Today was the start of the second week of a new essay writing course. I decided to start using a great new book on writing short essays, called ‘Effective Academic Writing.’ It sounds pretty stuffy, I know, but actually it is excellent, and despite the title the second chapter is on writing ‘descriptive’ essays. The first example they include is a brief piece by that famous chef named Anthony Bourdain, describing the first time he ate an oyster. It reminded me of the first time I ate something memorable here in Korea. I read someone else’s description of trying a ‘hoh duhk‘ a few years ago and had always thought I should get around to writing my own, and so today I decided to sit down and do it.
Here it is:
* * * * * * *
One reason I decided to come to Gwangju instead of Seoul was because someone said it has the best Korean food. I arrived in February, during winter. On my first day the only food I knew was kimbap and kimchi, but I soon discovered the delights of a sizzling bowl of dolsot bibimbap, and the bubbling broth of duinjung jigae. I enjoyed devouring these and many other strange and exotic dishes those first weeks, but no singular experience will remain etched so clearly in my memory as my first taste of hoh-duhk.
My school placed me in a small crumbling apartment block in the middle of an ancient neighbourhood fairly central to the whole city. It was a well aged building but surrounded by trees and open grassy park spaces. It had a lot of character and I was happy living there and exploring the neighbourhood on foot. I looked for restaurants and shops that served cheap healthy meals, and I found where to go with my large bottle to fill up with clean fresh water for the week. There was a spring on a hill across the road and up a side street, and beyond that was a small supermarket which sold cornflakes, milk and other things I needed for my kitchen.
Perhaps it was the second time I walked up to the end of this fairly long street that the woman was there, working in her small stall next to the parking area just outside the supermarket. It was a cold night, and my breath made small clouds in front of my face that I walked though as I moved along the road. I was about to turn off the road and go inside when I noticed what she was doing in her brightly lit stall: she was making waffles. There was a small row of them lined up in a rack, ready and waiting to be eaten. “Waffles?!” I said out loud without thinking about it. “Neh, wapple imnidah!” she replied, and suddenly held one out to me. It was freshly made, steaming hot, and she had smeared some strawberry jam inside it. It seemed like such a good idea that I didn’t care what it would cost, and I accepted it happily. It was fresh, sweet, soft, and amazingly delicious. I paid her with some coins and sincere thanks, and then went inside to do my shopping.
The next week at about the same time of night the weather was even cooler. It was the kind of cold that makes your face numb. My stomach was also distracting me, as even though I had enjoyed some duinjung jigae for dinner already that night it had been growling with hunger the closer I got to the supermarket. I had been thinking about waffles all week. To distract myself from my noisy stomach and numb nose, I thought about what I would say to the nice lady in the small stall. I had been learning my first words of Korean, and so I resolved to greet her politely, and ask her for a waffle before she could offer one to me.
As I turned the last corner on the street I saw the bright lights shining in her small stall. I became so hungry my stomach sounded like an angry lion and I was sure she could hear it rumbling from far away. Finally I made it to her customer’s window. I could see she was working at the grill preparing something, but, I could not see any waffles in the rack. “Annyoung hassaeyoh?!” I said slowly and clearly. She looked up and smiled, and replied to me, then continued working. “Wah pple iss sso yoh?” I asked carefully. She replied slowly for me: “Ani aye yoh.” I had learned from my students already that this was a negative. I felt a sudden pang of disappointment and my stomach seemed to tighten with dismay into a hard ball.
Then, however, she reached through the window just as she had done last week, and offered me something else. I did not know what it was. It was not a waffle, but it was smaller, round and flat, and quite hot looking. “Hoh duhk iyay yoh. Mogo yoh! Hajiman joshim yoh! Dupdah! Hat!” I had absolutely no idea what she had said, and I must have looked completely confused because she repeated the last word for me. “Hat! Hat!” Then she made a hand action like she had burned her other hands’ fingers, and she blew on them and waved them about like they were on fire. Suddenly I understood, and said, “Ohhh, neh, hot. Come some knee dah!” I accepted the small thing inside the piece of cardboard which she passed to me. It really was steaming hot. As I blew on it I realised it looked like a small pancake. The thought of pancakes made me think of home, and my mother’s cooking of pancakes for dessert on special occasions on cold winter nights.
Carefully I bit into the soft, steaming dough and found to my surprise that it also had some brown sugar with something like cinnamon inside it too. It was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. The sticky-sweet liquid in the middle was scalding hot, so I nibbled around the edges, but it cooled quickly in the winter night air so I ate faster and faster, risking burning my tongue on the last bit of steamy cinnamon sugar sauce.
It tasted so good that when I finished I was speechless with shock. I had no idea what to say in Korean or English. I wanted to talk about it with her but I did not know any Korean words that would be useful. As I stood there looking lost, she offered me another one. “Well, they are really quite small” I thought to myself. I thanked her, took it, and then pointed to it with my other hand, and said: “What? What is it?” and made an actor’s face of confused contemplation of the small pancake. “Hot-dog” she said. “Hot-dog?!” I replied, suddenly genuinely confused again. “Ani. HOH-dog!” she answered. “Ohhhh … HOH-dog” I repeated again. “Ani yay yoh! HOH DUHK!” she shouted at me with a laugh. “Hoh duck…!?” I tried again. She just looked at me and smiled, then went back to working over the stove top. I gladly shut up and ate.
There are many other delicious foods I have eaten before and after that night of biting cold early in my Korean life, but this is the most intense experience I am happy to recall. It is certainly the most vivid memory of eating food I retain, except, perhaps, for the second and final time I ever ate hong oh, but, that is a different story. I have since tried and really enjoyed other sweet foods, especially bungoh pang in winter, and pudbingsu in summer, and, I learned that hoh duhk actually originated in China, but none of this matters to me. Few memories are as precious as that first taste of hoh duhk on that wonderful winter’s night in Gwangju, the home of the best food in Korea.