Stereotypes are like McDonalds – convenient but usually wrong.
So I am reminded on today’s “urbex” (urban exploration in American hipster, apparently) in Sydney’s western suburbs in search of Korean mundoo dumplings and a fitting start to the Korean New Year.
I’m this guy who prides himself on his pithy cultural observations, his curiousity and his acceptance of our diversity. Hey, I've got the patter of pluralism down pat.
But wheeling to Eastwood (one of Sydney’s Korean hubs together with Strathfield and Liverpool Street in the city), the loop in my head is saying Koreans are “tough”, “resilient”, “determined”, “all business” and “harder than the Chinese or Japanese”. Huh?
Indeed, I’m seeing mental pictures of dudes with wrap-around shades and cigarettes yelling into their mobile phones to make sure their container from Inchon has landed on time at the Botany shipping terminal. Or, checking their kid has topped geometry at the after-school tutoring centre. Double huh?
Thankfully, my monkey mind still manages to read the signs sometimes and see the writing on the wall (literally), and show me how dumb I can manage to be. Here at Eastwood, there’s something really playful going on. More Pop Tarts than martial arts.
And so with TOBAWOO Restaurant at 104 Rowe Street on the “Korean” (as opposed to the “Chinese”) side of Eastwood train station. The official slogan is: “TOBAWOO Boasts in pork meat dishes cooked with the diner’ well-being in mind.”
The she-chef’s about 23. Cheerful and slim with a pink Yankees cap on backwards and make-up from what must be Loreal’s “steam-proof” range. The pigs on the tandem cycle on the wall look like they’re having a good time too (including with their random rhino friend).
My porcine buddies are well represented in the seafood soup with mundoo and sliced rice cakes that I order for the startling total of $10.
The mundoo are “full moon” as opposed to most dumplings’ “half-moon”. Their dough’s wrapped around like ballerina arms arching and just meeting. They’re strong enough though to hold the filling of: ground pork with chilli, ginger and garlic; jap chae (the comforting and clear Korean potato noodles); bean sprouts; scallions; carrot slivers, and; heaps of yellowy scrambled egg. Unlike many Chinese dumplings where all filling ingredients are minced into a kind of gray pink paste, here the ingredients retain their proud independence and texture.
Textural surfing for the tastebuds seems the name of the game.
From the spicy spikes of the mundoo to the mellowness of the fish broth to the hold-your-horses, pasta-like disks of the rice cakes to the four little side dishes: kim chee chilli cabbage; pickled and spiced tofu; lettuce with a reduced butter dressing, and; pickled shitake mushrooms.
Back and forth I go with the steel chopsticks – so skinny you could pierce your ears with them. My eating feels on my body and mind like jumping from the sauna to the spa to the pool. Sensational.
Around me, Korean diners are, well, having fun. Lots of it. Waving steam off their soup with their phones (at least I was right about something). Toasting each other with water from the complementary pitchers. Asking for polaroids to put up the cafe's wall. On a Tuesday in the 'burbs...
The flip side of my mundoo (see below) looks a bit like a small brain rather than a baby's bum (see above).
I am reminded that mine can be even smaller when I look at the world as I believe it to be rather than as it really is. I am reminded of all that I miss when I’m not looking in the right direction.
But hell. It’s New Year’s (Korean, that is). So, time for another resolution.
How about this one? Keep an open mind. Truly.