What happens when you can’t read the language on your menu

This article ‘A Seoul Food Experience’ was first published on Epicure & Culture. Cover Photo by Alan C. via Flickr CC

There was a nice man, smiling at me ever so genially, but never had I felt so frustrated at a smiling face.

It had been a long morning – I found myself in the town of Edae on my first full day in Seoul, ready to take in the sights as I embarked on my first solo trip ever. Known for the famous Ewha Women’s University, this student town is filled with various small shops where I delighted in buying cheap lady’s fashion. After a long morning of shopping, I was ready to take a break.

There were myriad eateries, many of which I passed on because I couldn’t make out what they were serving. I walked along the winding lanes until I because somewhat lost. Suddenly, this particular restaurant on a random street caught my attention, a cheery little doorway with a patch of artificial grass on the sidewalk. The menu had some English — a welcome sight — and I could see they served various lunch sets, so I walked in without too much thought. After seating me, I realised that the menu outside was not the same as the one handed to me inside, with one jarring omission — no English words.

Not being able to speak any Korean, I haltingly asked my waiter if he spoke any English — just a smattering would do — and with some chagrined facial expressions and gesturing, indicated that I could not read the menu. To this day, I’m not sure if he was just confused or not very experienced with foreigners, but rather than figure out a viable way to help us communicate he just kept politely nodding at me, smiling genially with an expectant expression, as if he was waiting for me to quit putting up a farce and suddenly speak fluent Korean.

It’s funny on hindsight as most things are, but at that moment the lack of communication frustrated me to no end, and after about 15 minutes of futile sign language and broken sputtering, I finally took the menu, pointed at a random item which looked like meat, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

This is what arrived – bulgogi!

My mystery meal turned out to be bulgogi, marinated grilled beef with rice and some sweet brown sauce on the side. It wasn’t a bad meal at all, although probably made more delicious from all the work I had put into getting it. The beef had just the right amount of fat on it, and I wolfed down every bite. It also set the stage for the rest of the trip’s meals, as I was no longer intimidated by my inability to speak and understand Korean. I was never the most adventurous eater but I started to see my meals as little adventures in their own right, and it led me to make some interesting discoveries I may not have had it not been for that first meal.

Seoul Songdo Samgyetang
Yum yum Samgyetang

I would go on to find Song Do, one of the best Sam Gye Tang restaurants hidden in a corner of the touristy Insadong area. Sam Gye Tang is a traditional hearty ginseng chicken soup, cooked by a stern elderly lady whose face cracked a smile when I gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up on top of my appreciative slurping.

I also found ice cubes floating in my noodle soup one evening as I unwittingly ordered Kong Gook Su, a cold buckwheat noodle dish served in soybean milk when I was hoping for a warm noodle dish. I still finished it to be polite, even if it tasted like an odd combination to me.

Seoul Food Kong Gook Su
those transparent things on the left of the bowl are ice cubes in my Kong Gook Su

These days when I find myself solo on the road, hesitating to enter a restaurant because it feels too ‘foreign,’ I think back to that helpless smiling waiter nodding at me and suddenly it becomes that much easier to go forth and order something unfamiliar to see what lands up on my plate. It’s all part of immersing yourself in local culture.

Have you had any similar food faux pas when travelling? Tell me about your experience.

Check out my other posts from Seoul, or see what else there is to explore in South Korea.

4 thoughts on “What happens when you can’t read the language on your menu”

  1. I have been thinking of a trip to Korea to have all the amazing food on offer. See that they have so much more to offer than what we can find here in Singapore! Shall plan that trip soon!

  2. The foods seem really attractive and delicious! I hope they are not overdosed with calorie content! I noticed that Koreans love to use small bowls. Good luck to more of your Korean escapade!

    1. It’s more their metal cutlery that I have problems using! Flat metal chopsticks take some skill, even for me as a regular Chinese chopstick user…

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