On our travels, we can meekly sit down at an uncrowded table and eat mediocre food. In fact, to us it might register as good food. How would we know? One principle that we espouse on our street food tours of Hanoi - when navigating unfamiliar food terrain on one's own, seek out places where the locals are shoulder to shoulder - served us well during our week in Seoul earlier this year. We've become quite adept at observing the prevailing culture around a busy eatery, mimicking local behaviour and confidently smiling our way into a queue or onto a bench.
The "I'll have what she's having" modus operandi works particularly well when it's multitudes of folk all eating the same dish. At Seoul's Kwang Jang Market on our last day in the city, one such experience was followed by a meander through the food corridors to chastise ourselves about what we might have missed. It's a form of torture we often practise, as in many cases we're not sure when or if we'll be in a neighbourhood or city again. To indulge on top of an already sated appetite would be judged frivolous, even gluttonous by some.
So what. We know we're gluttons. And drunks. Sometimes. But we're not stupid.
When an insanely busy market stall vendor sees our effort to 'fit in', to understand what it is she's doing and then insists that we sit at her table with her regulars, we obey. We feel the privilege and automatically our stomachs acquiesce. The little dumpling nuggets on exhibit have persuasive pull, too. But the fact that the vendor, in between customer transactions, is rolling and cutting her own noodles as well as keeping a control-freakish eye on her two assistants and her husband...well, we're attracted to the whole scenario, her fastidiousness included. That's a good quality in a street food vendor.
Kalguksu is a knife-cut wheat flour noodle eaten in a broth typically prepared over a long period from dried anchovies and shrimp heads. Rich in the process, at serving straws of zucchini, carrot and bits of potato are added, the finishing touch being a scattered handful of dried seaweed (gim) strands. So excited by this time, and with the encouragement of our host, we include the added dimension of the above-mentioned dumplings, called mandu. They are like ravioli, filled with mashed-up tofu and kimchi, and can be eaten separately after momentary blanching.
Here, at stall number 13 at the Kwang Jang Market, our vendor is concerned more about the flavour and consistency of what we eat before it's customised at the table. The freshness of the noodles, the form of the dumpling, the richness of the broth.
Not that she needs to prove it to us.