Archive | May, 2010

The Sashimi Master

18 May

There are people and then there are exceptional people whom you discover in unexpected places.  My friend Gaelin is one of the latter, I can say with confidence.

The Mona Lisa of Meals

Gaelin runs a little sashimi restaurant near my apartment.  For the novitiate in Eastern ways, it is essentially sliced raw fish.  Sashimi is a Japanese word which, despite the general dislike of Japan in these parts, is widely accepted and used.  To Romanize the native Korean term creates a word spelled hoe (sounding something like hweh).  The fish can be of many different kinds but Gaelin’s is tuna or chamchi.  The tuna is sliced from many different places on the fish, the choice cuts coming from the belly or gills of the fish.  Gaelin told me a whole tuna can run W10,000,000 or somewhere in the range of about $10,000.  I believe that was of the skipjack variety, but I’m not entirely sure.  Regardless, it’s a lot of money.

Yet, despite the expense of the fish itself, it somehow translates into a very reasonably priced meal.  W19,000 for the basic, all-you-can-eat meal of sashimi, with varying cuts, as well as the usual sides and a serving of dolsotalbap (rice mixed with fish eggs, kimchi, and veggies in a hot stone bowl) to top it off.  It’s a feast that I enjoy almost every week.  My tastebuds are rewarded and my liver is certainly weaker from the undoubtedly large amounts of mercury I’ve ingested.  But Gaelin is too good a friend to let us eat tuna of the pedestrian variety (even though this stuff would run you at least four or five times as much in the U.S. for the same amount).  He gives my friend and I what he calls his “gold” cuts, which come from the belly or the cheeks of the tuna.  Four pieces, totaling perhaps half the size of a pack of playing cards, cost W53,000 or about $50.  Yet he throws it in gratis.

I may not have friends in high places, but I have friends in important places, you can see.  The sheer fact that Gaelin would do that for me is something which has happened so often that I force myself each time not to take it for granted, to be as effusive as possible in my thanks.  The man does not make much money.  After clearing expenses, paying himself, his sister who handles the kitchen, and his business partner, Gaelin clears about W200,000 in profit per month.  That’s per month.  Two hundred bucks, maybe.  I can’t imagine any small business owner in the U.S. who would consider such a business worth his while.  But Gaelin does and he considers his friends worthwhile enough to skim a little off of his own meager earnings so that they can enjoy the delicacies he provides.

The man works hard.  He takes every third Sunday off.  Other than that, he’s there behind the bar every single night.  Some nights the place is packed and we hardly get to speak to him.  Other times pickings are slim and you find him sitting with his sister, watching Korean dramas on TV, waiting for someone, anyone at all, to show up.  His clientele are mostly older businessmen, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, putting down a full stomach of tuna, soju, and cigarettes before heading home to face the wife and kids.  Occasionally I meet one who speaks English and, almost without fail, they state that Gaelin’s is the best place in the area for sashimi.  I wouldn’t know.  I like the food, but it’s not the reason I go every week.

The man is good with a knife.  There’s a reason for that.  Gaelin is Chinese Korean, as he calls himself.  He was born in Jilin province in China but his family is ethnically Korean.  He’s not sure when his family moved to China, but he knows that many generations back his ancestors hailed from Jeolla-do in Korea.  Gaelin went to university in Shanghai.  First day of school was enrollment and classes started on the second day.  Sitting in lecture, Gaelin couldn’t hear the professor speaking because of noisy students in the hallway.  He opened the door to see a group of tough upperclassmen who didn’t think they needed to go to class.  “Would you be quiet?” asked Gaelin.  “We can’t hear the professor.”  The upperclassmen couldn’t believe this little Korean first-year was giving them lip.  They start to push him around but Gaelin punched back.  Soon it was a real fight in the hallway and Gaelin knew he couldn’t stand alone like this.  No one was helping him.  So he took off running.  The chase wound its way through the university complex until they ended up in the cafeteria kitchen.  Gaelin grabbed a knife from a workstation and fought off seven attackers.  I believe him, as ridiculous as the story sounds.  There was no bragging, merely slowly translated fact that we had to coax out of him.  The next day, Gaelin said, people started coming to him and asking him to take care of problems they had, getting their enemies off their backs.  From then on, Gaelin was an enforcer.

He’s stabbed men.  He made that very clear.  Gaelin held his sashimi knife, the blade scoured in half-moon patterns from sharpening, and made a thrusting motion.  “It is easy to . . . put knife in,” he said.  “But . . .”  He took another minute to think.  He then made a twisting motion with the knife, as though one were rotating the blade inside a wound.  “When you twist knife . . . it make hand feel . . . funny.”  Again, he did not brag about this.  In his Shanghai university gang, Gaelin was clearly a leader.  He’s fired a gun once, but prefers knives.  Still, he was not the toughest:  “Number one man had eight bullet holes.”

The fact that he is a modest yet certainly deadly street warrior impresses me about Gaelin, but it is not the sole reason for my respect for him.  That comes from the rest of his story.  After moving back to his hometown to run a sauna, he moved to North Korea.  While there he was a middle-man in the fish business, buying from the boats and selling to the restaurants.  The legality of that in North Korea’s controlled economy is doubtful and may have played a role in his downfall.  After two years his business went belly-up and he lost $400,000.  That is a huge amount of money for most people, but or a Chinese Korean that is an untold fortune.  So Gaelin came to Korea.  He ended up in Seoul, working at a car shop in Gangnam, fixing cars by day and attending an English language academy by night.  He’d take the teachers out for beers afterward to practice his English further.  Then he learned how to slice sashimi from the previous owner of his current restaurant and bought out the place with his business partner.  Next year his visa will run out and he will return to China, back to his wife and child, to start life over again, yet never giving up as the cycle repeats.

Gaelin works hard.  At thirty-eight, he has done, seen, and failed at much.  But Gaelin is eternally upbeat.  “Money is not important.  I have my ping-pong club, I have my restaurant.  I’m okay.”

He is the truest Stoic I know.  His life is not lavish nor thrilling.  It is no existence filled with exotic travels, rich and powerful friends, or immense success. But can you deny that it is interesting?  And is it not interesting more because of who he is than what he has done?

Gaelin is no mover of worlds but he is as important as they come.  We all need someone like him in our lives, to serve as a worthy example, to remind us of what it means to be loyal to people merely because that is the good thing to do.  And may we reciprocate it, even if that act amounts to a mere fraction of what we have received.

The fact is . . . that the extraordinariness of a man’s life does not make him extraordinary, but contrariwise if a man is extraordinary he will make extraordinariness out of a life as humdrum as that of a country curate.
– W. Somerset Maugham


Garak Market

6 May

Garak Market isn’t even the biggest market in Seoul.  Noryangjin holds that honor.  But that doesn’t stop Garak from being a huge, fascinating place.  The sheer scale of the food distribution is impressive.  Have you ever seen an entire warehouse of leeks?  Or mushrooms packed into styrofoam crates?  Trucks are constantly moving about, almost running over anyone who isn’t fast enough on their toes, three-wheeled carts haul smaller loads, people are yelling and shouting and running to and fro.   That’s the wholesaling operations, though.  The seafood area is a little more tame, though the vendors are no less active in searching for your business.

The floors are covered in standing water from constantly overflowing tanks.  The whole place has an overwhelming smell of the sea.  The sellers will grab a flounder and sling it into a basket at your feet, the flounder flopping around and splashing you with fishy water as you try to concentrate on negotiating the price.

I have never seen such beautiful products of the sea in all my life.  This is not your average piece of white cod at Red Lobster in Tulsa.

It ain’t cheap.  Two small, live octopuses (I would write octopi but Google Chrome marks it as incorrect) cost about W20,000.  But totally worth it when chopped, still living, into writhing pieces and dumped onto a platter, your serving of san nakji ready for consumption with ssamjang. Vegans, Buddhists, and kosher eaters, be horrified: there is no compassion in chomping away on something whose suckers still clamp onto the inside of your mouth.

If you can conceive of it coming from the sea, Garak Market has it.  And there will be hardworking people working until late hours selling it to you, making little money but still happy and welcoming, willing to smile and laugh at the slightest provocation.

We left to the sound of the auctioneers warbling into the warm night.  Each has a signature method of calling the price, a distinct rhythm and sound. There are women aplenty at Garak, especially in the seafood section; Korea only functions because of its women, who work like mad at the most tough and mundane tasks.  But the wholesale business is strictly man’s work:

Korea’s connection to food is much stronger than America’s.  Whether it is selecting seafood at a market or buying greens from the old woman crouched on the street corner outside swank office buildings or seeing people gardening in the land between highway ramps, the process of growing and getting food is visible in everyday life.  And even though Americans pride themselves on being outdoorsy people and supporting “sustainable” or “organic” or whatever other flavor of farming you can conceive of, we understand the necessity of working on the land much less than the highly urbanized Koreans. We are separated from toil because we have the physical space to push dirty and inconvenient activities out of our neatly manicured lives.  Korea is small; there is no escaping the sight and reality of using and even exploiting the land for living.  Something to consider next time you’re at Whole Foods.