A Man’s Breakfast

Most people live not for the routine itself, but for the small interruptions that break the monotony of the routine.  The coffee corner hidden between a cheap partition and an antiquated workhorse copy machine serves as a morning beacon of hope for our company’s foreign staff, a sort of refuge. We congregate and exchange fragmented bits of information as the hydraulic pump inside the Italian espresso machine wakes up and pumps water through the heater coils in a loop until it reaches the correct espresso temperature.  Nobody is truly awake yet.  We need stimulation.  It is during this time that the foreign staff talk serious business.

“English muffin with butter, yogurt” says one waegook colleague. “Not bad” mutters someone else. “Scrambled eggs, one slice of toast, and a black coffee” I say. More nods of approval. “Seaweed soup, leftover fish cake, rice, something red, and something green that looked like grass.” says editor Mike, newly married to a Korean wife with whom he communicates solely in Korean. Looks of sympathy from the group, but Mike grins. He’s satisfied with living an entirely local lifestyle, eating and drinking as the locals do. Good for him. The steel Italian giant produces it’s first shot of espresso. “A cold croissant and a carton of milk” says the company Frenchman. Lee, the gyopo from the Sales Department downs the espresso shot. “C’mon Smith, spit it out. What did you have for breakfast today?” Smith, also an editor, also married to a Korean, hesitates before answering. I see two other waegook colleagues literally rubbing their hands together and licking their chops with anticipation. “Two eggs Benedict with smoked ham. A side of Canadian bacon. One home-made waffle with Crown maple syrup, powdered sugar and blue berries. Small dish of Greek yogurt with diced nuts and slices of banana and strawberry. One circular hashbrown, handmade. A glass of Thai orange juice, and a milk.”

“Fuck off Smith!” Lee from sales crushes his paper coffee cup and slams it into the trash can. Cries of jealousy and injustice erupt from the circle as the machine continues to whir, sputter and grind. Smith’s Korean wife is a professional chef, previously employed with some of the best hotels in Europe and Singapore and now five months pregnant with nobody to cook for but Smith. His morning breakfast stories are almost pornographic fantasies to those of us who have been on the peninsula for years, and are the primary reason we all gather around the espresso machine at the same time each morning while the Korean staff stare with suspicion.  Are they plotting against us?  Engaging in vulgar, sexist western male gossip?  Plotting to undermine the big boss?

As Smith describes a breakfast dish, desperate long-term expat colleagues will prod him for details. “What did she do next, Smith? Did she use cheese? Like, real cheese?” Or “What did the omelet look like Smith? Give me details, I want details!“, all while licking their chops and rubbing their hands together like the hungry wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon. I have to wonder about some of these guys’ lives. Has it really been that long since they saw a proper omelet or a home-made waffle? I’ll admit that sometimes as I am driving to work or taking the subway, I actually wonder what Smith’s wife cooked for breakfast that day. Was it something spectacular? How does it compare to what I ate?  How was the dish laid out and where did she get all of the ingredients? Though I have never met Smith’s wife, I sometimes actually dream of Smith’s wife’s cooking as I commute to work. A man’s breakfast can largely determine how the pre-lunch bit of his day will unfold. People who eat what Smith eats for breakfast can’t possibly feel depressed on Monday mornings. If Smith were flat broke, he’d probably still be happy. Even Lee, the Korean-American married to an American girl does not eat this well, Cornflakes being his primary morning staple.

I used to ask my Korean colleagues what they ate for breakfast. They’d always look at me like I was a moron for asking such a stupid question. I later came to realize that their answer would either be (A) seaweed soup and rice, or (B) nothing. Indeed, it was stupid to ask them the same question every day and expect to get a different answer. Perhaps I want hoping they’d surprise me. I get the feeling that some men have been eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch for years or possibly decades.  There is no breakfast culture in Korea, as you might expect from a place where people prefer to photograph food to actually sitting down and savoring it.  For the unemployed, there is a kind of faux-brunch Itaewon ‘culture’, but it’s just not the same.  The typical Korean breakfast is cheap, plain and simple, mostly consisting of whatever side dishes the family didn’t eat the previous night.  A man could potentially eat for breakfast exactly what he ate for dinner the previous night.  Excellent for cost-cutting, but painfully boring to think about.

The espresso machine reaches steady operating temperature and the smell of coffee permeates the office. I think the espresso machine cost more than the copy machine sitting next to it, but good coffee, like a good breakfast, is essential. Once you start skipping breakfast and drinking Maxim instant coffee, there’s no turning back. There are those who refuse to compromise when it comes to certain things, and there are those who drink Maxim coffee and smoke the cheapest cigarettes. Then there are those like Smith, who smile because they know they’ve got a good thing and won’t ever let it go.

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14 Responses to A Man’s Breakfast

  1. Robert says:

    So, what kind of cheese DOES she use in her omelettes?

  2. PK says:

    It is a bit disconcerting how absent the morning/breakfast culture is here. Not only all are meals essentially the same at home (Rice, soup and side dishes) but coffee shops seem to generally open at 9am (at least in Busan). After 7 years here, how one can stomach red-pepper pasted side dishes or kimbop triangles for breakfast is still beyond me.

    When I’m up at 7am to teach a bunch of zombies business English, I need to be the stimulating force that drives them to at least act interested. And when I can’t get myself any coffee besides the convenience store variety, it drives me up a wall. But then again I forgot that cafes here are not for providing a jump start to groggy everyday working people so that they could start their day off with something positive. Oh no no. Cafes are a meeting place for all the 20 and 30 somethings to sit in all day and late into the night taking selfies with giant red-bean ice shaved mango dishes.

    Don’t get me started on the brunch charade. Two eggs over easy, hash browns and some soggy bacon should not cost 14,000 won. I remember the days when I could get a Denver omelette with a side of blueberry pancakes and unlimited coffee refilled by my heavy-smoking, grandmother of 4 waitress Judith….. all for $8. Good ol’ Judith. Sigh.

    • The Expat says:

      It would be nice to see some type of western style 24 hour diner where you could get a heart attack inducing western greasy breakfast and a cup of burned coffee from a pot, but it would likely turn into a place where people just lined up to photograph the food.

  3. Cereal says:

    I’ll tell you who does breakfast like no one else, Quebecers. That is the Frogs in Quebec understand breakfast. Ils comprennent le petit dejeuner.

    I lived in Quebec for many years. When I was a flight attendant with Scare Canada, I flew almost exclusively in Quebec.

    Why? I lived in Halifax and hate time zones. I flew North/South. Fuck that East/West time zone bullshit.

    Plus I speak great French, tabarnac de calis.

    The frogs understand the importance of breakfast. They have special restaurants that are strictly breakfast. They open at 4 am and close at noon. They only serve breakfast. All the goodies you could want: eggs, pancakes & syrup, steak, bacon, ham, toast, fried potatoes, the obligatory side of beans, fresh fruit, juices and coffee.


    There is a chain of restaurants called Chez Cora, They’re all over the place in Quebec. They’re crowded from 4 am till noon. Full of Frogs stuffing their faces with goodness. A plate arrives loaded, the coffee cups are never empty. The servers are old ladies with a smile as big as their waistline.

    Cora is a Frog. Her husband left her for a younger, prettier Frog many years ago. She hopped off of her lily pad and decided to do something with her life and opened a breakfast only restaurant. Now she’s a fucking rich Frog; who knows what her ex is doing. Or who, he is doing.

    I love breakfast. It’s the best meal of the day.

    Me: a small piece of steak, 2 eggs over easy, some fried potatoes, a side of fresh baked beans, a few slices of tomato and cucumber, 4 slices of bacon and a couple of ham with some fruit in season, pineapple juice and plenty of coffee. Oh yeah….toast. Don’t forget the toast.

    Call me insane. Call me a snotty Quebec Frog. Call me a commie loving kimchi hating shithead. But, I’ll take that breakfast over shitty day old rice and sea-fucking-weed soup any day.

  4. Papa Fiesta says:

    This is our third time in Korea since 1996. This time around, we have access to the commissary. I dare say that I am eating quite well for cheap. Eating tax-free western food and stocking up on all the things I used to count my pennies for at the black market store is like a dream come true in Korea. 4 bucks for a package of ground beef, 8 bucks for a Tbone steak – all day long baby. It’s so nice to wake up and peer into the well-stocked pantry. Granted, I’m no chef and the wife is a decent cook when it comes to things like Greek meatballs and Greek salads, but it sure is heavenly to only eat the kind of Korean foods that I truly enjoy, when I want to enjoy them…not because I have to.

  5. waygukyoja says:

    The Korean husband thanks his lucky charms he married me on an am basis. I am one of those who refuses to eat poorly. I’ve long since mastered the 6 egg omelet with a side of bacon, homemade hash browns and whatever fruit is in season. Guess grandma was dead on about the way to a mans heart being through his stomach. The only decent place I’ve ever found in this country which I will shamelessly plug is Original Pancake Story in Hannam dong. Not open on Sundays which makes no sense but huge servings and authentic American diner taste. Wayguk tested husband approved. I usually order the apple cinnamon waffles, he gets the omelet and we share. If you are sick and tired of the abundant Korean knockoff imitation sad excuse for breakfast or if you just can’t cook get ye over there son.

    • PK says:

      I had to drive 5.5 grueling hours from Busan to Seoul this ChooSuck to go bow in front of a table of food and swirl a cup around (waygooks married to Koreans will understand what this is). But deciding to visit Original Pancake Story was on my itinerary for my sanity during the holidays. It did not disappoint. The pancakes and french toast were the best I’ve had in Korea. A bit expensive, but I don’t mind paying for quality food especially in the quantity that they give. I’m by no means a small guy and I had to force myself to finish the last few bites leading to a food coma moments after. All in all was 5/5 for Korea.

      • The Expat says:

        But what about the atmosphere? Any screaming, running, misbehaving children? Any shout-talkers? Constant click-click-click of people photographing basic western foods in awe?

        • PK says:

          It’s a small place. I would guess it seats a maximum of 15 with about a third of the seating outside. No space for running. Photography is a given. As for shout-talking… can you really escape that anywhere in Korea?

          Luckily, we got a seat outside and since it was a sunny day, none of the locals wanted to get themselves some vitamin D inducing UV rays so we had it all to ourselves.
          Check it out and report back. Curious to hear your 411 on it.

      • waygukyoja says:

        Swirl a cup around? Must be one of those crazy ancestor worship rituals like where they throw a cup of soju on their grandfathers grave and then stick a burning fag in there (cuz he smoked) The husbands family fortunately doesn’t do any of that nonsense. I didn’t see any foodography when I was at original pancake story. That place is 강추 man. And there’s no room for anyone to run around so screaming Korean yip yappers are generally not present. Since itaewon got overwhelmed by trenders its my go to breakfast spot. I doubt tenders read this blog so I feel safe posting it on here. Now I’m craving waffles again dammit.

  6. Foreignne says:

    Does your office have an ajumma who comes to sell yogurt and juice? I think they’re the same as the one with the carts, but I didn’t actually see the cart. Most of my colleagues at the Korean company had that for breakfast, and it was great to see them leap when she came and get grumpy if she was late. Self included.

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