Caffeinated, Always And Forever

Next to your head a cell phone starts to vibrate, signaling the start of the day. You rustle around in your rented sheets, trying to find the phone to stop the mosquito in your ear sound, hoping that no one in the hostel room has woken up, too. Finding shorts, shirt, wallet, passport all within the confines of your sleeping area, you crawl down the bunk-bed ladder to find your flip flops, run your fingers through your hair, and head out into the main room. There sits a free breakfast of assorted goods.  Sliced bread, jam, marmite, muesli, small bananas sprawled in a still life drawing style in a large wooden bowl, some picked off lying askew. People ensconce the food, slowly, silently putting spoon to mouth, and trying to comb their fingers through their coarse, robin’s-nest like hair. Nods replace hellos and your addiction sets in. Slowly, but persistently.

The first sign is that you don’t look to the food to wake you up, rather your eye darts around the table in search of your fix. You don’t smell it brewing, so you know that it must be the instant variety: coffee, that is.

Off to the side of the room, sitting on a trunk-sized cabinet rests a hot water container, varying tea bags from Lipton to traditional loose-leaf, and a Tupperware full of black crystals. This will have to do.

Every morning you wake up, you look forward to the first, second, third, and final sips of coffee. Some mornings black, some mornings milky white. Sometimes honey filled, and sometimes brown sugar. Sometimes you look forward to it as your head hits the pillow. Always thick as mud. Always a hint of bitterness.

Over the years you’ve gone through stages of which variety you prefer. The luxurious latte, the cheap but consistent drip, the French named café au lait. Back in your home, French pressed coffee wakes you up these days. Here in the land of elephants, mangos, sunshine, and condensed milk, you find your new fix: the Thai Coffee. Or, if you’re feeling overly caffeinated, Thai Tea.

As the street vendor is pressing hard into the mesh sieve full of thick, dark coffee grounds and simultaneously scooping ice into a large 1980’s designed paper to-go cup, you remember the days when you poured cup after cup of this behind a bar located in the classy Thai restaurant in Upstate New York. Two-thirds thick and sweet Thai Coffee, one-third half and half. Here, in the birth place of the energy-packed treat, its condensed milk mixed thoroughly with the dark, thick, bitter, spoon-pressed coffee extract. Sometimes a straight shot of espresso, given the barista has a machine posted up on their street stall, market stall, or converted van. Pyrex Measuring cup. Condensed Milk. Coffee. Pour. Mix. Mix. Mix. Dump over ice and serve.

The creamy burnt orange color of the tea and the soothing enriched caramel color of the coffee calls to you as you sip on the overly bitter instant coffee in the quiet hostel as the sun shows its face for the first time today. You wish you could turn this cheap addiction fix into the rich and sweet coffee that had the density of condensed milk, the brightness of a good extraction, and the depth of complex flavors as a good coffee should.

Finishing your first cup of many, you turn to your second addiction and throw on split shorts, light weight trainers, a ratty t-shirt, fifty baht into your shorts, and you head for your run and plan on a sweet reward at the end, because in Thailand, there is always a Thai Coffee vendor between here, and there.

 

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Get To School

Over the years I have taken my fair share of classes. I’ve taken mandatory classes, extracurricular classes, and once even an extra class during college. I’ll go so far as to say that I’m an experienced class taker, but I’ve never ventured into the realm of cooking classes.  That statement isn’t counting the Home Economics class in sixth grade I took, learning how to sew a pillow together and bake a cookie or two, and I’ll say rightfully so.

But during our stay, vacation, sprint across Thailand, LZ and I decided to take a cooking class, hopefully learning how to flip the pan just right for the perfect crispiness in Pad Thai, or how to roll the Spring Roll with ease and perfection, or simply how to make Mango Sticky Rice taste so undeniably good. We signed up at a tourism office (E-gads! A tourism office? Me in a touristy place? Done and done) and were promptly picked up the next morning at eight in the morning.

Hello? Receipt? Back of the truck, we’re off to the market.

And there we were, by nine in the morning, when I would normally be sipping French Pressed coffee sent (oh-so-kindly) from home, staring at vats of rice, mounds of fruit, and chains of meat hanging from bars overhead. The joys of the market were dutifully and thoroughly explained to us by our guide (a guide? So much tourism!) as she winded from starches to sauces back to fruits and told us the importance of a good ingredient.  That’s why they stocked up at markets, and not stores, and tried to supplement most of their purchases with goods from their own Organic Garden.

We had fifteen minutes to run around the market exploring different sights, smells, ands tastes if we saw fit. LZ and I? Did we try to exotic fruits or maybe a deep friend seafood thing that sat tempting us? Nope, we hopped on addiction avenue and headed straight for Thai Tea.

After our fifteen minutes of Thai farmers market fame, we hopped back into the truck and headed an hour outside of Chiang Mai to the cooking school slash organic garden. This is where the class truly began.

First was our introduction to the school grounds and classroom by means of a quick tour of the garden to explain the difference between basil, Thai basil, limes, Papayas (ripe and not ripe for appropriate recipes) lead us to the classrooms: One being an outdoor picnic table under a thatched canopy over a pond (complete with lily pads) set up with mortar and pestle. The other classroom was an open-air kitchen arranged in a “U” shape with roughly ten stoves. Finally, we were given our syllabus and set out to conquer.

Next, an address of our syllabus: Green Curry from the chilies to the paste to the tofu dish sitting on my table for lunch, followed by Tom Kaa Goong, a mildly spicy soup filled to the brim with shrimp and fresh flavors, a fresh, light, sweet and not as spicy Sam Tam, and thai sticky rice finished out the three-course meal we’d be preparing for lunch.

The teacher never barked at us like those on 1950’s movies, nor did she yell or get upset. Instead she kindly came around explaining to each and every one of us what the ingredients were, why they were used, and how we should probably turn down the heat because we were about to burn the dish. It was an interesting concept: taking a class on how to cook when your food was cooking right in front of you, but I guess this is hands on learning at it’s best. We tested our limits by putting a little more coriander in the mortar than she had suggested to see if she would comment on the aroma. We added a few more chillies to test our own limits, but generally stayed in line, because we all knew how to cook food, but not how to cook this food. Plus, she had done this for a while, so we all trusted her, and tried to laugh at her well-timed and overly rehearsed jokes. It was quaint.

Around noon thirty, the lunch bell, if this had been public elementary school, rang and we were in for a treat: our own treats.

This was no cafeteria lunch, if I say so myself. The curry was a balance of coconuty smoothness and chili heat spotted with exceedingly fresh vegetables. The soup was light but deep with lime, chili, and lemon grass all dancing under the red liquid surface. These savory dishes played well against the crisp, sweet, and spicy papaya salad.  All were soaked up and devoured with the sticky rice that had steamed since we arrived.

After lunch, and an hour to peruse the grounds (see: recess), our animated guide turned teacher asked “Are we ready to eat more?” Obviously, since hunger was never an issue in Thailand, we were.

A staple in most US-baed Thai Restaurants was up next: Pad See-Ew. Thick and savory, this dish was quick to prepare needing only a few ingredients and about three minutes over the heat and was balanced out by the fresh and sweet Mango Sticky Rice which took even less time. Fresh mango accompanying coconut creamed sticky rice and sugar. How simple. How sweet. How ambrosia-like. LZ also made some spring rolls. Not too shabby, my friend. We didn’t get to eat those at the class, rather they became our after-school snack, packed up in plastic bags as if goldfish coming home from the pet-store.

Needless to say, the day was bursting with recipes and new techniques. Not only was it education, filling, and inspiring, I was also extremely happy to play around with a huge wok, and to deal with the ingredients that I wouldn’t in Korea (or America, for that matter) like lemon grass, galagal cilantro, and limes. The chili paste and fresh peppers were also nice to have at my arm’s reach.  If I were you, and had some of these ingredients at my disposal, I would hop on this recipe. I mean, it’s Thai green curry, at your fingertips!

Green Curry Paste

Place 1/2 tsp roasted cumin seeds, roasted coriander seeds, and salt into a motar and start to pestle them. Then..

Place 2 green chillies, 1 shallot, 1tsp chopped galangal, 1/2 tsp chopped kaffic lime rind, 2 cloves of garlic, 1 tbsp lemongrass, 1tbsp Thai ginseng into a mortar one by one and pestle them up as you go.

By the end, you’ll have a liquid-y curry paste. Remember you have to pestle through garlic and chillies… they get juicy!

With this curry paste, you can add it to about 2/3 cup (or more, depending on your tastes) of coconut milk over low heat and have a bonafide curry. Add eggplant, onion, basil, water, and other vegetables at your disposal. I might even throw in some sugar (just a pinch) or some soy sauce to give it a little more depth.

Have at it, adventurers.

Picture Book: Bangkok to Chiang Mai

He leaned over the second story balcony in the train station, gazing down on the multitude of people that he had grown comfortable not recognizing. She sat, next to a backpack stuffed full with goods and clothes and gifts for a month’s vacation, watching the clock and thinking about the upcoming train ride. He had never spent more than thirteen hours on a train before, and remembered no good things from that excursion, but felt a calm settle into this mind about the next sixteen. It would be relaxing, recapitulating, and adventurous at the very least. And if that was the very least, he hoped for the most.

The cars were market off by numbers, and theirs was almost at the front of the line. Number two. A green train car that was narrow but spacious. Slightly dingy but oozing character. Broad, comfortable leather chairs faced each other as they did when they sat down. Oscillating  fans kept riders cool and she looked out the window at the other waiting trains and he captured her on digital film. They laughed and talked of old times and teaching and being out of college and laying the foundation for the next chapter of their friendship.

The train rattled and roared North into the mountains as the sun approached the horizon slowly but steadily as always over plains, trees, and bonfires scattered in farm land. Fruit, dinner, and beverage vendors frequently came through the second-class car offering mild distractions from the scenery and they laughed more.

He pulled out a gift he had just received from her – a notebook destined to be filled with Korean study soon enough – to plan their time in the small city in the North.

Temples, hostels, food, elephants, and a cooking class. It was set.

“I like this plan. It sounds good to me.” She wrote in his journal.

“감사합니다” He wrote back.

With a plan written down, their hunger piqued them up out of their chair, car, and into the food car. Accompanied by railway law enforcement, they dined on a soup that taunted them in almost spilling over as the train jumped, jolted around the tracks. Backdropped by a sunset, they imbibed and ate the lemon grass-rich soup with shrimp and enough spice to keep you warm,  to contentment. Soon after, they were asleep in roll-away beds, dreaming of the next day and stability.

Gastronomically driven, the two made they way from vendor to vendor to hostel to temple to tourist office to temple to massage to restaurant to full-bellied bed. The next morning, they would be in the back of a truck on their way to a market with intentions of learning to cook the authentic way. As with any school, they took incessant notes. No pencil and paper scratching furiously leaving them with sore fingers, but digital snapshots, for memory joggers.

An experiment in prose. Coming soon: the cooking school and recipes galore.

Sam Tam’s Layers

There are seven distinct intensities of spice. First, there is an uncomfortable tingling sensation on your tongue. Now, this is the base line of spice – you can generally get this feeling from hot sauces throughout the south, or a hot pepper that caught you the wrong way in some salsa. It is generally here where people start to differentiate between “liking spicy food” or not. That is to say, if people say “Oh, I just don’t do spicy food very well” that means they like to stay at a 0 on my scale of heat.

Once you’ve made the decision to “like spicy food,” they you start to climb very quickly up the ladder. The second level is that surreal feeling that your lips are on fire. Not actual fire, but it feels like they are hot and cold and burning on an open flame and stuck to dry ice at the same time. Nothing really can cool them down – not water or bread and especially not rice. I’ve kissed a bowl full of milk before to stop the insanity (the liquid, that is, not the actual bowl). Normally, you just plow through this feeling.

For those who don’t like spice, I’m sure you’re already like “why would you put yourself through that?” Just wait, naysayer. It gets much better.

Three is simply cosmetic: your face starts to turn a shade of red that would imply excessive make-up application as if you were a three year old first finding your mother’s blush. But no, it’s all natural. Ta-da.

As we climb to number four, we start to get a tingling feeling on the top of our head as if your brain was telling you “stop this.” Don’t listen. Just acknowledge the tingling at the crown of your head, maybe give it a scratch, and know that the best is yet to come. Exhilaration! Excitement! Metabolic play!

Number five on my scale requires you to be in good company, or near a bathroom. No, it’s not bathroom-humor, rather you start to sweat. It starts on your face, then moves down to your chest and arms, and if you’re lucky: your back. It’s as if the food that your ingesting is actually replicating an increase in your surrounding’s temperature. That is to say, if you’re stuck in the tundra, just whip out a jalapeño and jack up your core temperature. I’ve personally had a lot of experience with this sweating sensation. See: in the kitchen of my Thai Restaurant during staff dinner. I had a strange obsession with spice back then so much so that I would mix one tablespoon of peanut sauce, one bowl of rice, and one tablespoon of blended habeñero peppers, and wait for the sweat to roll down my back. Obviously this wasn’t professional since I then had to go clear tables, give people water, put in orders, and collect bills, but it was living.

We’ve climbed this high, why not see the penultimate and final two stages of spice, or as some of you may be thinking at this point – torture.

Level six is a strange physiological reaction: hiccups. I haven’t understood why these happen (I’ve been told that it’s because there is a nerve by your diaphragm that, if hit in a certain way by a certain level of spice, will spaz out and cause hiccups), but I do know that it happens. Sometimes my body will jump right to this stage in spice if I eat something too quickly, but more often then not, it’s after the tongue, lips, face, head, and sweat start up. These, I warn you, aren’t normal hiccups either. More so, they are strange and semi-violent hiccups. Thrilling! Enlivening! Experience!

I’ve known about these six for a good while now, but the seventh was a new discovery in Thailand. Throughout this description, I’ve been subtly showing you pictures of the dish that showed me that last spice. It is sam tam (spicy green papaya salad).  A dish that lets the spice build and build and climbs up my spice ranking. It starts at a 0, hops from 1 to 3 in a heartbeat, then is at 7 by the end of your meal. You’d never expect it, either, since it is shaved green papaya, garlic, lemon juice, sugar, long beans, tomato, peanuts, fish sauce, salt, and a few chilis. It’s not really explainable, but there’s something in there that gets you good. Real good.

Sam tam is all over Thailand, too. It’s in Bangkok in the winding streets of Chinatown, as well as the gorgeous mountains of Chiang Mai.  It’s on the streets on Styrofoam rectangular plates or in open-air restaurants set just off the side of the street.

The first one LZ and I had together was on day two: in Chiang Mai. After an overnight train ride up to the mountain city, a morning walk through the old town and through to our hostel, our first run together in Thailand, we decided it had been enough time since we last ate and headed out in search of sam tam. To be honest, LZ hadn’t stopped talking about this dish, so I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation.

The first sam tam ranked at about a five. No hiccups, but sweat for sure. The second one we got, and third and fourth, and twentieth, ranked around a five or six. The one we got right before we left Chiang Mai for Khon Kaen? That was a seven.

What is a seven? One of LZ’s friends said it perfectly: “It’s so spicy I want to scrape my tongue off with a chopstick” or “I want to rub sand in my mouth to stop this.”  Or as these pictures show: sometimes you can semi-hallucinate. Like I said: real good.

Is this pleasurable? I think so, most certainly. But that’s because I run, do hot yoga that makes me sweat more than a sauna, love to hike for long times with huge packs on my back, go to hard schools that make me pull all nighters to get a passing grade, write seventy pages in under nine days, and read James Joyce’s Ulysses by my self. All in all: I like to… put myself through the gauntlet.

Don’t worry anxious readers, I will hop back to describe Chiang Mai in full, I just wanted to really focus on Sam tam today. It is that good.

While In Thailand, Hunger Was Never A Question

“Can you do me a favor?”

“Sure, what’s that?”

“Can you walk me to the bus stop? I want to give you my coat so I don’t take it to Thailand. You know, I won’t be using it there.”

“Yeah, that sounds good. Want to do lunch before hand?”

“Yup. One last Korean meal sounds good.”

And twelve hours later, I was in the Bangkok airport with just a messenger bag, a camera bag, and nine free days to play, being greeted by one of my very best friends, LZ. I never thought I would, but we then did the Romantic-Comedy movie thing, and ran into each other’s arms, laughed, and almost stood astonished that we had actually met up in Thailand for vacation.  It’d been about eight months since I had seen her, so we obviously had some catching up do – mainly with stories told in half accounts interrupted by laughs and hugs and thoughts drifting into vacant space. It was, after all, almost one thirty in the morning.

After some bartering with a Taxi driver, and dismissing questions of “honeymoon?”, we made it back to the hostel for the night. Tomorrow, LZ said, we’re going to eat so much good street food. That and get on a train for 16 hours. Okay? “Sounds perfect.”

I went to bed with an empty stomach, and that may be the last time I felt that sensation for the rest of the trip.

And this is where we dive into what Thailand really was about. Forget up coming posts of adventures, classes, and reunions. Thailand was about food and nothing but. It was about walking under one kilometer and eating at seven food stalls. It was about filling up on condensed milk and bananas and sugar, only to have conversations later about how we hadn’t eaten enough that day. I was about wanting to scrape the top layer of your tongue off with a chopstick because the curry was just a little to “pet” or spicy. It was about fresh fruit and dim sum dumplings. It was about urging LZ to keep walking past that coconut pancake. It was about vegetarian and Muslim and vegan restaurants. It was about restaurants that didn’t have walls, but had menus for days. It was about smoothies and ice cream.

Recapitulation and Summation: Thailand was about food.

The first day light hours in Thailand, we did just as she had said, and headed straight for the street food. It wasn’t that hard to find, either, seeing as Thai city streets are bordered with food stalls, carts, and boxes. There is no real reason anyone ever has to enter a restaurant. Simply pick up a meat from one stall, walk three steps down and get your vegetable dish, then maybe six steps down, you have your dessert.

Along with food stalls, Bangkok was — despite what others tell me — a beautiful city. Above the food vendors and the occasional merchandise stall, stood tropical trees fanning their leaves over the busy streets. Colorful signs decorated building’s outside walls. Dogs dotted the sidewalks, and People were dressed for a North American summer in February, covering their feet with only flip-flops.

The first stop of our seemingly never-ending food bender was a fruit stall. Like many things in a new place, these at first seemed to be a novelty: Fresh fruit sliced up in a cart filled with ice, and dolled out like candy to the nearest customer in a bag accompanied by two longer, thicker, tooth picks. Seeing as we were in a tropical place, tropical fruit was our choice: pineapple and papaya. We couldn’t have chosen better – the pineapple was sweet with a tangy bite, as if from a granny smith apple, and the papaya – a fruit I normally don’t appreciate – was smooth, creamy, and had a mild sweetness that was unique and addictive. The novelty may have worn off throughout the rest of the trip, but the fruit always remained a good choice for our street-wandering cravings.

With fruit in our hand, we doubled back to find our soon-to-be drug. Chai Yen and Café Yen (Thai Tea and Thai Coffee). This stuff is so good, that I can’t even delve into it now. I have to save a whole diatribe for it. So suffice it to say, we made it to the subway with full hands and satisfied taste-buds, to find Chinatown and our train slash accommodation for the night (see: sleeper trains are the way to go)

This simple transition, I will point out, is much like every other transition from here on out in our trip in Thailand: go to one place, eat, travel to another place only to eat again. Hunger was never a question.

Once we hit Chinatown, we were greeted by a Tuk-Tuk driver who wanted to tell us that Chinatown was closed for Lunar New Year, and we should go over to Wat Arun today. Good try, smiling Thai man who has a heart of gold, but we know that street vendors sleep for nothing, even if all of the stores are closed for only the biggest holiday of the year. Sorry.

Winding back through streets adorned with Chinese lanterns and wandering dogs, we searched for the street food, yet again. It was a –badum-cha— a fruitful exploration seeing as we stumbled into one of the more claustrophobic markets I’ve been in recently. Low roofs, hustling people, flip-flops dangling over my head and cartoon-printed t-shirts in my face, everything we brought to Thailand on our backs: I only trudged on in hopes that the utopia of Thai delicacies were just around the corner.

Just like that, it was. Goods held in small cups, big plates, plastic bags, banana leaves wrapped around confectionary wonders, and finger-foods were all around me. I consider myself a pretty well versed 20something cook slash chef slash eater – I even worked in a Thai restaurant for years and yet – some of these foods had escaped me. Sure, I remembered the words for chicken, pork, vegetable, and curries, but some of these things were too local to recognize. But, again, some of these things were so foreign to me that all I could do was plunge my teeth into the thin pastry to taste hot, creamy, sweet coconut hidden inside.

 

 

 


And that was the theme from there on out. See it? Had it before? Want it? If one of us answered yes to one of those questions, we bought it and devoured it, hoping that we’d remember what it was so we could get it again, later.

Thanks to LZ’s good sense of direction and her watch, we made it to the train station in time to find water, the bathroom, and our seats for our 16-hour train ride north to Chiang Mai.

You may think that the street food bender only happened that first day, in Bangkok, because everything was so new. Think again, Slick Rick. It happened everyday. Almost all day. To the point that every time we passed a stall, LZ would slow down ever-so-slightly, keep her head fixed on the chicken on a stick, and slack her jaw just a bit.

It was this tell that I knew she wanted to stop, and get it. I never argued, in stead I normally finished off the treat. See: a chicken stick during the first 20 minutes in Chiang Mai. See: the walk from the train station to the hostel. See: the entire day in Chiang Mai. See: the grilled bananas in Khon Kaen. See: the fresh mango smoothie. See: the Thai take on a crepe (roti) filled with an egg, banana, and chocolate. See: heavy stomachs and happy hearts.

Go Fish

When considering how to jump back into it all, I was faced with a conundrum: do I stay true to temporal life and continue on the chronological story of a 20something exploring the other side of the world? Or do I skip the bread and butter, appetizer, drink and hop right into the main course of this month’s gastronomical binge: Thailand.

After sorting out pictures and parsing though memories, I figured I’d do both. I’ll go back in time to satisfy those in need of order, but I’ll hop back and forth like an Indie-film to quench the thirst of those looking for a little more chaos in their life. What that results in is: one old story, next time one new, then one old, then Thailand until you get bored of hearing about tea, street food, Mr. Tom, curries, extravagance and obviously elephants (not to eat, of course).

So back into time we go; we go back just two or three weeks ago when the air cut through any number of layers of clothing, hair would freeze outside, and ice covered the tops of rivers and pods. We go back to a weekend that a friend and I had planned for about a month: a weekend filled with the answer to “how fresh can you get?”

When I first came to Korea, I was fascinated with what foods Koreans ate on the regular. Obviously there are things that the rest of the world knows about (see: bibimbap, kimchi, and maybe soju?), but then there are the things that the people here eat that will never be exported for one reason or the other (I’ll save you from my diatribe on culture, food, and the marketing of the two as one). Some of those truly Korean things were the freshest of things. Yes there are prepared foods, but most of the dining I did was accompanied by fresh vegetables, raw meat for our self-cooking on the grill in the middle of the table, fish tanks outside of the restaurant displaying the fish that you may be eating if you choose the right dish, or – in some cases – moving octopus tentacles which you had to chew vigorously to stop the suctioning on the inside of your cheek.

True, these are all super fresh. You see them kill your meal right in front of you. The vegetables are vibrant and crisp and you are almost assured that they were imported within the week. But what about fresher?

This is where some readers might want to stop reading. I hate to say it, and it almost seems counterintuitive for me – the writer – to say “stop this tom foolery,” but this part gets a bit… carnivorous.

Seeing as that probably only entices most of you, let me continue.

In search of the freshest, the best, the coldest, the source, around eight of us all traveled about 90 minutes out of Seoul to a small town, famous for jjimdak and bing-aw. After a subway, a train, and a taxi, we all found ourselves in a rented out house on a frozen lake. We were destined, and had planned, to ice fish.

Now, when I think about ice fishing, I think of Alaska, Russia, and the Bering Strait. Not South Korea. But there I was, on more than a foot of solid ice, over a small river, with about one hundred other people, all digging small holes in the ice with ice-picks, dangling fishing rods down into the remaining flowing waters.

The goal of this fishing was not to catch the fish, put them in a bucket, drag them home and cook them up with some lemon and dill. That wouldn’t be fresh enough. The point of this fishing excursion was to fish the small sardine-sized fish out, put them in a bowl full of water, and eat them. No cooking. No killing. Well, not, at least, until they hit your teeth.

See why I said this was carnivorous?

The eight of us stayed on the ice laughing and catching up with our fishing lines dangling down into the dark depths for about four hours or so, in hopes of catching our own fish. Alas, the lake was all fished out. We actually didn’t see anyone catch a single fish the entire time we were there. We did, though, see lots of kids racing on small, make-shift sleds across the ice, people building fires on the ice, and college-aged students getting completely wasted in the middle of the day… on the ice.

No matter – situated on the edge of the ice block aka river were several food stalls stocked full of fish cake, ramen, soda, water, fried fish, and (!) raw fish. They even got a little frisky and served a salad with these flopping fish on top.

We didn’t get that exotic, and just ordered one round of fried fish and one of the raw fish. To our table came a Styrofoam bowl filled to the brim with water and about 30 fish swimming in a school together to the right, left, front, back, trying to find the exit.

Equipped only with chopsticks, three of us plunged into the water, snatching up a fish, trying to keep it between our silverware.

“What now?”

“Dunk it into the gochujang” (see: thick, vinegary hot sauce)

Dunk.
“Now what?”

“One shot.”

And into my mouth went a fish dunked in hot sauce, still flopping around a bit. Squeamish? I somehow wasn’t.  It’s hard to describe what these actually tasted like. I’d say they tasted like “fresh.” Some say cucumber. Some say cold rice. If anything I’d say they tasted like adrenaline, because I was so into making sure they were dead before they hit my esophagus.

Would I do it again? Maybe. Was it worth it? For sure. I mean, who can beat that, in terms of freshness? Not Whole Foods, that’s a fact.