Archive for the ‘Korea Travel’ Category

Duck, duck, beer

July 5, 2012

Sometimes when my sister and I are visiting Seoul, my parents seem to forget that we used to live there. They’ll say, “We’re taking you to this great noodle place,” forgetting that we’ve gone there every year for the last ten years. Which is why I think my dad was so happy to think of a place I’d never been and a food I’d never eaten: 오전명가 (Ohjeon Myeongga) for grilled duck.

We drove about an hour and a half out of the city and ended up on a long curving road up and around Namhansansung, a walled fortress with a long history near Gwangju City in Gyeonggi Province. (If you’ve clicked through to the Namhansansung website, please don’t mention the English translation. I’d make fun of it, but it would be too cheap a shot.) As we drove, my father told a story as meandering as the road about how the king ran away to hide during an invasion. It didn’t sound like it ended too well, but the mountains are now a lush and lovely place popular with weekend hikers.

When we drove up to the restaurant, I automatically walked in the front door and thought, “Where is everyone?” The restaurant was empty because everyone was sitting out back by the creek.

While the adults eat and grill and drink beer and soju to their hearts’ content, their kids wade in the creek and try to catch tadpoles. It made me intensely nostalgic for the days when I was one of those kids.

Luckily, there’s much to enjoy as an adult. Who knows how much I would have enjoyed grilled duck as a child? As an adult, I can attest I enjoy it very much. The meat came marbled and meaty, including some cuts of a tough, hard organ my father said was probably duck heart. I’d never seen raw duck before — its color is obviously richer and redder than chicken, but more burgundy-hued than beef and definitely richer in color than pork. The duck came completely raw and unseasoned, with a giant bowl of chive and onion salad, lettuce, perilla leaves, a couple of tart kimchis, and plenty of salt and fermented bean paste for wrapping everything up.

The food was excellent. As much as I liked the duck, I was enamored with the wild sesame sujebi or torn pasta that was served at the end. I’ve had sujebi before, which are chewy bits of dough cooked in soup, a very cheap Korean lunch. But I’d never had sujebi cooked in wild sesame broth. The seeds had been ground, the broth was thick and almost gritty, with a wonderful, nutty flavor and smell. I was so full of duck by the time it came out, I thought I’d just have a bite or two, but I could not stop eating it. It’s been a while since a Korean dish has really surprised me like this.

Best of all, as new as the duck and the stew and the restaurant were to me, the experience was not. It’d been a long time since I’d been to a restaurant like that, but it was as warm and familiar as my grandmother’s house. I felt like I recognized the creek, the plastic tables, the beer glasses printed with “Cass,” and even the other people enjoying a long and hearty lunch on a balmy Sunday in June. The next time a friend visits me in Korea, this is where I want to take them, to show what my Korea is like.


Gyeonggi-do, Gwangju-Si Jungbuhmyun Ohjeonli 309-1

(031) 746-4425

You can find much better photos, including photos of delicious dishes we didn’t try, and a little map on this Korean blog.


Summer soybeans

July 1, 2012

I always knew Sandong Kalguksu makes the best knife-cut noodles I’ve ever tasted, but I didn’t know they also made one of the best versions of konguksu. Konguksu is a very popular summer noodle dish in Korea, where plain wheat noodles are served in a large bowl of ice-cold fresh soymilk, usually garnished with a few strips of cucumbers. Normally, it’s served with a little dish of salt for you to flavor to taste. You wouldn’t think it would taste like much. It’s a completely vegetarian, even vegan, meal, but it’s filling and sustaining, and much more enjoyable source of protein than a big piece of fatty meat on a hot summer day.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the noodles in this konguksu were superb — they were — but what really surprised me was the broth. Most konguksu broths are thin. When I make soymilk for this dish, I push soybeans that have been briefly cooked and then pureed through a strainer. I don’t know how Sandong makes theirs, but they end up with an insanely thick puree of beans that enrobes each bite of noodle. It’s still a soup, but more the consistency of a thick pureed soup than a thin stock.


1365 Seocho-2-dong, Seocho-gu

Tel: 02-3473-7972


June 22, 2012

I go to Seoul, Korea, at least once a year, and each time I go, I try to figure out what’s going on. Not with real issues like South Korean attitudes toward North Korea, or who is likely to win the next presidential election. I’m on vacation —  I’m only interested in things like, what is the latest trend in patbingsoo, or Korean shaved ice?

In Korea, patbingsoo, or shaved ice with sweet red beans, is so popular that it’s on the menu at KFC. When I was growing up, patbingsoo was colorful and bounteous — shaved ice with milk, then a big pile of sweet red beans, a scoop of some terrible low-grade ice cream, mass-produced little mochi cakes, and lots of little fruit jellies and/or fruit cocktail. I always pushed my ice cream to the side. It was delicious but tacky.

But patbingsoo now seems to be trending minimalist and classy. My sister Mona and I were in Seoul for over a week before we finally sat down to our first shared patbingsoo (and patbingsoo is always shared, another example of how communal Korean food is), but when we did, we were wowed.

The first was at a cafe chain I’d never seen before called Mango Six, which sells fruit shakes, tapioca drinks, and baked goods, as well as a tremendous shaved ice. My sister’s been obsessed with a new Korean drama called 신사의 품격, (something like “A Gentleman’s Dignity”), and Mango Six clearly has a product placement deal with the show. One of the main characters, who has a haircut that is so bad it’s awesome, runs a Mango Six franchise.

Their version is very simple and beautiful. First, the ice flakes are very fine, barely flakes at all. There’s a good sprinkling of my favorite traditional ingredient, toasted soybean flour. The sticky rice cakes are very high quality, and the round ones that look like hard-boiled eggs cut in half actually have a mango-flavored center. Best of all, what is normally crappy ice cream has been replaced with a scoop of tangy frozen yogurt.

The second patbingsoo we shared was very different but equally inspired. Our cousin Ron told us that the best patbingsoo in Seoul was at Deux Cremes on trendy Garosu-gil. It did not disappoint. I have no idea if their tarts are any good, but if I’m going to judge them by their patbingsoo, this is a cafe that thinks carefully about the small but important things.

It looks almost like a modernist sculpture, no? We ordered the green tea bingsoo, and when we saw other tables getting their patbingsoo, my sister and I panicked, thinking maybe it didn’t come with any red beans. Silly us.

It’s buried in the middle! How brilliant is that? It means you don’t end up eating too much pat with your first bites; the ratio of red beans to ice stays more constant as you dig deeper and deeper into the bowl. The flakes were not nearly as fine as at Mango Six — they were actually a little coarse and the only thing I didn’t like — but the green tea flavor was real and the scoop of ice cream high-quality. Plus, they add salty honey-roasted peanuts. So brilliant, I didn’t even miss not having little rice cakes.

Both versions are a little pricey, about 12,000 or 14,000 won, but as I mentioned before, they’re supposed to be shared. Two is a good number, but really, three or four friends could be pretty happy sharing one as well.

And it’s not just the fancy cafes that are doing these stripped-down bings. Paris Baguette, the ubiquitous bakery chain, was advertising an “old-fashioned” bingsoo with just ice, beans, and injeolmi, the soft squares of rice cakes dusted with soybean flour.

Soju made even more convenient

June 7, 2012


Soju in a box! In an individual portion-size juice box!

Our food, with drinks

June 5, 2012

For a long time, coming home to Seoul was all about nostalgia. In the two weeks out of the year I spend in my hometown, I wanted only to make the rounds of all my favorites, eating my fill of cold noodles, dumplings, and all the other basic, beloved foods that are never as good in New York as they are at home. And then when Diane and I started working on the cookbook, I wanted to eat through all the traditional favorites that were never my family’s traditions, like stinky cheonggukjang stew and spicy dakgalbi.

But now, I’m a little more curious what’s new. Seoul has changed so much since I lived here. It makes me a little sad to go shopping in Myeongdong and see edgy design stores selling Toms shoes and Baggu totes — when you live in New York, you want to travel somewhere that reminds you nothing of New York — but I’m hopeful, in food if in nothing else, that Koreans will put their own stamp on whatever they adopt.

수불, or SuhBuhl (my stab at a transliteration), declares, “Our food, with drinks,” on its business cards. Near the top of the winding street at the center of 서래마을, or Seorae Village, in Banpo-dong, SuhBuhl is one of many airy and open restaurants, cafes, izakayas, bakeries, and wine bars that’s transformed this part of town into past ten or so years. Seorae Village is known as the French part of Seoul, the location of the Lycee Francaise and the residential base of the several hundred French expats who live in Seoul, and the proliferation of these hip new places is often attributed to the chic population’s influence, though the famous Paris Croissant bakery, which reportedly sells authentic French bread with imported French flour, feels more uniquely Korean than French (more on that in a later post).

Dining al fresco in Korea used to mean eating at a plastic tarp-covered pojang-macha, sitting on cheap stools if you got a seat at all. SuhBuhl is sleeker. The furniture is all blond wood, clean lines, but not overly designed or luxe. There’s actually a rolled-up curtain of plastic on the open terrace, which is filled with traditional low tables where diners sit on the floor, though with those neat cut-outs I love under the tables for diners’ legs.

It’s a comfortable place with surprisingly comfortable food, despite its reputation for fusion cooking. There’s a whole page devoted to makgeolli, the fizzy Korean rice wine, and an extensive wine menu.  Unlike many Korean wine bars, they actually sell wine by the glass, even if it’s only one white and one red. (The white was very serviceable for a warm night.)

The menu is divided into salads, different kinds of meats, and stews, all remniscent of Korean food, especially Korean drinking food, but with small, surprising changes. I would have loved to try more of the menu, but four of the dishes was more than enough for the four of us, since they were in classic Korean drinking food portions.

We started with the tofu sesame salad, which was very plain but also quite fresh. Korea has an incredible variety of greens and sprouts, and it was a good, crisp contrast to our other, richer dishes.

The fried chicken in black sesame sauce was my favorite. Both this and the sweet and sour pork dish were fried right, completely dry and with a crust strong enough to stand up to the sauce without getting soggy. The fried chicken actually tasted quite a bit like traditional sweet and sour Korean-Chinese food, but with a slightly nutty flavor. My sister thought it was a bit sweet, but I have a soft spot for anything that reminds me of my childhood sweet and sour favorite, tangsooyook, and there wasn’t a hint of gooeyness or gluey-ness in the sauce.

One touch that felt very Korean to me were the plentiful vegetable garnishes, even on the meaty main dishes. There were also nice pickles that were not kimchi. Most Korean bar food isn’t very herbaceous since the craving for fat that comes with being drunk doesn’t normally include a craving for salad. But Korean food for me is at its best when there are strong contrasts between fatty and crisp, rich and acidic. The steak in a spicy gochujang sauce didn’t feel so Korean, mainly because the beef was rare and tender and the sauce not fiery hot, but the enormous bed of soybean sprouts and zucchini did. The fried garlic on top was a nice touch, especially in the quantity. You can see that there’s an attention to plating (which in itself is not foreign to Korean cooking as bright colors and garnishes are important), but it’s not at all fussy.

This was probably the least interesting dish, even if it was, like the fried sesame chicken, quite tasty. I should have looked more closely at the menu, but I think it may have been fried with sweet rice flour, which would explain its nice chewiness. In fact, as tangsooyook, I would have been thrilled. Not too much sauce, dry fried. It was probably a bit too similar to the fried chicken dish, not that that stopped me from eating plenty of it. It’s the kind of food you could eat a piece of every couple of minutes all night long, especially if you’re in a drunken stupor.

We were not. Our normally hard-drinking cousins were abstaining from anything stronger than beer and wine, and only in small doses. There are so many good places to eat in Seoul, I’m not sure I would rush back, but it’s such a pleasant space and the kind of place you could happily bring a date or a visiting friend or even kids — there were quite a few families eating when we got there. The food wasn’t as expensive as you might think, with each dish hovering in the 20,000 won range and big enough to feed many, though with drinks I’m sure the bill would add up. And I would love to take a crack at that list of makgeolli.

수불: 서초구 반포동 88-6, 영창 빌딩 1층, (02) 3478-0886

Suhbuhl: Seocho-gu, Banpo-dong 88-6, Youngchang Building 1st Floor, tel: (02) 3478-0886.

Eating yogurt pudding, 1-2-3

November 7, 2010

My trip to Korea this time was short and pretty hectic.  I didn’t do half of what I intended to do.  But on my last day, before heading out to the airport, I did try a little jar of yogurt-flavored pudding that my sister insisted I try, via my mother, from our favorite bakery, Kim Young Mo.


Like honey, sunshine, and love.

Even better when you get to the caramel bottom.

Kudos to Mr. Kim!  For more on how his life was inspired by the good smells of fresh bread, see this recent Korea Times article.

(Obviously, I’ve been out of it.  My excuse is that I started a new job.  But hope springs eternal, and I believe I will start writing again!)

Tofu donuts

October 17, 2010

I can’t begrudge the rapid spread of Dunkin’ Donuts throughout Seoul because the stores are so intrinsically, uniquely Korean.

I tried the simple glazed one.  It was springy and surprisingly moist.  Not bad.  But also not great.  I’d rather eat a “Well-Being” sticky rice sesame twist.

Mountains, rice wine, bibimbap

October 15, 2010


Vines covering the wall of a Buddhist temple near the start of the trail.


The way to Ulsan Bawi, the craggy northern face of Seorak Mountain, is always vivid with color.  In early October, the leaves hadn’t really started to change color, but Korean hikers like to wear lots of bright orange and red.  Even pink is not a color reserved for women.

I love the way Koreans love the mountains.  Despite a longstanding belief in the qi or power of mountains, Korean appreciation for mountains is not spiritual, at least not in the Western, ethereal sense.  There is certainly a tradition of asceticism, of solitude and silence among Buddhist monks, and there are several temples on the way to Ulsan Bawi, but the boisterous majority enjoy the mountains the way Koreans enjoy most things, with all their bodies and all their might.


Guarding the bridge at the start of the trail.


I walked alone, having left my parents to putter around the base, but everyone else walked in packs, at least three if not six or more.  It’s a relatively short hike, about 6 kilometers (or 3.7 miles) round-trip, but nearly everyone was outfitted with hiking boots, backpacks, walking sticks, and hats, golf caps for men and visors for women.  The visors came in all colors and materials.  I was dying to ask the woman sporting one bedazzled in silver sequins where she had bought it.

Although the trail to Ulsan Bawi ends in a vertiginous staircase, the vast majority of hikers were middle-aged and older.  I’d say a good 50% were over 50.  They climbed slowly but with fervor.  We are not a lazy people.  I passed three middle-aged women talking about how there are so many places to go—Tibet, Nepal!

Luckily, most of the way the trail was broad and accessible.  The trail starts on a wide paved road following a rocky stream, which leads to metal walkways paved with springy tire scraps. On the way, there were two ahjummas selling homemade pumpkin candy, who called out, “Try some yeot, only 500 won!” in between texting on their cellphones.  Further up was a rest stop, by which I mean more than a couple of benches and pit toilets.  This rest stop had three or four restaurants selling Korean favorites, like mixed rice bowls and spicy rice cakes, as well as cold sodas and Buddhist prayer beads.  The owners stood outside as we streamed by, reminding us, “Be sure to have a cup of makgeolli rice wine on your way down!”  In case you regretted not stopping at this rest stop, there was another one a kilometer or so up the trail.

But most of the hikers on the trail were carrying plenty of their own food.  As the climb got steeper, they peeled off in little groups.  Under the shade of pine trees, they laid out their spread.  No sandwiches or granola bars for them—they were carrying full dosirak lunches of rice with plenty of banchan, small, salty side dishes that taste even better in the mountain air, judging by the happy looks on their faces.


I think all national parks should have adorable bear mascots.


When I got to Heundeul Bawi, or Shaky Rock, the hike became serious.  The flat rock face was engraved with Chinese characters, which I unfortunately can’t read, but I appreciated the paintings on the small temple that showed a man surrounded by mountains.  From there, it was less than a kilometer to Ulsan Bawi, yet it quickly became the longest leg of the trip.  The stair case seemed to have no end, but the hikers coming down assured us it wasn’t much further, even as one woman laughingly said, “Sometimes, you have to hear lies to keep going!”


I hope when I am 70, I am still climbing stairs like this.


It somehow helped that the stairs had been painted a dull orange—it made it easier to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  The stair case made a few turns, there was a tight squeeze through some rocks, and then one last short climb which led to a small flat rock looking out at Ulsan Bawi.


I didn't bring any hiking clothes or equipment to Korea. Oh well.


The rock is small, only 100 square feet or so, so we all sat squeezed together, resting our exhausted thighs and marveling at the view.  There was a tattered taegukki or Korean flag on the rail, which people posed next to proudly.  Part of the makeshift deck was taken up by a vendor, who had somehow lugged a desk, a small boombox, medals, drinks, and a photo-taking kit up here, though how he managed to get up the staircase with all that crap, I could not imagine.  He didn’t do much of a hard sell, though; he stuck to quietly selling cups of instant hot coffee to people who asked.

All the chatter, the plastic tarps at the rest stops, the hot coffee vendor at the top, none of it took away from the beauty of Seorak Mountain.  Despite the eating, there was no trash.  The stream ran clear and cold.  The bare boulders shone white against the green tree tops, and I wished I could come back when they would shine even brighter against orange, red, and gold.  My father said, “Doesn’t it look like Yosemite?”  I couldn’t agree—it doesn’t have the majesty of remoteness and danger.  As hard as the climb is, I imagine it can’t compare to Half Dome.  But I loved that these mountains felt familiar, tough but accessible, even to the grandmothers who clawed their way up there.

The legend of Ulsan Bawi is this: the Creator of heaven and earth sent out a call to all the boulders and rocks to come create the most beautiful mountain in the world, Geumgansan, which is now in North Korea.  Ulsan Bawi tried to go, but its enormous mass kept it from getting there in time.  On the way back, it stopped in the mountains of Seorak, saw how beautiful it was, and decided to stay.


The best thing to eat after a climb -- sanchae bibimbap, a mixed rice bowl with wild herbs and vegetables.


In Korea, even the mountains love mountains.


And the best thing to drink -- makgeolli, a lightly fizzy rice wine.


Tilting pork fat

February 8, 2010

I’m in Korea again.  This time, it’s not primarily for cookbook research, but more for family reasons.  It’s such a short trip, a few days in Seoul, then Guam (don’t ask), then Lunar New Year back in Seoul and a flight back to JFK the next day.  Of course, I am taking advantage of the unique opportunities Seoul presents.

Like eating pork belly on a tilted grill.

I can’t even remember the name, it’s just a new place in the alleys near the Gangnam subway station, that my cousin and I went to last night.  The samgyupssal or pork belly is served with your usual accompaniments—perilla leaves, red leaf lettuce, scallion salad—but also with thin slices of sticky rice cake that you use to wrap around your grilled bit of pork.  It wasn’t so good that I would urge you to rush there, but pork is pork, always enjoyable, and I really liked the chewy, tactile layer around the crisp belly.

I also love that the grill is tilted, not only to drain the fat off the pork, but to direct the fat towards the kimchi and mushrooms.  The edges of the kimchi got crispy, and the thick cabbage almost invisibly absorbed so much clear, golden fat, you could almost pretend you didn’t know why this kimchi had a particularly delicious flavor.

The night before, after sleeping all day, I had gone with my parents to our favorite kalguksu place where the noodles are handmade and the jokbal, or boiled pig’s foot, glistens like caramel.  They pile the plate high with bones, trotters, and thick, quivering slices skin, layered on top of fat, layered on top of meat.  It does almost taste like caramel, with a slick, rich feel in your mouth.  (No wonder it tastes like caramel – it’s cooked with black taffy, as well as soybean paste and ginger.)

You eat it the same way you eat so many Korean meats — wrapped up with lettuce, ssamjang or bean paste, and maybe a slice or two of raw garlic and hot pepper, though you might start with a swipe through salted shrimp sauce.  Koreans really love the briny flavors of seafood with the melting flavors of pork.

I asked my mom how to make jokbal, and she had this look in her eyes like, “Oh God, she’s going to want to include it in her cookbook.”  She quickly said, “You boil it, but you can’t do it at home!”  Don’t worry, dear mother, I won’t be experimenting with pig’s feet at home, at least not for this cookbook.

I am embarrassed to admit that I tried to gnaw on a trotter, but I couldn’t really follow through.  Looking at the cleaned bones, I felt a little bit like a beast.  A wolf, maybe.

My cousin has invited me to have dinner with her again tonight — more pork.  She says this place has neck meat to die for.

My mother’s friend told me that if you dream about pigs, that means good luck.  Having eaten so much pork, I would think pigs would be flying through my dreams by now.

Sandong Son Kalguksu or (Sandong Handmade Knife-Cut Noodles), 3473-7972, Seocho-gu, Seocho-2-dong 1365.

Last 36 hours in Jeolla-do

January 5, 2010

Photo by Diane Choo

Our last days in Jeollado were quiet.  From our serene patjuk in the mountains, we drove to Gwangyang where we had the city’s namesake “Gwangyang bulgogi” at 시내식당, Shinae Shikdang, which translates as “City Restaurant.”  The next morning, Randall, Carolyn and I wandered the alleys around the hotel and ended up eating pork bone soup for breakfast.  By lunchtime, we were in Namwon, where we had bulgogi jeongol, a big hotpot of vegetables and thinly sliced sirloin.  We made a quick stop in Sunchang, home of the best gochujang or red chile paste in Korea, where I bought a few things to hide in my suitcase going back to NY.

Everything was good and fresh, but nothing was thrilling.  I was honestly disappointed.  I had come to Jeollado expecting something new.

Korea, or more accurately South Korea, has been made small by modernization. The different regions to which I’ve traveled this year — Jeolla-do, Gyeongsan-do, Gangwon-do — have had official boundaries since 1413.  Without modern transportation and telecommunications, the varying terrain and ensuing climate differences meant people in Jeolla-do ate distinctly different food from people in Gangwon-do.  Rice for people in Jeolla-do, potatoes for people in Gangwon-do.  But now, the predominance of something like soybean sprouts in Jeonju cooking is just lore, it’s not something that’s understood in the gut.  I’d heard southerners eat food, and especially kimchi, that’s spicier, saltier and fishier than people in Seoul, but I can’t say I noticed a really obvious difference.

Looking back months later, though, what we ate in Jeolla-do did have something in common.  If not flavor or technique or ingredient, there was certainly care in everything we ate.  Not just the gorgeous care that went into the Jeonju bibimbap, nor anything akin to the quiet, studied attention to aesthetic you find in Japan in even the lowliest ramen shop.  It was something coarser but still wholehearted, an offhand assumption that good food takes work and an equally offhand willingness to do the work.  The octopus you have to kill to eat, the pine nuts you have to extract from pinecones, the pine mushrooms you need to hunt in the wild, because you can never, ever cultivate these.

So, if I review those last things we ate in Jeolla-do, there was the “Gwangyang bulgogi,” where lean, tender meat is lightly seasoned before grilling, and highly prized because, as my mother told me, Gwangyang was famous for taking good care of its cows.

Photo by Diane Choo

Our daeji-gukbap or pork soup at a hole-in-the-wall had the unmistakable flavor of MSG (which was sort of soothing that fall morning) but also 4 kinds of kimchi.

In Namwon, at a restaurant we randomly picked in the rain, we found galchi-gui or hairtail fish fried perfectly and greaselessly.  (If you’ve never tried this, it tastes like salted gold, and a little precious, too, since there’s not much meat on the bones).

Also, a very plentiful bulgogi hotpot:

None of this food would look unfamiliar to someone who’s never left Seoul, and the skeptic in me scoffs at the romantic in me that wants Jeolla-do food to be obviously different.  But even if it is not, if Koreans all over the country and the world work for their food, that’s not such a bad finding either.  I’m grateful to Jeolla-do for making it more obvious to me.

시내식당, Shinae Shikdang, Jeonnam Gwangyang, 061-763-0360

미마루, Mi Maru, Jeonbok Namwon, 063-635-1559