The young Korean man whose family owns the Jogae Gui (shellfish barbeque) restaurant is plating mussels. He is standing in a makeshift extension that houses bubbling saltwater tanks full of clams, mussels, scallops and oysters. He expertly cracks open their shells in one sharp twist of his knife, and lays them out on a flat, white ceramic dish that is then served to his customers. He’s always out there in his white rubber boots attending to the shellfish, cracking, splitting and displaying their contents as a jeweler would his finest pearls.
He must have split a thousand shells since we’ve been neighbors. Sometimes we exchange nods of recognition, and his exquisite cheekbones and deft knife work make each of our small encounters fleetingly exhilarating. However, I’m only too aware that any form of distraction may well send the knife plunging deep into the flesh if his ungloved hand, so I always move quickly on. Self consciousness and doubt around the etiquette involved with eating at my neighbor’s complicated shellfish barbeque restaurant have since prevented me from dining there, so when my Korean friend came to visit I was excited to finally gain access to the mysterious Jogae Gui.
The interior of the restaurant is not beautiful: dented stainless steel table tops that tell stories of fists and knifepoints are scattered throughout in no particular order but are easy to maneuver. In the center of each table is a pit for the hot charcoal blocks that are lobbed in by iron tongs. The grill sits on top, a temporary cage for the white-hot embers. Plastic garden chairs for the diners are seated around the steel tables and are pock-marked by flying white hot embers. A plastic bucket is situated at each table for the discarded shells; the green empty bottles of soju (Korean rice wine, about 15% proof) are the only source of color in the cold interior. Despite the temporary bus shelter décor, the atmosphere is chokingly jovial with the cigarette smoke from the party of men who sit red faced around the dying embers of their barbeque.
Within a couple of minutes the flames are licking out of our grill and we’re served the customary side dish of speckled eggs and green onion stalks. The shellfish follow shortly, and finally one of those carefully plated mollusks is mine. The piece de resistance is one huge mussel sprinkled with grated cheese- the daddy, the ancient sea dweller whose insides are displayed still pulsating and beautiful in its death throes: a glittering sheath of mother of pearl under the restaurants’ fluorescent light, jarringly out of place amongst the cheese and the fire. The other shellfish are gathered around it and some are still closed, their modest shells just dull browns and muted shades. The ones that have been opened lie there, exposed, and are slowly dying in the dense smoke. The ones that are still closed are perhaps just beginning to detect the changes in atmosphere, and are surviving on the seawater that has collected in their shells. It seems cruel to leave them on the table for too much longer, so throwing them onto the grill feels like the kindest fate.
Jesus, those things know how to die. The squeals from the trapped sea water as it fissures in angry spurts sound like the last living moments of a dying animal – but really it’s just a combination of pressure and water. Once the shells are heated to a high enough temperature, they open up like gaping jaws exposing a fleshy tongue that writhes and lashes with intent, as if it were sounding out its own displeasure at being barbequed alive; once a translucent jellied mass that lay torpid and boneless under the sea, in seconds becomes a thrashing piece of flesh on a fire pit. The grill is shared with a tin tray of grated cheese and chili sauce that bubbles away to make up a spicy, cheesy dip for the mussels and clams (how polarized the differences are between how shellfish are treated in Europe and parts of Asia).