meal number five is the big group meal. there are six of us, and we come prepared to eat.
i’ve budgeted the meal out to roughly $60-80 per person, including tax and tip but not including drinks. i have an idea of what we’ll be ordering, and i half-jokingly let them know in advance that i’ll be setting the menu. whether in deference to that or because they trust me, they tell me, order whatever you want!
one of my friends has a soy and sesame allergy, which makes it tricky. soy and sesame are all over korean food, and i’m not entirely sure how much they’ll be able to accommodate—even if a chef is willing to accommodate, sometimes, there are limits to how much she is able to do so. they’re kind, though, and work it out. the server comes back with a list of foods that are available to her; he comes back later with an i’m sorry, there’s actually tamari in the spicy tuna kimbap. he isn’t an asshole about it. i always get nervous because, honestly, you never know. people can be assholes about allergies and dietary restrictions.
we order drinks, then we order food, and i become the asshole who asks, laughing but in earnest, if we could order the biji jjigae on its own without the rib eye. the server goes back to the kitchen, consults the chef herself. i look away. he comes back and says that, yes, they could do that, and i’m happy for it but also uncomfortable. i’m not someone who likes asking for favors, even favors i’d pay for. i don’t like to be noticed.
all i want is to be noticed.
people don’t typically think i’m korean. when i was in college in california, people would ask if i were cambodian, and then, later, it became, are you chinese? half chinese?
it’s happened on many occasions that i’ve been waiting for the subway and older chinese adults have come up to me and started talking in chinese. i always smile, say, i’m sorry; i’m not chinese, and they pause, give me That Look that says bad chinese girl! not knowing chinese! as they walk away.
i always want to protest, don’t give me That Look! talk to me in korean! i can speak korean just fine, thank you very much.
there’s a chicken dish on the dinner menu at kawi, and it’s served two ways. the breast is served as a jeong-gol, in a broth with glass noodles, mushrooms, vegetables, and tofu. it comes with two sauces. the rest of the chicken is tossed in a cajun seasoning and fried. they don’t waste any part of the chicken, so the head and the feet are fried along with the legs and thighs. we eat the feet, but none of us is brave enough to eat the head.
in 2012, my paternal grandmother passed away. she was my closest grandparent, the one who raised me and spoiled me rotten because i was my father’s first child and he was her only son. it didn’t matter to her than i was a daughter. she still loved me more than she loved my brother — or, at least, we were closer because i spoke korean, read and wrote it, too.
i forget who asked, but i was asked to give a eulogy at her funeral, and i wrote it out in korean. i gave it to my dad to read to make sure it sounded okay because, sure, i can speak korean but my vocabulary is weak, my spelling atrocious because i can never figure out the rules — is it ㅏ-ㅣ or ㅓ-ㅣ, and, god damn it, how is anyone supposed to know which is which, what are the rules?!?
my dad sat and read what i’d written and promptly burst out laughing. i stared at him until he finally explained, where did you pick up these words? you have the strangest vocabulary.
it’s a great group meal, one i’ll hold onto over the next few weeks. i’ve brought together five friends who’ve never met each other before, and the dinner has gone beautifully, everyone getting along, loving the food, eating to the point of being happily stuffed. there was none of the awkwardness that could occur with a group of strangers.
at the end of it, though, part of me feels off. i wonder if we stayed too long, if we were too loud, too boisterous, if i’ve been coming to this restaurant too often. i wonder if i’d worry about any of this if kawi were any other restaurant.
i don’t know that i would.
three weeks pass before i make it out to kawi again. this is a quiet lunch, just me and a friend, but we don’t really hold back, starting with the tofu and roe and cured madai, then splitting the oxtail and brisket jjim and wagyu ragu. we finish the meal with the blueberry bingsu. luckily, i didn’t eat a full meal at fuku right before kawi this time.
the tofu and roe is incredible, the tofu made in-house. it’s smooth and creamy, the roe adding a gentle brininess, and there’s a caramelized soy sauce as well to bring salt and sweetness. the wagyu ragu i’ve had before; the ragu reminds me of bulgogi marinade; and it’s served over rice cakes. that dish, plus the rice cake dumplings—rice cakes served in a cheesy sauce with parmesan and summer truffle—makes gnocchi feel non-essential, which is a statement i should maybe follow up with, i love pasta, but i’ve never been that enthusiastic about gnocchi.
later, as we’re leaving the restaurant, my friend says that the chef seems like a kind person, that she was watching her interact with her staff in the open kitchen. i say, yeah, she seems like it. i don’t remember if we say anything more about her. i wish i could stop being the person noticing others and start being the person who’s noticed. i wish i could be someone worth seeing. i really wish this didn’t feel like the theme of my life.
recently, i have been learning how nice it is to read books and recognize myself in them. i didn’t grow up reading asian writers, but i also didn’t grow up thinking much about it because i grew up watching korean dramas and listening to korean pop. i grew up in suburban los angeles, where asian people didn’t feel like a minority, and i went to schools where many of my classmates were asian, increasingly so as i got older and started taking mostly (if not entirely) honors and AP classes.
i didn’t need to see myself in the books i was reading.
it’s only now that i kind of see that as a privilege, not to have that added to my plate during my formative years. that’s not to say my adolescence was easy; i was body shamed starting my freshman year of high school, to such an extent that my entire sense of self was destroyed and disintegrated by the time i went to college. i was already so detached from my identity, unable to attribute any kind of value to myself, wanting so badly to disappear myself and my grotesque, oversized body.
spend over a decade of your life wanting to disappear and maybe you’ll learn how to be invisible. maybe that’s the irony of it. i’ve become so practiced in disappearing myself, at least in my mind, that i don’t know how to be visible.
i don’t know how to be someone worth seeing.
the blueberry bingsu is layers of soft, creamy shaved ice and whipped creme fraiche. there’s blueberry syrup that has a tang to it that borders on vinegary. there are macerated blueberries. when they first introduced the blueberry bingsu, they topped it with pancake croutons, i’m told.
my seventh meal at kawi wasn’t supposed to happen until maybe september, but, during my sixth meal, the server tells us that crabs are back in very, very limited edition. the crabs are marinated in a spicy sauce this time, not in the soy sauce-based marinade they were earlier this year, and there are only so many of them available — if they’re available at all. i debate coming back to kawi the next day to see if i can get the crab. she advises that i call before i come to make sure they’re on the menu.
it’s disgustingly hot and humid the next day, and i almost don’t go because it’s disgustingly hot and humid. i can’t get the crabs out of my head, though, how badly i wanted to try them earlier in the summer but missed them, so i head into the city, anyway. i try to take her advice calling before i head over to hudson yards again, but the call doesn’t go through. i almost go back home. i step out of target at hearld square, hear the flash flood warnings on hundreds of iphones go off, and i think, fuck it, and start walking over to the 7 at times square/42nd street. i get to the station just as fat raindrops start falling from the sky, and, fifteen minutes later, i get out at hudson yards to a torrential downpour, complete with thunder and lightning.
they have the crab, though, and it’s one of the last ones. i’m soaked through with sweat and some rain because i got impatient of waiting and ran through the rain once it let up, and i look like shit, and i’m sorry to everyone around me because i’m feeling self-conscious in my body, in how gross and damp i feel.
the crab is delicious, though, and it’s raw, called 개장 (gae-jang) in korean. i don’t typically like raw marinated crab, so i’m surprised at how much i like this, the gochujang-based sauce spicy and gingery, the rice, i suspect the same rice used in the hwe-dup-bahp. there’s a lot of crab in this bowl, and it’s a messy dish, three crab halves intact, meant to be eaten using your hands.
this is my last time at kawi over the summer, and i think it’s a great way to see the season out. as i’m leaving, i see the chef sitting at the bar, chatting with someone. typically, i’d walk along the bar, past her to get to the restroom and leave the restaurant. instead, i look away before we can meet eyes, speed-walk down the other aisle, leave the restaurant, and use the restroom on some other floor of hudson yards. i don’t know when i’ll be back. i’m afraid of having overstayed my welcome.
i’m afraid of having become visible because, even though i want so badly to be seen, i am also terrified of it.
i’m terrified that it’ll turn out to be true, that i really am not worth seeing but that it has nothing to do with my body but everything to do with me.