Written and photographed by Karly Pierre
My husband’s friend first introduced us to Damyang Seok Galbi, a small neighborhood restaurant about a five-minute walk from our house, a few years ago. We go there at least twice a month when I’m too tired to cook or when there’s an occasion for celebration. The owner wears a dark shade of red lipstick and always greets us with a bright, yet shrinking, smile. Pork galbi, spicy or mild, is the only thing we’ve ever ordered. Soon after we’ve ordered, the table is littered with side dishes that change seasonally: boiled pork belly (bossam, 보쌈), Chinese cabbage kimchi (baechu-kimchi, 배추김치), ramps (sanmaneul, 산마늘), hijiki seaweed with tofu (tot dubu, 톳 두부), Jerusalem artichoke (dwaeji gamja, 돼지감자), and cucumber kimchi (oi kimchi, 오이 김치). When the rice is brought out in scorching hot stone bowls (dolsot) topped with wooden lids and small bowls of the best fermented bean paste soup (cheonggukjang,청국장) I’ve ever had, I consider the meal complete.
The first time we ate at this restaurant and cooked our galbi on a stone skillet, we miscalculated how quickly the skillet would heat up and sent the owner racing from the kitchen to our table with handfuls of lettuce to salvage the charred pieces of meat. We’re better cooks now, but we still often recollect that moment with a smile when we are there. This is one of the few restaurants in Gwangju that I have such a strong connection with – but I knew so little about the people who make this place feel so special to me.
When I first approached the owner about an interview, she shook her head, her tightly curled hair firmly in place. She said she didn’t know anything about cooking the food, and then turned and pointed to another woman working in the back of the kitchen. It was after the lunchtime rush, and the woman was wiping down the stove. My Korean teacher and I were the only people left in the restaurant. The owner shouted into the kitchen, explaining that I wanted to interview her and coaxing her to come out. It wasn’t easy. The cook hung back, disappearing into a far corner of the kitchen, then reappearing only to argue that she wasn’t coming out.
To be honest, this reaction wasn’t all that surprising. What was surprising was my Korean teacher’s tenacity and uncanny ability to charm an ajumma. It took about ten minutes, but she did manage to wrangle the cook out of her lair. My teacher emerged triumphant from the kitchen, her arms around the cook’s waist as she pulled her into the dining room. It was all in good fun, but my teacher wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was impressed.
Lee Jeong-im finally sat down with me. The short, plump 52-year-old barely spoke above a whisper. Lee was born in Jangseong, the daughter of farmers. One of her fondest memories was eating her mother’s pollock soup (dongtaetang, 동태탕). Both of her parents passed away, so cooking is a connection to the past, she explained.
“When I was small, I often watched my mom and followed her example,” said Lee. “However, I think my dongtaetang is different from hers. My mother was so good at cooking that our neighbors sometimes asked her to cook for them.”
Cooking was not Lee’s first love, though. Art was. As a child, she would draw all the time and wanted to go to school for it, but she had to give up this dream and began working as a cook. Lee says, “At first, it was hard, but as time passed, it has become my passion. My daughter, though, is an art teacher now, and I’m very proud of her.”
As a mother of two, Lee found the simplest recipes were her children’s favorites. “My children enjoy my kimchi jeon (전), or Korean pancake (buchimgae, 부침개). It’s nothing special. I just put some chili and kimchi together, and they like it.”
Lee scurried off to the kitchen and prepared a bowl of seafood soup for us. It’s popular with the lunch crowd, and I’ve completely overlooked it on the menu in the past. She placed the earthen bowl, full of bubbling soup, in front of me, its ingredients vibrant with color. The broth was light and spicy with the zesty taste of the sea.
“This soup isn’t that complex, but to have the right flavor, the ingredients must be fresh,” said Lee. “Nowadays people prepare this soup with frozen ingredients, and it’s not the same. Eating seafood like crab and shrimp is good in the wintertime.”
As I said goodbye, the restaurant’s waitresses and owner wrapped themselves in coats and grabbed their bags. The restaurant would close for a short break, then re-open for dinner. The owner shuffled up behind me, eager to lock up. I told myself that if I was too tired to cook that night, I would be back.
Seafood Soup Haemul Ttukbaegi
1 green shell mussel
¼ block tofu
1-2 thin slices of radish
A few slices of yellow onion
Some chopped green onion
Some minced garlic
Clean the crab, abalone, green shell mussel, mussels, and shrimp thoroughly. Place all seafood in an earthenware pot (ttukbaegi) with radish, tofu, slices of yellow onion, minced garlic, dashima seaweed, and anchovy broth. Boil until all vegetables and seafood are thoroughly cooked. Garnish with chopped green onions, and serve piping hot with a side of rice.
Karly Pierre has an MA in mass communication and has worked as an editor and writer for several publications. She is currently an assistant professor in the ESL department at Chosun University.