Eating out in a foreign country when you don’t have good (or any) native language skills can be an adventure. In Seoul, Korea dining out as a foreigner is almost always an adventure and learning experience.
Outside of the really tourist-friendly areas of the city, it can be hard to pick a place to eat out in Seoul — and even harder to read the menu when you can’t really read Korean. Restaurants sometimes have pictures of each item, so you can point and smile. Many larger restaurants have English menus or their Korean menus have good English descriptions of the items. Some places have no pictures and no English, so we generally ask to see a menu before we go in. We briefly checked the menu of the place we ate last night in Yongsan-gu near the Seoul Electronics Market. Their menu looked like it had good English translations, so we went in.
This is the adventure part: we quickly realized that the English translations were a little bit off. Just enough to make it impossible to figure out what we would get (don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect people in Korea to speak English and I don’t expect them to cater to English speakers who won’t take the time to learn their language. I’m just explaining the difficulties of being an ignorant outsider). We ordered a few things. One was called “scorched rice with seafood.” I’ve eaten at many places in Seoul with very good chinese-style seafood fried rice. I took a leap and figured they picked a bad translation for the word “fried” and we would get seafood fried rice … nope. What came out was a strange soup with whole baby octopi, cut up cuttle fish, mussels, clams, whole shrimp (head and all) and strange, square, pressed rice patties at the bottom. I have come to really enjoy squid, octopus and cuttle fish after living in Japan and Korea for years, so the seafood options didn’t bother me, but I was simply amazed at how badly I misunderstood the menu.
We also ordered a “cheese egg roll” as an appetizer. I was assuming it would be something like string cheese wrapped in egg roll wrappers and deep fried. Kind of an asian-themed fried cheese. Boy was I wrong. What came out was a huge vegetable filled omelet with cheese inside, smothered in ketchup and mayonnaise. It actually didn’t taste too bad.
We also ordered smoked chicken. This was what we expected it to be. However, in Asia, they don’t generally cut poultry the way we do in the west. There aren’t really wings, thighs, legs and breasts. There are 10-12 small sections, bones and all, that result from forcibly hacking the bird apart with a cleaver. Unless you get the wing or leg, It is fairly difficult to guess exactly which part you are eating until you dig in. Everything tasted really good and it was totally worth the challenges of deciphering the menu.