It’s been sort of a funny trip home. I arrived last Sunday and slept all day. Then I spent two days in a whirlwind of cooking lessons – homemade dumpling wrappers, white tteok or sweet rice cake studded with black soybeans, and three kinds of kimchi, the classic baechu or cabbage, an easy dongchimi or cold water kimchi, and yeolmu or spring radish green kimchi.
And then my mother and I left for Guam.
We spent a few days there, a quick, quiet vacation before flying back to Seoul in time for Lunar New Year and the traditional bowl of dumpling and rice cake soup. My parents lived in Guam for over a year before I was born, and they vacation there fairly frequently, since it’s only 4 hours from Seoul. It’s sort of a surreal place. Most of the hotels, and the one we always stay in, are on Tumon Bay in the town of Tamuning. The beach extends in a wide arc, so that every hotel gets its bit of sand, with a public beach or two sprinkled in between. The main road, just a few feet from the beach, is lined with strip malls that advertise activities like “Oriental Pearls Massage,” and then, just a few blocks away, you’ll find giant luxury duty-free malls where you can buy $2000 Chanel handbags. Not all tourists are shopping for Chanel and Gucci. Many of them are, for some inexplicable reason, swarming the 24-hour largest Kmart in the world. Seventy-five percent of tourists to Guam are from Japan, which must be why the selection of Japanese tea-flavored drinks at Kmart is so impressive.
The rest of the island, I imagine, must be beautiful and undeveloped, but I haven’t seen much of it because my parents are uninterested, and a family vacation, by definition, is one where you spend time with your family. I did go snorkeling for the first time, which was unbelievable. I must have seen at least 25-30 different kinds of tropical fish in an hour, barely a five-minute swim from shore. The water is unbelievably clear, and because the reefs are in such a shallow bay, the sun casts a rippling net of light on the ocean bottom. The fish are generally uninterested in you, swimming along in bodies bright with silver and a hundred colors, except for this one species, the size of my hand with pink and green neon stripes on its face, that seemed to think if it charged me, I might go away. I think fish must be able to see color; it would be such a shame if they couldn’t see each other. I saw a fish that looked like Minnie Mouse, with its black and white body and its cartoon-eyelashes, and another that looked like either its mascara was bleeding or it was a member of the band Kiss. The ocean floor was also strewn with sea cucumbers, soft and velvety black. When I told my mother, she asked, “What? They’re so delicious! Why isn’t anyone picking them up? There must be a law against it; no Korean would leave sea cucumbers alone!”
Which brings me to the food. Unfortunately, I know even less about Guamanian food than Guamanian culture. We normally stay through a package deal that includes meals at the hotel’s buffet, and I let myself be led like a sleepwalker past trays of tough meat, cafeteria hash browns, limp sushi, and seafood with the consistency of wet tissue. I don’t care, either. I only care about being in the sun and running on the beach and reading trashy magazines by the pool. I did feel a glimmer of curiosity about Chamorran cuisine, the food of the indigenous people of Guam, but I couldn’t muster the energy to rent a car or figure out another way to go find some.
In fact, the only meal we had outside of the resort was Korean. It’s not as strange as you might think, as there’s a sizeable Korean population on Guam and Guam is a popular travel destination for South Koreans. It’s not as strange as the time we ate Korean food in Las Vegas or worse, in Banff National Park in Canada. My mother, like most Koreans, loves Korean food more than anything else and feels sort of lost when she doesn’t eat it at least once a day. Which is why there is even a Korean restaurant serving extremely bad Korean food in the majestic Canadian Rockies. The busloads of Korean tourists who arrive there would die without their Korean food.
The Korean restaurant we went to in Guam, though, is quite good. Even though I can’t tell you about any other place to eat in Guam, I can heartily recommend Sejong Korean Restaurant. It’s a pretty straightforward Korean barbecue place, with the usual stews, soups, and noodles to round out the grilled meats. The place is clean and bright, though not fancy. (Nothing is really fancy on Guam, which is part of its charm.)
We got one serving of galbi, marinated short rib, and one serving of gopchang, which is exactly what it looks like, beef intestines. Gopchang and offal meat in general is very popular in Korea. It’s not considered “offal” and separate from other, more prized cuts. It’s another part of the cow people love to eat. Gopchang is so prized, it’s actually more expensive than galbi at Sejong. It’s surprisingly soft on your tongue, though it still has that cholgit-cholgit or chewy-chewy quality Koreans love. Grilled simply with salt and pepper, it tasted rich and smooth, perfect for wrapping with lettuce and soybean paste.
The short ribs were also very good, nicely marinated and not overwhelmingly sweet. The soybean paste stew or doenjang-jjigae was serviceable, and my mother liked that they only had a couple of good, clean vegetable banchan, rather than the mess of tiny dishes New York restaurants tend to serve. My mother says there are other Korean restaurants on Guam, but this one is the best.
So there you have it. If you are ever in Guam and craving Korean food, you now know where to go. I’ll be back and blogging from New York by Monday evening.
And before I forget, Happy Year of the Tiger! Apparently, February 14 marked the beginning of the Year of the White Tiger, a very rare occurrence, which the Chinese consider ominous and the Koreans consider auspicious. Take your pick. And if you don’t know your sign, you can find it here.