Often when one is preparing to leave a place for good, they experience a shift in what I can only call 'presence.' It seems in a person's last few months or weeks in a place, they experience a rush of opportunity. They make friends where it has been difficult to meet people. They interact with neighbors who had previously never stopped to say hello. This is where I am in Seoul, and this may be how I was lucky enough to experience 곱창 (Gopchang).
An acquaintance of mine, who left town in August, was the first to tell me about Gopchang. In short, it is a traditional Korean dish of grilled cow intestines, stomach and heart. At greater length, please see Diana's article about the history and the more recent rise in popularity of Gopchang. I had been curious to try the cuisine as soon as I heard about it, but I knew I would need a Korean to accompany me. As it happens, I recently met SoYoung at a neighborhood restaurant and we have been meeting for dinner once a week since. She also loves Gopchang.
Let me explain why I needed a Korean to introduce me to this treat. First, I don't speak Korean and so I can't say things like "Yes, I am a foreigner, but I want to try Gopchang and I don't want you to hold back. I want the spicy sauce and I want the guts. All of them. Yes, I know I'm a foreigner, but I'd like you to look beyond that. I'm here for the experience. Yes, I know it's spicy, but I like spicy..." Second, I think I needed someone who knew her way around to find the place. Third, well this sort of goes back to the part where I can't speak Korean, because I can't understand it, either. I needed someone to tell me what I was eating--is this small intestine or stomach? How can you tell? I think you get the idea.
We set a time and place to meet and walked from the subway station to a small, out of the way locale. The woman who owned the place was proud of her excellently sourced cow parts.
A warning that I received multiple times was that the place was very small and very greasy. Sure enough, the walls, floor, and ceiling were covered with grime from what was surely weeks or months of grilling splattering innards. But the tables and chairs were clean. I am not sure I would expect anything other than what I found. We were greeted by the owners and by a massive burner in the center of the table. This was no usual kalbi (barbecue) grill.
I was soon warned that the sauce seen below the burner in this picture was spicy (see, I told you). By the end of the evening the owner was telling SoYoung that I was more Korean than she because I consumed more of the sauce than she did. For the record, the sauce was delicious!
This is the first tray of entrails (small intestine, large intestine, and heart with onions and potatoes thrown in--for texture?) and you can see the grease beginning to spit over onto the table. Gopchang is eaten much in the way kalbi is consumed. Samjang (traditional meat dipping sauce), panchan (traditional side dishes), salt, and cabbage are served for wrapping the grilled items, or you can put them right in your mouth and start chewing. Variety is what makes life sweet (or spicy).
When we were partly through our first tray of scrumptious delicacies, SoYoung informed me that the owner had selected only some parts of the digestive system to share with me, assuming that, as a foreigner, I wouldn't like other options. This would not do, I replied. We asked that she not hold back for round two.
I will never know if she did hold some things back, but in this round plenty of pieces of gray and wrinkly stomach were included (seen above).
Finally, the grease is sopped up with fried rice, mixed here with seaweed and kimchi. This may have been the most texture-laden meal I've had in Korea or anywhere. It was delicious and well worth the experience. But our evening adventure didn't stop here.
Down the road a bit was a little place serving 계란 마리 김밥 (egg wrapped kimbap), another special treat I hadn't tasted before. We were more than fulfilled by dinner, so we took some to go and breakfast couldn't have been better the next morning. I've included a photo here to give you an idea of what it is like (sorry, not my photo:) :
The evening ended with a walk home after a quick visit to a local temple. The lanterns were welcoming and the fact that there were no other people in the golden room of the temple made it the quietest place I've experienced in Seoul--I could have stayed for hours.
The walk helped to settle dinner and gave me time to ponder what seems to be my new situation in Seoul. Somehow my guard has fallen just enough to allow strangers to converse with me in diners (that is how SoYoung and I met). I am just open enough to share more personal aspects of my life with other friends with whom I had previously been more guarded. I am relaxed enough to appreciate people's reactions to my winter hat (and to me in general). I am aware enough to stop to greet the butcher or the man who sells bananas to me in the market. My presence is simply more present, as if I no longer have to save my energy for basic survival here. How interesting that a pause in surviving and lead to living.