19.1.11

Makgeolli out of the can

All you need to start a Korean minibar

I signed up for Korean lessons on a whim. Last term one of my friends at Goldsmiths had been telling me about his weekly Arabic lessons with a teacher he'd found on Gumtree. Another friend's been brushing up on her Mandarin at intermediate classes at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). After I got back from the Christmas/New Year vacation, I found myself one day poking around the SOAS Language Centre website. Beginner classes for Vietnamese weren't running this term, but those for Korean were and I could make it for the Saturday morning class.

(Yes, I signed up to get out of bed at 8 a.m. every Saturday, so that I can learn Korean. Ten years ago, I would have sniffed at the notion and closed the webpage without further consideration.)

Admittedly, I don't have a penchant for Korean drama serials, or K-pop, or Korean media celebrities (although certain gay friends keep me regularly updated on the who's who of male Korean cuteness). On the other hand, I really enjoyed wandering around Korea last year, I hope to do it again (whether on a Lonely Planet gig or some other assignment), and I love Korean food. Sure, I taught myself to read hangeul before last year's trip, but as I tell everyone who marvels at the fact: a) hangeul is a very systematic character system and the letters function more like letters do in English, not like ideograms in Chinese; and  b) just because I can read Korean text doesn't mean I can understand what I'm reading.

I also like the challenge of wrapping my head down an entirely different form of expression. Korean is not a Sinitic language like Mandarin, and certainly nowhere near English or French.

I've only had one lesson so far, during which an understandable amount of time was spent introducing ourselves in Korean and learning some hangeul. But there was also time to learn important phrases like "sorry" and "no problem", while correcting my pronunciation of part of "hello" (an-nyeong, not ann-yeong).

The rest of the week, thinking about Korean (and Korea) has got me wandering the food aisles in Asian supermarkets. Last week I came home from Chinatown with a can of sikhye (a sweet drink made from rice and barley malt); today at an Asian supermarket near Goldsmiths, I picked up a tin of pickled perilla leaves and a can of makgeolli (rice wine). Needless to say, the makgeolli doesn't taste anywhere as lush as it did the last time I had it, but it does bring back a certain warm memory of 60-year-old hiking buddies midway up a mountain south of Seoul.

Coming up on my list: dinner with a friend at a Korean restaurant next week (though it's his craving, not mine), and one of these days soon I'll try my friend A Tiger in the Kitchen's recipe for doenjang jjigae.

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