That Awkward Duck vs. Kalguksu

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:

  1. Remove all shellfish from shells using spoon and chopsticks. Place shells in the empty bowl provided.
  2. Holding the spoon in left hand and the chopsticks in the right, pick up the noodles using the chopsticks.
  3. Place noodles on spoon.
  4. Transfer noodles from spoon to mouth.
  5. Repeat.

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).

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That Awkward Duck Trying to Eat Kalguksu

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!

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That Awkward Duck Slurps Her Noodles

*Waygookin means “foreigner”

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One thought on “That Awkward Duck vs. Kalguksu

  1. Seems like things are different in Korea than they’re in Japan – where you’d be considered rude if you don’t slurp (man or woman). My sister is a big Japan fan and somehow manages to eat chicken soup with noodles with her chopsticks than I’m with a spoon. They’re slippery…
    And well… it’s not nice to just drop you into dates without you being aware of it :(.

    Liked by 1 person

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