The title of this piece may intrigue the readers a little, so let us first talk about it. Quite some time back, I had decided to become a vegetarian out of choice. Although my experience with the menus of restaurants in USA was not very encouraging, yet I have noticed situation improving over years. In summary the experience turned out to be mixed, but still I could say that it can be done, albeit not easily. Then during Christmas Holidays in 2000 a colleague presented me with a bumper sticker, which read: Vegetarian! Indian word for “Lousy Hunter”.
Being an Indian-American, I was amused by the sticker, at least there was no mix-up of the term Indian with American Indians. As that sticker made good conversation piece, especially when vegetarians are few and far between, I put it on my office wall. As destiny would have two years later, I was in a flight to Korea. My final destination was Ulsan, where I had lived in my earlier incarnation as an omnivore, so I was quite skeptical of availability of vegetarian meals. Although, I was familiar of the place, still the question of sustenance added elements of concern, to the nostalgia. I was prompted to put piece together on receiving the email from the colleague asking; “How was Lousy Hunter Surviving in Korea?”
My flight was from Houston to Tokyo, with a connecting flight from Tokyo to Busan, Korea. The departure of the flight from Houston was slightly delayed, out of curiosity I asked the flight attendant about the delay as the weather was clear, and everything else was on schedule. She replied that they were waiting for delivery of special meal request, and will take off immediately after delivery of the special meal. Although, we did not get into further details about the specifics of special meal, but in my heart I was thinking it was probably for me. I thought “Wow! I will not be going hungry in the aircraft.” When my special meal was served to me, I opened the top aluminum foil only to find that I was being served same chicken dish as my next seat passenger. So, I made my meal with a two course salad. Any how the flight journey came to an end in Busan, and I came to Ulsan in car, making it to the hotel late at night.
Next morning the hunt for breakfast took new dimension. Finally, the breakfast was settled with bread, jam and butter, washed with a cup of coffee. For lunch I went to a restaurant, a two story stand-alone log building. As there was no sign in English and for identification purposes I coined that term “The Log House” to describe that log edifice restaurant building. After browsing through the menu and failing to find a vegetarian dish, I decided to order a plate of salad, considering it to be a safe option. I made it very clear to the waiter by words and hand gestures that no fish, or meat should be in the salad. However to my surprise when the plate arrived it had ham slices and boiled egg on it. I called the waiter again and explained to him that ham is also a kind of meat. He nonchalantly removed the ham slices and put the plate back on the table. Then I pointed to the egg and he gave surprised look, and reluctantly removed it as well. So, now in his eyes, I had a dish free of all objectionable ingredients.
For the evening dinner, I decided to be less adventurous and by opting to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, in hope that English understanding wait staff and menu in English will have a less dramatic impact of lost in translation. After perusing the menu I found that there was no vegetarian dish listed in the menu, I decided to take the matter in my hands and talk to chef. So, I was escorted to the kitchen to have a word with the chef. I requested him to make a vegetarian dish. He assured me that he can take care of dietary restrictions and make a suitable dish for me, not on the menu. The wait for food was over when the special dish was laid on the table. On inquiry what this dish was, I was told it is called vegetable pancake. Although, I reluctantly ate the special dish, I vowed never to touch it again. Being a deep fried dish it was soaking in oil, and I am not fond of too oily dishes. While eating my dinner I was thinking OK from tomorrow onwards the option of this hotel restaurant from the comforts of four walls of the hotel was now not a credible option.
Next day, I asked a Korean gentleman to right it on a piece of paper that I am a vegetarian and meat, fish, eggs were not option for me. Armed with the statement written in Korean “Gogi, mulgogi poham haji maseyo. Nanen chesik juey ja imnida.” I started checking out the restaurants for lunch with that sheet of paper in hand. I was turned down with hand gestures at four restaurants. Finally, I went to a bakery shop and bought bread and a pack of yogurt for lunch. Based on my lunch experience I decided to go to Italian restaurant at the hotel for dinner. I was hoping that at least there should be couple of no-meat dishes on the menu. But to my disappointment there no option on the menu. So, I asked the waiter that I needed to talk to the chef. The waiter went to kitchen, talked to chef and come back to inform that chef cannot speak English, but he has taken care such dietary restrictions in the past, and he can prepare a special dish for me. Now, I was waiting with great expectations for the first hearty meal of the trip. Finally the wait was over and the dish arrived. To my great surprise it was same vegetable pancake again. I could not help raising my hands uttered, “Oh no! Not again.” Now I had to reaffirm my earlier resolution that no more meals at any hotel restaurants – no matter what name it has on the door. There was a third Japanese restaurant in the hotel, but I was not ready to try it out.
The following day for lunch I zeroed on to another restaurant, holding the sheet of paper with instructions in Korean like a Doctor’s prescription. After being greeted with a no, I tried two other restaurants with same results. Finally, I settled with the bakery again, reluctantly accepting in my mind that I will have to do with same menu of bread and yogurt. Over the counter, I asked the chef if he could fix me a vegetarian sandwich and the answer was affirmative. When the waiter finally brought my order, I took the first bite and said, “Good.” Now in my head my lunch challenge has been satisfactorily handled. I will now alternate between the Log House and the bakery for lunch. For dinner in the evening I ventured out of the hotel building and walked to a Chinese restaurant. After going through the menu, I asked the waiter if instead of “Soup noodles in mixed sea-food” I could order “Soup noodles in mixed vegetables only”. The waiter confirmed with the chef in kitchen and asked me to take seat. In few minutes the dish was served. I was pleasantly surprised to taste a delicious and filling dish. In my head I started thinking first lunch challenge has been overcome and now it looks like even the dinner issue is now seems to be working out. I thought now was time to stop further exploration, resting on my laurels enjoy my limited success. Although, I would be alternating between two meals for lunch and dinner, but at least I will not be starving.
The celebration of rotation of meals went well for few days without a hitch. Then one day I ordered the salad plate as usual at the Log House. The dish was delivered and I started eating it. Suddenly a bite felt strange, so spitted it out and started to sift through the semi-chewed food looking for the suspect. I found remnants of the suspect, but could not decipher the culprit. So, I summoned the waiter and pointed to it with the fork asked him what it was? The waiter meekly pointed to the glass window. With great effort we made some progress on the investigation that he was pointing to the sea outside the window with his finger. That hint was adequate for me and I asked him if this piece was from a crab? He said yes. As, I had never tasted crab before, so not familiar with the texture or the taste. I was frustrated with my lunch already ruined, thought of hurling the salad plate into the waiting sea through the window. The waiter was quite apologetic, but meal was done with appetite killed.
Few days later I met a Korean friend, whom I had known from the past as we had worked together eighteen years earlier. He insisted on having dinner together to reconnect and reminiscing on the good old days. I frankly shared with him my self-imposed dietary restrictions and told him that I hope that it does not ruin my dinner. He confidently assured me that he had a perfect place in mind, and this will not be a spoiler. He said we will have a perfect evening with a nice meal and quality time together. He arrived at the hotel lobby on the appointed time. When we met at the lobby, he announced that we will going to buffet restaurant of the hotel. I told him that I had been there before after looking at all the food on display I had walked out, as I did not find a suitable dish for my meal. Anyway, here I was back in same quandary. I loaded my plate with salad, in anticipation that may be this will be my main course by default. So, after working through the salad plate I started exploring what I could have for main course. I would swing open each dish cover, and immediately close it back saying no to myself. Finally, I put some white steamed rice and cream of mushroom soup on my plate for main course. Finally, I loaded up on the desserts to fill my stomach.
This is a brief flavor of my fifty day exploration in Korea. This is the story of survival without starving, feeling weak, losing weight, changing DNA or the blood chemistry. Although, being a “Lousy Hunter” in Korea was challenging, not fulfilling gastronomically, but still it did provide me with an eerie feeling of being an accomplished “Lousy Hunter”. The lousy hunter survived in a place where meat/sea food based variety of dishes, cover more ground that I could ever visualize. As there is no edible dish there without meat being an ingredient. The challenge of finding food and surviving there makes the experience memorable. Every time the word Korea is uttered, those memories are refreshed and relived.