Ok, so my girlfriend is Korean which meant that on our holiday, we would go to South Korea. This would be my first trip ever to the land of kimchi and bulgogi. I already have decent experience with Korean food but was still able to try some new stuff that I really enjoyed. I love a lot of Korean food. Basically, if it’s not red or flavored with gochujang, I’m probably already a fan. Gae Jang, Pa Jeon, Ggori Gomtang, Dubu Doenjang Jigae, Jwipo, Ho Tteok, Kong Jaban. On the other hand, the red stuff bores me to tears. This is an issue I have noticed is a trend amongst many non-Koreans. Not to offend any Koreans, just sayin’; preferences and all that.
One big problem I had in Korea was the language. I could do words. Like hello, thanks, where’s the toilet, what’s the time etc. I couldn’t do sentences and faced with the scrutiny of my girl’s parents and grandparents not to mention her psychic priest aunt (more on this later), I was suffering. I spent a lot of my time smiling and nodding and laughing and trying to understand it all. I don’t think my girl provided much help translating or even trying to allow me to communicate. But that’s ok. In the end, a gift of Kim Chee Guan Bakkwa was enough to win over one set of grandparents whilst I got forcefed strawberries by the other. Like grandma held up berries to my mouth forced. Apparently she likes me. I’m terrified of her. I guess at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if you can’t speak the language as long as you can communicate somehow or at least show like you’re trying.
The first day we landed, we didn’t take long before we went out to dinner. My girl lives in this suburb called Mokdong (not completely unlike Chatswood in Sydney), which is like a semi posh, upper middle class kinda joint. There’s these two tall towers called Hyperion I and II and also 2 train stations and a couple big malls and stuff. Basically, whatever you might want, you can get it at Mokdong, minus a few luxury labels or more hipster BS. But we weren’t going to the mall. We went to this restaurant that has land unto itself, with a kid’s play area replete with swings and a garden growing what must be the veg they use right there. There’s a parking area plus a outdoor resting/waiting area that had a coupla fire pits with big flaming charcoal going. It was hot. They also provided these little awesome potatoes wrapped in foil that you can just chuck in the fire to roast. And if you wanted something to sip on, they had super sweet ginger tea, coffee, regular tea and hot chocolate plus water on tap, free. You just take a number and they call it out on the PA. It’s a family kinda joint, good for big groups and basically, they do BBQ smoked meats and we got the house special duck and pork belly. It is fantastic. Heaps better than anything I’ve had in Sydney. Really good deep smokey flavor with a hammy texture and you crisp the skin up a bit on the grill. The ban chan was on the minimal side but that little hot potato I had before, powdery soft inside and charred outside more than made up for it. Heunjae Ori is defo one of my faves.
Eating Korean food is definitely an extremely social, communal experience. Not unlike the Chinese banquets just more down to earth and casual. I tend to find myself belly inflated, palms behind my arse burping with pleasure after these meals. It’s just too much. And just how the hell can they do free flow sides I’ll never know!
Day 2! We get up and go. It’s a long drive to Ilsan, which is like this massive park, with a lake and little pagoda towers and wooden bridges and lotus flowers and the sidepaths are lined with the prettiest flowers and there’s a shitload of people. Everywhere, some mofo is lying down on a mat with some Chilsung cider and snacks basking in the afternoon sun. There’s a bloody flower expo going on and it is hella crowded. What was supposed to be a nice quiet romantic stroll in the park ended up more like an exercise in avoiding a rampaging horde of flower extremists. We bailed and had the requisite “Ice Americano” and went to the nearby mall type place, Western Dome, where I got to sample some proper Andong Jjimdak, which was pleasant and seethingly familiar to the point where I felt it was too familiar. It’s pretty much chicken marinated in soy and sugar together with some veg and cellophane noodles, almost Chinese food tasting. Shopping was the high point. I went to ABC Mart, which basically sells all kinds of sneakers and kopped a pair of Vans Authentics for less than $40. This is cheaper than online US retail. Australian stores sell it for $90. Insane. I even got the exact pair I wanted, maroon with brass eyelets. New Nike Roshe Runs could be had for $70. They don’t have the biggest selection ever but it is cheap, especially Vans.
Dinnertime was spent mostly in Mokdong, watching The Avengers at CGV and chillin’ at Paris Croissant, the upscale cafe version of Paris Baguette, a chain of pastry shops you can see almost anywhere. Despite the ubiquity, the quality of product is actually really good. If the top patisseries come from France or Japan, Korea’s best are just a step or two below. PB/PC and Tours Les Jours are great value for money and still really good quality. They also have import shops like Fauchon for instance.
Day 3! It’s time to take a side trip to Suwon, which is home to my housemate in Sydney and more importantly, her mom. Because her mom runs a galbi restaurant. Which means free, top notch grubs. We bummed a free meal and looked round a little bit of the walled city that is Suwon. It still retains this old wall that stretches pretty far with a few gates and pagodas and a river and stuff. Think Great Wall but mini scale. Almost forgot the cabbie that tried to murder us, throwing the car round corners and accelerating like a beast on acid. He also dropped us off in the wrong place. Thank god for iPhones and navigation training in army. HK’s mom’s galbi is really good too. This old guy brings out some super ashy charcoal and puts it in the table and a lady helps us cut it up and they use this old school black scissors with a towel wrapped on one handle for comfort to pry the meat off the bones. The ban chan is also really good.
At nighttime, we head to Myungdong, where I get to eat some Kalguksu, Kongguksu and get a haircut plus a dye job. I really like the haircut but the food is better. The Kalguksu is like dumpling noodle soup, really really good with a very interestingly Korean flavor profile that I like. I really always think Korean food is somewhere between Chinese and Japanese. It really is, geographically and in terms of flavors and Kalguksu is probably the dish that best represents this. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not a watered down version of someone else’s food. It’s Korean food. Kongguksu was the interesting option. It was cold green noodles served in a soy based broth. Nutty, grainy, cold. Like if you took a Spanish almond gazpacho, swopped out the almonds for soy beans and then chucked in cold zarusoba. Good but more novel than something I’d eat everyday. The Kalguksu though, is trumps.
Post Myungdong, was Dongdaemun, where we went into a shopping center that reminded me 100% of Qipu Lu in Shanghai, which is a den of cheap, fake fashion, crowded little stores, lots of bargaining and stuff. Actually, everytime I step out the subway in Korea onto the street, the wafting stink of sewage that smacks me also reminds me a lot of the metropolises in China. Thankfully, there’s a lot less pushing and shoving and people spitting everywhere. It’s a lot better organized and it feels very modern in some places but disparately so. You’ve got brand new on a sliver of land on the main strip next to decaying grimey old building next door. It feels like a city that’s expanded to its limits super fast but didn’t have the time to clean up properly. I like the streetfood concept in Korea. You have a stand or a stall or a guy on a bike or whatever and you kinda just stop, pay and eat right there, utensils provided if required. I didn’t however, enjoy the crapass sausage. It’s this bright red banger slathered in some gochujang based sauce that tasted like mushy starch, not sausage. I did enjoy the oden and the tempura and sikhae and stuff.