My favourite place to eat, Dae Bark, is a hole in the wall that makes my favourite spicy soup and a wide range of great food that I rarely look at. The Kinchee Jiggae (spicy pickled cabbage and beef soup) with a few great twists is my favourite. As a man who once tipped 250kg or 550 pounds on the scale I know food!
I also spent four years living in South Korea and got to eat a lot of Korean food. After I came back to Australia I missed my favourites as made by a little old grandmother or auntie. From the first time I sat down in a hole in the wall place and couldn't read or speak a word of Korean so had to play 'restaurant roulette' and pointed to the middle of the menu on the wall to choose. I waited anxiously to see what would be served and drank something on the table that looked like dirty brown water. It didn't taste very good and I thought it was just poor plumbing. It took ages to work out that it was intentionallly meant to taste like that and it was barley water and it fits into a category the locals call 'Momo cha whyeo' which translates to 'Good For Your Health' to which I add, but tastes terrible. Green tea, barley water and red bean paste all fall into that group, good for you but definitely acquired tastes.
The Kimchee Jiggae I ate that day just over 20 years ago was far from terroble and for me it opened a door where I had to learn the name and how to read it and it's many variants on the menu. It was like the box of Turkish Delight given to the small greedy boy on his first trip into Narnia. It hooked me and changed my world forever. Kimchee is a divisive food, love it or hate it, but a bit of alchemy happens when it is cooked either on a hot plate or in a soup. Of course it is great for your health, especially for your gut. The magic created by the handful of ingredients and the heart of the cook can hardly be described. The fact that it was usually under five dollars for a very filling and satisfying meal served everywhere and the side dishes, including fresh Kimchee in a dish, were the draw card. Rice was always a dollar more for another bowl, but the side dishes were free to refill when you called the auntie over.
I returned to my home town over a decade ago and for a long time failed to find a good source of Korean food. I even climbed my quarter of a ton bilk up to the third floor of a beautiful building and found to my delight a Korean and Japanese fusion restaurant. My delight was off the scale as I found my favourite dishes on the menu. I saw the prace was almost fifteen dollars but figured there was a lot of labour in Kimchee. I happily called for a refill of several of the side dishes as I ate with unabandoned glee. The young girl smiled and muddled through my poor Korean to serve me happily, I ate until I could barely move. Then I waddled my huge behind over to the register to pay and to my shock was presented with a bill for almost fifty dollars! Then I saw the difference between local food and a good but still substandard facsimile. The bill had a fee for each of the refills I had called for, even rice was three dollars fifty! The little bowls of anchovy style dried fish and dark brown tofu were almost four dollars per dish. I guess I was in shock as I paid but as I tottered down the steep stairs I had to quote Dorothy in Oz, "We're not in Kansas any more Toto!" Which made my wife say, "Don't call me Toto!" but agree that it took some of the joy out of my favourite food to have to pay over ten times as much for it. It made me feel homesick for that first little hole in the wall place in Korea called Dae Bark.
A while after that in my home town of the Gold Coast, in the suburb where I was born, Southport, I saw some Korean writing on a sign near the Office Works store where I had gone to buy some ink for my printer. I recognised the same Korean word, two sounds, Day Bark. I read them and my heart soared, the name alone got me drooling like Pavlov's dog. I read the sign and it drew me down the street and within a few seconds I was reading a menu and breathing in the wonderful and nostalgic aromas that came from this small hole in the wall. The menu had a small but iconic range of authentic Korean food. From KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) to Kimchee Jiggae. I cautioned myself to keep my expectations under control, the smells were hard to refute but the proof is in the puddling and just in case I opened my banking app and checked my bank balance. I told myself that if worst came to worst the ink could wait and I could print stuff at the local library for a few cents a page for a month to afford my favourite food.
Of course it didn't help that the first face I saw as I stepped my bilk over the door frame was a slightly stooped older woman who could have been made in the Korean auntie factory. She struggled to greet me in English and I saw a softening of her face when I tried to speak in my poor Korean. As I tell my students, I can order food and beer in five languages but I am far from fluent. I wish my language skills were as developed as my cultural and cilinary appreciation. I asked for Kimchee Jiggae with seafood and soft tofu. Some dimplings and a clear noodle dish that has always tickled my tastebuds as a first course. As I sipped a lemonade a tray arrived loaded with small dishes and a wide range of side dishes. There my language skills failed because I knew the word for side dishes but not how to ask if each dish would be refilled for free or at a cost. Luckily the auntie had enough English to assure me that I could get as many refills as I needed. She laughed and brought over a dish of fried dumplings, saying "Serbice" as she placed it in front of me with a fork. By which she meant service which she means customer service and also translates to free stuff in lieu of friendly and efficient service of your food. The friendliness and efficiency are just part of the people and I believe they don't understand the idea of adding these things to your behaviour, therefore service means adding free stuff.
At the end of a meal that could have been genetically connected to the first one I ate in the first Dae Bark over 12 hours of travel away, I ate to bursting again a delicious meal made with not only the freshest ingredients but with all the love and care of a Korean dish handed down for generations. The level of spice was through the roof but it too felt like coming home for me. As much as I was born less than a mile from the restaurant in Southport, it still made me feel home sick for that small town, near Busan in the south of SOuth Korea and specifically for that small hole in the wall. As I got up to pay I was even more pleasantly surprised to find that my bill was substantially smaller than that other time and solidifies Dae Bark as my favourite place in the world and the food is great too.
In fact last year I decided to have weight loss surgery and attempt to continue to keep on living above ground. My biggest concern was that I might be lving on for several decades but without Kimchee Jiggae and that might be torture that out weighed the value of being beside my wonderful wife. After a lot of thought I decided the risks failed to outweighed the benefits. So as tipped the scale at over 240kgs and the future was looking as if it would include a lack of ability to even get my bulk over the doorstep of Dae Bark and dead men do not eat Kimchee!
I saw my surgeon, ironically named Dr Free, who certainly wasn't! I started the pre-op very low calorie diet and cut out all my bad behaviours. No carbs and no particularly no rice, my staple, hurt but I mostly stuck to it. I even managed to drop over 30 kilograms. However I arranged for my last supper to be my favourite meal of haemil sonduboo jiddae (seafood tofu kimchee soup) and it didn't fail to meet expectations. Men on death row could not have had a better meal. I could have died happily that day,
Luckily I didn't and nor did that risk of surgery occur the following day. In fact as far as it went, aside from some small breathing difficulty after surgery it all went smoothly. I recovered quickly and passed from the liguid to the puree to the solid food stages over the next month. Of course my gut was now much smaller and the standard portion sizes of a restaurant meal are a thing of the past. I now have to choose very carefully what I eat. Not that I couldn't eat rice in small portions but it takes up valuable space and I reserve that for protein, which means mostly meat. I can eat up to two dumplings and a couple hundred grams of bulgolgi, barbecued beef. I can still go to Dae Bark and enjoy anything on the menu, take it in take out containers because it now serves me for five or six meals. I still need a probiotic to help my gut health and it is often a big pile of kimchee, but usually the gut prefers a small bottle of Yakult to feel good!
If you are on the Gold Coast hit me up and whether you are a fan of Korean food or want a guide through the wonders of this amazing food, I'll be happy to take you to Dae Bark for a great experience and hope that I convert another to the light fermented cabbage side of life!