onsdag, maj 31, 2006

Korean Whiskey

Last night our party drove a long way through Seoul, passing through many of the neighborhoods I'd marked in a Lonely Planet guidebook as places I'd like to see. We did not stop in these neighborhoods, though. We kept pushing through traffic until finally we had hopped on some sort of ring road and drove outside the city. I did not catch the name of the place we stopped. It had a number of high-rise residences, but all in all there was much more open land. We turned off onto a rutted, narrow lane that led back along a plant nursery and vegetable gardens. At the end of the unpaved road was a two story house, the facade of which was mainly window. It gave the place the look of a television show set. And there was something of an alpine cut to it, right down to a steep angle over the foyer and stairs. In America, I suppose we would have walled it up with half-timbers.

What followed was an amazing, quite lengthy dinner in traditional Korean style...with a few modern upgrades--largely for safety, since we ate barbecue that was cooked in three small grills set in our long table.

We took off our shoes before entering the room. In the opening moments, we all stood at our places and nodded and shook hands. There was a general agreement made to remove our suit coats, the succss of which seemed to depend on everyone complying else we were all going to have to wear them. We shed them. We sat cross-legged on gold cushions. Something in the range of ten small dishes for sharing were set out at three or four places along the low table: sweet pumpkin, green onions and white onions in what seemed to be a spicy vinegar and soy sauce, green leafs with a mild chili dressing, etc.

Two waitresses worked the room. They brought hissing coal buckets and set them in the grill wells in the tables. (For a moment I thought this was truly dangerous for all of us, then realized that the "coals" had cored centers in them for distributing heat; hence, this was an electrical device.) They began putting meat and mushroom pieces on the grill. All the while, our party continued its conversations, pausing here and there to discuss things with one waitress who we discovered was from the same part of Manchuria as one member of our group. He, Jonathan, poured her some Korean whiskey (a rice wine, really) and made a very gracious toast to her in Chinese. His father died just last month, so the Manchurian reminder touched him.

Plenty of the rice wine went about then. The evening was quite spirited, well-fueled by the Korean love for toasting. It's something we all ought to do more of: open recognition of why we are glad to be with one another. There we were, the nine of us (one Chinese, two Taiwanese, four Koreans, a Turk, and one stupid American) raising our saki glasses and calling out toasts, sometimes for the group to hear, sometimes just one on one. If your eyes met with two people who were making a toast, you joined the toast. Also, to make a true toast to someone, you finish your shot glass of saki, turn it over (above a rag) to let any wayward drop fall out, then wipe around the rim with the little cloths you're provided. (Some people just used their regular lap napkin.) At this point you pass your glass (please do not pass your GAS) to the person you are toasting. They hold it forth with both hands and you fill it with saki while saying a few good things. Then you nod and the recipient will raise the glass and nod, perhaps adding "Cheers" or "Happy Days" or whatever it is you want to close with. If you have another glass in front of yourself, whether full or needing to be filled by you, you may drink that with them. They might even offer you the glass they'd previously drank from.

The Chinese custom is to drink the shots all the way. The Korean custom is to drink as little as a sip. However, the longer the evening progresses, the more likely it is that larger amounts will be consumed per toast! Sometimes deals are struck in which someone laughs and says, "Okay, we just do half. Okay? Only half!" which is their way of saying they are getting drunk but fighting onward.

The meal was perhaps only two hours but felt like four. Time wasn't really important. Such a good time, lots of laughing. With all the spicy food and saki, and the open grills in the table, by the end of the night we were all dabbing our brows and laughing heartily.

A taxi van arrived to take half of us home, and the other half climbed back into the car we'd arrived in...only now it was driven by a driver employed by the restaurant to shepherd home people like us.

Quite late, then, a group of us stood outside the hotel talking. The streets were packed. Traffic was knotted. We wandered into the 7-11 and bought Gatorades, water. I still have a lemony-lime fizzy drink called "Amino Up!". (It's quite good, actually.) All in all, a great time.

Must get dressed. Must deliver a speech at the conference soon.
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