry, Mom,” says my cooperative son who is definitely humoring me on this excursion. We need an actual lunch. A trip into the neighboring Filipino market/cafe that focuses mainly on takeout yields a recommendation for a place to eat: Julie’s Kitchen, which serves Hawaiian, Filipino and American food, is located only a few blocks away.
Julie’s Kitchen, doesn’t look anymore Filipino than it sounds. The inside of the restaurant is pretty nondescript — it could be an all-you-can-eat Swedish meatball buffet. However a Filipino soap opera playing on TV and a Filipino flag on the wall confirm the restaurant’s identity.
The owners, Julie and Romeo, beckon us over to a glass covered buffet. “Would you like to try anything?” They offer several items, including soups, meat dishes, and vegetables which we gladly sample. “We like people to try what we offer,” Julie assures us.
Eddie ultimately orders the Filipino fried chicken while meat chunks in a vat of dark brown sauce call to me.
“What is this?” I ask.
“Dinuguan,” Romeo answers. “It is pork cooked in pig’s blood,” Julie adds.
That statement repulses me for about 30 seconds, and then emboldened by the kim chee purchase, I try a stewy bite. A vision of Eddie and me along with Anthony Bourdain slurping noodle soup, sucking bone marrow and eating Dinuguan in a Manila food stall comes to me.
“I’ll take the pork in the blood, please.”
After sitting down, Eddie and I enjoy our food while we learn how to say “please” and “thank you” in the Filipino dialect Romeo and Julie speak. We find out they were born in the Philippines but moved to Hawaii. When I ask Julie why they ended up in Colorado Springs, she says, “Because my husband is crazy.” I love this restaurant. Culture Day is a success.
And we still have the kim chee for later.