Featured Fiction

간식, Gan-sik, Snack

By Paul Keelan


A Korean food delivery driver, Hye-Joon Lee, meanders the five lane streets around Jamsil’s Lotte Tower. Lee darts across the traffic in a rare mission to deliver himself to food instead of food to others. Transporting neither pork cutlet nor fermented soybean stew–the two dishes he just dropped off to some KB bankers staying after hours–he’s now solely fixated on buying himself a warm hotteok from his favorite street stall. Hye-Joon drives recklessly, hell-bent on biting into the hot Korean pancake with savory peanuts and oozing brown sugar. Scarfed down and yet still hungry, Hye-Joon pulls out another blue cheon-won bill to buy a Dixie cup of tteokbokki which he stabs and gobbles with toothpicks. One of the jiggling rice cakes, doused in red sauce and buoyed amidst fish cakes, slips off the spearing tip of the toothpick and stains the toe of his new beige boot. Too cold to crouch and scrub the maculation, Hye-Joon merely kicks his foot into a mound of snow settled on nearby foliage, hoping the wet powder will do the trick.

The next delivery leads him to the Lotte Apartment complex, room 56, floor F. The F floor refers to the number 4: superstition though thwarts the inclusion of the number 4 in most of Seoul’s sky-rises. Two teens, tired from English Academy, had ordered cheese lobakki, a dish with mozzarella melted on ramyeon and rice cakes stewed in gochujang. On the table behind the boy who answered the door, he could see their textbooks and vocabulary sheets. The friend is very busy scribbling note while “Running Man,” a popular reality TV show, broadcasts on mute from the Samsung HD flat screen. The last stop on this outing is at the Tous Les Jours bakery. In the boxed container at the back of his motorcycle are imitation ceramic dishes of traditional Korean earthenware. They are also a collection of panchan, or Korean side dishes, kimchi and danmuji in saran wrap. The plastic faux ceramic bowls are topped with saran wrap too, to keep the two soup swishing contents—sujebi’s black sesame powder, wheat flour, noodle dumplings, anchovy stock, and carrots along with kalguksu’s knife cut noodle soup with shellfish and fried egg—from splattering out. The few slivers of zucchini squash ebb buoyantly as Hye-Joon speeds over bumps, toppings on both soups added as more of a tease and an insult to fiber and vegetable aficionados than actual ingredients. Dropping the soups off at Korea’s French appropriated bakery, Hye-Joon gathers the bakers’ empty bowls from lunch and is gifted with twenty-four hour old green tea castella rolls, chestnut pastries, and mocha breads to return to the chef perspiring over the kitchen’s array of hot broth soups ever being whipped up at his Gimbap Shop.

The noraebangs flicker gaudily in Hye-Joon’s peripheral view as the atonal drunken sounds of karaoke pour into the street. A thin sheet of black ice on Seoul’s gelid streets adds a hazardous veneer to the asphalt. The odd-job motorcycle is melded with gargantuan leather gloves, permanently fixed upon the motorbike’s handlebars. Even padded within layers of finger warming protection, frostbite threatens. Unglamorous as the gig seems, delivering for a local bourgeois Gimbap Shop exhibits upward mobility: Hye-Joon now works upscale Gangnam, not the thespian epicenter of adolescent Hyewha. His prior Hyehwa job was as a deliverer for Lotteria, a spin-off on McDonald’s, with mainly single parent or teenage customers phoning in bulgogi burgers to their study sessions or studio apartments. Now, representing a fancy version of a fundamental Korean menu, Hye-Joon caters almost solely to salarymen who tip in defiance of Korea’s anti-gratuity norm.

In the summer, when business is low, Hye-Joon sits at the plastic tables in front of GS-25 convenient shops with some other delivery boys from Domino’s Pizza and a neighborhood fried chicken spot. Eating squid chips, shrimp crackers, and imbibing banana milk, they talk FC Seoul and the Doosan Bears: Seoul’s professional soccer and baseball clubs. During winter downtime, they sneak into PC Bangs to slurp black jajangmyeon noodles and play World of Warcraft mid-shift. Today they convene for a cigarette break at the PC Bang near Sinsa-dong. Puffing nicotine warmth, the delivery boys share horror tales of the day: a crooked ajusshi drunk on Makkeolli refuting the bill, a swerving close call with a blue Hyundai truck hauling a crate of golden Korean canary melons called chamwae.

On Hye-Joon’s cell phone he gets selfie texts from his girlfriend, Yujin, smiling beside simmering dalkgalbi, the BBQ chicken sizzling in pornographic close-up shots at some hip sik dang in Apgujeong. Accidentally hitting the back button with the Domino’s delivery boy voyeuristically looking over his shoulder, Hye-Joon is teased for his secret stash of photos featuring Yujin: a collection of cute kimchi and sarang signs in Myeongdong’s shopping arcades, atop Namsan Tower, at Nami Island in autumn. Each snapshot is identical to the next: her peace fingers pressed against each cheek, the head cocked a few inches to the side. Yujin had recently started posing redundantly after learning that modeling techniques could parallel plastic surgery in making her chin appear pointed, her jaw line narrower.

They met a month or so before, on Halloween weekend in Hongdae, at the graffiti playground. Yujin was drunk off shots of soju and Hye-Joon was tipsy off Cass, Korea’s cheapest booze. Stealing glances at the Ho-bar all evening, it wasn’t until much later, after the drinking had ended, that fate intervened while Hye-Joon was sucking up his sundubu jiggae and waiting for the jihacheul to arrive. He had costumed as Iron Man from The Avengers and Yujin was T’ara from the Korean film White: The Melody of the Curse. Wearing all white make-up and bleeding red mascara from her eye, Yujin sat next to him and spooned rice from a small paper bowl into his spicy soft tofu stew and it splashed all over his battery-operated heart. “It looked like you needed a little substance… and a little shower too…” she quipped flirtatiously after the mishap, still sipping the remnants of soup-softened rice. Yujin’s impudent mettle was uncanny but attractive. Having missed the final night train Hye-Joon reciprocated Yujin’s pluckiness by inviting her to Caffè Bene for a green tea latte. By 3:00 a.m. they were asleep, cuddled on the plush coffee shop booth, waiting for the 5 o’clock hour when public transportation commenced. When they woke up, at 7:00 a.m., Hye-Joon and Yujin half-consciously strode in somnambular hangovers, hand in hand, back to the jihacheul. The percussive rattle of the underground system lulled the two back to sleep in minutes and when they finally yawned groggily back to life it was 11:30 a.m. They had slept the duration of three full circulations of the green #3 subway line without stirring. After a soft serve ice cream from Mini-Stop Yujin pleaded Hye-Joon to accompany her to a showing of The Thieves at CGV, already well rested. In the movie theater, and smitten with endorphins released by the scent of sweet caramel popcorn, Hye-Joon doughtily kissed Yujin on the cheek and put his number into her LG phone. Yujin’s adorable lisp and defined cheekbones left him in a stupor for the next week and a half. By Peppero Day, a holiday on 11/11 to celebrate skinny chocolate wafer sticks, they wore matching cardigans and snacked on boxes of every flavor—from green tea to tiramisu to nude—of the holiday’s staple treat, cuddling at the local DVD Bang. Just last night they ate grilled samgyeopsal before descending into a subterranean billiards and ping-pong hall in Cheonho. Afterwards, crossing the street, they throttled in nauseous gyrations on a Disco Bang Bang ride before winning a pink Doraemon wristwatch from a claw machine. During the entire date Hye-Joon toted Yujin’s bag, chivalrously ceding to Korean etiquette as they scanned cosmetics at Aritaum and Etude House. To cap of the evening, Yujin successfully entreated to Hye-Joon to romantically squish into a photo booth and squiggle animations over their kitschy couple’s mug shot, the smoky stench of pork belly ever clinging to their wool coats.

Two cigarettes and three saccharine red bean bungeoppangs later, Hye-Joon receives a text message hailing him back to the Gimbap Shop for another delivery. Scarfing down the fourth and last gooey fish-shaped gooey waffle, Hye-Joon hops on his motorbike. Hye-Joon’s route passes below the screams from Lotte World’s theme park and he zooms under the Lotte World Tower, wistfully dreaming of taking Yujin on evening strolls under the cherry blossoms of Seokcheon Lake in late spring. At the Gimbap Shop, Hye-Joon shakes the snow from his jacket stumbling past the 24-hour sign atop its commonplace orange facade. Despite fancy organic ingredients, the decor resembles a typical Gimbap Cheonguk, dated and fusty. The inside walls are lined with cheap photo printed sketches of patjuk and naengmyeon: a seasonally iced broth and tangy cold noodles only served in summer, the latter dish is already a few months obsolete. Shivering from his outing Hye-Joon spoons some red bean porridge while sitting on the counter in the back kitchen and singes his tonsils in the process.

Hye-Joon’s manager is a veritable ajooma, slang for a middle-aged Korea woman. Unlike Lotteria, where his pimply-faced chirpy boss fired him without a flinch for sneaking an extra cheese stick to eat on the fly, the ajooma made him daily bowls of bibimbap with a side bowl of anchovy broth. Lectured each time about the benefits of sundried vegetables and fermented red pepper paste, he’d slurp down the last droplets of his steamy anchovy soup to tutorials of homemade dotorimuk muchim. Hye-Joon secretly found the jelly-textured acorn starch salad repulsive but kept obsequiously silent. More appealing was the ajooma’s stories of makkeoli shenanigans on weekend mountain treks at Bukhansan, or her reminiscing about being launched from a seesaw playing Seollal’s traditional neolttwigi. Sometimes on Saturday morning the ajooma would show up still in her hiking garb, a gaudy outfit of lurid yellows, reds, blues: primary colors boldly pronouncing her not so intrepid hobby. Unfiltered and voluble, the chubby oval-shaped manager rambles on about how a woman cut her inner thigh while shaving at the Garden-5 jimjilbang and blood got everywhere. She talks about how her cat won’t eat fruit with the peels, picky like a good Korean about pesticides. “This weekend Haneul Park will have the Eulalia Festival,” the ajooma tells him, “with night-lights shining over the oksae, a genus of silver grass symbolic of flimsy femininity and marital indecision.” Stocked up with the final delivery of the night, Hye-Joon is out the door, abandoning the ajooma seated in the unoccupied restaurant and watching some Korean melodrama about Joseon-era court life on a flat screen LG TV.

Orange vapor sodium lights illuminate the underside of Japanese maple leaves, the few resilient ones clinging to boughs on the cusp of a blistering South Korean winter. Hye-Joon’s final stop of the night is the byeongwon situated adjacent to the intersection of the Cheongnyesan Tributary and the Hanyang River. He arrives, parking under the sleek silver curvature of its modern design: the looming windows bulge outward like giant fish eyes concealing surgery chambers, CT scans, and other medical orbs within. Locating the electronic sliding glass door, Hye-Joon walks past ajusshis, Korean middle-aged men, smoking cigarettes while attired in the white hospital gown pajamas. With IV drips hooked up to their arms, the nicotine break seems absurdly deleterious. An elevator dings at the end of the hall, urging Hye-Joon into a sprint. With his forearm smashed, the closing doors retract to reveal an overstuffed compartment, crammed with doctors assuaging a boy moaning in an oxygen mask. Guilty for stalling the elevator’s ascent, Hye-Joon waits patiently in self-recrimination, softly whistling harmoniously with the sound of cables squealing in the shaft so as to erase the boy’s sickly mien from his mind.

On the 2nd floor, near the radiology lab, Hye-Joon delivers a doenjang jiggae and kongkuksu to an elder man with a likeness not too unlike his grandfather. The hoary man had slipped while hiking Achasan and broke his femur bone. He thanks Hye-Joon profusely, shocked that kongkuksu–a summer fare made from ground soybeans–is still on the menu. Usually the Gimbap Shop stops making the cold soymilk broth at the end of summer so it was certainly a seasonal anomaly: like ginkgo nuts falling in spring, or Jeju mandarins peddled at a shijang produce stall in summer. It was November after all: on the fringe of fall, at the brink of winter. “It makes sense to me, you know, serving cold soups in winter. Why wouldn’t it? Tradition says to eat patjuk during Dongji, but physiologically, naengmyeon seems the wiser choice. Hell, I’ve even enjoyed a pat-bing-su during the winter solstice. The shaved ice nicely mirrored the arctic temperatures. Korean’s have always said, Yi yul chi yul! Fight fire with fire! Why not combat cold with cold too? Us older Koreans, forever keen about attuning our ki, believe that the internal body should coincide with the external milieu. A stomach turned frigid by ice cream will be incinerated by the scorching humidity of monsoon season. Thus, scientifically, logically, it is smarter on sweltering days to consume spicy kimchi stew or a simmering broth that warms our organs, for these foods trigger the essential cooling mechanism of sweating to regulate the biological heat. Instead of eating cold food in summer to offset the weather, crotchety old folks like myself prefer to consume hot ginseng samgyetang during the sambok days.” Sambok days, Hye-Joon knew, were the three hottest and longest days of summer: chobok, jungbok, and malbok. Hye-Joon wanted to joke that so long as the old folks don’t have dog-eating days anymore it is no problem with him, but wisely, he bowed and left, letting his clever wisecrack linger within and unspoken.

Recently, Hye-Joon’s Gimbap Shop somehow had become a popular hangout and eatery for waygookin, foreign students who studied nearby at Sejong or Konkuk University. Princeton and Columbia both had budget friendly BA programs with satellite courses in English that compelled many expats to pursue higher education just across the Han River. Semi-fluent in English, Hye-Joon liked to snoop on their prattling. Today’s group, a mixture of Americans and a New Zealander, were currently consulting each other about the pitfalls and pet peeves of eating out in Seoul. Hye-Joon monitored their complaints with a wry smile, knowing his own manager was culpable of nearly every single diatribe: the Korean presumption that their food is too spicy for nonnatives, the presumption that the Korean way of pairing food is the only proper combination, the presumption that condiments must unalterably correlate to specific dishes, and the presumptuous impromptu lectures of overweening waiters telling nonnatives how to eat dishes properly. The New Zealander, quiet hitherto on the enumerations, theorized that the motif in their collective rants about patronizing incidents in Korean dining clearly stemmed from a Confucian resistance toward innovation or privation of taste. Hye-Joon thought the grad students sounded snobbish, presumptuous themselves; but their topical colloquy reminded him of the recent hit TV show, Bijeongsang Hoedam, in which a group of internationals—representing China, Belgium, Ghana, Australia, France, America, and Canada—chat at a conference table about various pop culture phenomena. Translated to “Abnormal Summit” or “Non-Summit,” the program received some of the highest primetime ratings of the year sparking a national curiosity in outsider perspectives.

Ameliorating tomorrow’s workload for his manager and cook, Hye-Joon prepares gimbaps for the next morning’s rush hour. First a square thin sheet of nori is laid out on the cutting board. Over this Hye-Joon spreads sticky rice so that only a few centimeters around the perimeter of the seaweed are uncovered. Before the cutting board are little metal cubbies filled with vegetables and meat fillings. Hye-Joon is only making wonju gimbap, the basic proletariat version sold for 1500 KRW to Seoul inhabitants hastily scurrying toward offices. Punctuality was a highly regarded facet of professional life. The wonju gimbap is the most basic, filled with thin strips of carrot, bracken root, imitation crab, egg, spinach, and ham. Once the julienned strips are nicely compiled in the center Hye-Joon rolls the seaweed into a sushi roll, lathers the outside with a brush doused in sesame oil, cuts thin bites and rolls the thing in aluminum foil to put into an ice box near the door for easy distribution. Simultaneously, Hye-Joon debates dishing up some chicken-mu and oi sabogi from the self-serve kimchi bar for the group of waygooks before realizing that such a gesture would appear blasphemously presumptuous. Instead, embarrassed to see his manager gawking at the gimcrack fashion of the loudlly smattering waygooks, Hye-Joon bashfully educates her that the skinny self-defined American had identified himself as chaesik, a diet that prohibits the customer from eating any ingredients associated with meat. “You must not serve saengseon or mulgogi panchan of any kind. Even fish stock or broth will disrespect his request for no animal products.” Confused at this reproof, the ajooma marches to the table and upbraids the American with a nutritional roast, chiding with clichés about the need to put meat on bones.

Minutes later, Hye-Joon overhears a final complaint as he clocks out to return home. The self-proclaimed vegetarian is now admonishing the hypocrisy of eating out in a country where the friendly albeit latently xenophobic staff berate nonnatives’ naivety in assimilating the Korean gastronomical proprieties and yet rudely scoff aloud in an equal breach of restaurant decorum. “I’m also tired of being reprimanded for clumsy chopstick skills and insultingly brought out western utensils, shamed with a fork and spoon.” Hye-Joon loiters, redistributing glossy chopsticks into the wooden cubbies at the edge of tables just to eavesdrop more. He sympathizes with the grievances uttered in the expat echo chamber, but interprets their smarmy tone to be a bit uncouth and self-aggrandizing. Soon the shy boorish American interjects, joining the vociferant rally: “If I ask a question, even a question in rudimentary Korean, for a vendor to simplify an inquiry I’m consistently met with impatient resistance, the huffing and puffing of irascibility.” The New Zealander, stuffy from all their equally xenophobic sermonizing, stands up to compile a plate of kkakdugi and danmuji from the kimchi bar. Hye-Joon is thankful he didn’t heed to his brazen instinct of politeness by officiously serving squared kimchi and oblong yellow radishes minutes before; it was this bumptious and overzealous Korean knack of deferential gentility that ironically appeared uncivilized and bothersome to the grad students. Conflicted, Hye-Joon deliberates how he will ever explain to his manager, regularly meddling with waygookin, that her intentions of gracious urbanity had an inverse effect of boorish invasiveness on some temperaments.

Whizzing beneath the brisk autumnal crescent moon to his ancestors’ lush apartment in the Bangi-dong district, a blue haze tinges the black night sky over Parktel in Olympic Park. Neon Hangul signs for meat restaurants drip and ooze their florid inky greens. The moon slice is an orange crescent, rotund, multi-dimensional. Hye-Joon bikes quickly to meet his halabuji, his mother’s father, for cross-generational bonding time: basically, to play X-box games, a recreation his grandfather picked up after reading articles about the healthy neural effects of video games on old men. “It supposedly slows down Alzheimer’s and memory loss, according to Korean news programs on SBS,” boasted the halabuji. Rumor also spread that elders who fiddled for two hours or more with cell phone games and text messages halted the brain’s deterioration five years. To Hye-Joon, the tweeted reports seemed like calculated hearsay stirred up by SK Telecom, Olleh or LG’s U+’s marketing campaigns to endorse products to the geriatric demographic. “Plus,” Hye-Joon cynically jibed, “what good is a flailing mind if not wasting its limited resources on Anipang?” Anipang, a social network game involving puzzles with maimed and candy-colored animal heads in columns and rows, had been the most downloaded video game app ever released by Naver for iOS or Android platforms.

Hye-Joon excitedly tells his halabuji that last month’s viral Korean SNL sketch spoofed Grand Theft Auto by confabulating an imaginary Korean Edition, jokingly setting it in the early 20th century during a period of the Joseon dynasty when Japanese colonialism reigned. Hye-Joon tells his grandfather that in the skit the first-person character, in the guise of a Korean traitor, hijacked rickshaws instead of sports cars and sparred with ginger roots instead of shooting guns. Gangsters strolled the dusty unpaved streets wearing hanbok, stealing rations of millet, and hitting on the pervasive Comfort Women bound to the Japanese Imperial Army. Currently immersed himself in the beloved underworld of Grand Theft Auto IV, the installation celebrated in Seoul for including the Korea-town section of Los Angeles, Hye-Joon’s Samsung hand-phone buzzes on the counter, an incoming text from his girlfriend at a club in Gangnam. She wants to meet up later near Amsa station for chimaek, Korean slang hybridizing the terms for chicken and beer. Hye-Joon punches in a portmanteau of emoticons proclaiming his indolence with winsome snoozing kittens and slides his phone back on the counter. The slick surface almost barrels the phone off the opposite edge and into the apron of his mother, busy steaming hobak for a juk and sizzling fried miyeok with sesame oil, mussels, and dashima myeolchi yuksu in a hot pot. Though stoked for the pumpkin porridge, Hye-Joon proportionately fears the portent of his mom nagging him to nibble at the sea vegetable soup with her maternal drivel about its high iodine and calcium content.

Years of smoking have caused Hye-Joon’s halabuji to pharyngealize his haranguing words in a hoarse intonation. His teeth, blackened enamel backwardly pointed like the placoid dentin of a shark, spray spit whenever he gets particularly ruffled in a tirade. Inveighing about the exploits of South Korea’s corporate oligarchy, particularly its chaebol conglomerations, the Korean elder inadvertently excoriates the entire milieu of commodities, technologies and appliances in their very household. Raspy, the halabuji croaks on about how a recent suicide in the royal family that owns Nongshim had blasphemed the CEO into a scapegoat and anathema of public denunciation. Hye-Joon’s grandfather had been in his prime years during the “miracle of the Han River,” the era of the 60’s when Korea transmogrified from a penurious nation of rations, ravaged from the civil war that split the peninsula into two, into a bustling industrialized society. He’d seen firsthand the nepotism and untrammeled partisanship in the sectarian bubbles of the upper corporate echelon of the nation and still feels aggrieved that the governing companies—the LG, Samsung, and Kia Motors of the country—could not be more fiscally empathetic and Confucian in their monetary relationship with the civilian Korean constituency.

Hye-Joon detested that his halabuji couldn’t play X-Box without his adrenaline amplifying into a full-blown polemical philippic on the venality of hegemonic Korean powers. With the embittered halabuji splayed out on the warm ondol heated flooring, Hye-joon distances himself to the couch. Never daring to go outside when frost glossed the asphalt with a slippery varnish, the halabuji beseeches Hye-joon to extract some kimchi from their family onggi. Detesting the putrid smell that gushed out of the vat, Hye-Joon sallies that his grandfather should disentomb his seolpi snowshoes from the burrows of his antiques closet and venture himself. Bickering aside, it was clear that neither were going to stop the video game for long enough to wrest the lid off the ceramic pots storing fermented cabbage on the garden and rooftop.

Beside Hye-Joon’s left foot a cold goo goo ma Pizza School slice rests dormant in the box adjacent to a plastic packet of sweet pickles and silver metal chopsticks. Despite a preference for bronze, the halabuji mandated that the entire extended family only use argent silverware. His fiat was aligned with Joseon-era’s folkloric paranoia that quislings could poison food, provoking royalty to privilege utensils with silver lusters that discolored instantaneously at the slightest touch of a toxin. Hye-Joon’s stomach grumbles and he pauses the game to take a bite of the congealed sweet potato pizza, but it is so stale he snatches a songpyeon from the kitchen cupboard, the glutinous rice delicacy frozen since Chuseok but freshly thawed that morning. An incoming text message from Yujin beeps twice on his hand-phone. Hungry, cozy, and too slothful to sift emojis, he ignores responding and importunes his busybody eomeoni to pour some hobak juk in a clean gamasot. Nothing is craved more than hot calories on hypothermic fall nights in Seoul. With the pampering of his eomma, Hye-Joon restores some thermal ardor, slurping steamy gelatinous rice balls from her pumpkin stew into his glacially chilled esophagus: his sternum and intestines slowly broiling up to weather the next day’s toils as a Korean food courier on the concrete tundra.


paul-photo-headPaul Keelan is a creative writer, journalist, freelance critic, independent photographer and phenomenologist living in Seoul. He is currently working on Interstates, a novel about the culinary fetishes and vernacular regionalism of America, and a travelogue anthology titled Suborient cataloguing voyages in East and Southeast Asia. 

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