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Purple Rice

In Seoul, I sought to carve out a place I could return to even if for a little while. Who knew it would be a noodle shop in Sharosugil? In the fall of 2021, I was an exchange student studying business at Seoul National University (SNU). When I wasn’t studying, I was either playing soccer as a member of SNU’s women’s football team, exploring Korea, or eating good food. Sharosugil (샤로수길) was my go-to area for “good food” since it was a short walk from where I lived. It is a neighborhood in the district of Gwanak-gu (관악구) that attracts foodies from all over. As an American interested in food all over the world, I soaked up the sights, sounds, and flavors of Sharosugil like a sponge. The area is brimmed with a diverse set of restaurant choices (Korean, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Mexican), cafes (teddy bear shaped desserts, sulbing spots, coffee) and other curious eating establishments (a restaurant that only sells shrimp bowls). A mixture of independent and chain eateries, there is something for everyone.

Given Sharosugil’s location near Seoul National University, college students comprise a substantial portion of Sharosugil visitors, including myself. Navigating the neighborhood’s packed streets, it is common to see twenty-somethings sporting school varsity jackets and sleek backpacks while clutching iced Americanos even in the frigid cold. So, I was genuinely taken aback on the rare occasion I saw a baby in broad daylight. Child in the wild. 

Considering my proximity to the area, I frequented Sharosugil when I wasn’t eating in the campus cafeteria or exploring other parts of Seoul. Sometimes I ventured into Sharosugil with friends to grab a bite or study in a cafe, and other times I went alone. Hidden gems aren’t often listed online, so I scouted potential treasure the old-fashion way: just walk in. My basic understanding of the Korean language facilitated the ordering process, but I always had a translation app handy. It was thrilling—so many adventures!

The most memorable experiences often had two main components: food and people. 

It’s so fresh!  My Korean soccer teammate told me about her time living in China over lunch: noodles, hot Mapo tofu, and stir-fried tomato and egg. The owner left to buy tomatoes as soon as we placed our order.

What’s the WIFI password? We were studying for finals while Christmas carols blasted through speakers at midnight. My Uzbek classmate shared with me his upcoming trip to Dubai as I sipped on an Earl Gray tea that was too hot for my liking. 

Small world isn’t it. My first ever matcha latte in a tiny, vintage-inspired underground cafe that made me feel warm inside. I happened to run into my bomber-jacket clad Indonesian friend who had dreams of working for a fashion magazine. 

Towards the end of the semester, I had checked off nearly all the top Sharosugil restaurants that were on MangoPlate, Korea’s version of Yelp, and then some. The area was familiar, too familiar, so much so that I noticed even small changes like the sign plastered on the gate near a rustic dessert cafe.

Area Under Investigation: Do Not Enter

As an adventurous college student studying abroad, I prioritized exploring and trying new things. I often visited restaurants only once so I could continue to try new places. At the same time, I sought warmth and familiarity through connections. Back home, family and friends were where I felt most comfortable. It didn’t necessarily matter where I was, but who I was with. After all, having grown up in different parts of the country, my physical “home” was always changing. I realized early on—forgive the cheesiness—that home is indeed where the heart is. I was lucky to make lifelong friends in Korea who were “home” to me, including my soccer teammates and other exchange students. My Mapo tofu, Earl Gray tea, and matcha latte memories have precious people attached to them. Little did I know, my experiences at a particular noodle shop inevitably took a share of my heart as well.

* * *

“You’ve got to try this place,” a copper-haired British exchange student told me as she sent me a text with the restaurant’s details.   

[Naver Map]

Eommason Noodle Soup 엄마손칼국수

(Noodle Soup, Dumplings)

☆ 4.4 • Visitor Reviews 40 • Blog Reviews 22

Located just at the edge of Sharosugil. Easy enough. I took her advice and went on a chilly October evening. The outside appearance of the restaurant was unassuming, unembellished, and small. If I hadn’t intentionally made my way there, I might have missed it. I translated the menu board fixated outside the establishment and decided on seafood kalguksu (knife-cut noodles). The only person working in the restaurant was an elderly man who I assumed to be the owner. After I stepped inside, he took my order and gestured to me to take a seat. 

The interior wasn’t anything particularly memorable—standard restaurant layout. There were only about six rectangular tables, four seats at each. No decoration whatsoever. A lone student was eating at the table behind me, watching a video on his phone. The small television mounted on the wall caught my attention—a soccer game. Or as the rest of the world calls it, football. Players in red uniforms passed the ball to each other. Commentators rapidly analyzed the play in Korean. I recognized a few words that my team used regularly in practice. The rest I hadn’t learned yet. Even so, what I loved about the sport was that skill and passion transcended language barriers. 

I had a clear view of the kitchen while the owner quietly cooked. Open-concept preparation. The owner moved nimbly and every action was purposeful in the construction of the dish. He brought out the seafood noodle soup in a medium-sized steel bowl and kimchi in a shallow dish. Eat well, he said. Soccer commentary I could barely understand filled my ears and perfectly chewy noodles were submerged in a flavorful seafood broth. I was content.

* * *

I disregarded my “one-time” restaurant rule and found myself sitting at the same table, in the same spot a week later. The other owner, the wife of the elderly man, greeted me inside. As usual, I put down my contact information on a piece of paper for contact tracing. 

Saamia (사미아)         010 XXXX XXXX     •     Gwanak-gu (관악구)

An entertainment show was on the television this time. I had no idea what was going on, but I admired the video editing skills. Between the sound of raindrops hitting the street outside, low-volume television chatter, and occasional clinking of utensils in the kitchen, it felt real. I was eating by myself in the restaurant, but I wasn’t alone.

The owner prepared my order speedily and again, a metal bowl once again greeted me. The shrimp in the steaming hot seafood kalguksu stared at me. I can handle clams with chopsticks, but shrimp? I struggled to peel the shrimp with my metal chopsticks. I had gotten better at chopsticks overall, but shrimp was simply a new level. I was convinced that by the time I had successfully peeled the shrimp, the soup would have gotten cold and my hands would be cramping as if I had taken an exam by pencil for three hours straight. 

Good thing I didn’t have to worry about the impact of hand cramps too much for soccer. Of course, my throw-ins might be a little lackluster thanks to shrimp shell induced cramping, but the magic is in the feet as a forward. However, stubborn seafood posed a considerable foe in my quest for a peaceful meal that rainy evening, my one and only priority.

Seafood Kalguksu

Photo credit: Saamia Bukhari

I made eye contact with the owner and as if she heard my internal plea for assistance, came over swiftly. 

How do I…? I began to explain my struggle in Korean, but she quickly caught on and asked permission to show me how it’s done. Yes please.

This is how. She put on gloves, brought a separate bowl and expertly peeled the shrimp with her hands. She worked slowly so I could observe each step of the process (visual learners unite). I’ll never take peeled and deveined shrimp for granted ever again.

Thank you.

While her demonstration may not have improved my shrimp peeling chopstick skills since she used her hands, I was thankful for her help. I enjoyed a more peaceful dining experience thanks to her shrimp peeling abilities.

As I steadily finished my noodle soup, the owner asked me if I wanted rice to finish the meal. I agreed since I love rice. She placed a very small, round metal container with a lid on the table. I looked at it curiously and opened it carefully. Purple rice. The result of white rice and black rice cooked together. I had never seen it before but the combination of the two types of rice yielded a unique purple color. She gestured for me to mix the soup with the rice to help finish the meal. She later replenished the rice to ensure I had enough. 

Before I left, she lightly scolded me. Your jacket is so thin!

She wasn’t wrong. Even when I checked the weather app an embarrassing number of times, I still managed to underestimate the weather. At least I lived closeby. I might freeze, but I’d thaw eventually.

I assured her I was okay. She wasn’t convinced but smiled with her eyes. Purple rice was on the house.

* * *

The owners recognized me every single time I stopped by. They introduced me to their two cats. One owner sometimes offered me free dumplings and quietly refilled my water. The other always had complementary purple rice on standby and commented on the importance of staying warm in the winter. I never knew their names and they never knew mine. Perhaps that information wasn’t important. At what point is a stranger no longer a stranger?

In the big city, the more novel the better. I did something new every day, visited new places, met new people. I carved a tiny nook for myself on the edge of Sharosugil. I tried different menu items and my newfound favorite was kaljebi, a combination of hand-pulled noodles and knife-cut noodles. My hand occasionally hurt from peeling the shrimp with chopsticks, but I loved seafood too much to let that deter me.

Sometimes I went when it happened to be busy. Oftentimes I was the only person in the restaurant. I brought friends along to try the place. I liked that it closed around 10 p.m. so I could help myself to some warm, satisfying food after soccer practice. It was casual enough that I could stroll in with my gear. It was nice to be there. It was a place I could return to. 

* * *

The day before I left the country, around Christmas time, I felt compelled to close the chapter. I couldn’t just leave without some sort of acknowledgement. I was running short on time yet quickly stopped by a local bakery and picked up a freshly baked, medium-sized cinnamon swirl cake. Can’t get more festive than cinnamon. Was it a holiday gift? Goodbye gift? Thank you gift? I Like Your Food Gift? It could be all of them at once. I embellished the box it was packaged in with some red ribbon to add to the holiday cheer. I wrote a card in Korean with my friend’s help and attached it to the box. Toasty in my purple coat, I walked straight on the sidewalk for about one hundred meters, crossed the street, and entered Sharosugil. After five minutes, I eventually reached the restaurant. 

Trying not to look creepy, I peered through the window to see if it was a good time to step in. The owner was inside making kimchi. The television was turned off. A much elderly woman with gray hair sat nearby; she was probably the owner’s mom. When I opened the door, the owner’s face lit up and she gestured to me to come in and sit at my usual table.  I didn’t have much time. In broken Korean I explained that I would be leaving. I handed the cinnamon swirl cake to the owner’s mom since the owner was physically occupied with kimchi making, which is a very labor-intensive process. The owner’s mom looked touched. Yet it was the first time I had ever seen her. Soft-spoken, she said words that I couldn’t understand and then embraced me in a tight hug. I was caught off guard but hugged back. Behind her, the owner bid me farewell with a smile. Take care.

Cover Photo courtesy of Saamia Bukhari

2 replies on “Purple Rice”

The feelings this article brought reminded me of the warmth of that noodle shop. Thanks for putting your soul into this article and sharing it with the world: it sure does bring a most precious moment back to my heart.

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Extremely well written. Pleasure to read the enveloping experience. Makes me want to visit and delve in the so picturesquely described locales and savor the foods.

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