Eating: Penang

Congee breakfast in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Breakfast of champions: congee with stewed pork, duck, tofu, and mustard greens.

George Town is the capital city of Penang.  Penang is the food capital of Malaysia.  So we had our expectations set REALLY high for this city.  Recipe for failure? Um, no.  More like recipe for the best Indian/Malay/Chinese food we’ve had since we arrived in Malaysia!

Before we even arrived in George Town, I emailed my friend Andrea who was just here with her husband six months earlier.  We both follow this excellent food blog called EatingAsia.  Andrea had contacted the talented blogger and received an email containing a couple of resources – most notably an amazing self-guided food tour that she published in the Wall Street Journal.

Coconut tarts in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Coconut tarts at Leong Chee Kee, a hidden little bakery at the back of a parking lot off of  Lebuh Cintra

During our twelve-day stay in George Town, we blocked off a full day to do the food tour.  We made sure we woke up early and hungry and slowly ate our way through the city.  The tour had us zigzaggin’ all over the colonial core of George Town – which was fine by us because we needed all that walking to burn off all the food we were consuming.  The walking tour took us past places like Chowrasta Market – the largest wet market in George Town…

Chowrasta Market in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Chowrasta Market – the largest wet market in George Town

Chowrasta Market in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

“Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads…”

…to the Dim Sum institution, Aik Hoe – where elderly men socialize all morning over pots of hot tea and baskets of har gow (shrimp dumplings)…

Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Dim Sum at 8 in the morning – busiest time of the day

Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Locals catching up on daily news and gossip over dim sum

..to little inconspicuous shops that specialized in making only one thing like Henry Yap’s yu char kwai (Chinese fritter) shop…

Henry Yap's fritter shop (George Town, Malaysia)

Henry Yap’s fritter shop

Henry Yap's fritter shop (George Town, Malaysia)

Deep frying the sticks of fluffy dough

…to the sweets-laden shelves and flower-lined stalls of little India…

Little India in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Stacks of sweets outside a shop in little India

Little India in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Garlands of plastic flowers line the stalls in little India

…to the longest-standing fort in Malaysia, Fort Cornwallis.  Just to name a few.  And that’s all in one day.

Cannons at Fort Cornwallis (George Town, Malaysia)

Cannons at Fort Cornwallis

The food tour isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach – and the trick to surviving the day was to graze (not gorge) at each stop.  Otherwise, you won’t be able to make it even halfway through the tour.  The intense heat doesn’t help either, so make sure to stay cool and hydrated.

Cool & Sweet

Luckily, there are a lot of places that serve cool delightful bowls of sweets.  They might look a little strange but they are so tasty and refreshing in the 40ºC heat.

Cendol

This sweet, refreshing dessert gets its name from the green, chewy noodle that’s featured in this dish.  It’s made from rice flour and coloured using a local herb called “pandan“.   The bowl is filled with shaved ice, topped with red beans, cendol noodles, and drowned in coconut milk and gula (palm sugar syrup).

Cendol (George Town, Malaysia)

A cool and refreshing bowl of Cendol

Ice Kacang

Another refreshing dessert option is Ice Kacang – a colourful mix of sweet corn, grass jelly, red beans over shaved ice and drenched in palm sugar syrup, rose syrup and evaporated milk.  This little bowl packs a huge explosion of flavours that work surprisingly well together.  Between Cendol or Ice Kacang, I personally enjoyed the latter more.

Ice Kacang (George Town, Malaysia)

A delicious and colourful bowl of Ice Kacang

Kopi

Kopi (coffee) is everywhere in George Town.  That’s because kopitiams (traditional coffee shops) are to Malaysia as Tim Hortons are to Canada.  Locals love to sit for hours over a kopi and catch up over the day’s news and gossip.  One of the better coffee shops we visited was Toon Leong (corner of Jalan Transfer and Jalan Argyll).  We ordered the perfect glass of kopi peng (iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk)

Kopi Peng (George Town, Malaysia)

An ice-cold glass of coffee with condensed milk

Fruit Shakes

Malaysia offers a huge variety of fresh local fruit (mango, watermelon,guava, rambutan, star fruit, etc), so it’s no surprise that the fruit shakes and fruit juices are amazing.  Fresh, sweet, and thirst-quenching – they’re available everywhere.  My personal favourite was the lime juice from the juice stand at the corner of Love Lane and Lebuh Chulia,

Fruit shakes (George Town, Malaysia)

A huge glass of fresh watermelon juice

Besides the food tour articles, the map in the picture below was absolutely indispensable during our stay in George Town.  It contains pictures and descriptions of all the signature Malaysian dishes. along with locations of restaurants/stalls/stands that serve them.  They’re available in almost all hostels and guesthouses so make sure to pick one up.

Penang Street Food map (George Town, Malaysia)

Penang’s food map: don’t leave home without it

With this in your back pocket, you’ll be able to create your own food tour.  Malaysians really know what they’re doing when it comes to food – especially in Penang, where the food choices are seemingly unending.  Drawing from Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, and Arabian influences, Malaysian cuisine is a melting pot of drool-worthy flavours. (Hmmm..’melting pot’ and ‘drool’ should not be used in the same sentence.)

Indian-influence

I think one of the best things about visiting Malaysia is that it feels like you’re also visiting India.  The Indian food in Penang was amazing.  We found that we had Indian food more often than we had anticipated – only because it was so amazingly delicious.  We craved it every single day.

Roti Canai

My personal favourite was Roti Canai – flatbread that’s pulled really thin, folded, and then grilled in oil.  The perfect version is flat, crispy and flaky on the outside but fluffy on the inside.

Roti Canai (George Town, Malaysia)

Roti Canai – fluffy, chewy, and crispy all at the same time

My favourite version is found on Jalan Penang at a outdoor food stand called Sup Hameed.  Order it with the fish curry for only RM1.00 ($0.33 CDN).  We probably had it half a dozen times at .  Simply phenomenal.

Roti Canai and fish curry (George Town, Malaysia)

Roti Canai and fish curry for RM1.00 at Sup Hameed

Curry and Naan

Another simple meal was various curries and dahl (a type of lentil stew) served with garlic naan (an oven-baked flatbread).  So good and deceptively filling.

Curry and naan (George Town, Malaysia)

Garlic naan and curries

Thosai

We stumbled upon the restaurant Veloo Villas in little India and tried their amazing Thosai, a crispy fermented crepe or pancake.  It served a variety a savoury tomato curry, coconut-based chutney, and dahl –  which you scrape up with crispy pieces of Thosai.  Little did we know, Veloo Villas was also listed on the self-guided food tour I mentioned above, so we happily sampled it again on our food tour day.

Thosai (George Town, Malaysia)

Thosai with a savoury tomato curry, coconut-based chutney, and dahl

Banana leaf set at Veloo Villas (George Town, Malaysia)

Mutton curry with rice on a banana leaf

Thali

Thali is the ultimate meal for indecisive eaters.  You know the ones who hum and haw at a menu for 20 minutes before they finally decide on what they’ll have as their appetizer?  Thali is basically a platter of various dishes served in small metal bowls.  You can choose various combinations but I think Jason and I must have both ordered the super-sized version – 11 dishes!  It was really fun to eat as every dish was a surprise.  I recognized maybe one or two of the dishes (dahl and a chutney) but everything else was completely foreign.  Dishes ranged from curries, pickles, yogurt, dahl, vegetables, chutney, rice, roti and a dessert.  We were set for the rest of the day after this meal.

Thali (George Town, Malaysia)

The super-sized Thali sampler set that I was definitely unable to finish.

Chinese-influence

I personally LOVED the Chinese-influenced dishes in Penang.  I may be biased since it’s the food of my people, but the Malaysian twist in Chinese dishes was awesome.

Wan Tan Mee

This dish made it onto my ‘Top 5 Dishes from our Travels’ list.  The humble Wan Tan Mee (pork or shrimp dumplings & noodles).  This dish is comfort food for me since I grew up eating it.  But I’ve only ever had the soup version.  We tried the dry version in George Town at a little hawker stall on Lebuh Chulia (they start setting up right in front of the furniture store in the evenings).

Hawker food stalls in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hawker food stalls on Lebuh Chulia

And this dish changed my life.  Well, at least when it comes to food.  I now refer to time as “Before WanTan Mee” and “After Wan Tan Mee“.  The yellow noodles are perfectly springy and chewy and are served in a dark soy sauce/sesame oil dressing.  Simple but so mind-blowingly good.

You don’t have to take my word for it though, just check out the long lines that form in front of the stall every night.  The husband and wife team move so quickly and efficiently that it’s hard not to be in awe.

Wan Tan Mee stall (George Town, Malaysia)

The best Wan Tan Mee stall in George Town (Lebuh Chulia in front of the furniture store)

We must’ve have come back to the stall at least half a dozen times throughout our stay in George Town.  We even came back one night when it was raining so hard that the streets started flooding.  We were pretty certain the stand would be closed – but we wanted to check anyway.  We were absolutely delighted to see it was still open.  Only the hard-core Wan Tan Mee-lovers were out:  the two of us and another pair that sat across from us, huddled under the sheet-metal roof of the closest building.

Wan Tan Mee in the rain (George Town, Malaysia)

Die-hard fans brave torrential rain to enjoy a hearty plate of Wan Tan Mee

And considering how many times we had this amazing dish, I surprisingly don’t have a single good photo of it.  Although, I think the photo below explains it well – I always scarfed it down before I remembered to stop and take a picture.

Wan Tan Mee (George Town, Malaysia)

Enjoying my first plate (of many) of Wan Tan Mee

Dim Sum

Another favourite of ours – we ended making repeat visits to Aik Hoe (6 Lebuh Carnarvon) for a cheap and tasty breakfast.  I’ve had a lot of Dim Sum in my life and I can definitely understand why this place is now an institution in George Town.

Dim Sum at Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Delicious little plates of Dim Sum

The Dim Sum was so fresh since the restaurant was always packed – they were constantly churning out new batches.  The har gow (shrimp dumplings) was made perfectly.  And make sure to also try the made-to-order xiao long bau (soup-filled dumplings)

Dim Sum at Aik Hoe (George Town, Malaysia)

Giant steamer baskets of Dim Sum

Hot Pot

I’m already a huge fan of Hot Pot at home.  There’s nothing more satisfying than cooking up your own food and dipping it into the perfect bowl of DIY sauce.  We passed by this hot pot stall (near Lebuh Chulia and Love Lane) a couple of times before we decided to give it a go.

Hot Pot food stall in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hot Pot food stall (Pay-as-you-eat)

Personally, I think it’s a little gimmicky but it’s still fun.  And great for a quick snack!  You just grab a couple of skewers of meat/vegetables/seafood, cook them up in one of the vats of broth, and dip them into various sauces that you spoon onto your plate.

Hot Pot food stall (George Town, Malaysia)

Deciding between all the different skewers for Hot Pot

Southern Chinese

We tried to look for turkey on Canadian Thanksgiving day but we had to settle for braised duck instead.  We visited the popular Tek Sen (18 & 20 Lebuh Carnarvon) – beloved by locals and tourists alike.  Having been around for almost half a century, it’s built a solid reputation and a strong local following.  Serving mainly Southern Chinese food (Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, Sichuan), you’ll likely be able to find something that will suit any palate.

Tek Sen menu (George Town, Malaysia)

Delicious southern Chinese meal at Tek Sen

We ended ordering a mini-feast: braised duck, stir-fried pea shoots, and braised tofu.  Thanksgiving: Malaysian-style!

Tek Sen meal (George Town, Malaysia)

Our Canadian Thanksgiving meal – Malaysian style.

Duck Kuay Teow Th’ng

Kuay Teow Th’ng (Flat rice noodles in soup) is divine.  My favourite version is the duck meat.  It’s hearty and comforting, yet light and delicate at the same time.

Hawker food stalls in George Town (Penang, Malaysia)

Hawker food stalls

Kuay Teow Th'ng (George Town, Malaysia)

My favourite version was the duck. Pictured here is another delicious option: pork and fish balls!

Silky smooth rice noodles. thin slices of seasoned duck meat, and finely-chopped scallions come together perfectly in a delicately-flavoured consomme.

Kuay Teow Th'ng (George Town, Malaysia)

No time to stop for picture-taking

Hainanese Chicken Rice

This dish sounds very simple but every aspect of it needs to be prepared perfectly for the whole dish to work.  The chicken: delicately flavoured, the skin is thin and crispy, and the meat is juicy and tender.  The rice: seasoned and lightly dressed with oil.  The extras: thin slices of cucumber to soak up the grease, slices of green onion for flavour, and a bowl of light chicken broth to wash it down.  The crowning touch: the perfect house-made hot sauce.  My favourite version is found at Wen Chang Hainan Chicken Rice (63 Lebuh Cintra)

Hainanese chicken rice (George Town, Malaysia)

How does a concept as simple as chicken and rice be so delicious and complex in flavour?

Hokkien Mee

It took us a long time to discover this delicious dish.  I think it was on Day 11 of our 12-days in George Town that we stumbled upon this excellent version in the massive group of food stalls right outside Gurney Plaza.  When you finally decide to rent a car or bike to get out of the downtown core, make sure to drop by for a bowl of hearty, spicy goodness.  A thick, fragrant prawn and pork-based broth surrounds the springy yellow noodles and rice vermicelli.  It packs just enough heat and the strong prawn-flavour is rounded out by a slight sweetness.  I didn’t expect this dish to be this delicious and really regretted discovering it so late in our stay in George Town.

Hokkien Mee (George Town, Malaysia)

The blue spoon really looks good with the spicy red bowl of Hokkien Mee.

Malay-influence

Mee Goreng

You’ll likely see Mee Goreng available all over George Town.  It’s a popular dish in Penang.  But if you want to try a special version, head to Hameed’s food court stall (one of a handful of food stalls that are still open in the sad-looking food court next to Fort Cornwallis) and try the Mee Goreng Sotong.  The super-spicy sambal sotong sauce that’s spooned on top of the yellow noodles might bring tears to your eyes (it’s up to you whether they’re tears of joy or tears of pain).  Chewy strands of squid, cubes of potato, chopped green onions and a squirt of lime round out this fiery plate of noodles.

Mee Goreng Sotong (George Town, Malaysia)

Fiery plate of Mee Goreng Sotong

Satay

Seasoned, skewered, and grilled meats over hot coals or wood fire.  Everything tastes good on a stick!  Especially when it’s served with an amazing chili sauce, crunchy cucumber slices and pieces of sweet onion.

Satay (George Town, Malaysia)

Satay served with fresh cucumbers and sweet onion

Nasi Kandar

This simple meal originates from Penang and quite simply consists of steamed rice and various curries, meats, and vegetables.  As part of our self-guided food tour, we tried the version served at Toon Leong coffee shop.  The term nasi kandar originates from  Malaysian street hawkers who used to carry around their food by balancing two large containers of nasi (rice) and curry that hung from either ends of a long kandar (pole).

Nasi Kandar (George Town, Malaysia)

Nasi Kandar: fall-off-the-bone chicken curry and rice version

Assam Laksa

Also referred to as Penang Laksa, this is the dish that catapulted Malaysia into A-list celebrity/Can’t-go-anywhere-without-being-by-hounded-by-paparazzi status.  It’s the only noodle dish in Penang that uses a fish-based broth.  The broth is a wonderful medley of  poached mackeral, lemongrass, chillies and assam (tamarind) – ingredients that give this dish its unique tangy and savoury flavour.  It’s served with thick  rice noodles and then topped with sliced cucumbers, lettuce, red chilies, and tons of fresh mint leaves!  It’s an amazing dish that’s different from all other types of laksa sold in Malaysia.  I haven’t been able to have it again since we’ve left – so make sure you get your fill before you leave Penang.

Assam Laksa (George Town, Malaysia)

Flavour explosion: Assam Laksa (Penang’s own version of Laksa)

So there you have it: a comprehensive run-down of our food adventure in Penang.  George Town was an exceptional city and is definitely one of the highlights of our travels in Southeast Asia so far.

We arrived with high expectations and left with huge smiles, full bellies, and tastebuds still tingling.

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia: A Whole New World

Note from the author: Sorry for the radio silence! It’s been a wonderfully busy Christmas season and we’ve been really busy stuffing our faces with turkey and….well, stuffing 🙂 Hope you’re enjoying the holidays too!

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Sunset over the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Have you ever tried something that ended up opening up a whole new world for you?  I’m not talking about something like discovering you love seafood one day, after a lifetime of avoiding it – although that’s still a pretty awesome turning point in life.

Fresh seafood (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Fresh seafood

I’m talking about discovering something that literally opens up a completely foreign and beautiful new world that you’ve never before experienced.  That’s what happened to me and Jason in Malaysia – specifically the Perhentian Islands.

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Beautiful white sand beaches on Perhentian Besar

View of Perhentian Kecil from Perhentian Besar (Malaysia)

View of Perhentian Kecil (“Small Perhentian”) from Perhentian Besar (“Big Perhentian”)

The Perhentian Islands are off the northeastern coast of peninsular Malaysia and home to beautiful pristine white sand beaches and untouched reefs and sealife.  The Perhentian Islands are still relatively undiscovered by mass tourism.  Turquoise blue sea surrounds the islands that are covered in tropical jungle, with few trails, no roads, and no ATMs.  Hotels and dorm options are relatively basic – you won’t find any 5-star options on the islands.  I’m pretty sure this is as close to a secluded island paradise as I’ve ever been but I’m sure it won’t last long.

White sand beaches in front of Universal Diver (Perhentian Besar, Malaysia)

White sand beaches in front of our dive shop. Universal Diver

We arrived here in early October, just before the monsoon season was set to hit.  I’m glad we had done our research before settling on a route through Malaysia or we would’ve missed the window to dive in the Perhentians.  The weather was perfect for the beach – scorchingly hot and sunny with the occasional afternoon storm to cool things off for the evening.

Approaching storm (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

One of the rare storms we experienced was magnificent to watch. It approached slowly and ominously from the mainland.

After the storm (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

After the storm passed, a gorgeous sunset light up the sky

On the bigger of the Perhentian Islands – Perhentian Besar – we discovered the wonderful world of scuba diving.  I don’t know what took us so long to try it.  I don’t really blame Jason since he’s never really been that comfortable in the water, but I LOVE water.  I was probably a fish in some past life.  I grew up immersed in a pool on a weekly basis: swimming classes, life-saving workshops, synchronized swimming lessons – I’ve done them all.  I love beach vacations, most of my favourite travel destinations are on the coast, and I live on Lake Shore Boulevard in Toronto. 😛

One exception though – I don’t really like snorkeling.  Something about salt water always leaking into my mask and up my nose just turns me off from it.  So maybe that’s why I was never really that interested in scuba diving.

However, during our scuba lessons, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that clearing your scuba mask of water was a cinch –  so suddenly a leaking mask was no longer an issue.  I was also a little nervous for Jason being able to equalize his ears underwater since his ears are a little sensitive to equalization during flights.  Again, no issues!

Descent Line (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Descending via a line on our first open water dive

Taking your first breath underwater is a really strange experience, as is trusting that your scuba regulator will continue to deliver air to you as you descend deeper and deeper into the turquoise water.  But once you wrap your head around that, this whole new world underwater is unlike anything you’ll have experienced before.

Gearing up (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Getting ready and gearing up on the boat. It’s always a little chaotic above water

At the surface, it’s often a bit chaotic with the wind and waves and other divers entering the water.  Once you go below the surface, all that chaos disappears and you find that the deeper you go, the calmer it becomes.  Everything goes quiet and all movement seems to slow down.  The feeling of weightlessness is also incredibly relaxing.

Descending into the blue (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Descending into the blue

And as your eyes start focusing into the blue water, this beautiful world starts emerging from the depths.  Impressive sea fans, colourful corals, and hypnotic anemone cover the sea floor and rock walls.  Massive schools of neon yellow fish flash by.

Beautiful soft sea coral (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Beautiful soft sea coral

Anemone swaying in the current (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Anemone swaying in the current

Us swaying in the current (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Us swaying in the current

Jason and I took our PADI Open Water certification course at Universal Diver. The staff there was so friendly and welcoming.  Their divemasters and instructors were amazing.  And the dive shop’s operation and equipment were set up so well

Universal Diver Dive Shop & School (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Universal Diver Dive Shop & School: where we spent most of our time when we weren’t in the water

Universal Diver Dive Boat (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Universal Diver Dive Boat

Our dive gear (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our dive gear

Our instructor, Alvaro, was excellent.  He was very safety-conscious yet fun, strict yet laid-back at the same time – which was perfect for an Open Water course.

Dive briefing (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our group getting briefed before one of our final open water dives

Scuba theory class (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia0

Looking too happy to be learning scuba diving theory

Our Open Water instructor and fellow classmates (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our Open Water instructor and fellow classmates

Open Water students are typically brand new to diving and it can be nerve-wracking if you don’t feel like you can trust your instructor.  But, Alvaro was incredibly knowledgeable when it came to the theory and very thorough when it came to the practical instruction.

Perfect formation (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Our instructor was always scolding us for bumping into each other or swimming over each other.  The rare time we actually swam in perfect formation!

We met two girls from Sweden, Ellen and Josephine, who had just arrived straight from Sweden and kicking off their two months of travel in Southeast Asia.  They were very sweet and funny and we had a great time spending the next five days with them in the water and on land over our many shared meals.

Diving buddies (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Jason and I with Ellen and Josephine, our diving course buddies

Speaking of meals, we were lucky enough to uncover some pretty decent food options on the island.  We visited every single one of the beach resorts on the eastern side of Perhentian Besar.  The best food was found at Mama’s Place – which required a 10 to 15 minute hike through the jungle.

Tom Yum noodles (Mama's Place. Perhentian Islands)

Tom yam noodle soup – perfect balance of savoury and tart.  Malaysia’s version of Thailand’s Tom Yum

(Maggi Goreng (Mama's Place, Perhentian Islands)

Maggi Goreng – stir fried Maggi instant noodles with a fried egg

Curry Noodles (Mama's Place Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Curry Noodles

Tuna Bay Resort also had well-prepared dishes and the best iced coffee but they were more expensive than the other restaurants.

Kuey Tiew  (Tuna Bay Resort, Perhentians, Malaysia)

Kuey Tiew – a popular fried noodle dish made of flat rice noodles. I ordered the whole steamed fish (first picture above)

We also had many meals at Cocohut since they were the closest option – fortunately, their food wasn’t half bad.

Tom Yam noodle soup (Cocohut, Perhentian Islands)

Tom Yam noodle soup – not a very authentic version

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Sambal Fish (Cocohut, Perhentian Islands)

Sambal Fish – fish marinated in sambal (a sweet and spicy chili paste)

After a final written exam (94% baby! Yes, I’m a nerd even when it comes to scuba diving), 3.5 days of exercises and assessments, we all got a passing grade from our instructor!  Yay – certified Open Water divers!

Graduation! (Perhentian Islands, Malaysia)

Graduation Day!

The four of us celebrated with a dinner at Cocohut and then joined the staff and other divers at the dive shop for a night of raucous behaviour and…things that shall go unmentioned in this blog.  Let’s just say that everyone (i.e. both divers and staff) lucked out as I forgot to bring my camera along.  I guess what happens in the Perhentian Islands, stays in the Perhentian Island 😉

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: A Steamy Concrete Jungle

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The impressive Petronas Towers at night

The last few weeks in Korea and Japan felt like a vacation…yes, a vacation from our travels.  As weird as that sounds, it’s probably the best way to describe it.  Being with Jason’s family in Korea and then travelling with Jeanne and Dave in Japan felt like we were taking a bit of a break from our usual world of hostels, shared bathrooms, and eating at street stalls.

Don’t get me wrong, we love eating at street stalls, but we also love eating at good restaurants.  So after our “vacation” in Korea and Japan, we got back into “travel mode” after parting ways with Jeanne and Dave.

Up next in our travel adventures was Malaysia – specifically the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur (known as KL by the cool people – and obviously we are cool *wink*).  We were really excited to visit this city and were looking forward to experiencing the mix of modern metropolis with old-world orient.

What we were NOT prepared for was the oppressive (to the point of almost unbearable) humidity and heat.  On a daily basis, the temperature hovered around 35°C, and with humidity it felt like 44°C!  That kind of heat is fine if you’re on a beach but not if you’re stuck in a concrete jungle.

Although KL boasts several modern transit systems that interconnect, we found this multi-transit system really confusing and difficult to navigate.  After a few weeks in Korea and Japan, we had become a little spoiled by their clean, fast, and efficient metro systems.  KL has monorail lines, commuter train lines, and skytrain lines that all tangled up into a jumbled mess.

Confusing pedestrian infrastructure (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

A confusing network of pedestrian walkways, tunnels, and bridges around the city. Notice the lack of sidewalks.

We decided to try our hand at exploring the city by foot.  But the pedestrian infrastructure also proved to be confusing and difficult to navigate.  Networks of pedestrian walkways, tunnels, and bridges that connect from building to building replaced normal pedestrian sidewalks.  Trying to get from point A to point B meant either scampering across a 6-lane highway or taking a 30-minute detour through underground tunnels and pedestrian bridges.

Confusing pedestrian infrastructure (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Bridges over random waterways. It’s liked they built all the buildings without any sort of plan of how they would get people from one building to another.

We spent our first day walking around our neighbouhood while trying to stay in the shade.  Jason had read about the indoor hawker stall food centre called Lot 10 Hutong.  Described as a “gourmet heritage village”, it pulls together a hand-picked lot of the best hawker stalls across Malaysia and places them in an clean, air-conditioned indoor food-court.  Normally, I prefer the grimier, authentic street food experience.  But in this ridiculous heat, “indoor” and ‘air-conditioning” were right up my alley.

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Lot 10 Hutong: a gourmet heritage village

Jason and I both got Chinese-influenced dishes.  I ordered a delicious wine chicken & mushroom noodle soup and he got a claypot chicken rice dish.

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Wine Chicken & mushroom noodle soup

Lot 10 Hutong (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Claypot chicken rice

After cooling off and filling up, we were ready for round two of exploration.  However, we quickly found out that Kuala Lumpur doesn’t have many sights to take in – people mainly come here for two things: shopping and eating.

Shopping

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The expansive amusement park inside one of the malls – puts West Edmonton Mall to shame!

The malls in Malaysia are insane!  Now normally, I love shopping and have no problem with spending hours in malls and markets perusing the sales racks.  However, backpacking for 6 months means you have to be really, really picky with what you pick up along the way.  “Do I really want to carry this around for the next few months?” is a question we ask ourselves a lot.  Sure, we can ship things home, but that would get really expensive really quickly and we were already on a tight budget.

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Jason trying to figure out how to exit the massive mall complex

So unfortunately, no shopping for this girl.  Jason, on the other hand, was ecstatic about our limited shopping opportunities.  But even though we weren’t planning to do much shopping in Kuala Lumpur, we still ended up visiting quite a few malls – mainly to escape the heat and take advantage of the air conditioning and relatively clean bathrooms…. and of course, the bowling alleys!

Berjaya Times Square (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The 20-lane bowling alley inside the mall. Look at that picture-perfect form!

One of the few sights to see in the city is the iconic Petronas Towers.  It IS pretty impressive to see up close (from the outside) – especially when it’s all lit up at night.  Attached to the Petronas Towers is a massive high-end mall (of course!)

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Unflatteringly-angled selfie with the Petronas Towers.

Eating

Since shopping wasn’t really part of our plan, that just leaves eating on the agenda – which we both had no problems with.

An interesting area to visit in KL is Petaling Street/Chinatown.  Pirated CDs, fake Louis Vuitton purses, and street food stalls are crammed into the narrow and bustling pedestrian streets.

Petaling Street (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The packed narrow streets of Chinatown

Jason snacked on a banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice dumpling, while I found an awesome little spicy beef rice noodle stand in a back alley

Spicy beef noodle soup at Petaling Street

Spicy beef noodle soup at Petaling Street

Malaysian culture is a fascinating mix of predominantly Indian, Chinese, Malay.  This ethnic mix, along with its geographic location, allows for many influences in Malaysian cuisine – Indian, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, and Arabian.  All of that cultural diversity will naturally lead to a melting pot of unique flavours and dishes.

Gravy beef over rice

Gravy beef over rice

Mee Goreng (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Mee Goreng – a spicy and tasty fried noodle dish that is very popular in Malaysia

Mee Goreng (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Another version of Mee Goreng

Our eyes and tastebuds were delighted to find this amazing food street, Jalan Alor, almost right next to where we were staying.

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

The popular food street, Jalan Alor

We walked right past it during the day, barely giving it a second glance.  During the daylight hours, it’s pretty easy to miss – but when the sun sets, this street comes to life.  Hawker stalls jostle for space on the streets while restaurants set up plastic stools and tables that spill over the sidewalk right onto the street.

Skewered meat and seafood (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Everything tastes better on a stick, right?

Seafood stall on Jalan Alor

A seafood stall open for business

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Tables were packed with locals – the best sign of good food

We ordered a feast that night: soy-glazed chicken wings, deep fried frog legs, and curry noodles – with a few cold pints of beer to wash it all down.

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Jason just moments away from inhaling the bowl of curry noodles

Jalan Alor (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

A meal fit for (Malaysian) royalty

Yes, the food was delicious, but irritated with the frustrating pedestrian infrastructure and the oppressive heat, we decided to hightail it out of Kuala Lumpur after only 2.5 days – the shortest we’ve spent in any one place so far.  Off to the beach – the only place one should be in 44°C weather!

Eating: Tokyo

Ramen noodle shop table set-up (Tokyo, Japan)

A typical set-up at a ramen noodle shop

The food awesomness continued from Korea into Japan.  Actually, it might be more accurate to describe it as: the food awesomeness only got better in Japan.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but Jason and I were really not ready for how amazing the food was going to be Korea after 3 months of South American food.  Little did we know, we were just warming up in Korea.  Our tastebuds were in for the greatest time of their lives in Japan.

We only spent four short days in Tokyo, so we had to make sure we were strategic in our food adventures.  Some of the things we had on our list was:

Ramen

Ramen meal (Tokyo, Japan)

Ramen meal with onigiri (rice balls)

Ramen is all the craze lately in Toronto.  In a span of a year, a dozen or so ramen shops popped up and ravenous Torontonians gobbled it down.  I was one of those ravenous Torontonians.

Ramen cook (Tokyo, Japan)

A ramen cook preparing to serve the noodles

Ramen is an cultural icon in Japan.  It’s also an art-form – traditional ramen chefs will argue that the perfect bowl of ramen noodle takes a lot of time and practice to achieve.  The noodles need to be al dente and the broth has to be perfectly seasoned, simmered, and reduced. Then it needs to be quickly slurped up, whilst making as much noise as possible.  That shows the cook that you’re really enjoying his ramen.

Paper bib for ramen (Tokyo, Japan)

Jason sporting a restaurant-supplied bib. Ready for all the ramen slurping!

There’s a method of serving ramen in Tokyo that has been around for 50+ years but has only recently become hugely popular.  I don’t think it’s really caught on in Toronto as I’ve never seen anyone order it (or perhaps I just haven’t been looking out for it).  I first saw it on a TV cooking show – a specific episode featuring ramen in Japan.

Tsukemen with sesame-based broth (Tokyo, Japan)

Tsukemen with sesame-based broth. One of my favourite ramen meals

Known as tsukemen, it’s basically ramen that you dip into broth (as opposed to being served in broth).  First, you choose the type of broth you want.  If you’re lucky, the vending machine will have pictures

Noodle vending machine (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering noodles via vending machine (with pictures)

If you’re unlucky, then you have to stare at the machine with a glazed-over expression, until the cook notices and comes over to help you out.

Retro noodle vending machine (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering noodles via vending machine (without pictures)

Then you choose the portion of noodle you want. The sizes will range from a small portion to sometimes, an extra-large portion.

Ramen noodle portions (Tokyo, Japan)

Ramen noodle portions. I ordered the medium the first time and it wasn’t enough 😦

They’re all the same price, so it’s tempting to order the largest portion.  But waste would be frowned upon, so choose wisely.  I made the mistake of ordering too small a portion the first time (It was a medium!) and ended up digging into Jason’s ramen stash.  The next time, I ordered much too large of a portion (XL) and had to waddle uncomfortably out of the ramen shop.  I know, first-world problems.

Tsukemen with all the fixings (Tokyo, Japan)

Tsukemen with all the fixings (and an XL noodle portion!)

I think it’s the perfect way to eat ramen.  The ramen noodles don’t go mushy from sitting in broth.  The broth is thicker (almost like a thin sauce) and much more flavourful.  The noodles are the perfect combination of thick and chewy – an ideal vehicle for the thicker broth.  As you dip the noodle in the broth, the thick broth coats each noodle in its entirety.  Simply perfect.  Once you’ve had it, you might find it difficult to go back to conventional ramen.

Tsukemen (Tokyo, Japan)

Fast-food tsukemen

Soba

Soba noodles in broth & tempura (Tokyo, Japan)

Soba noodles in broth & tempura

Sometimes overlooked by noodle-lovers vying for the hugely popular ramen, this simple and delicious noodle dish deserves a cult following too.  Soba can be served in a hot broth, as pictured above.  Or served on the side for dipping into a hot broth (looks like someone is learning a thing or two from ramen)

Dipping soba noodles into hot broth (Tokyo, Japan)

Dipping soba noodles into hot broth

Or for the indecisive, you can have soba AND a deep-fried oyster fritter over rice.

Soba noodles in broth & deep fried oyster fritter over rice (Tokyo, Japan)

Soba noodles in broth & deep fried oyster fritter over rice

But my personal favourite is zaru soba, where the soba noodles are served chilled with a dipping sauce.  The dipping sauce is called soba tsuyu, in which you can should mix scallions and wasabi.  It’s especially refreshing during the hot summer months.

Zaru soba meal (Tokyo, Japan)

Chilled (zaru) soba meal

Izakaya

Okay, izakaya isn’t a type of food.  But it IS a type of food experience.  Best described as a Japanese pub, these little establishments serves chilled beer, sake, and (my favourite part) delightful little dishes of food (similar to tapas).

Izakaya (Ebisu district, Tokyo, Japan)

An izakaya in Ebisu district

They’re hugely popular with Japanese businessmen who, after a long day at work, aren’t ready to head back home yet.  The izakaya scene has also become quite popular in Toronto, but sadly, it doesn’t hold a candle to the izakaya experience in Tokyo.

We made out way to Ebisu district – known for its dense population of izakayas – and popped our head through random doorways until we discovered this little locals-only joint.

Locals in an izakaya (Ebisu district, Tokyo, Japan)

Locals in an izakaya in the Ebisu district

No English menus out front and no English writing on the walls – it obviously didn’t cater to tourists.  Yes! Our favourite type of spot.  We managed to score the last available table tucked away near the back and tried to figure out what the locals were ordering.  Luckily, the server handed us a small hand-written English menu after it became clear we didn’t know what we were doing.

Japanese izakaya menu (Tokyo, Japan)

We stared at this Japanese menu for awhile until the server handed us a small English menu

Izakayas are known to serve more adventurous fare, so we ordered chicken heart skewers, duck gizzard skewers, as well as the ‘chef’s choice’ specialty.

An unknown meat skewer (Tokyo, Japan)

An unknown meat skewer that was delicious!

Tofu izakaya dish (Tokyo, Japan)

A tofu dish

Whole mackarel sashimi (Tokyo, Japan)

Whole mackarel sashimi

After polishing off the sake and food, we discovered that we were still hungry, so we settled up and headed out to find another izakaya.  By now, it was a little later in the evening, so normally reserved and polite businessmen had started to take to the streets with song and dance.  It made for pretty good local entertainment.

Sake by the glass (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering and pouring sake by the glass

We decided to order sake by the glass this time, and I learned about this very cool custom.  When ordered by the glass, sake is poured by the server into a large sake glass that’s placed into a small wooden container.  To show that the establishment is generous with their liquor, the server pours the sake until it overflows the glass and fills the wooden container as well.  As you slowly finish the sake in your glass, you pour the overflow sake from the container into your glass.

Conveyer Belt Sushi

There are few things more magical than sushi that arrives via conveyer belt.  Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration.  But conveyer belt (or kaiten) sushi restaurants ARE a very happy place.  There’s no waiting for the server to come over with a menu, or waiting for the chef to prepare your meal – you just grab whatever you fancy off the moving belt.

Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

We sat right by the chefs station

Or if you’re sushi connoisseurs like us (ha!) and nothing on the conveyer belt does it for you, you can yell out for the sushi chef to make you something à la carte.

Jeanne found us a great little kaiten sushi place called Pintokana in Roppongi district. It was our first night in Tokyo and we went a little crazy…good crazy. I don’t have that many pictures of the sushi we ate because my hands were busy picking up sushi off the belt stuffing sushi in my face.

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Uni (sea urchin) sushi. One of my faves!

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

I don’t really remember. Cuttlefish sushi?

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Tuna avocado sushi

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Squid (ika) sushi

Chirashizushi

Chirashizushi is a bowl of rice topped with a variety of sashimi and additional garnishes.  The four of us had chirashizushi for breakfast the morning we had hoped to visit the Tsukiji fish market.  It was closed but this more than made up for that disappointment.

Chirashizushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Jason’s breakfast: Roasted eel over a bed of rice

Chirashizushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Jeanne & Dave’s breakfast: Fatty and lean tuna & fish eggs over a bed of rice

Uni & ikura over rice (Tokyo, Japan)

My breakfast: Uni (sea urchin) & ikura (fish eggs) over rice

And yes, that IS what you think it is – a huge helping of fresh uni (sea urchin) in my breakfast bowl 🙂  This dish probably topped everything else I had eaten in Tokyo.  I think I moaned in ecstasy after every single bite (much to the annoyance of everyone else at the table) 😛  Seriously AH-MAZ-ING.

Snacks

This little piece of perfection is called tamagoyaki.  It’s a type of grilled egg that’s slightly sweet and savoury.  Sprinkle a few drops of soy sauce on it to bring out the flavour.  The version pictured below is probably the best I’ve ever tasted.  Fluffy, tasty and hot off the grill.

Tamagoyaki (sweet & savoury grilled egg) near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

The best version of tamagoyaki I’ve ever had. It was melt in your mouth.

The Japanese are constantly on the go.  So it’s not surprise to see that a lot of their food is designed to be mobile.  Onigiri (rice balls) are small but filling and designed so that you can eat them neatly with one hand.  They’re available everywhere in Tokyo (e.g. convenience stores, food stalls, vending machines).

Onigiri (Tsukiji Fish market, Tokyo, Japan)

I LOVED onigiri (rice ball). Every chance I got, I would pick one up. (which is pretty easy to do when they’re available everywhere)

Traditional Sushi

Of course I have to end off my post on food in Tokyo with a classic.

Platter of sushi (Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan)

Platter of sushi

I hate to admit it but sushi in Japan really IS better – the fish is fresher and of better quality, there’s more variety, and the fish to rice ratio is perfect.  Our last night in Tokyo was spent gorging on excellent sushi.

Sushi restaurant in Akasaka district (Tokyo, Japan)

Sushi restaurant in Akasaka district

Toro sushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Toro (fatty tuna) sushi

And there you have it – Japan takes the win!  Hands down, Japan has offered us the best food experience in our travels so far.  Let’s see what Southeast Asia will bring to the (dining) table.

Eating: Korea (a.k.a. Seoul Food)

When we first arrived in South Korea, I posted a picture similar to the one below on Facebook, using the following caption:

  • Food in Asia: 17,285,531 points
  • Food in South America: 10 points
Korean BBQ grill house in Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea

My all-time favourite BBQ meal in Korea (Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea)

It’s no secret that Jason and I were both very excited for the food in Asia.  I alluded to it previously, but there is simply no contest between the food we had over the last 3 months in South America and the food we’ve savoured in just the first two weeks in Asia.

Perhaps we’re a little biased (Korean food being the food Jason grew up on and it being one of my favourite cuisines), but we really did give South American food a fair chance to win us over.  Before we left on our travels, I had read a lot about South American food being less than stellar; but, since I pretty much love all food (e.g.. Ethiopian, Indian, Lebanese, Russian, Persian, Vietnamese, Greek, etc), I was really looking forward to proving all the critics wrong by falling in love with South American food.

Sure, there were a few ‘stand-outs’ – like food in Peru (specifically Lima and Arequipa) and Argentina (specifically Buenos Aires) –  but more often than not, South American food was a little boring (at best) or inedible (at worst).  I’m not kidding about it being inedible.  We had our worse restaurant experience of our lives at a restaurant near Iguazu Falls. When our respective dishes arrived at the table, we both took one bite, gingerly spat it out, and concluded that we couldn’t eat anymore of it.  We even told our server how bad the food was, but all he did was shrug, hand us our bill, and clear away our full plates.  It was a sad day.

While 1 out of 10 meals in South America were good, almost every single meal we’ve had in Asia so far has been excellent.

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Okay, enough hatin’ on South American food.  Let’s proceed with lovin’ Korean food.

Korean BBQ

The first picture I posted above was taken at this amazing BBQ joint that Dave found after his meticulous research on where and what to eat in Seoul.  Located in the Mapo district, which has been referred to as barbeque heaven by other travel bloggers, it’s one of dozens upon dozens of grill houses in that area.  But it’s THE one to go to if you only go to just one.  (Note: there’s a picture of a cannon on the restaurant’s orange sign).

Korean BBQ grill house in Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea

Delicious porky, fatty, scrambled egg mixture with grilled pork. Without a doubt, my all-time favourite BBQ meal in Korea

This restaurant specializes in barbequing a specific cut of pork from around the diaphragm – lean and super flavourful.  A lot of the surrounding restaurants also offer this cut of pork, but this restaurant takes it to another (delicious) level.  On the domed grills that are used by a lot of BBQ restaurants, there’s a gutter around the edges that is normally just used to catch the rendered pork fat from the grilled meat.  This restaurant, however, pours scrambled eggs and places kimchi into these gutters, and once the rendered fat starts dripping in and the mixture cooks up, you scrape out delightful little spoonfuls of porky, fluffy, fatty, egg-y goodness.

It’s obvious that Koreans love their grilled meat.  We had several different types of barbeque while in Korea – one of the other notable barbeque meals was of a Jeju Island specialty: black pig.

BBQ black big (Jeju Island, South Korea)

BBQ black big (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Topokki (rice cake snack)

Topokki is a very popular Korean snack that is typically found at street vendors.  It’s usually made of soft rice cake, fish cake, spring onion, and gochujang – a savoury and fermented, red chili and soy-based Korean condiment.  I’ve only ever had the simple version of topokki back in Canada, so imagine my surprise when I saw this fully-loaded version:

Seafood topokki (Topokki Alley, Seoul, South Korea)

Amazing seafood toppoki (before shot)

Along with the typical ingredients, boiled egg, seafood, ramen noodles, dumplings, sausages, cabbage, carrots, onions, and mushrooms also joined the party.  It looked so different that, at first, we thought the server had brought us the wrong dish and almost sent it back.  But after a few minutes of stewing over the stove on the table, it reduced down to something more famliar-looking but a million times more delicious than any topokki dish I had ever had.  I still dream about it and regret not making a repeat visit.

Seafood topokki (Topokki Alley, Seoul, South Korea)

Amazing seafood topokki (after shot)

Daeji Bulgogi & Ssam (Spicy Pork & Lettuce wrap)

Ssam (literally translates to ‘wrapped’) is used to describe many Korean dishes where a leafy vegetable (e.g. lettuce, perilla leaf, napa cabbage) is used to wrap a piece of meat (e.g. pork belly, marinated beef).  Korean meat dishes are already awesome in itself, but wrap it in a fresh, crunchy leaf of lettuce, and it takes on a whole new level of yum.  I can’t even count the number of meals we had in Korea that included ssam, but the meal pictured below was one of my favourites.  We had it in Jeju Island and it was spicy, porky perfection.  My personal favourite ssam combination (in order from bottom layer to top): lettuce leaf, parilla leaf, rice, gochujang, kimchi, marinated fiddleheads, marinated squid, a slice of shitake mushroom, and a piece of spicy pork.

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea).  Check out all the amazing banchan dishes

I think all the little dishes of banchan (which literally translates to mean ‘side dish’ in English) made all the difference…which brings me to my next food topic.

Banchan (small side dishes)

Banchan (Seoul, South Korea)

Delicious banchan

One of my favourite things about Korean meals are the little plates of banchan (side dishes) that are served with every meal.  It adds so many different types of flavours and textures to a relatively simple meal.  Typically, only one dish is the star (e.g. spicy pork) but when you add on 10 different types of banchan, then you have a full blown feast.  Sometimes, I can have just banchan with a bowl of rice and be totally satisfied.

Banchan (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Seafood banchan on Jeju Island

Some of my favourite banchan dishes include:

  • kimchi (especially the cabbage, radish and cucumber kind)
  • miyeok muchim (marinated seaweed)
  • yeongeun jorim (marinated lotus flower root)
  • kongnamul (bean sprouts in sesame oil)
  • gosari (marinated fiddleheads)
  • shitake mushrooms
  • ojingeo (marinated squid)
  • dobu (marinated tofu)
  • takuan (sweet pickled yellow radish)
  • chapchae (glass noodles)
  • myeolchijeot (salted anchovies)

Seafood

Cooked octopus (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Interesting seafood on Jeju Island

The seafood in Korea is also amazing – especially at Jeju Island.  It’s also not for the faint of heart.  One interesting (and initially scary) seafood experience involved live abalone.

Aside from live clams in Greece, I had never eaten anything that still moved.  Also, clams in Greece were much easier to eat than abalone – they’re small so you can just quickly pop them in your mouth and gulp them down.  Abalone are pretty big and tough in texture – so you have to chew pretty thoroughly.

Live abalone (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Live abalone on Jeju Island (For the live-action version, click the video link above.

What’s more, the live abalone were very lively so it’s pretty difficult to psych yourself up enough to eat something that might grab onto your tongue and hang on for dear life.  After some back and forth, I popped one in my mouth.  Let’s just say it’s not my favourite raw seafood.  It’s chewy, a little crunchy, and kind of tough.  I’d much rather have them cooked.

We had more raw seafood (although nothing else moved) on Jeju Island.

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea).  Unfortunately, not as good as Japanese sashimi.

Korean sashimi is very fresh since it’s still swimming in tanks when we arrive at the restaurant; but not as good as Japanese sashimi.  I’ve watched a food show once explaining how Japanese sushi and sashimi are aged, which allows it to achieve its full, rich flavour and a softer texture.  Korean sashimi was a bit too fresh, so it was a bit chewy and not very flavourful.  That’s probably why it’s served with gochujang – the savoury and fermented, red chili and soy-based Korean condiment that’s commonly used in many Korean dishes.

Another great way to serve seafood in Korean dish is a seafood jjigae (or stew).  It starts off like this and is quite photogenic 😉

Seafood jjigae (Seoul, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae (before shot)

After it reaches a boil and simmers for a few minutes, it combines into a tasty, spicy, super flavourful soup or stew.  It’s served with a bowl of rice (you can pour it over the rice or dip spoonfuls of rice into your bowl of stew) and is personally one of my favourite Korean seafood dishes.

Seafood jjigae (Seoul, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae (after shot)

This is another version we had on Jeju Island.  This one was crammed full of seafood – crayfish, crab, shrimp, fish, octopus, squid, mussels, clams – basically the whole ocean.

Seafood jjigae (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae on Jeju Island

The fish dish below is a slightly different version.  The flavour is a lot more concentrated and it’s more of a sauce than stew.

Spicy fish & sauce (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy fish & sauce on Jeju Island

Noodles

Noodles are probably my all-time favourite food – especially noodle soup.  Korea has so many different types of noodle dishes, it’s hard to narrow down just a few.

Jajangmyeon (Noodles with Black Bean sauce) is an old favourite of Jason’s.  It originated from China and is made from thick white wheat flour noodles (the best ones are handmade) and covered in a thick sauce that is made from a salty black soybean paste, diced pork and vegetables.  It’s a simple dish but oh-so-delicious!

Jajangmyeon (Seoul, South Korea)

Jajangmyeon in Seoul. It only cost CDN$2!!

Naengmyeon (Cold noodles in soup) is not very photogenic, but is a delicious, cool treat during the hot, steamy summers in Seoul.  Long, thin chewy noodles are served in a chilled, tangy broth with julienned cucumbers, slices of korean pear, and a boiled egg.  Optional condiments include spicy mustard and vinegar.

Naengmyeon (Suburbs of Seoul, South Korea)

Naengmyeon in the outskirts of Seoul

Bibim guksu (Cold mixed noodles)

It was REALLY hot in Korea, even during the autumn months, so we really enjoyed the cold dishes.  Another one of my favourites was the Bibim guksu (cold mixed noodles) we had on Jeju Island.  Thin wheat flour noodles are covered in a strong, spicy sauce made with red chili powder, gochujang, garlic, vinegar, and sugar – and sometimes a dash of sesame oil.

Bibim guksu (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Bibim guksu on Jeju Island

The best part is mixing it.  The restaurant supplied a plastic glove and Jason’s mom just dove right in – mixing up the sauce, noodles, and sliced vegetables by hand.  So so SO good!

Bibim guksu (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Mixing bibim guksu by hand 🙂

Kimbap (Seaweed rice roll)

Last but not least, the humble kimbap (seaweed rice roll).  I would describe it as the Korean sushi, although raw fish is not typically used as an ingredient.   Instead, various cooked meats, sweet egg or fish is used along with various cooked, fresh or picked vegetables.  It’s a personal favourite of mine and Jason makes an excellent version.

Kimbap (Seoul, South Korea)

The perfect snack – kimbap!

We’ve had kimbap many times in Canada but I really learned to appreciate the simple and delicious snack in Korea.  It’s perfect for those moments in between meals, when you need sometime to hold you over.  It’s also a pretty mobile dish, when wrapped up in foil like a burrito, so you can eat it while on the go (or getting your hair permed).  Versatile, simple, travel-sized, and tasty – the perfect snack.

Did I miss a favourite Korean dish of yours?  Leave a comment below or feel free to elaborate on any of the dishes I mentioned above.  I love chatting about food 🙂

Seoul, Korea: Home is Where the Heart is

Front gates of Gyeongbokgung Imperial Palace (Seoul, Korea)

Gyeongbokgung Imperial Palace in Seoul, Korea

We are in Asia!!!

After 30-hours of flying, we finally arrived at our first stop of our travels in Asia: Seoul.  And yes, 30 hours of flying.  As my sister-in-law put it: “Can’t you fly around the world twice in 30 hours?!

Not only did we fly across the globe, but we crossed over from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere, so perhaps that does count as flying around the world twice?

It’s been three months since we’ve seen a familiar face, so Jason and I were excited to travel with his parents, along with his sister (Jeanne) and her husband (Dave) for the next two weeks.

A huge platter of Topoki in Topoki Alley (Seoul, Korea)

Dave and Jeanne about to dive into a huge platter of Topoki (rice cake dish) in Topoki Alley

Jason’s aunt and uncle also happen to be in Korea and they were so sweet to pick us up at the airport.  It was a welcome change after 3 months of arriving in new places and having to figure out where to go and how to get there as soon as we arrived.

First meal in Korea with Jason's family

First meal in Korea with Jason’s aunt, uncle, sister and her husband.

We pretty much went straight to a Korean BBQ joint (I guess, they just call it BBQ there) close to the apartment we were staying at.  I’ll be writing a separate post about the food in Korea so I won’t go into too much detail now.  All you need to know is that we ate like we hadn’t eaten for the past 3 months.

Korean BBQ and banchan (little side dishes)

Korean BBQ and banchan (little side dishes)

Actually, after three months of South American food, it was as if we hadn’t really eaten in 3 months.  I know that comment may draw some negative responses but we really gave South American food a decent chance to win us over.  I’ll get into it more during my food post….I’m digressing.

Rocky Mountain Tavern in Itaewon neighbourhood in Seoul

We even found a Canadian pub in our neighbourhood – Rocky Mountain Tavern! A little taste of home away from home

You know how they say, “Home is where the heart is?”  Well, for those two weeks, our hearts were in Korea.  And thanks to Dave’s persistence in tracking down a traditional Korean house (called a hanok), our hearts even got to stay in a pretty cool place in Seoul.

Traditional hanok in Seoul

Traditional hanok in Seoul

Inside the traditional hanok in Seoul

Inside the traditional hanok. There’s lot of room – 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms for just the 6 of us 🙂

We visited the popular neighbourhood of Insa-dong with Jeanne and Dave.  The main street of Insa-dong (called Insadong-gil) is a fascinating mixture of traditional and modern Korean culture.  I’ve read that 40% of Korea’s antique and art galleries are found here, along with the majority of traditional calligraphy and stationary shops.  Queen Elizabeth II even visited this street to peruse the traditional stationary items a few years back.

Insa-dong, Seoul, Korea

One of the calligraphy stores in Insa-dong

Mixed in with the traditional art shops are also some interesting food stalls and snack shops.

Dried seafood cart in Insa-dong, Seoul

A cart full of dried seafood – dried squid, fish, octopus. She roasts it to heat it up and you get a bag full of toasty dried seafood. So delicious! We had a lot of dried seafood in Korea – she served the best version.

Dragon's beard candy in Insa-dong, Seoul

Dragon’s beard candy – hand-pulled sugar mixture (1024 separate strands!). Originally created in China, but has spread to many other Asian countries. I first had this when I was 8 years old in Los Angeles. Still tastes just as good today 🙂

Funny-looking ice cream cone in Insa-dong

There was an ice cream shop that sold “funny-looking” ice cream cones. You can see it in this picture as he’s filling the cone. Dave and Jason shared the cone.  I have a picture of it, but you can use your own imagination.

We also spent an afternoon with Jason’s parents at the Gyeongbokgung Imperial Palace.  It’s the main and largest Imperial palace in Seoul, standing as a symbol of national sovereignty.

Inside the Gyeongbokgung palace front gates (Seoul, Korea)

Jason with his parents just inside the Gyeongbokgung palace front gates

Almost completely destroyed during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, work has been underway to restore it to its former glory since 1990.

The main throne hall of Gyeongbokgung palace (Seoul, Korea)

The main throne hall of Gyeongbokgung palace

Changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung palace (Seoul, Korea)

Changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung palace

There’s a beautiful garden and pond near the back of the palace grounds.  It was probably my favourite spot of the whole palace – so peaceful.  It actually reminded me a lot of the beautiful temples I saw in Kyoto, Japan a few years back.

Hyangwonjeong Pavilion on the Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds

The beautiful pavilion on the palace grounds – a peaceful little oasis hidden near the back.

While the sights were pretty interesting in Seoul, the most unique experiences while in Seoul came from taking part in many of Jason’s family gatherings.

We met up with both his mom’s side and dad’s side of the family.  His dad’s side owns a large plot of land on the outskirts of Seoul.  It’s used for farming, food production, and as an occasional vacation home.

Jason's family land near Seoul, Korea

Jason’s family land near Seoul, Korea

There’s also a family burial plot where many important members (e.g. politicians, influential business leaders, etc) were laid to rest – dating back as far as the 1500s.  Once a year, the extended family gathers here to pay their respects.

Jason's family burial plot near Seoul, Korea

Jason’s family burial plot – dating back to 1500s

And of course, no family gathering is complete without a huge feast of Korean food.  (I guess, they just call it food there)

Korean seafood restaurant in Seoul, korea

A family feast to end the day. Leave your shoes at the door and have a seat on a cushion (if you’re lucky enough to score one). Little did we know, that we’d be having almost all our meals in Korea like this.

DSC02741 (800x533)

I know I said that I’d write a separate post about food in Seoul. But food is so ingrained in Korean culture that it’s hard to write about Seoul and not add some reference to food 🙂 And yes, that’s a whole octupus in the saucepan.

The next day, we met with Jason’s mom’s side of the family.  We were lucky enough to visit during Chuseok (or the Harvest Moon Festival) celebration.  It’s basically the Korean Thanksgiving and one of the most important and festive holidays of the year.  During the Harvest Moon Festival, family comes together from far and wide to honour their ancestors and to share in a fantastic feast together.

Happy Chuseok!

Home-cooked Harvest Moon (or Chuseok) meal

Jason’s family went all out and made everything from scratch.  It’s not everyday you get a delicious, authentic home-cooked meal – especially when travelling for 6 months 😛

Home-cooked meal for Chuseok (Seoul, Korea)

Home-cooked meal for Chuseok (Kimchi, Chapchae, dumplings, tempura)

Home-cooked meal for Chuseok (Seoul, Korea)

Home-cooked meal for Chuseok (Banchan, rice cakes, kimchi radish)

After dinner, we all went out in search for some drinks (and more food…the eating never stops when you’re with family!)

Seoul, Korea

Sensory overload

Seoul, Korea

Did I ever mention that Jason gets his love of alcohol from his mom’s side of the family? 🙂

And of course, no family gathering is complete without some Karaoke!  Quintessential Korea = Dancing to Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style‘ during our Karaoke party in Korea.

Karaoke in Korea

Oppa Gangnam Style!

I love family.

Buenos Aires: Fuudis Food Tour

One of the funnest and yummiest things we did in Buenos Aires is join a food tour.  This was all thanks to Jason – he read about Fuudis in a local events magazine.

Quoted from their website: “Fuudis is a brand new concept bringing together uber cool people who love looove food, and surprising dining experiences. We create ‘experiences’ for you to enjoy food in unusual settings, away from the norm, combining gastronomy and art in new creative spaces.”

Founded by food-loving Argentinian and Aussie business partners, Marine and Anne, Fuudis offers many food-themed events.  We decided to try their dinner food tour.

We emailed them right away and asked whether they had room on their next dinner food tour.  Unfortunately they were booked solid but they said they would add us to their waiting list.  The night before, they emailed saying that they had room for us!  Woohoo!

We were instructed to meet at an intersection in the Puerto Madero district at 8:30pm (an early dinner time for most Argentinians).  Puerto Madero is right on the canal and is Buenos Aires’ most modern neighbouhood, home to exclusive restaurants, luxury hotels, and expensive apartments.

Puerto Madero district (Buenos Aires)

Puerto Madero district

We met the group of foodies (or fuudis) and the organizers, Anne and Marina, who were so friendly and bubbly.

The co-founders of Fuudis - Anne & Marina

The co-founders of Fuudis – Anne & Marina. It was the only decent picture I was able to take of them – they were on the move all night

The group consisted mainly of locals but we were told that the mix changes from week to week.  We immediately struck up a conversation with a Brazilian man of Jewish descent who was serving in the Israeli army, and his Argentinian mother.  We all walked to the first restaurant together (Campo y Mar) for the appetizer course.

Campo y Mar

Our first restaurant

Once we got in, we were seated with three Argentinian locals: Tatiana; her mother, Sophia; and a Fuudi veteran, Evo.  It was Evo’s eighth food tour.

Sophia and Evo

Sophia and Evo

We had some great conversation about the food scene in Buenos Aires and enjoying food while travelling.  The good thing about being seated with locals is that we received lots of great local restaurant recommendations.

For our first course, we enjoyed marinated octopus and a refreshing glass of malbec rose.  The octopus was delicious – slightly tart and a perfect consistency.

Marinated octopus at Campo y Mar

Our first course: Marinated Octopus

On the way to the second course, we bumped into a Kiwi couple who had just arrived in Buenos Aires: Craig and Sarah.  We hit it off right away (being native English-speakers probably helped) and when we reached our second restaurant, La Rosa Nautica, we sat together to continue the conversation

Kiwi couple: Craig and Sarah

Kiwi couple: Craig and Sarah!

I had the whitefish with artichoke sauce and blue cheese cream and Jason had the BBQ beer-battered salmon.  And also a couple of glasses of Malbec.   Anne (one of the organizers), walked by and whispered: “the faster you finish your glass, the faster they’ll refill it” 😛

White fish with artichoke sauce and blue cheese cream

Second course: Whitefish with artichoke sauce and blue cheese cream

BBQ Beer-battered salmon

Second course: BBQ Beer-battered salmon

Jason won.  His salmon was delicious.

Our third and final stop was Bice for Italian desserts.

Third restaurant: Bice

Third restaurant: Bice

Last course: Italian desserts

Last course: Italian desserts

We were seated at a long table across from a hilarious Argentine lady who wanted to practice her English (Laura) and her husband (Paolo).  Laura was a doctor who loved food and travelling.  Her next travel destination was Prague, Czech Republic.

Argentine couple: Laura and San Paolo

Hilarious Argentine couple: Laura and San Paolo

Fuudis was such a great concept – a great opportunity to meet locals who share a passion for food, enjoy a delicious three-course meal, and have great conversation.  They held a draw at the end of the night and I even won a bottle of wine!  Great way to cap off a great night.

Winner of the draw

I won a bottle of wine! Party continues on the bus home 😛