Kalguksu is, in my opinion, a lovely Korean dish (unlike Makguksu, which is disgusting). I love seafood, so anything that contains shellfish is usually a win for me. On the other hand, the literal translation of kalguksu is “knife noodles.” This is every bit as difficult to eat as it sounds.
Kalguksu is a soup. It’s a little spicy, and it has mussels or clams in the shell and lots of slippery noodles. In Korea, we eat with chopsticks and a spoon, which normally, I think is great. I’ve developed my chopstick skills carefully over the years, partly due to an embarrassing experience a few years ago involving kalguksu.
In spring of 2012, I was a student teacher at Korea University’s Sejong campus. I often went the “English Café” to meet people and just hang out. An English only café that served free (though instant) coffee and toast (though I had to bring my own nutella), the English café was a great place, and as a student ESL teacher I was highly encouraged to hang out there and help people practice English.
Unfortunately, I was pretty ignorant of Korean culture at the time, I mean, I could tell you about Kimchi and hanok houses, but I didn’t know anything about how Koreans interact, particularly how girls and guys interact.
And thus it was that I unknowingly and accidentally went on dates a few times (this isn’t even the most awkward “date,” but that’s another story for another day). The first time, I was newly arrived in the country and had only rudimentary chopstick skills. I was invited to lunch by a Korean guy I had been chatting with. I thought this was not a date because he had a friend with him, but apparently in Korea, it is sometimes ok to have a 3rd wheel on the first date.
The guys were nice enough, but they took me out for kalguksu. I remember just staring at the bowl of noodles filled with shells in dismay. I tried to eat it, but my lack of chopsticks skills was immediately apparent. I watched in humiliation as my “date” took my bowl, removed all the clams and mussels from their shells, and cut up my noodles. Then my chopsticks were taken away and I was given a fork. The ultimate shame.
Motivated by this humiliation, I insisted on using chopsticks to eat practically everything, until I was every bit as good at it as my Korean friends. In fact, my principal used to make fun of my former co-teacher, saying the waygookin* was better at using chopsticks.
Despite the fact that I have skills on toast, kalguksu remains a challenge, and before you go all judgey-judge on me, let me explain: women, apparently, are not supposed to slurp. The first time my school went out for kalguksu, I just copied all of the other (male) teachers around me and slurped my noodles just fine, but my (female) vice-principal nudged me and demonstrated how she and the other women were eating the kalguksu. The steps to eating kalguksu without slurping are as follows:
- Remove all shellfish from shells using spoon and chopsticks. Place shells in the empty bowl provided.
- Holding the spoon in left hand and the chopsticks in the right, pick up the noodles using the chopsticks.
- Place noodles on spoon.
- Transfer noodles from spoon to mouth.
This is WAY too complicated! Did I mention that this is soup and the noodles are very slippery? You can only pick up a couple noodles at a time, or they won’t all fit on the spoon, and will slide off (splattering your face with soup).
We’ve eaten kalguksu a few times in the last few weeks, so I’m developing a knack for this, and transferring the noodles from bowl to chopsticks to spoon to mouth does allow the noodles to cool a bit, which is helpful, but the main problem is that while I am delicately balancing noodles on my spoon, the male teachers are slurp-slurping away and by the time I’ve taken three bites they’ve already finished (I don’t think they stop to breathe.)
When this happens, I have two options. A) Keep eating awkwardly while everyone else watches or B) Go hungry. I always try to do option A but the stares as I eat inevitably become so uncomfortable that I cave and go for B. Good thing I always keep snacks in my desk drawer!
*Waygookin means “foreigner”