Virginia Is For Lovers; Korea Is For Couples: Night (Part 2)

Following the day of wandering around a river and riding an elevator into the skies of Korea, Laurel and I were tired. Really tired. We sat in the café-gift shop looking at over-priced coffees and gifts that pertained not to the 63 building, but Korea in general, while trying to figure out what our next step was to be.

“We have two options. Go home and rest until dinner. Or, we go to that neighborhood I’ve never been to.”

“I want to rest. But let’s keep going.”

You’d think that this conversation might have taken about twenty seconds, but given our conditions, it took about twelve minutes. “We have two options (pause for a few minutes while gazing out into the yellow dusted skies). Go home and (pause)” You see how this goes. You’ve been there too, I know it.

With motivation surging through our muscles, we made our way to the neighborhood I’ve always heard about – Garosugil – after we were gifted a free Fanta in a convenience store. Thank you, Korea.

Garosugil is not a neighborhood, rather more of a long street, lined with trees and boasting impressive name brands, boutique stores, cafes that happily serve you seven dollar lattes. For more than six blocks you are confronted with beautiful store fronts and cafes overflowing with couples, cameras all over the place, accessory stores spilling onto the sidewalk, some street vendors selling fifty dollar wallets and underground stores that should be my wardrobe. There are plenty of restaurants ranging from Japanese Izakaya to pasta shop to sandwich store to school food. Upper class to provincial fare. More or less, it’s Europe in Seoul.

All along this leafy lined lane walked, sat, giggled, photographed, smiled, embraced, kissed couples. Couples everywhere. Korea really is the land of couples. On the subway you rarely see a person sitting alone and if they are alone, you’re almost always right if you guess that they’re on their way to meet their spouse.  In a café, the loner in the corner is just waiting for their other half. Strolling, perusing, promenading, hand-holding, picture taking, iced-latte-sharing, these are the typical activities of couples in Korea. And in this little slice of Seoul, garosugil, it’s amplified.

Laurel and I, luckily (or not?), fit in. We were wearing something similar (the couple look is also huge here), we had the same hair color, complexion, and I occasionally held her purse as she tried something on (again, men holding the purse is completely…. required)), and we also almost shared a coffee.

But no! Instead, we went for the food. It had been more than a couple hours since our snack in the sky and I had read about School Food, a restaurant where they specialize in nothing but school-like food. I’ll throw some out there to see if you recognize them from your cafeteria menu reading days:

Ddeokboki, Ramyeon, Sundae, Mali, Twiigim, Naenmyeon, Lakboki

No? Doesn’t ring any bells of mystery meat and tater tots? Yeah, me either, but this stuff is delicious.

With Laurel’s love of noodles, it was easy to pick out our dinner – a mixture of spicy sweet hot sauce drowning out compact chewy rice cakes and ramen noodles, and cold buckwheat noodles spiced with a red paste all with some cucumbers, cabbage, shaved-ice-water, and scissors to cut the noodles into bite-sized pieces.

Sitting at a table for two amongst endless couples, going through three cups of water each, wiping our brows, we coupled the whole meal up and shared everything. With our bellies full, and our night coupled with delicious food, we set off to meet up with my next visitor – a college friend named Andrew. The next day proved to be as adventurous as this day and night were.

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.

A Day in the Life: Fish Cakes

I didn’t look forward to getting up this morning. Not because it wasn’t another beautiful day here in Seoul, but because the weatherman predicted that the temperatures wouldn’t break negative ten all day. That means that from dawn break around seven forty, or so, until well into the night, I am going to have to face the biting cold, the dismissive looks, and whipping wind, all for what? A few thousand won for a fish shaped treat? At least I have a stove built into my cart, whereas those fools selling hats, scarves, knock off Gucci purses all have to huddle around a space heater.

I figure today people aren’t going to be up and about until much later. They, too, want the sun to heat the frozen bricks before heading out to browse what we street vendors have to offer this week. If I paid close enough attention, I’m sure I’d start to recognize the regulars that check on weekly debuts, but I just can’t be bothered anymore. So around ten in the morning, I start to uncover the blue tarp strapped to my cart, turn on the propane, rub my hands together with a quick injection of hot air to keep nimble, and then start in on the mixing. I mix the batter together and get the filling ready.

Now the batter doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth, since I drop it into a press shaped like a fish. And the filling – a nice red bean paste – certainly doesn’t have to be lump free. In fact, most of my customers “oo” and “aa” when there are little bits of red beans in the sweetened paste, so I generally leave it quite textured.

Mixing is probably the worst part, too. On days like this when it’s negative eleven, I have to mix the batter by hand, exposing my fingers to the air. On days like this, I envy those chestnut roasters who just pop their chestnuts into a kiln and wait for them to be roasted. Or the ddokboki vendors, who get to do everything with gloves on. But no, not me, I have huddle down into my scarf deeper and deeper as the wind picks up and feels like knives against my dried out skin.

See I do have it easier in some respects, though. Once that mix is complete, all I have to do is lop some of it into a waffle iron shaped like a fish, place some red bean past into the middle, and close the contraption. A minute or two for chewy pancake-waffle-cookie-cake like dough with the red bean paste nice and warm on the in side, or a few more minutes for a crispy outside and doughy center. Some people like to point to their favorite textures; some foreigners try to test their Korean out on me, but really I just hand them whatever I want to give them. They normally bow an absurd amount, throw around a butchered “thank you” and run away, plowing through four fish before they turn the corner.

On days like today,  don’t blame them. In fact, I join them with a celebratory “cheers.” Actually, on most days, I join them. Who wouldn’t? These little pastries are hot and fresh out of the press, offering up a slightly sweet dough filled with the substantial texture of beans as well as the sweet hint of red-bean-paste that sits oh-so-often on the top of winter pot bing su. The fish cakes, my friends, are addictive.

And now it’s sun fall. I could stay up longer and try to push these sweet treats onto more people, but for my own comfort, I’m going to head back home. If anyone wants some of what I’ve got, well they’ll have to come back tomorrow and be satisfied by a little fried food for now. A corn-dog stuffed with french fries, perhaps?

A Day of 20 Something Meals

Yesterday I made my third (or fourth, depending on technicalities) voyage outside of the beast that is Seoul. We prepared little, and planned even less. All we knew was that we were getting up before sunrise, getting on a bus, and going south to the “Culinary Home of Korea:” Jeonju (전주).

I obviously was in heaven. I had heard fables of how the legendary bibimbap of Jeonju would ruin any other bibimbap from then on. I heard that the quaint village thrived on food, and that it was a necessary expedition any self-respecting food enthusiast would take. I agree with most of that.

Up at 4:30, on the subway by 6, on the bus by 7, and in a restaurant eating bibimbap by 1030.  The fast-paced nature of the trip didn’t stop with our initial arrival either. We went from restaurant to palace to market to coffee shop to market to Korean wine museum to restaurant to a quick hike to an area of town dedicated solely to makgeoli to bar to bus station all in under 12 hours. It was non-stop moving; it was nothing but bliss.

The town of Jeonju itself looked like the result of quick post-WWII development. It was wildly homogenous and built up, rather than sprawling. What was remarkable about this town was the defined presence of tradition marked by the 800+ Hanok, or traditional houses. I’d seen them before throughout Seoul, but the houses I had seen were of museum quality. That is to say, no one lived in them; they were maintained solely for the purpose of showing tourists and Koreans alike the history Korea has to offer. But in Jeonju, people lived in these homes. So did convenience stores, bars, restaurants, and shops. These were the buildings of the southern end of town.

We actually ended up spending most of our time in this Hanok Village. It was there that we put away two meals of bibimbap (in search of that one that was going to destroy any chance of liking it again because it was so delicious), found the wine museum and wandered around a market consisting of fruits, vegetables, fish, grains, ddok (rice cake that’s almost pasta-like).

Did we find the bibimbap that would forever be ingrained in our minds? Not really. Did we eat some delicious meals, and continually consume? You bet your bottom dollar we did. And it was when we least expected it that we stumbled upon the best and most adventurous meal of the day.

After a quick hike up a mound (note: not hill or mountains, just a mound), a couple of compulsory jump-pictures, and me running around the group as if I had pounded ten espresso shots, we all consented that it was time to find out what the beverages of Jeonju were like.

Two members of our travel team – Molly and Lucy – have been in Korea for under a month. So everything they tried was relatively new which made me want to keep showing them new things. Sure we could have gone to a local Hof (Korean-style bar) and had a few draft beers and some snack food, or we could go get some Jeonju makgeoli.

To me, this isn’t a tough decision: I both love adventure and the taste of makgeoli. This drink I talk of is a kind of rice wine. Wikipedia says it’s a mix of fermented rice, wheat, and water. It’s a little weaker than wine, but you’d never be able to guess its strength. Really, it tastes like candy water – which is where problems arise.

Makgeoli is a milky-chalky-sweet-slightly effervescent drink that has no bite, and full flavor. It’s like nothing I’ve had in my travels because it touches on the same tastes as yogurt – which wouldn’t seem to blend well, at all, with alcohol. But listen up, this 20something fully supports it.

With some selling, struggles with the local dialect, and some quick decision making, we found ourselves in makgeoli town with a tea-kettle full of this chalky treat, sitting in front of a full table of free sides.

See in Seoul, and Korea in general, the drinking culture here is coupled with eating. Almost all hofs require that you get some food with your beverage. Maybe this is trying to save the drinkers from themselves (fill up on food instead of alcohol), or maybe it’s just a clever ploy to get people to spend more money.  Either way, in Seoul you have to buy both things: food and drink.  In Jeonju, we order a tea-kettle full for four people, and out came four bowls (you drink makgeoli, and many other drinks, out of bowls, not cups) a soup, fruit  corn, eggs (hard boiled, and a few fried), and about fifteen sides. Service (free). That’s right folks, the dynamic foursome hit up our last and final meal of the day suddenly in a bar, for free.

Amongst this spread, I only recognized one “standard” side: a few varieties of kimchi. The other things: hard boiled eggs, edamame, smoked corn on the cob, clementines, chestnuts, cabbage, roe, bean sprouts, muscles, octopus, snails, and cocoons, were new and welcomed extensively.

Nope, you didn’t read that wrong. There were snails and cocoons on the table. And I ate them. And I’d do it again. The cocoons were a strange texture: almost like stringy fabric that, despite their being sitting in a liquid, sucked the moisture right out of my mouth. It was an exploration in texture food.

The snails were a hit, in general, at our table. Lucy claimed that they were “like chips” insofar as to say that they were easy to eat (simply suck the snail out of shell) and they were salty.

After this debacle of new foods, and a couple tea-kettles of makgeoli, we hit up one more establishment where drinks, cookies, persimmons, peanuts, and whole-dried-anchovies graced our table, and headed for the bus station. On the bus by 8:30, I’d say we were efficient with our Jeonju time. 10 hours, one city, and about 20something meals. Boom goes the dynamite.

The Fat Lady Sings “Like Day and Night, But The Same”

Have you noticed that my titles generally don’t make sense until you read the post? I don’t know, yet, if that’s a good thing or not. Either way, I’m going to keep it going.

Taiwan is something like three weeks ago, but I’m still finding things lodged in my journal or new photos that are worth writing about. Nay, fine folks, it needs to be written about. People needed to know about those street buns – at least my best friend did because she keeps talking about them. And people needed to know the kindness the monks in Taroko Gorge bestowed upon me and my traveling companion. And now people need to know about the crazy strange weird delicious unidentifiable alive (possibly) foods that crawl, skate, or swim around the streets of Taiwan.

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From the Streets

When I used to think about Asian food, I thought about soy sauce, rice, and street foods. Persecute me for falling into the trap that is stereotyping or over-generalizing, but its what it is. At least I’m honest, right?

Well over the past two months, Korean food has started to dissolve that preconceived notion of mine. Now I think of tofu and cabbage and spice, rice, broth and garlic. Maybe even delicious grilled meat. Note: no soy sauce, no street food.

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Stoves at every table!

It has officially been a week since I landed in Asia but at this point, it feels like a year. Already when I walk down the street, I scoff at the other foreigners and try to avoid people speaking English. I haven’t been in an American store yet (save the McDonalds I went in for some soft-serve ice cream… no judging!) and I’ve been eating Korean food nonstop (again, except for that damn soft-serve ice cream. It had to be done. It just looked so cold and refreshing.) Continue reading