pasta, prostitutes, & the art of performance

by Jacqui

I live in a red-light district of Seoul. Usually, I forget. Besides the omnipresence of love motels lining the main drag, no other visible signs exist. At least not to a foreigner’s eye. Women don’t walk the streets or sit behind glass under the eery red glow of butchery lighting. Once while some friends and I were having a beer on a street corner, I happened to look the right way at the right time. The door of a black van with dark tinted windows slid open and a women in a miniskirt and impossibly high heels slipped inside. Such a smooth and quiet occurrence it was, I almost missed it. And I’ve seen nothing of the sort since. Upon first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about my neighborhood. Still, when I return after a few hours or a week away, I feel like I’m coming home.

Last weekend, I took my camera for a walk down the center line of the busiest street in the district. For over a month, the World Street Dance Festival had been advertised on posters stuck up on the walls of our building and every other free space in sight. It was a big deal for our humble neck of the woods. On the day of the festival, thousands of residents packed the streets, young and old. I bet you can’t guess which song we heard most often.

I’m not sure which part of the festival was international, but I also didn’t walk the whole length of it. I stayed near a huge stage bordered by apathetic-looking photographers and cameramen where groups of teenagers took turns bouncing, stepping, and giddy-upping in unison, sometimes performing the same routine seven or eight times in a row. The movement of their bodies mismatched their bored-stiff expressions. Between two of the dozens of choreographed sequences, the MC called three volunteers up to the stage, all of them over the age of sixty. These old-timers, on the other hand, had a ball, and it was obvious. The crowd cheered on each of the contestants, but a man in a suit and tie edged out over the competition in a last-ditch attempt at the Running Man. He won a prize, I’m sure, but probably nothing more gratifying than those few moments of freedom. I ask you, are there many things better than dancing while people are watching?

Ajummas shoved their way to the front, and ajusshis drank canned beer sold at a premium. I felt a little intrusive, and I tried to be mindful with my camera. I’d just about reached my World-Street-Dance-Spectating limit when my friend Mike braved the congested subway commute to meet me. We looked at each other, shrugged, and bought ourselves each a beer. We stayed until the sun left before we joined my roommates back at our apartment. While I made a big pot of Pasta Puttanesca, Mike poached chicken rolled with an herby, fragrant olive oil. Ryan retreated to the living room with his djembe for a music performance of his own. Music being the operative word here, but hell, if it feels good and it isn’t hurting anybody, why knock it?

Pasta Puttanesca (allegedly, a dish made by Italian prostitutes to lure men in from the streets) based on Mark Bittman’s recipe.

Pit and chop 3/4 cup of black olives. In a bowl, drain and smash two 14 ounce cans of whole tomatoes with a fork. Measure out four tablespoons of capers, drained, and set aside. Put a pot of salted water on the stove for pasta (I used linguine).

In a hot pan, add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 6 cloves of peeled, smashed garlic, and 5 anchovies. Stir over medium heat to let the garlic brown slightly. The anchovies will crumble and melt into the oil. Epicurean magic. Then add the tomatoes and some salt and pepper. Don’t overdo the salt at first – the rest of the ingredients will help to season, too. Let the sauce simmer and reduce for about ten minutes. Add the olives, capers, and a pinch or two of crushed red pepper and dried oregano. Continue to simmer on low heat. The sauce turns to the color of old burgundy (according to Wikipedia, old burgundy is the color of tomato sauce that’s been saturated with capers and black olives). After another 8-10 minutes, I tasted it and added about a tablespoon of sugar. It was pretty acidic without it. Meanwhile, boil your pasta.

When the pasta noodles are cooked and drained and when the sauce tastes good, combine the two and toss.

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