Monday, December 9, 2013

A much-anticipated Yukgaejang + a Korean Funeral

My favorite -or one of them, I should say- Korean dish is 육개장 (Yukgaejang) which is a Spicy Beef Soup, I tried it for the first time at a Korean restaurant back in (K-Town in) Mexico City and I was hooked ever since. First of all, because -picky as I am- I was afraid of trying anything else that would be "too weird" or would gross me out; then, because of its tasty flavor, interesting combination of ingredients such as shredded beef, vegetables, scallions, noodles and more and last, for its spicy touch. For me, it has everything a delicious dish should contain, and the fact that it's served -boiling- hot is somewhat comforting. It is also similar to a Mexican dish called Mole de Olla, which -if you google- also translates as Spicy Beef Soup; though some of the ingredients vary, the result may be quite similar, so perhaps is the familiarity in it that I like about Yukgaejang.

Ever since I arrived in Korea, I was dying to have Yukgaejang but, the real thing, I mean, no matter how close it gets, a dish of a particular place will never taste the same as it does in its place of origin, you know? So I was pretty eager to have some Korean Yukgaejang. Funny thing is, finding a place that had it wasn't so easy...especially because I couldn't read Korean (I can now), but still, most of the places would offer every other Korean dish but the one I was looking for.

One of the must questions I get asked by Koreans is "what is your favorite Korean food?" and, of course, I always say Yukgaejang. Carmelia*, a Korean girls who is now a good friend, promised me she would take me for one of the best Yukgaejangs in town at a place she knows but, for some reason, we never got to go, until...

My last day in Korea (I am currently in Tokyo, Japan), bad news came through a message, Carmelia's Mom had passed away. She had been sick for a while and things weren't looking good for her, so the end was imminent; I was actually sad that I wasn't gonna be there for her when the time came -or so I had thought-, especially because her Mom was sick with Cancer so, as you can imagine, I felt/feel particularly close and related to the case, so I wanted to give my friend all my love and support because I know how much that means in a situation like that. I was really touched with the whole thing and always felt compelled to be there for her even though it was kind of hard for me because it was a bit like reliving my whole personal situation and going back there is -and always will be- quite painful. But I survived and am doing much better now, so I'm strong enough to give my support to a friend going through such difficult times. 

Needless to say, after the news, my sister and I headed to the Seoul National University Hospital's Funeral home. The funeral usually lasts around 3 days so people can come pay their respects but we were leaving the country so we went right away. We arrived and met Carmelia, she was dressed in a black Hanbok and she was obviously sad and distressed as well as a bit disoriented, coz you always are in  such circumstances, no matter how prepared you think you are. She was also busy taking care of the things you need to take care of in those kind of affairs as she's the responsible one in the family (I am seriously glad I had Gisela and didn't have to go through all of that by myself!), so she greeted us and then introduced us to a couple of friends and left to carry on with her duty. The whole thing was totally awkward, not only because of the scenario itself, but because it is always awkward going to a funeral, let alone a funeral in a foreign country -where you're not quite certain of the customary behavior. It was -obviously- my first Korean Funeral and I had no idea how to behave, other than respectfully, I mean. 

Carmelia said to me "now you'll get your Yukgaejang", I felt a hole in my stomach as it obviously wasn't the scenario I imagined I'd get it in and I wasn't even hungry so I said "no, thank you", to which she responded "it's customary", then all I could say was "okay then, I guess I'll have it" and so I did. Yukgaejang is offered at funerals for its -red- color, Korean people believe that the red color protects the holly soul of a dead body from the devils.

Now, I'm not sure if it's only because it was a bad Yukgaejang (you know, hospital food) or because of the whole situation added to it, but that was definitely a bad one, I completely disliked it, so much to the point that I think it is no longer my favorite Korean dish. Anyway, before leaving, I signed my name (in Korean, as it -somehow- seemed more respectful) on the guestbook, said goodbye to Carmelia and left with a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth; bitter because of the events and sweet because at least I knew I got to be there for her when she needed it the most, not for as long as I wished but at least I got the chance to try to comfort her a bit.

My friendship with Carmelia is the perfect example of how life can go from a joyful occasion to a tragedy, as we actually met for the first time at a (traditional) Korean Wedding and we said our goodbyes at a Korean Funeral.

*Carmelia is a fake name as she always prefers remaining anonymous. 
**I usually take my own photos for my posts, but in this particular occasion, I didn't take any so they're all borrowed from the internet.

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