Last year, my girlfriend, Eun Jeong, and I went out for dinner. At the restaurant, she was thrilled that this one item was on the menu. Instead of rice, she ordered it. The waiter came back with a thin metal cigar box. Inside was rice, shredded dried seaweed, vegetables, some gochujang, and an egg. It was like a tiny bibimbap. Eun Jeong replaced the lid, picked it up, and shook the heck out of it. The result was a scary gloppy mess that tasted divine.
She said that it was a reminder of her childhood. It’s also a new trend that has been popping up in Korean restaurants, playing on Koreans’ nostalgia. I like to compare it to that upscale peanut butter and jelly restaurant in New York City. When Eun Jeong was growing up, this was the lunchbox her mother prepared for her. She said it was a sort of bento box. But “bento” is a Japanese word. God forbid you use a Japanese word in Korea. In Korean, it called a dosirak 도시락.
As Korea became richer and more cosmopolitan, dosiraks were considered the province of poor people and not sophisticated. But now, as with the peanut butter and jelly restaurant, they have been given a more sophisticated interpretation as a whimsical appetizer to have with your meal.
Personally, I love these, and I order them whenever I see them on the menu. They cost around $2, and they’re a lot of fun. How much food do you shake at the table before eating?
This is also a good example of the difference between Korean and Japanese food. A Japanese bento box is beautifully arranged delicate items to be picked up gingerly with chopsticks, each item having about as much flavor as newspaper. A Korean dosirak is not pretty. It’s down right f’ugly. You shake it and scoop the contents in your mouth with a spoon. And it again proves my hypothesis that the tastiest foods in the world are the sloppiest. Just for fun, I may shake a Japanese bento box the next time I get one, just to see people’s shock.
Now, yes, I have offended a few Korean friends by calling it a “bento box.” But I have seen it on menus as a “benddo” 벤또. I don’t care. If I see either on a menu, I get pensive like Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” and think, “It’s Dosirak Time!”