on kongguksu (콩국수) and trying new things
Today I tried kongguksu (콩국수) for the first time. It's best described as thin wheat noodles (somen) in a cold soybean soup. Though I'm sure they prepared me a great rendition, I didn't love the dish and hardly made a dent in it. The soup was nutty and pasty, like a blander and thicker soymilk. Like many traditional foods, I'm sure it's an acquired taste, one that depends on a healthy dose of nostalgia.
But I'm not here to tell you about kongguksu (other than my warning to not order it). Rather, its the process that preceded my ordering these flavorless noodles that interests me, and I think it says a lot about me and what I value.
I went to this restaurant for dinner today because I had a hankering for makguksu (막국수), a popular Korean dish of buckwheat noodles served in a cold sweet broth made of sugar, mustard, sesame oil, and vinegar. I fell in love with this dish in my summers spent in northern China. To be precise, I actually ate a close relative of this dish, naengmyeon (朝鲜冷面) when I was there, but naengmyeon and makguksu are sisters. They both consist of chewy noodles; crunchy sliced cucumber; half a boiled egg, sliced lengthwise; and of course the trademark cold, sweet broth that cools you off on hot summer days.
When I arrived, I was happy to find the makguksu I sought on the menu, but the unfamiliar kongguksu caught my eye. Cold noodles? In cold soybean broth? It seemed related to makguksu, but foreign enough to pique my curiosity.
I asked the waitress if she liked kongguksu and she furrowed her brows, her silence telling me all I needed to know. Undeterred, I pushed on, and asked if it was a popular dish. This was again followed by a whole lot of stammering, and she told me that it was a popular dish among moms in Korea, though nothing like the makguksu I told her I loved. At this point, most would have played it safe and opted for the comforting food they had came for, but my curiosity could not be deterred. What was this strange food even my waitress didn't like?
I'd soon have my answer, because I told the lady right there I would be having the kongguksu, even after her cautionary reactions.
Sometimes these bets of mine pay off, and I discover a new food that I love. My adventurousness has led me to many of my favorite foods, like raw oysters and chicken feet. Other times, like today, I end up with something that I'm not crazy about for dinner. But even when this happens, I learn. I now know what kongguksu is, and can dissuade other people from ordering it. And I know that I don't like soybean soup (despite my affinity for soymilk), and can safely avoid ordering things with it in the future.
I won't lie; it sucks to waste money on a meal you can't even stomach just because you were curious to see what it would taste like. But this appetite for taking small risks risk, attention to detail, and willingness to accept ending up with something I won't like in order to learn has paid dividends for me. I've learned about whole cuisines and flavors I never expected to like. It's easier for me to talk to anyone about food because I can relate to a wide variety of gastronomical experiences. (Hate kongguksu? Been there, done that.) Finally, when I go out to eat, I can predict with a fair amount of accuracy what I will and won't like based on ingredients, method of preparation, and similar dishes. (Case in point: my brother, who is not an adventurous eater, often unintentionally orders things that he doesn't end up liking, because he doesn't have the same variety of experience to draw from. For him, choosing from a menu is shooting in the dark.)
The next time you go out to eat, treat the menu like a list of opportunities to try new things. Get out of your comfort zone. Take calculated risks. After all, by not taking any risks, you'll have taken the biggest one: to live without having really lived at all.
P.S. I love waitresses (and other service people) who are honest with you, especially when it's hard to do so. I know from experience that they can't say much (after all, you can't trash your own restaurant's food to the customer), but even small signals can guide you to better choices and make your whole experience that much better. Please tip great service accordingly!