Thursday, September 24, 2015

Our Vacation in Korea, Pt I: Good Eats

I promised travel posts, and of course I am going to start with food.

(If you were expecting otherwise - dude, do you even know me?)

S. and I spent ten days in Korea; we stayed with my parents, who are temporarily living overseas for work. They live about an hour south of Seoul (by train). We also stayed in a hotel in Seoul for two nights, but transportation is so easy in Korea, we had no problem making day trips to Seoul by train from my parents' apartment on other days as well.
Clockwise from top left: mum's homemade banchan (side dishes that go with a meal),
patbingsu from a coffee place (finely shaved ice with milk and ice cream, fruit and other toppings),
traditional dduk (rice cake) from a famous place in Jongno near Insadong,
bibimnaengmyun and mulnaengmyun - cold summer noodles, eaten at the top of N Seoul Tower. 

My mother is Korean, so I grew up on a lot of Korean food - my spice tolerance is high. I've also been to Korea several times in the past, so I have a lot of favorites that I was looking forward to eating again. This was S.'s first time there, but he loves Korean food and can cook some of it, which has endeared him to my mother, who has finally despaired of teaching me to cook.

(And not a moment too soon - I'm a baking enthusiast only, thanks.)
Top row, L-R: Samgyetang - each individual serving of soup contains a small boiled whole chicken stuffed with dates, ginseng, rice and garlic; cappuccinos at a beach town - we had some great coffee in Korea, where coffee culture is also big; food at a bunshik, which serves kimbap and dukbokee (and my favorite, radukbokee - ramen noodles in dukbokee), udon and other quick snack type foods.
Middle: Korean convenience stores have the best drinks and ice cream, dude. (Funnily enough, they are all 7-11s and CU now, ha).
Bottom, L-R: Shabu Shabu; Korean fried chicken and pickled turnips (this is the BEST fried chicken, seriously); pillowy honey toast, smothered in caramel and whipped cream...which I ate at least twice while I was there.

The food we ate was a mix of guilty pleasures on the street as well as more typical restaurant offerings. Korea - and Seoul, especially - has a great street food culture; you can't go two steps without running into another ajumma with her cart full of goodies. Drinking culture is also big there, so a lot of places open late (it's common for even coffee shops not to open until noon) and stay open into the wee hours.
Bossam, which gets its own photo because I love it - it's pork, boiled with spices, and served with a bunch of sauces. It is much better than it sounds (boiled pork sounds kind of odd, no?) and I might like it even better than ssamgyupsal...

Incidentally, this is why I said I wasn't bothered with shopping - who has the time? Seriously, I was sad that we had to pass a bunch of carts (selling delicious goodies like hoddeok, squid, kimbap, dukbokee, fruit juices and ices - everything) because I was already full. S. just rolled his eyes as I lamented the lost opportunities all down the street.
A "Mandoo House" - one of the many, many, many vendors at Namdaemun market.

By the way - truck stops in Korea are amazing. They sell all kinds of things (like walnut balls! hot meals!), and the bathrooms are clean. Definitely way better than anything you'd find in the US.
At O'Sulloc teahouse in Invading (the tea is from a plantation on Jeju island).
Which isn't to say that everything there is clean. The streets are pretty garbage free, due to street cleaners and good maintenance, but a lot of restaurants and vendors are hole-in-the-wall type places, and well...they look like hole-in-the-walls.
A green chile burger in the "luxe foodcourt" Gourmet 494, at the bottom of a really high-end department store in Gangnam-do (yes, that Gangnam. That song is a satire, by the way.)

The basement floors of most luxe department stores (Lotte, Galleria) contain massive upscale food courts with all kinds of goodies - a lot of western food and non-traditional Korean options.

When we travel, we like to eat the local fare as much as possible, but part of the experience of another country is also to sample what's popular, trendy or their variations of American food, because they usually put a spin on it - fusion, as it were. So when we visited Gourmet 494 at the bottom of Galleria Apgujeong in Gangnam, we had no qualms about trying a burger and chili cheese fries (also, why isn't white grape soda sold here? I had it as a kid in Korea and have always liked it better than purple Welch's here). The burger was good - moist and juicy and I'm glad we tried it.
Another patbingsu, this time from Sulbing, which is a popular chain that specializes in this dessert. That's another thing - we generally avoid chains in the US, and while I still prefer independent restaurants and shops abroad, sometimes chains are convenient. And I have to admit that I'm sometimes curious to see what is hyped in other countries, so we usually stop by one or two. Plus, this is my mom's favorite place to get patbingsu.

Finally, the cost. I will say that we spent most of our money on food (other than some bigger ticket clothing items, like a nice trench coat and blazer for S.). Food used to be cheaper in Korea, I think, and the bunshiks and street vendors still are - you can get a lot of cheap, hot food for a few thousand won. Restaurants are definitely on par with US prices (although tipping is not customary there). The major difference was actually at specialty places like coffee shops and bakeries - aside from the chains (Paris Baguette, Tous les Jours, etc.), they're quite pricey. I had a lot of great cappuccinos, but they cost around 4000-8000 ₩ (roughly $3.30 - $6.70 at the current exchange rate, which greatly favors the USD); it was usually more toward the 6000 ₩ mark ($5), which is more than a cappuccino at an indie coffee shop here. Some of our greater food splurges were prolly at coffee shops. Also, they don't offer soy, so I just popped a lot of lactase (in general, Korea is not a great place for accommodating alternative diets or allergies. Also, a lot of restaurants and shops are the 2nd floor or higher in buildings with no elevators, so that can be difficult for those with health problems or those who require accommodations).
We were looking for second breakfast, and the sign said "waffle and gelato," which immediately got S.'s attention. I adore that guy. Also, this cream cheese gelato was amazing. Is there anywhere I can get this flavor in the US?
Oh, well. All worth it. We walked a lot in Seoul (an average of 10-15 miles a day, I'd say...or, sorry, 16-24 km, ha), and also did a lot of walking when we visited historical places, like the Korean Folk Village. It all evened out, and eating and enjoying food is definitely part of the experience. We ate other things (my mum delighted in introducing S. to Korean grapes, which are a pain to eat but quite sweet, and soft peaches, which pretty much explode with juice - I won't eat them, because they're a hideous mess, but S. enjoyed them, and mum was so pleased, ha), and I really enjoyed introducing S. to a lot of foods that I grew up on or experienced as a kid. Basically, this is how we vacation: we eat our way through cities. Seoul is a great one for that.
Damn, now I remember that I wanted a sweet potato latte before we left. I was curious!

If you made it through that (and aren't hungry!), I applaud you! I'll try to round up some sightseeing photos for next time, and I do have the other Etude House products to show you. Have a great Friday!