Where am I?

19 Sep

So many wonderful options.

Thank God my camera has a panoramic function that allowed me to capture this atrocity – albeit imperfectly – in one frame.  Look carefully at the far ends of the picture – click to enlarge if you need to – and you will see two of America’s finest dining establishments, right here in the heart of Seoul.

I try not to be too much of a food snob; I can tolerate Sizzler and Dominoes at home because I can simply not go there and they do me no harm.  But seeing one right across from the other in a foreign country is embarrassing for the same reason that loud, obnoxious expats and tourists are embarrassing.

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The Man-tastic Voyage

7 Sep

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.  But sometimes that’s more of a challenge than it sounds; how’s a dude to get his testosterone flowing in a land of man-purses and male cosmetics?  It’s a hard trend to fight.  Western men come here and scoff initially, but almost to a person, we get caught up in it.  I tried growing a sweet mountain climber’s beard, but it frightened too many children.  I’m a man, not a monster.  Gradually, my jeans started getting skinnier.  I started moisturizing more often.  And my hair?  Fabulous!  I was nearing a crisis stage and needed a boost to remind me of what I am.  But in my hour of darkness, just as Solyee had almost convinced me to do a facial mask with her, Matt called from L.A.

“Hey dude, I’m coming to Seoul!  You ready for a bro-nado?”

“Hell. Yes.”  Just as soon as I finish up with this facial mask.

Matt was part of a wolf pack that has dwindled significantly over the past year.  He and I went to high school together and by coincidence came to Korea at about the same time.  Thus, we cut our Seoul teeth together, helping each other learn the necessities:  speaking the language, where to find the best street food and how to rock a crowd in 노래방.

The Wolf Pack howling

Unfortunately, John and Matt – left and right above and c0-members of the pack – left Korea while I stuck around to hold down the fort.  In the absence of their peer pressure, retro-sexuality started creeping into the realm of metro-sexuality, as previously described.  And though Matt and John were both victims of the same process, mine had advanced farther due to more prolonged exposure.  Matt saw the signs as soon as he arrived.

“We need to have an intervention,” he said.  “Hell, I could use a boost myself.”

We decided the best strategy for re-energizing the bro-jo would be a 24 hour man-a-thon which we planned carefully.  First, we had to reconnect with our caveman roots and since slaying a saber tooth tiger was out of the question, we decided consuming raw meat was our best bet. Next, we needed to do something ballsy; to stare death in the face and laugh.  We considered Russian roulette but weren’t sure we could procure a firearm on such short notice, so we settled on bungee jumping.  Finally, to round it all out, we needed to display our excellence at a skill (after a nap, of course).  Bowling would be the final test.  But we both suck at bowling, so we invited Solyee to join in and make us look good.

Friday, 20:00

I wrapped up a day at work and came home to find Matt in my apartment shirtless, blaring Outkast and already sipping on a tall-boy can of Cass.  I was going to berate him for starting the party without me but before I could, he produced another can for me from the fridge where several more cans lay in wait.  So much to my neighbors’ enjoyment (I’m sure) we stood shirtless on my roof, jamming to old school hip-hop and fueling up on cheap Korean beer.

Friday, 21:22 

Having reluctantly donned shirts that modern society requires a man to wear in public, we grabbed a cab to our first stop of re-dude-ination:  re-connection with our caveman roots.  Raw beef, or 육회 (yook hwae), is not as difficult a task as some dishes that I have tried.  Some people may turn their noses up at first, but in my experience, few who try it walk away unhappy.  It’s like all the goodness of a rare, bloody steak without all the waiting.

Eating raw beef is also not unique to Korea, only the way it is served and eaten.  One type is called 육사시미 (yook sashimi) which consists of very thinly sliced strips of beef served with salt and sesame oil for dipping purposes.  The more common type, yook hwae (mentioned earlier), is tender, julienned beef served with pine nuts and, oddly enough, julienned slices of Asian pear.

Yook hwae and pear slices

Yook sashimi and accoutrements

This was nothing new to Matt or me.  I had eaten yook hwae several times before and Matt had had steak tartar.  Any steak aficionado will tell you that simpler is better, and beef doesn’t get much simpler than this.  And this tasted like triumph.  Like victory.  These may sound like silly words to describe  food, but hear me out.  Logically I know it was nothing more than the end result of high-quality beef prepared at the hands of an expert chef.  It was also the joy of having a good meal with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  However, I prefer to imagine that our instinctive selves were bubbling up to the surface; that the freshness of the beef had tricked our ids into believing we had slain the animal ourselves and stopped to consume it then and there.  When you look at it from a hunter’s perspective, tasting like triumph makes perfect sense.

We took the meal slowly which is a decidedly uncaveman thing to do but the beef was too good to rush through.  So we reminisced and bullshitted and laughed our way through the meal, feeling proud of ourselves for a plan well made.  The first step had been a success and we were feeling strong for steps two and three.

Saturday,  09:00

I rolled groggily out of bed and shut off the alarm blaring its wake up call next to my face.  I trudged upstairs and kicked Matt’s bed to get him moving.  Raw beef had only been the beginning of the previous night.  With our engines successfully primed, we had headed to another spot for makgeoli (rice wine) and kimchi pancakes.  After a long night of makgeoli, neither of us was feeling especially keen on jumping off of a 40-meter-tall tower.  Yet neither of us was willing to admit that in front of the other.  We had blathered on and on the night before about the bad-assitude to come.  And besides, real men don’t rest when they’re sick; they suck it up and pretend they’re fine.

Saturday, 10:27  

Our subway car arrived in Bundang and we exited in search of the chariot that would take us to the tower of destiny – in this case, a taxi to 율동공원 (Yul Dong Park).  The park was huge and had no clear markings directing us to the bungee jumping site.  Thus, we would have to rely on our masculine sense of direction – bonus points in this quest of manliness.

Like homing pigeons with built in TomToms, we found the tower beside a sculpture garden.  My stomach jumped up into my throat when we stood under it.  Matt held it together a bit better than me but I sensed he was feeling the same way.  Compared to other bungee jumping sites, this one was relatively tame:  a permanent installation, 40 meters tall jutting out over a lake in a highly developed country.  I was certain that safety precautions were tip-top but I’ve never been a big fan of heights.  I was beginning to doubt myself so we headed straight in to buy tickets before I could chicken out.

Unfortunately, we were thwarted in our plan to get the ordeal over with quickly.  The employees were just leaving for their lunch break which, God only knows why, lasted 2 hours.  One would think that professional adrenaline junkies would eat a little faster.  So Matt and I were left to our own devices for the time-being.  Time for a sculpture garden photo shoot.

Bro-nucopia

Bulletproof Tiger

Saturday, 13:15

Because of the delayed jump, Solyee was able to make it to the park to provide moral support and photography services.  We met her at the entrance to the park and then wound our way back to the jump site.  Before we could even see the tower, we could hear the shouts of other brave souls jumping before us.  Matt and I had hoped that seeing others go before us would steel our nerves but found exactly the opposite to be true.  Solyee, in all her tenderness, cackled at the fear and apprehension in our eyes.  The way I saw it, each person to jump before me was another person to weaken the ropes and rigging, setting me up for some ghastly, elaborate Final Destination style fatality.

I took a deep breath and so did Matt.  No more hesitation.  We emptied our pockets and gave the contents to Solyee and headed to the tower elevator.  After a quick weigh-in, harnesses were slapped around our waists and we were ushered to the elevator that would take us to the top.

The elevator was slow.  It crawled up the tower like a sloth, teasing and taunting as the ground inched farther and farther away.  I felt like John Coffey walking the mile and for once Matt wasn’t smirking at my fear anymore; it’s likely he felt like Del.

After an eternity and a half, the elevator dinged to announce our arrival at the platform.  We shuffled out but our legs didn’t seem to want to carry us.  We felt silly for being so scared and the sight that greeted us at the top only made it worse:  a little girl, no more than 6 or 7 years old was bounding around the platform, happily waiting for her turn to jump tandem with her father.

“Annyeong,” we said to her.  “Ahn moo seo weo?  Woori neun jinjja moo seo weo!” (You’re not scared?  We’re really scared right now!)

She didn’t bother to answer.  She just laughed at us and continued her reckless frolicking.  And that lit a fire under our asses.  There was no way this little girl was going to get away with laughing at a pair of raw meat-eating Adonises like us.

“Let us show you how it’s done, princesses,” we said to the girl and her father.  Perhaps Matt wanted to go before me, but the little girl’s taunting had induced tunnel vision so I didn’t even think to ask.  I sauntered up to the edge of the platform to be hooked onto the cord.  Then stupidly, I peered down.  My legs, normally as solid as Valyrian steel, began to shake so hard I had to grab the railing to steady myself.  The operator instructed me to jump out as far as I could, but I honestly didn’t think I had strength to do much more than tumble forward.  I wasn’t about to admit that, however, so I nodded that I understood.

“Okay! Three…two…one,” the operator shouted and to my amazement, my legs propelled me forward as I hollered “AMERICA!!”  The water below came rushing up to meet me but thankfully the bungee yanked me back upwards just in time.  Then came the scariest part.  I had no idea how far back up I was going to fly and was convinced I was going to smack my head on the platform I had just jumped from.  After a couple of seconds, my rebound reached its apex and I was plunging back down toward the water.  The yo-yo process continued for another bounce or two but gradually slowed until I was simply dangling like a worm on a hook and shouting incoherently.  A man in a row boat came to fetch me and return me to shore where I could watch Matt make his leap.

AMERICA!!

뭐야!?!?

Matt’s jump proceeded the same way.  A countdown, a war cry, a long plunge towards the water and a perilous rebound back towards the platform.  When the boatman retrieved him and returned him to shore, we started chattering and laughing and reliving like a pair of tweens leaving a Justin Bieber concert.

“OMG I totally thought I was going to die!”

“OMG! Me too!”

“The guy was like three…two…one…”

“Yeah and then I was like ‘RAAWWWWR!’ ”

“Fuck yeah!”

“Fuck yeah!”

We felt like we were going to burst from the adrenaline and there’s only one proper safety valve when the dudeliness reaches such a critical point:  high-fives.  And high-five we did.  All the way back through the park, in the taxi back to the subway station, on the subway back to Seoul, at dinner and all throughout the rest of the night we rained high-fives, low-fives and medium-fives on each other and even the occasional passerby.

However, raw meat, adrenaline and high-fives do not make a man.  We still had not displayed the discipline and know-how that all men must possess.  To truly stand among the greats of our sex – Teddy Roosevelt, Johnny Cash, Randy Savage – we needed to demonstrate our excellence at a skill.

Saturday, 20:15

Good bowling alleys are hard to find here in Korea.  I have heard that bowling was once big here, but the non-athletes’ sport of choice these days is golf which has become an obsession for middle-aged Korean men and women alike.  So where is a dude’s dude to go to get his roll on?  Most of the alleys look like they were built in the 80s and have only seen minimal maintenance since.  Worse, they don’t serve beer.  One excellent place remains, however:  Pierrot Strike in Apgujeong.

I often describe Pierrot Strike as looking like the love child of a normal bowling alley and a club.  The space is shaped like a backwards L, with a bar area occupying the horizontal and about 15 lanes lined up along the vertical.  Dimly lit with electronic mash-ups blaring throughout, this is one of the most popular places to start off the night in Apgujeong; a place where celebrities and plastic surgeried rich kids come to be seen.  And then there’s Matt and me standing out like a couple of bridge trolls shouting Big Lebowski quotes at bowling partners and strangers alike.

I know what you’re thinking:  the Dude and Walter would never be caught dead in a black lit joint that plays techno.  I beg to differ, though.  As the sole alley in Seoul that serves beer, I believe Walter and his Dudeness would see Pierrot Strike as the only real option.

Despite being a super-trendy joint, the per game rate is reasonable.  The wait time for a game is not however, which is why Matt, Solyee and I arrived early enough to score a spot relatively high on the waiting list.  We put our name down and then grabbed up some pool cues to kill time while we waited.

Our name was eventually called so we put on our clown shoes and our game faces and headed to the alley of destiny.  This was a big moment for Matt and me.  If we did not beat Solyee and display our skillful dominance, all of our work over the past 24 hours would be for naught.  For what is a man that can’t roll a ball down a lane and knock over a set of neatly arranged stationary pins?  Nothing, that’s what.

I picked up the first ball and electricity coursed through my arm.  I checked my left and right to ensure that I didn’t interrupt my neighbors’ peripheral (it’s called sportsMANship for a reason), raised the ball to eye level and strode toward the boards.  I swung my arm back then forward again and sent the ball hurtling down the lane at blinding speed – straight down the middle, of course; curving the ball is for sissies.  The ball connected and all ten pins literally exploded from the impact.  Shards of pin shrapnel pelted us and the other bowlers around us and a cloud of pin dust billowed out behind the shards.  Strike one.  Matt’s turn followed mine.  Instead of rolling the ball in the traditional way, he approached the boards, turned sideways, wound up and pitched the ball Kenny Powers-style into the pins, decimating them.  Strike two.  We would have high fived but feared the resulting sonic boom would be too much for the women and children in the area.  Solyee did her best to keep up but by the time the dust had settled the score stood 322 to 332 to 104 (we got bonus points when the shock waves from our throws toppled pins in neighboring lanes).

Clobbering time

Like a boss

At least that’s how Matt and I remember it.  Solyee insists that the two of us barely broke into triple digits and might have lost if we hadn’t distracted her by shouting taunts during her turns.  Plus she claims that we high fived every time we managed to knock down more than three pins at once.  Whatev.  The point is that we won, rounding out our epic journey and cementing our spot among the titans of man-dom.

This really happened

Epilogue

Matt flew home a couple of days and dozens of high fives later.  Though we completed the journey almost three months ago, the brawny sense of accomplishment has yet to wear off for either of us.  I think I have even sprouted a couple extra chest hairs as proof.

Still, it does feel good to look your best.  And those facial masks sure make my skin baby soft.

My shame is Solyee's joy

Aww, shit.  You win, Korea.  You win.

Adventures in 전라도

19 May

It began as a simple quest to find and consume #11 on The List:  the dreaded 홍어 (hong uh).  Easy enough.  There are plenty of restaurants that serve the dish right here in Seoul and I have friends that like to watch me gag and would gladly capture the spectacle on film.  But simplicity is boring plus the stories I had heard about this food intrigued me (and to be honest, scared me) too much to settle on just any old neighborhood restaurant.  I had to go to the source.  전라도 (Jeolla-do) – the region of Korea best known for this beast – is where I would make my stand.  Little did I know this would become an epic tale full of interesting characters and unforeseen challenges.

I finished work early on a Friday evening and met my courageous companion Solyee at the bus station for the three hour trip to Gwangju, one of the biggest cities in Jeolla-do.  Gwangju would be our base of operations but we also had two side trips to make, both of which would include culinary exploration, as well as a bit of sightseeing.  This was my first trip to Jeolla-do and Solyee’s knowledge of the area was limited so we flipped through my travel book and searched online to hammer out details as we rode.  Still, I couldn’t get my mind off of the main event.

홍어 – fermented skate – is a dish that I had been putting off for a while.  If fermented skate doesn’t sound tempting enough, what makes 홍어 distinctive is that as the fish ferments, its uric acid passes through its skin and acts as a sort of marinade throughout the fermenting process.  This gives the fish a strong, often overpowering ammonia smell and flavor.  Delightful.  I was excited but legitimately afraid of the challenge.  Kind of the Korean equivalent of seeing a donkey show in Mexico.  You don’t reeeally want to do it, but you hear so much about it that you feel obligated despite the distinct possibility of vomiting in public.  This is what ran through my head throughout the bus ride.

One amusing thing I’ve noticed during my time here is that many Koreans aren’t at all accustomed to long road trips.  It’s a small country.  You could probably circle the whole thing on one tank of gas in an Expedition.  Hence, a three hour trip – even with a 15 minute pit stop in the middle – is like an endurance trial for some Koreans.  Solyee is one of those.  While an otherwise excellent travel and eating companion, one would think I had just marched her along the Trail of Tears as we neared the bus station.

“Oh my God! I want to die! Let me off of this bus!” was my soundtrack for the last 10 minutes of the ride.  Needless to say I was as thrilled as she was when we got there.

We still had only a vague idea of what to eat that first night.  It was late and we weren’t sure what was open, so we decided the best thing to do would be to ask a local – in this case, our cab driver.  And by God what a good decision that was.  It’s unusual to find a truly friendly cab driver, but unheard of to find one who will play chauffeur/travel guide for an entire weekend all while happily regaling you with stories of his dubious pre-taxi driving career choices.  But indeed that’s what we found and as he prefers anonymity (perhaps due to his aforementioned dubious past), I will refer to him from here on as “Mr. England.”

Mr. England is actually a Jim Henson creation

“Where to?” Mr. England asked us.

“Well,” Solyee said “we’re not really sure.  Where’s the best place to eat right now?”

After a brief explanation of what we were doing in Gwangju, Mr. England knew just the place to take us:  a 백숙 (baik suk) restaurant.  It wasn’t a dish either of us had ever heard of, but he raved about it and said it was a must-eat.  It’s essentially a whole chicken boiled with garlic and salt and served with a rice porridge.  As you tear off pieces of chicken, you mix the it in the porridge with a smattering of spices and sauces like pepper paste, salt and ground pepper.  3-year-old kimchi is also a standard side dish.  What really sold me however, was the appetizer.  Before the chef boils the chicken she slices off several pieces of breast and gizzard and serves them raw.  Yes, that’s right.  Raw chicken breast and ass.  Tally ho, Mr. England.

It turned out the restaurant was halfway up a dimly lit and sparsely developed mountain.  As we wound our way up, we began to question Mr. England’s intentions.  He had spent the last 15 minutes telling us about his former illegal gambling operations so scamming some out-of-towners on a wild goose chase didn’t seem like much of a stretch for him.  And even if there really was a restaurant up there, how the hell were we going to get back down after he drove off?  I started to get a bit antsy but sure enough, we found the place still open.  To assure us that he would come back, Mr. England gave us his phone number and didn’t charge us for the ride up.

I wondered at first how a restaurant so deep in the back ass of nowhere could stay open.  It wasn’t easy to get to and surely wouldn’t get a whole lot of passersby.  The few other restaurants nearby had already shut down for the night, but ours had a couple of guests half way through their meal when we walked in.  The restaurant had only two employees:  one woman to do all of the cooking and serving and one fur ball puppy to do all of the looking adorable.

Solyee and her new BFF

The woman was a bit gruff, though I suppose I would be too if I had to clean and cook an entire chicken at midnight.  She brought out our side dishes and chicken sushi first.  I hadn’t really thought too carefully about the consequences of eating raw chicken during the cab ride.  “Hell yeah, I’m gonna do it,” I had insisted.  But as I stared at the red and pink hunks of flesh in front of me, visions of salmonella and hospital visits began popping up in my head.

Breast on top. Gizzards on bottom.

I’m not one to back down from a challenge, though.  My courage bolstered by Jeolla-do’s maple soju, I went for it.  If the threat explosive bowel movements and possible death aren’t enough to deter you from eating raw chicken, the taste and texture should be.  The breast was easy enough to chew but the gizzards were like leather.  Cold, dark pink leather.  My jaw actually got tired from chewing. The flavor wasn’t as off-putting as I had expected but I cannot fathom why anyone would want this put in front of them.  Unless of course every table has someone gunning to prove their manliness like me.

Next came the main dish which more than made up for the atrocity that I had just consumed.  It’s a simple dish:  very basic seasonings and not much in the way of presentation.  The salt and garlic combined for some incredible flavor, though.

The flavors were reminiscent of chicken noodle soup, so it’s no surprise that this is a go-to cold remedy for many Koreans.  As we ate, Solyee told me about a university friend whose foreign professor was out with the flu.  For some brownie points, the friend delivered a big pot of 백숙 to her professor.  After he got better, his wife called the girl, got the recipe and oddly enough the girl wound up with an A in the course.  The girl may have indeed been an excellent student and the soup may not have had any bearing on her final marks.  But I can say that any students who bring me this soup can talk in class, set off bottle rockets and flunk every test I give them.  An A will still be coming their way.

As our meal wound down we called Mr. England and he came right back to get us.  He chatted away as he drove us back down the mountain and offered us a few more tips for the rest of our trip.  When we pulled up to the hotel, we damn near had to hold Mr. England down and stuff money in his pocket like some kind of reverse muggers because he insisted that the ride to and from the restaurant was only 10,000 won – it should have been more than double that.  He finally took some money and told us to call him the next day.

The sun rose on day 2 and magically, I hadn’t soiled the bed which after consuming raw chicken is a victory in my book.  So with a spring in my step, it was off to the bus station for our first side trip to Damyang, a small city just outside of Gwangju.  Damyang is known primarily for two things:  its bamboo forest and a dish called 떡갈비 (dduk galbi).   떡갈비 is grilled minced beef patties and, not surprisingly, Mr. England knew just the place for us to try and had told us about it the night before.  He couldn’t describe the location, but insisted that anyone we asked would be able to direct us there.

We pulled up to the station around lunch time and hit the street in search of our first meal of the day.  Just as Mr. England had said, the first person we asked was able to point us to the restaurant – 신식당 (sin sik dang) – on a side street just a few blocks away.  We were psyched when we found the place; the parking lot was full and signs on the building boasted that they had been in operation for over 40 years and featured on several Korean television programs.  We weren’t so psyched however when we got inside and found that orders of 떡갈비 were about 30,000 won (close to $30) per person.  Oh well.  It was vacation and this was the dish that, with a little help from the bamboo forest, put the city on the map.

We soon learned a valuable lesson.  When a city is known for two things and one of them is bamboo, you probably shouldn’t get too excited about the other thing.  Clearly the people of that city are easily pleased or else just grabbing at straws.  Don’t get me wrong, the dish was tasty and for about a third of the price I would gladly eat there again.  But after all the hype, 떡갈비 amounted to something like glorified meatloaf.

Momma Burkhalter's meatloaf is way better anyway

*facepalm*

The bamboo forest was about as exciting as one might expect.  Bamboo.  Hills.  More bamboo.  A couple of traditional houses at one end of the park.  Bamboo again.  I’m not complaining, though.  It was definitely a nice to get out and walk around.  There were some drummers in traditional dress, as well as some highly energetic senior citizens tearing up the dance floor near the entrance.  The park also offered assorted bamboo flavored treats inside and just outside of the park. I went for the bamboo ice cream and bamboo 호떡 (ho dduk), a crispy pancake-like creation with a syrupy, brown sugar filling.  Both came highly recommended from one of the locals that I spoke with.

As it turns out, adding bamboo to ice cream and 호떡 is about as tasty as adding grass.  I suppose that’s what I get for asking a panda for food recommendations.  I’m glad they’re endangered.

As the sun started to go down, we made our way back to the bus station so we could get to Gwangju in time for our show down with 홍어.  Once again, Mr. England knew just the spot so we gave him a call from the bus station and hitched a ride to destiny.  Again, though, he forgot to set the meter and refused payment when we got there.

The restaurant was small but packed and as expected, reeked of ammonia.  I often get stares when I go into certain restaurants but this one trumped them all.  Like in the movies when the white guys walk into a black club and the music scratches to a halt as everyone turns to stare.  Still, I couldn’t wipe the silly grin off of my face as we took our seat in the dead center of the restaurant.

To be fair, this pic was taken post meal so they had stopped staring.

We ordered 홍어삼합 (hong uh sam ahp), the standard paring of hong uh and bo ssam (the steamed pork written about in my second post).  As we sat at the table waiting for our food, the stench continued to fill our nostrils, soak into our clothes and weaken our resolve to actually go through with this meal.  It felt like someone had doused a closet in cleaning fluids then locked us inside.  But with so many people eating and actually keeping the contents of their stomachs down, we held strong.

First came the sides: a spicy 홍어 and onion salad, a thick and bubbling 홍어 stew and raw 홍어 liver.  We tasted them in that order.  The salad wasn’t bad and we actually ordered seconds later on in the meal.  I wish I could say the same for the stew and the liver.  The former tasted like a steaming liquid fart.  Not a bad fart but a fart nonetheless.  The latter had perhaps the most disconcerting texture I have ever put in my mouth.  I expect a protein the have some amount of fortitude but the liver was creamy.  It melted in my mouth.  Mashed potatoes require more chewing.  The flavor wasn’t awful, it just felt vulgar.

홍어 liver

Next came the main dish.  It looked so innocent:  no stranger than any other raw fish I’ve eaten.  One close whiff however reminded us just how vile it was going to be.  Hesitation was only going to make things worse so we dove right in.

홍어 arranged to look like a skate fish.

We attacked the dark red blob at the front first.  This at one point was the nose of the skate and after sampling it I have deemed it not suitable for human consumption.  Next we moved on the flesh around the outside.  The proper technique for eating 홍어 is to actually bury it under other flavors.  Place a piece of bo ssam on top of the skate, then place a piece of kimchi on top of that, dip the pile into some sauce and eat it all in one bite.

Not surprisingly, the pork, kimchi and sauce do little to mask the flavor of the skate.  They manage to temporarily distract you, but the unfortunate thing is that 홍어 has a lot of cartilage and thus requires a hell of a lot of chewing.  The kimchi and pork get mashed up quite quickly and only the skate remains to assault your olfactory, this time from the inside.

The chewing process looks something like this.

And this.

As we ate the pieces seemed to regenerate like the heads of a hydra.  Each piece taunted us from there on the plate, daring us to take another bite.  But we had come all that way and we’d be damned if we weren’t going to finish it.  One guy at a table near us kept looking over and giving us the thumbs up as we forced it down bite by bite.  It didn’t go down easy but we soldiered on until eventually, mercifully, only we remained and the 홍어 was vanquished.

All in all though, 홍어 didn’t quite live up to its reputation.  People had laughed at me when I told them of my Jeolla-do plans.  Andrew Zimmern could barely stomach the stuff.  I was expecting something far more hideous.  It’s unpleasant, no doubt; possibly one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten.  But like all bullies and boogie men, the anticipation was far worse that the actual confrontation.

On day three, we headed back to the bus station for one final side trip.  This time we were off to 보성 (bo sung) for a tour of the city’s green tea plantation, its one and only attraction.  We spent the afternoon touring the plantation and despite the plants actually being brown due to bad weather, it was pretty damn impressive.   I wouldn’t recommend making a special trip from Seoul to see it, but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the region.

Just a small section of the plantation

Like the bamboo forest, the tea plantation offered a number of tea-infused foods.  Unlike bamboo, green tea can be enjoyed by more than just pandas.  The shops and restaurants around the park had everything from green tea cookies to green tea noodles to green tea pork.  We decided to leave the pork for the other visitors and sipped on green tea milk shakes as we walked around.

After a couple of hours in 보성 we grabbed a bus back to Seoul, eager for a familiar dinner sans ammonia.  Despite the beating that our noses and taste buds took there, I’m still convinced that Jeolla-do is deserving of its title as the food mecca of Korea.  The people are genuinely proud of their food and excited to share it.  Some will happily go out of their way to help a stranger in search of a unique, tasty dish.  That intense pride is what really makes the region special;  Mr. England, the people in Damyang, the guy grinning and giving us the thumbs up through our whole meal.  It’s not about bamboo forests.  You can’t understand the people or the region by walking around a tea plantation.  You have to jump in and eat the way they eat – even those dubious, slightly dangerous ones.  I won’t be having 홍어 again and I’ve had enough raw chicken to last me a lifetime, but I look forward to my next trip to Jeolla-do to see what else the region has to offer.

#5: 닭발 (Dak Bal)

14 Mar

I sit back in my chair, flecks of red sauce on my face and shirt, stuffed to the rafters, the pile of bones and cartilage on my plate standing much taller than any other pile at the table.  To the surprise of my companions, I’ve torn through dozens of 닭발 and given the chance would gladly scarf down more.  Long after the others at the table had had their fill, I soldiered on, ignoring the smoldering fire that my mouth had become.  I interpreted their perplexed, yet amused looks as something to be proud of.  They were impressed by this foreigner’s ability to handle not only the heat, but the strangeness of the dish itself.  Or so I thought.  Sometimes my desire to prove my adventurousness clouds my judgment.  “Wow.  I can never eat that many,” one girl says, “they’re good but they give me terrible diarrhea every time.”  The other agrees, “Yeah, me too.  Doesn’t your stomach hurt, Graham?”  Oh, God.  Perhaps I should have slowed down.

I had eaten and enjoyed 닭발 – chicken feet – a number of times before finding The List.  However, the meals had never been foot-centric and hence not substantial enough for me to write about.  And aside from some pretty amazing Chinese-style chicken feet in New York, the feet I had eaten hadn’t been particularly memorable anyway.  As luck would have it though, a friend had on several occasions mentioned a very well-known 포차 (pronounced po cha) or tent restaurant that specialized in 닭발.  Even more interesting were the high-class prostitutes that apparently congregate there late at night when their shifts end.  Chicken feet and women of loose morals?  I was sold, so we made plans to meet up at 한신포차 (han shin po cha) in the Nonhyun neighborhood.  Sadly though, we agreed to go early and beat the crowd – long before the working girls would be arriving.

Where the magic happens

We took a cab to the restaurant and the driver knew the place by name, no directions required.  Even at 9:00 the place was slammed. My two friends and I waited for nearly an hour to get inside but once seated service was quick.  The waitress brought out a propane-powered mini-grill with a pot of bone-in chicken feet sitting in a red liquid along with onions, peppers and various other veggies.  닭발 come served in a number of ways:  some are boneless, others bone-in; some you cook over coals right at your table; others, like ours, are stewed and simmered.  No matter where you order them, chicken feet are notoriously spicy so we ordered up a plum-flavored juice that would take the edge off and allow me to keep trucking through the heat.

To keep the flames at bay

I took a quick look around the restaurant.  Surely there were prostitutes finishing up the afternoon shift that might come rolling in.  I couldn’t tell so I turned my attention back to the pot of feet, now simmering and ready to go.  I spooned up some of the sauce first for a taste.  Honestly, if you had given me a straw I would have drained the whole pot of red, meaty, spicy goodness right there.  But I’m a classy guy, so I held back and moved on to the feet themselves.  Trying to eat these things gracefully is a lost cause.  They have lots of cartilage and joints that make it nearly impossible to separate the meat with chopsticks alone.  Most efficient solution?  Pop the whole foot in your mouth and spit the bones out like sunflower seeds.

It’s not a pretty food.  You might imagine the foot to be tough – and not cooked properly it can be.  Not these, though.  Once separated from the bone, it was some of the most tender chicken I’ve ever had.  The feet had soaked up the flavors from the sauce perfectly and I began a rhythmic, systematic attack on the pot.  Chew, spit bones, swig plum juice, repeat.  Things are kind of a blur from here.  The girls kept talking to each other which was fine for me.  Less distraction as I worked and built my pile of bones, stopping to giggle occasionally, thinking of a coop full of footless, paraplegic chickens.

I snapped out of this fugue state when the waitress had the audacity to take the pot of feet away before I was finished.  My heart began to race, but she came back quickly with the feet in a separate bowl and fried rice in the original pot, cooked up in the red sauce.  My god it just kept getting better, but I slowed down a bit to join the conversation.  We chatted and worked our way through the rice and remaining feet.  That’s when the girls dropped the bomb on me.  That in my haste, facilitated by that damn plum juice, I had eaten far more of these than the average human stomach can handle.  Why the hell hadn’t they warned me sooner?  Had they heard the Legend of the Thunder Dome and assumed I’d be fine?  Or did it just amuse them to see that look of panic on my face?  I’m betting on the latter.  I began to sweat a bit, wondering where the closest serviceable bathroom might be.  No need to freak out though.  Just breathe deep – no signs of trouble just yet.  Only a food baby resting happily, if a bit uncomfortably in my mid-section.

The minutes tick by ever so slowly but I realize that my stomach does indeed deserve its title of Thunder Dome.  I stretch out in the cab on the way home, with nothing but fond memories of the meal – the warnings merely a false alarm.

This is a food worth trying – if you can pace yourself, of course.  As I’ve said, I’ve been underwhelmed in the past by 닭발, but done right they’re incredible.  Don’t be put off by their extra-terrestrial appearance and come armed with something to put out the flames on your tongue.

#15: 곱창 (Gob Chang)

23 Feb

Should it really be a point of pride for a neighborhood to be renowned for the quality of its beef intestines?  I mean, being the “best” at something doesn’t necessarily make you “good.”  Before heading to the Gyo Dae neighborhood for my first encounter with the business end of a steer’s insides, I couldn’t help but assume that this was one of those cases.  But everyone I asked insisted that this was the place to go for “the best” 곱창.  And since this wasn’t exactly a food I was willing to say “Screw it, give me the cheap stuff,” I took the advice I was given and sought out a restaurant in Gyo Dae.

I’m not squeamish by any means.  I’ve eaten live octopus and drank camel’s milk freshly squeezed from the camel’s teat.  Hell, I even ate a wasp once in exchange for a free burrito.  So the idea of eating cow intestine never grossed me out; I just found it hard to believe that it would be an enjoyable experience.  But by now I’ve learned not to judge a food – any food – until I’ve tried it at least once, if not two or three times just to be sure.  Sure enough, my doubts proved unwarranted and in retrospect, I should have known from the get-go.  Think about it:  how could an animal that’s made out of steak be anything but delicious?

So last Friday, I made the trip to the cleverly named 교대곱창 (Gyo Dae Gob Chang), the best known restaurant in the area.  The original was so popular that it spawned two additions right next door and all three locations were full to capacity when we arrived.  The air in the restaurant was thick with the surprisingly pleasant aroma of various unrecognizable cow parts being grilled at all of the tables.  Our waitress gave us a plastic bag to store our jackets, even though I kind of like the smell of grilled food on my clothes – a sentiment that our cab driver apparently shared, complimenting my friend and me on the fragrance that tagged along with us after dinner.

After stashing our jackets away, my friend ordered for us and out came a pile of distinctly unappealing innards:  small intestine, large intestine, heart and a smattering of vegetables served in a large pan to be cooked at the table.  The heart and small intestine seemed to be served au naturel, with few to no spices.  The large intestine was stuffed with fat and sat on top of everything else and bore an unsettling resemblance to the waste product nature intended it to carry.

 

The side dishes were even more daunting:  three red, glistening cubes of raw liver and an unidentifiable skin-like substance, also raw.

How would Doug Funny have handled this one?

 

As the main course sizzled away, I decided to knock back a piece or two of the liver and its gray companion.  The gray stuff was tough to chew and vaguely gritty, but otherwise tasteless.  The liver, on the other hand, was soft and while I wouldn’t say it was tasty, it exceeded my expectations simply by not triggering my gag reflex.

Once the veggies and innards cooked down, they looked significantly more appealing.  In fact, once they were cut into smaller pieces, they didn’t resemble intestines much at all.  Grease from the fat stuffed in the large intestine had dripped out into the pan, allowing the flavors of all the foods to mix and mingle and the results were delicious.  The large intestines were a little hard to chew, but the flavor from the fat and the onions more than made up for it.  Afterwards, the waitress took our pan and used the drippings to fry up a hellacious serving of fried rice – some of the best I’ve ever had, in fact.

So, it turns out that being the best beef intestine restaurant in town is a moniker to be proud of.  It’s certainly not for everyone but if you’re willing to be a little adventurous, give it a try.  At the very least, go with your friends and stick around for the fried rice.

닭찜 (Dak JJim)

13 Feb

In my first post (#7: 닭갈비), I mentioned a particular restaurant from which I had been lured away on several occasions.  It’s a popular spot with limited seating which means that there’s always a line to get in.  Since my belly – known in some circles as “The Thunder Dome” –  has little patience when feeding time approaches, I had always opted to go elsewhere.  Tonight, however, I had eaten a big lunch that was able to tame the beast long enough to get inside the restaurant.

The restaurant is best known for a dish called 닭찜 (pronounced dak jjim), chicken braised in a spicy soy sauce, flavored with garlic, onions, peppers and various vegetables.  This variation included potatoes, carrots, green onions, cucumbers and flat glass noodles (which of course pose a splatter hazard for innocent bystanders).

After a 20-minute wait, my friend and I sat down and ordered.  Single servings weren’t an option here; diners order at least a full chicken at a time and even the smallest the meal is served in a bowl the size of a truck tire so we decided to split a single bird between the two of us.  Even on my best day I would struggle to down one of these on my own.  The waiter warned us that the dish was spicy – a warning that, in my infinite wisdom, I rarely take seriously.  Usually the waiter is just being overly cautious, assuming that my palate is too delicate to take the heat.  Were we sure that’s what we wanted?

Our meal arrived quickly and after snapping a few photos, I dove in.  The sauce was great, much less salty than I had expected and certainly, I thought, not worthy of the waiter’s disclaimer.  I began snatching up hunks of chicken, potato and noodles, spooning the sauce over rice and laughing at the silly waiter’s warning.  I soon realized, however, that perhaps our server wasn’t just being patronizing when he cautioned me about the heat.

닭찜 Up Close

It wasn’t the fire that had ignited on my tongue that got to me.  That was manageable.  It was my nose and forehead that decided to punish me this time.  My nose alternated between running out of control and clogging up completely and I used half a roll of paper towels wiping sweat from my brow.  But dammit, it was worth it, if only for the sauce.  Despite the havoc it was wreaking on my nasal passages, I kept going back for more.  And more.  You could have tossed out all of the vegetables and I would have been happy.  Only the onions seemed to add any real flavor to the dish.  The noodles were good but also a pain in the ass as they kept slipping through my chop sticks.  Even the chicken was tender and, by all means delicious, but not totally necessary.  Just give me a bowl of that sauce, a pile of rice and a roll of paper towels and I’ll be set.

#18: 보쌈 (Bo ssam)

2 Feb

As a 15-month veteran of this country, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that this was my first encounter with 보쌈 (pronounced bo ssam), but it certainly won’t be my last.  I’m hooked.  Friends of both Korean and western descent were taken aback when I showed them The List with 보쌈 left conspicuously unchecked-off.  How could I have gone this long without trying it?  It was a legitimate question for which I had no good answer.  I had seen the dish on menus countless times, but it had never intrigued me enough to order it.  After enough head shakes and disappointed looks from my peers, I made #18 a top priority.

Now, what is 보쌈?  The main component of the dish is, very simply, steamed pork.  It’s served sliced into manageable, bite-sized pieces and is tender enough to tear apart with a pair of chopsticks.  This, by itself is delicious.  Because it’s pork, and the pig is a magical creature.  But as with most Korean dishes, the sides are key.  보쌈 is generally eaten wrapped in a lettuce, cabbage or kimchi along with any combination of peppers, garlic, onions and sauces (to be described in later posts).

Yes, that's a pile of meat

So last night, my Korean-Canadian friend had a night free.  His wife was out of town visiting family for the Lunar New Year, so we decided that a dude’s night out featuring pork and soju would be the perfect way to kick off the holiday season.   Plus it just so happened that there’s a 보쌈 restaurant close to my apartment and I’m currently suffering from mobility issues due to a broken ankle.  The soju did not alleviate said mobility issues, but it did make them more hilarious.  But I digress.

We arrived at the restaurant and it was about half full – a good sign in my neighborhood during a holiday.  We sat down and ordered a set menu consisting of a fiery noodle and sesame leaf concoction, steamed egg, seaweed soup, cabbage, kimchi, peppers, onions, several sauces and, of course, the steamed pork.

The steamed egg – to which, even at its best, I’m indifferent – was more bland than usual and had an odd, gelatinous texture.  Imagine eating a light, opaque, room-temperature Jello the color of scrambled eggs and you’ve got the idea.  (That actually sounds much more disgusting than it really is.)  The noodles and sesame leaves were a pleasant surprise, though, and made a great, spicy side dish for the pork.  On the downside – and this might just be me – noodles in a thin sauce tend to splatter onto anything within a 3-foot radius of my chopsticks.  So, while the noodles were quite tasty, my friend probably felt like he was at a Gallagher show.

You should probably wear goggles when you eat with me.

Now, on to the pork.  I started with a nude slice, no accoutrements.  While the flavor of the meat is subtle – there don’t seem to be many spices involved in the cooking – the first thing I noticed was the texture:  tender, like well-made, fall-off-the-bone ribs.  A good start.  After that, I followed my friend’s lead and wrapped a slice of the pork in a cabbage leaf with garlic, pepper and some radish kimchi.  I let out a “Holy shit,” garbled by the mouthful of food and began preparing another leaf as I finished chewing.  I tried several combinations of toppings and wrappings (the choices being plain cabbage and cabbage kimchi), though the first combination was certainly the best.  My friend and I made short work of the pile of pork presented to us and, as I dabbed sweat from my forehead, I gave serious consideration to ordering more.  I was genuinely sad to see an empty plate in front of me.  Granted, there was some steamed egg left, but I chose to let it be.

Kimchi, pepper, garlic and pork

My only complaint here would be that the 보쌈 was a tad on the expensive side.  It was nothing outrageous, but I could have done with more meat and fewer sides.  What’s more, as much as I enjoyed this, I’m certain there’s better 보쌈 to be had – and I do intend to find it.  This particular restaurant is a fairly big chain and I’m a firm believer that independent restaurants have more to offer.

Overall, if you’re like I once was and have not yet partaken in 보쌈, make it a priority.  My eyes have been opened and I’m on the hunt for more.

 

 

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