Seeing eye to eye
Something was missing from the picture
Soup. I love soup. I've slurped, sipped and spooned it in all the countries I've visited. A meal is not a meal without the first course of soup. Hot in the winter. Cold in the summer. Soup
Now soup is still at the top of my list of starters, but I learned a hard lesson visiting South Korea. I'm what you would call an adventurous eater. I like to eat what the "locals" eat. So, when I was there before the global lockdown I found a small but highly recommended street food eatery in Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town. Their specialty was … wait for it … soup.
Street food is misunderstood by most Americans who think if it's cooked on the street it has to be dangerous to eat. In many places I've visited in the world the best food is street food. And anyone who lives there knows it.
Back to soup.
Street food in Korea is not always eaten on the street. Some vendors have three or four small tables where you can sit. I stepped inside after greeting the vendor in Korean - annyeong hasimnikka - and ordered using one of the few Korean words I learned - supeu - while pointing at what looked the most appetizing soup on the menu. All food menus in Asia come with a picture.
In short order I was served a steaming hot bowl of fish soup called maeun-tang. I tasted the spicy fish broth flavored with miso and lots of hong-gochu, a red pepper about as hot as cayenne. There was a white fish, some clams, a few small shrimp, some white radish and a bunch of enoki mushrooms. A soup to make any soup lover happy. I took my long-handled metal soup spoon, tasted the broth (delicious and spicy) and dug in for my first delicious mouthful.
And without warning, an eyeball was staring back at me.
They say they the eyes are a door to the soul. This eyeball was definitely a door to this Seoul. When in Korea …
I slowly raised my spoon, not sure if I was watching the fish eye, or the fish eye was watching me. And I ate it.
Eating a fish eyeball is like eating a round salty oyster that goes "squish" when chewed, and slithers down your throat in a fishy, salty, brothy juice. I sat there for a moment and wondered how many other fish eyes would be looking up at me.
I noticed that the vendor, standing in the narrow doorway, was smiling at me, bowing a friendly bow, and motioning to the bowl of maeun-tang. When I looked down I saw two more eyeballs staring at me as if asking "Well, are you going to eat us too or not?"
It wasn't until I was back home in San Francisco, eating at a local Korean barbecue place, that I learned what an honor I had been given. I told the story to the owner of the restaurant who had been born in Seoul. He told me that fish eyes are considered a delicious and healthy delicacy.
"When I was a kid in Korea," he said, "we always had to fight for the fish eyes. Fish only have two eyes and there were five us us kids at the table. Do the math! That vendor served you a very special meal!"
I have since learned that many cultures prize eyes in their soup. The Filipinos prize eyeball and brain soup called matuk. Traditional Armenian khash, featuring sheep's head eyes and all, can be found throughout the Middle East in Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, North Macedonia, Mongolia and some Persian Gulf countries. And Southeast Asian countries all have a variation on the South Korean fish soup I ate.
Lots of places to visit and lots of soup - eyeballs and all - to savor. And I'm looking forward to seeing them all.