Category Archives: South Korea

Busan – Culinary (Mis)adventures

After over a week in glorious, wonderful, amazing Seoul (Seriously, stop reading this and get on a plane. DO IT. NOW) we boarded the high speed KTX train to Busan, South Korea’s second largest city located on the southeast coast. When we left our hotel, the guy at the front desk asked where we were going. When we said we were going to Busan he said “Oh. Never been. Very far.” ‘Very far’ is relative I suppose because it’s only 2 hours and 40 minutes on the train (which travels at 300 km/h!!!!). Also, it only costs about $50 per ticket, so it’s not like it breaks the bank either. Oh, and there’s cheap beer and free wifi (TAKE NOTE, AMTRAK),

Whereas Seoul is cool, hip and sophisticated, Busan is grittier, though no less fun loving. The main attraction in Busan is the seafood market which is one of the largest in all of Asia and it truly is an amazing thing to behold. There’s also famous Hundae beach which is quite nice and brimming with life even on cold, gray days in early Spring.

 

Busan is incredibly close to Japan (you can take a hydrofoil between the two countries), so the city gets lots of Japanese tourists. It was gratifying (in a schadenfreude-y way) to see Japanese struggling to communicate in Korean just like us. A very fun thing to do is to eat at one of the many “restaurants” at the market (really just platforms with low tables where you sit on the floor). We selected one mostly randomly (it was just the place where the auntie that runs it was most aggressive about hawking us in), took off our shoes, and sat at our table.

Kat in happier times before we discovered the secret lurking in our meal

Kat in happier times before we discovered the secret lurking in our meal

We were handed an “English” language menu (what I often refer to as “The dumdum menu), which had some loose translations of some things. We decided to order the “spicy seafood stew” (seen on the left in your photo) and the “raw seafood plate” (on the right). The seafood stew was pretty good. Nice fishy broth, lots of shellfish in there (including 2 HUGE sea snails).

There were no photos on the menu but we just assumed that with the raw seafood plate we’d be getting some clams or scallops or mussels. Maybe some oysters if we were really lucky. What showed up was this:

Some seriously weird shit lives in the ocean, you guys. No joke.

Some seriously weird shit lives in the ocean, you guys. No joke.

There are two kinds of sea creature on this plate. I have no idea what they are. We later saw the orange guys for sale at many of the stalls in the market. Before it’s cut up and taken out of it’s shell it looks like a red oblong shaped ball with big lumps all over it and a long scraggly beard coming out of one end. The texture was kind of like an oyster mixed with a mussel and the taste was salty and briny with a bitter mineraly aftertaste. I love weird food and I will eat anything but, honestly, this was not my favorite. Kat had a few pieces and declared herself finished. She reused to even try the other sea creature on the plate (we’ll get to HIM in a moment). I gamely ate a bunch of orange guy trying to will myself into liking it, but I too eventually gave up. Also, it turned my tongue orange, which was cool but maybe not worth the money.

Now….other guy. It looks basically like a beige, unctuous mussel shell. It was really hard to chew because the texture was basically like bone cartilage. It had a slightly briny taste to it but honestly didn’t taste like much. Things improved once I put on a dollop of the ubiquitous red, spicy pepper paste that Koreans put on EVERYTHING, but it still wasn’t great. I ate a few pieces (and tried without success to force Kat to try one) and then gave up and focused on the stew. Kat at one point looked at the brown things and said “Um, I think one of them is moving.” I looked at it and it was NOT moving, so I told Kat she was just being dramatic and a baby about not wanting to try a new food. She looked at it again and agreed that, no, it was not moving…but she still wasn’t going to try it.

About 10 minutes later, Kat says to me again “I SWEAR that thing on the plate just moved.” I was still a bit miffed that she wouldn’t even try the (relatively expensive) seafood plate. So to prove to her that, no you crazy person, that thing, whatever it is, is NOT alive, I took my chopstick and poked one of the creatures on the plate. Well….the second I did that, the thing spasm-ed and wrapped itself around my chopstick. I could see on one end a little mouth opening and closing in a tiny perfect circle.  Kat yells at me, horrified but clearly pleased about being right (NOTHING she likes more than that) “YOU SEE! YOU SEE! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ATE THAT!” I am beginning to imagine these poor things wriggling around in my stomach, drowning in a hot dark vat of acid. I sort of felt bad for them. Then I felt a little sick. It didn’t help that this was breakfast at around 9 am. At that point, our appetites were pretty much gone. We paid the bill and left. I am sure the ajummas (aunties) that run the joint were puzzled why we even ordered the damn thing in the first place, but they were too polite to say anything. I am sure it was no surprise to them to see most of the plate left over.

With our stomachs fortified with living mollusks, we decided to take a stroll along the beautiful Hundae beach. In the summer, this is Korea’s top destination and apparently there’s not a free square inch of sand. On this cold, gray day there were still tons of people enjoying the beach, walking along in coats and hats. Teenagers played live music on the boardwalk (Always a duo of two guys, always one with a guitar and one with a bongo drum. I don’t know why) and families picnic-ed on the sand.

On a clear day, you can allegedly see Japan. The beach was IMMACULATE.

On a clear day, you can allegedly see Japan. The beach was IMMACULATE.

They’ve got a pretty lively boardwalk, which was only disappointing in that it was mostly just a walking promenade with no food to buy or carnie games to play (though just a block or two away from the beach, you could find tons of those things). They had some fun “interactive” art on the walls too:

This was a VERY popular photo op with little korean girls, teenagers and Kat.

This was a VERY popular photo op with little korean girls, teenagers and Kat.

 

No, seriously, Korea, this spider is making a TON of sense. Please, continue putting nonsensical English on everything.

A flowing future? Flowing with what? The life juice you’re about to suck out of my skull?

Busan’s a tough city to describe. It’s very spread out and, like, Seoul, there’s no single “downtown” area. There’s the beach area, there’s a going out area, which is something like a smaller Seoul but not exactly. It was interesting to contrast Busan and Seoul because it gave us an idea of just how much of an anomaly Seoul is. It’s representative of Korea the same way that New York City is representative of America. We were in Busan for long, which is good because there’s not a ton to do there. We packed up our bags and took the bus to Busan airport (with the unfortunate PUS airport code), had one last (pretty good, actually) bibimbap.

Farewell bibimbap. With a fried egg on top because, OF COURSE PUT A FRIED EGG ON TOP. DUH.

Farewell bibimbap. With a fried egg on top because, OF COURSE PUT A FRIED EGG ON TOP. DUH.

Lots of white people teach English in schools in Busan and the city doesn’t get a ton of white tourists, so people just assumed that we also lived there. At the airport when we checked into our flight, the lady at the desk asked with a huge smile “When you come back Korea!?” thinking we were only going to Japan on holiday. I told her, “Not sure. We’re on a big trip around the world.” Her smile faded and she said simply “Not come back? Oh….” And my heart broke a little bit. Because her warm, welcoming smile that said “I REALLY want you to LOVE Korea as much as I do. Please stay!” is something I will cherish and miss forever. Korean people are so excited for you to be experiencing their culture and they SO BADLY want you to have fun. We’ve said it over and over again, but it’s the people that make a place great. We will miss you Korea and I promise you, we WILL be back.

As a postscript to our Korean adventures because I KNOW you are going to ask, YES we went to Gangnam. Here’s proof:

The most unabashedly touristy photo we have taken yet. We snapped this photo and ran like hell out of the station because it was horrifyingly embarrassing.

The most unabashedly touristy photo we have taken yet. We snapped this photo and ran like hell out of the station because it was horrifyingly embarrassing.

Here’s a Seoul tourist pro-tip: Don’t go to Gangnam. It’s super boring there. It’s just office buildings and some luxury stores that are really spread out. We got out, walked around for 5 minutes and then got back on the subway home.

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Day Bau Bau: a trip to Bau House Dog Cafe

Quoting “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is a great way to pass the time when not working. Each day we have usually but one job: get lost. We get lost every day, much to Dave’s chagrin.  He gets very intense about maps and walks 5 feet in front of me when we are trying to GET SOMEWHERE. Usually a minor domestic kicks up– usually about how it’d be nice if he would walk with me not ahead of me–  but what else to be expected when your job is to get places, see stuff, get home, and eat all in a country where you don’t speak or read the language. WITH ONLY YOUR SPOUSE.  FOR MONTHS.

Directions are totally wack in Korea. Numbers on the streets aren’t logical so you can’t trust them. It’s all landmark driven. Directions go something like this. “Take this exit of the subway stop. Turn left after walking 63.4 meters then turn right at the 7-11.”

Sure! Ok! Seems clear but there are 40 7-11s and no left turns. Also what is a meter?

Such began our hour walking tour of Hongdae to find the infamous Bau House dog cafe. When you google it, all blog entries begin the same way, “we got horrifyingly lost until we found it. We’ll spare you from our plight — here’s a map”.

We looked at all of those. We had photos of them! But they all said different things. And we were so lost. So lost. We managed to cross streets without knowing it. We asked for directions. We checked the internets. Dave bought shoes (he needed to cope somehow) from the cutest little shop for hipster dudes who have his sized feet. In Asia, this is a feat (feet?) of glory. No hipsters have my sized feet there, which made me pout.

We passed loads of cute shops with fun names though.

Missing an "SLER" but ok we'll take it.

Missing  “SLER” but ok we’ll take it.

We almost gave up but I really needed to pet a dog. I was homesick one day and I could think of nothing else but petting dogs while enjoying a $7 coffee. This was our one job for the day and we were going to DO IT.

Then, after we walked back to our first attempt on attempt #5 from the subway exits, we saw it.

The sign! Which was not like the sign we were looking for based on the Internet. Which was not on the map a blog had made. I guess they moved?

Anyway, we found it.

And it was glorious.

only slender dudes apply

only slender dudes apply

There is a room for bigger dogs and a room for smaller ones. You buy a horribly overpriced coffee and some treats and can hang out forever almost.

To get there– as of our experience– take exit 3 of the station Hapjeong station.

Exit #3 looking back

Exit #3 looking back

Literally you will see an office building not 20 meters ahead of you. There will be a sign in Korean with a dog on it.

I imagine it says "hey dumb dumbs, this way for doggies"

I imagine it says “hey dumb dumbs, this way for doggies”

Laugh at how dumb we are. Turn down the alley. There it is. Should take you two minutes if you walk reeeaallll slow.

You too could make new friends like this.

new friends!

new friends!

It is pretty chaotic.

dawgs

dawgs

And you can tell the dogs are not the most uh… balanced, shall we say.

Much like their human friends.

Kat and her fav

Kat and her fav

Some dogs just wanted to chill with you.

beagle!

beagle!

Some enjoyed mugging for the camera (also the dog did).

mugging

mugging

Some enjoyed the attention from afar (also good since I was wearing all black)

purdy1

purdy1

Of course, the tiny, poofy dog found Dave to be an excellent vehicle for a nap.

chihuahua

chihuahua

And to soothe homesickness, a dog-twin of my brother Kevin’s dog, Michael.

SAM_0388

Some were better dressed than others.

sweater

sweater

To reward ourselves for a job well done, having found this cafe and all, we treated ourselves to fried chicken for dinner. We found the fried chicken dinner while trying to walk home but got lost instead. Figures. We managed however, to find our way home properly from eating fried chicken.  #winning

 

Korea: A love letter with a few apologies

After six days in Saigon, Dave and I were off to South Korea.  Amid news of the country (or also, perhaps, our own) being smashed to smithereens. Both of our mothers had worried faces while we were Face-timing and rightfully so — we have international news at our disposal– but I can assure you from the safety of Tokyo where American TV is at our disposal: American TV makes things sound really scary and worse.  Sorry to make you worry, Moms.

Koreans could not have been less than impressed with North Korea’s bullying and are almost indifferent to the chatter.  We watched Korean news in English and the glossed over the danger and basically the reports were “….eyeroll”.   Before we knew all this, we shrugged and packed our bags and  left the land of lawless traffic, sweating profusely, and herb salads and hopped on a free, four-hour flight (thanks, frequent flier miles!) on Asiana.

korea #1

korea #1

We landed and it was 30 degrees Celcius colder than when we landed (Americans — it was 95F in Saigon and 25 or so in Seoul).  Literally, as we walked of the plane the chill took our breath (and dare I argue, 1/2 of my tan?) away.

We plodded through the night to our guest house in a hip area of Seoul with many universities, and promptly, and unequivocally fell in love with this city.

bright lights big city

bright lights big city

We ate our first meal at midnight, in a real restaurant, seated not on a plastic stool. This felt strange. We also didn’t yet pretend to speak any Korean, so a kindly waitress who spoke a little English ordered for us, and helped us cook table-side whatever it was we ate. Pieces of tender steak, cut up pieces of tube-y insides with some sort of delicious meaty-squish inside, tiny mushrooms and morning glory were all stir-fried at our table in a huge cast iron pot. The staff checked on us so we wouldn’t a) ruin it or b) burn their establishment down. We split a bottle of soju. We split another.

yummmmmm

yummmmmm

Then, the most magical sentence was uttered. “Do you want kim chi fried rice?” IN THE CAST IRON POT. With all the delicious, burnt remnants of our stir-fried dinner.

Duh, kindly lady.

Duh.

Oppa soju styles

Oppa soju styles

The next few days were a whirlwind of a new routine for us.  We had some errands to run, like purchasing sweaters, gloves, and shoes that didn’t have exposed toes.

We most importantly though, needed to have fun. And fun in Korea means boozing face and eating meat. Sound familiar, Americans?   It’s like a New Orleans bar crawl, there’s an order to your night and it devolves quickly.

It starts like this. Get a beer from the convenience store. A 7-11, Family Mart, or CU. Crack it open and enj0y it on the table and chairs outside.  Then, it’s barbeque time.Enjoy your beef with some soju (or loads of soju) and linger over dinner.

bbq!

bbq!

uh oh

uh oh

Then instead of dessert and to take a soju break, get a beer and have the table share a plate of fried chicken.

eat moar chikken

eat moar chikken

Then, it’s time for karaoke or to collapse — whichever comes first (note: we never made it to karaoke).

I appreciate this. Koreans think it’s bad for your health to just drink. You need to line the stomach correctly. Whatever helps you drink more.  We made friends everywhere we went. University students asking us to join them for drinks (or, uh, something like that. we ended up drinking and chatting in broken English at 4am [sorry, Moms!]). People playing carnival games on the streets, inviting us to take a go. People stumbling down the street with a, “hello! welcome to Korea! U-S-A! U-S-A! $%@* North Korea!” (true story).

All of this fun, kindness, and camaraderie however, does not make for a cute next morning.  I am over 30. Dave is over 30. I am puffy, slow, and horrifyingly cranky after a soju too many (SORRY DAVE). So what better way to soothe the soul, or perhaps your head, than with dumplings?

You’ll find little tents everywhere along the street run by a kindly ajumma. She’ll be a middle-aged lady with a perm, a puffy vest, a huge visor and a wide smile. She’ll have dumplings, veggie tempura, shrimp tempura, veggie sushi, fish cakes, etc.

fried treats

fried treats

She’ll greet you with a hearty, sing-songy ANNIEO HASSEYOOOOOO and offer you a warm cup of broth. Then she’ll fry you up your goodies and by the time the fourth dumpling is down the hatch you are already over the stage where you promise yourself you’ll never drink soju ever, EVER again.

fried things heal

Gimbap! Veggie Sushi delights!

If fried things don’t fix you, than a soup might. We had awesome dumpling soup on a market snack-crawl of sorts which was delicious.

dumpling soup ajumma

dumpling soup ajumma

This was followed by bindaetteok, a delicious mung bean pancake, which sounds crappy but tasted like hash browns.

yummmm

yummmm

Which was followed by pig face soup.

pigface soup

pigface soup

Seriously.

spot the face?

spot the face?

Then there are all the treats we didn’t take pictures of. Endless kimchi. Delicious salads. Bibimbap. Bulgogi. Bread in the shape of fish with black bean centers. Tube-y forms of gelatinous rice in tomato sauce known as tteokbokki which is revered in Korea but I just don’t understand.

We also ate a raw seafood lunch that was in fact, still alive, but that’s a story for a different day.

And by we, I mean “Dave”. SORRY.