Now That's Tasty!

Monday, 28 March 2011

Happier than a pig in...

Following my blog about a snack that I could, and often do, enjoy on an unscheduled and uninhibited basis I figured it would be appropriate to comment on a recently discovered street food I'd rather not become accustomed to: pig snouts.

Prior to my departure I vowed to eat most anything that I came across during my travels abroad. I am, however, not an entirely foolish man...most of the time...and luckily, came prepared with a short set of valid and binding ground rules:
1) Eat, and hopefully enjoy, any food that is offered to you provided that rule 1-1, 1-2, 1-3 stand
    1-1) Eat any food offered by a trusted Korean
    1-2) Eat any food that is offered or suggested by anyone if they are willing to eat it along with you
    1-3) Not required to eat or even entertain the idea of food offered by a stranger or a street vendor
2) If asked if you want it "spicy" you must request that is it made "as spicy as possible"
3) There are no limits to what you can, or must try...once! After it has been tasted there is no requirement to ever eat it again!

I am happy to say that I have yet to dive face first into a pile of boiled pig snouts like these, which I found in a seedy back alley in Itaewon. I can also gleefully report that when I asked my Korean friends about their experience with the dish, they all 'turned up their noses' at the though of ever savoring such swine. 

So it would seem that I'm off the 'hoof' for this least for now. If anyone dares to dive in to this dirty dish along with me, I'll have no choice but to succeed. But, be weary of what that entails. It's never appetizing to bite into more than you want to chew. 

("Can you smell what the Hock is cookin'?")

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The anywhere, anytime snack

Every great city has its staple snack item that can be found on nearly every slightly populated street corner. In Toronto, we are famous for our delectable vendor hot dogs, more popularly knows as "street dogs" or "street meat". A spicy italian sausage, juicy and sweet polish sausage, beefy braut, or classic all beef frank is always light on the wallet and heavy on convenience and comfort.

Here in Korea the most popular street food is without a doubt, Duk Bo Gi. Available on nearly every street corner (except around my ritzy part of town) or literally lining entire city blocks, these simple, spicy, scarlet snacks are not to be missed...just try avoiding them..

Stands are typically made up of a big rectangular 'trough' of Duk Bo Gi: compressed rice cakes cooked and completely saturated in chili paste, usually with some sort of fish cake or cut up meat. A decent sized plate can be purchased for W1,000-W2,000 (under $1-$2) and is eaten at all times of the day as a on-the-go-snack or an entire meal. Most vendors also have plenty of tempura'd vegetables and seafood (shrimp and crab) that can be cut up into the saucy goodness or eaten on their own. Skewers of fish cakes are also almost always around, boiling in a fish tasty fish broth that you can enjoy a cup of (or 3) on the house.

(Duk Bo Gi and tempura'd delights...a perfect way to start, end or enjoy any part of the Korean day)

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Haembeogeo hanaman, juseyo. (One hamburger, please)

Not that I got sick of the food by any means, but it's always helpful to know where to get your burger fix in when you really need it....especially if you prefer to have your patty made out of bulgogi rather than standard ground beef...

(The Teriyaki Burger from Kraze Burger: Bulgogi burger with sauteed shiitake mushrooms, cheese, lettuce and tomato and signature teriyaki sauce.)

While this may not be the prototypical haembeogeo that the hungry North American traveller is looking for, the meat was juicy and the shiitake's were a nice touch, and added to the breadth of textures between the soft whole wheat bun. Unfortunately, like most pickles in this country these were sweet...not my thing...but, I've since managed to find a rocking burger joint that serves their massive burgers and hand cut potato wedges with a side of crunchy dill pickles!

You'll know you're looking at the Ambulance Burger when you see it. Just pray that you're not seeing the hospital ceiling after it's ingested! Stay tuned... 

There's more than one opportunity to make a good first impression

Partially composed: March 5, 2011 (5:40pm KST in a taxi cab from Incheon International Airport)

There's a great many ways to describe my first impressions of Korea and the city of Seoul...intrigue, disappointment, perspective, excitement...just a few adjectives that initially come to mind.

One thing I can say with conviction, at least as far as my very first glimpse of Seoul, is that it is not at all pretty. While most highway drives from an airport are less than aesthetically pleasing, my predictions of what the city of Seoul and its surrounding areas would look like were torn apart in mere moments. I had painted a picture of modern glass high rise buildings, distant peaks and the "magnificent beauty of the Han River"; my first mental photographs featured clusters of identical, half built buildings, brown grass, abandoned lots off the side of the highway, decrepit factories and shipping yards and an overwhelming abundance of beige-painted-everything.  

Coming from Toronto, I though I had a pretty good idea of what constant and major constructions looked like, but was I ever naive. Seoul is a rapidly expanding city and on the way to the core (where I live) the amount of construction is something that I can only comprehend after seeing it in person. Cranes sprouted out of the tops of beige, characterless concrete buildings and  towered over the sea of flat topped roofs. Small cities and communities that formerly featured nothing but small apartment buildings jammed together were now being dwarfed by gigantic 20 and 30 story housing complexes that looked like they were designed during the cold war era. While I had already been told that efficiency was more than a big deal around these parts and that large 'officetels' were the norm, I imagined it would come in the form of the ultra-modern. These housing projects, however, lacked both in beauty and grander (despite their size). I was actually a little disappointed that after so much anticipation I was greeted in my new city of residence to a most dreary scene. 

I am, however, not one to pass judgement too quickly and as I drove deeper and deeper into the depths of the beast that is the Greater Seoul Area things began to take less uniform appearance. Once off the airport highway and into the thick of a 6PM traffic jam near downtown my perspective began to take a more refined form. I noticed a well developed river-front with small parks, basketball and badminton courts, bike paths and outdoor workout stations. There were a surprising number of people enjoying the 8°C weather, uncharacteristic of a Seoul day in early March. I even saw about 5 different golf courses on the drive over; each one of them packed with players teeing off on the brown grass! (This would not only be unheard of back in Toronto, but highly ridiculed) 

As we crawled along and slowly took to the main roads I was all of a sudden slapped in the face with what Seoul was all about. The main roads had more lanes of traffic (6-8) than most of the biggest highways around Canada, each one in complete gridlock on a Saturday evening. The 401 at rush hour never seemed so appealing. One brave (or stupid) soul was legitimately selling rice cakes out of a hand-pulled kiosk in the middle of the lanes of traffic!! When you enter my part of Seoul called Apgujeong-dong (famous for its haute couture boutiques and plastic surgery clinics) in Gangnam-gu (the quintessential downtown metropolis) my predetermined painting began to become more realistic. The mega-roads are lined with giant office towers, movie theaters, restaurants, convenience stores and more cafe's and cell phone shops then should be legal. Once off the main roads the neighborhoods are comprised of an intricate labyrinth of tiny streets; small apartment buildings, businesses, boutiques, restaurants of all kinds, and of course...many more cafe's! 

Seoul is a foodies wet dream! Even in Apgujeong, which is considered to be the most affluent in Korea, it is so easy to find delicious, fresh, filling and inexpensive food! 

Standard Korean fare is always the most affordable option and is guaranteed to come along with unlimited refils of side dishes free of charge.

A dolsot bibimbap will run you a mere W3,500-W5,500 (under $3-$5). "Dolsot" means "stone bowl" and "bibimbap"--"mixed meal", is a combination of rice served in a scolding hot stone bowl with sliced fresh vegetables on top and garnished with a raw egg and occasionally sliced meat; when mixed together it cooks the egg and creates a delicious contrast of flavors and textures from crispy and soft pieces of rice, crunchy veggies and acts as the perfect excuse to indulge in copious amounts of gochujang (chili pepper paste, or Korean hot sauce). 

Bulgogi: W5,000-W6,000 is one of the most popular dishes around and has most definitely found its way to everyone's local Korean restaurant. "Bulgogi" literally translates to "fire meat", but it is most commonly found served on a sizzling cast iron plate, or as I've found when ordering by name and expecting the former , a type of soup with some vegetables and glass noodles rather than grilled (the traditional preparation). Bulgogi is made from thinly sliced sirloin or other prime cuts of beef and is generally marinated for at least two hours in a variety of seasonings, including soy sauce, sesame oil, black pepper, garlic, onion, sugar, and ginger. The marinating process ensures a beautifully tender bite with a rich flavor that is both salty and sweet on the palate. Bulgogi is often served with rice and some sort of lettuce or sesame leaf for wraps. Don't forget your gochujang!

Another amazing thing about Korea is that so much of their eating is priced to serve at least two people. I was fortunate enough to be taken out for my first two meals in Seoul and each one was a cultural experience in itself. In many Korean restaurants it is typical to order just one main dish of meat or fish and the rest of the meal consists of an endless supply of delectable and diverse side dishes. My first meal (pictured below) cost W6,000 for all of the sides that also included a kimchi soup with tofu and what I believe was a mung bean and seaweed soup (my friend couldn't translate for me), and W12,000 for a hefty plate of bulgogi. The two of us didn't even come close to taking the whole thing down! 

(gotta love the variety!)

My second lunch was at a very upscale Korean restaurant, beautifully decorated with giant clay urns and pots, and other traditionally Korean artifacts and was a meal for the ages! With a whopping 43 dishes (some couldn't fit in the photo) to choose from, this epic two hour mowing marathon featured a tender salty sliced pork belly, bulgogi, dolsot bibimbap rice with peanuts (no veggies), dolsot egg, two soups and a plethora of palatable delights; at least 6 different kinds of kimchi and kimchi'ed things, whole fried Yellow Corvina (fish on the left), sauteed king oyster mushrooms, sting ray, and stuffed green chillies. For W26,000 I will be sure to bring some friends along for this experience sometime soon!

(I was full for days)

So, after being dropped into Korea in what appeared to a dull and dreary atmosphere, it didn't take long before I was exposed to some of the culinary colours that this country can offer. From confused to confident, I am eager to dip into the many taste sensations and topographic wonders that this country has to offer. 

With spring just around the corner, I will be budding along with the cherry blossoms and growing into my new surroundings. And while I don't expect it to, if all else fails, at least this food fiend will never go hungry!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Something to tickle the tastebuds

Just a quick pic from one of my first authentic Korean meals. Tasty on the tongue as well as the eyes.

(Lotus Root in a sweet teriyaki sauce)

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Lost In Translation

Originally composed: March 4, 2011 (~2:00pm @ 30,000 feet)

My first case of Asian food envy came quickly, along with a minor and mediocre language struggle. 

For my first meal on the airplane I was offered the following, somewhat inaudible options: "Bibimbap, meat...beef?" While there should have been no hesitation nor drastic confusion, I attempted to question whether the Bibimbap also contained beef; somewaht of a logical question for a guy who'se only experience with the dish came many years prior, and who had now inconveniently forgotten that said dish was almost always of vegetarian nature. 

The bop was clearly the better going local always is, not to mention that you are NEVER to choose any option referred to simply by a broad category of "meat". Nevertheless, I chose the beef. My decision was more than just a slip in better judgement but a succession of effort on my part to try and get the answer I was looking for from the flight attendant. After several misinterpreted lines of questioning, mixed with my desire to not waste any more of her valuable time, I caved. Accepting the mystery dish from her already outstretched arm I knew just what was in store: instant food envy of the girl sitting next to me and all the other Bibimbapians on the airplane. 

Lesson Learned #1:
Be persistent in one's quest for the truth that one is seeking...or at least accept the embarrassment of changing one's mind before peeling back the foil to sure culinary disappointment.

Lesson Learned #2:
Airplanes are loud and are not the most conducive environment to break the language barrier.

(Actual photo not included)

Gotta love the comfort of a warm set of Buns

My first tasty Korean treat on my 15-hour flight to Seoul.

Warm, soft egg buns filled with sweet beef and a side of Korea's finest brown rice green tea. 

Monday, 14 March 2011

In Transit

Originally composed: March 4, 2011 (11:11am @ Chicago, O'Hare International Airport)

As Seoul begins to go to sleep I'm waking up to a whole new life. While mine has always been about living through experience, this experience is destined to be far beyond any that I've had. Barriers of language, culture, instinct and intuition will open doors to greater understanding, appreciation and adventure.

Avenues of all kinds will be perused and patrolled; alleyways will be scoured; cul-de-sac's conquered. Supertrains, subways, busses and boats, taxi cabs and tuk tuk's; carry me towards where I know, not, where I am going.

That land of Korea is as foreign to me as one could ever be, and I intend to make it my home. For the next year of my life, home will be far away from the least for the start. But, my heart is in it. My heart, my mind, my body, my energy and ambition are all on my side.

The future favors those who fuel the fire. And this spark is just starting to catch some flame.