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 🙂

Triple-date on Korea’s Honeymoon Island

Warning: Some (and by some, I mean two) explicit images below.  You’ve been warned.  Drag an Excel spreadsheet over your internet browser window if you’re at work. 

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea

The eastern side of Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong) on Jeju Island

Jason’s parents were so sweet to treat all of us to 4 days at a beautiful tropical island just south of Korea’s mainland: Jeju Island.  Known by locals as ‘Honeymoon Island’, it’s a popular Korean vacation spot and (as noted by its nickname) a popular honeymoon destination.  In fact, Jason’s parents came here for their honeymoon in the 70s.

Cheonjiyeon Falls, Jeju Island, South Korea

The exact same waterfalls that Jason’s parents took a picture in front of during their honeymoon 30 years ago.

Initially, this had all the ingredients for an awkward weekend – even my brother commented on how it was going to be awkward going on a triple-date/long weekend/couples getaway with my in-laws.  But I’ve enjoyed travelling with Jason’s parents before and love spending time with Jeanne and Dave, so I had no doubt that it would be a grand ol’ time.

Horseback riding, Jeju Island, South Korea

You know it’s gonna be a good time when they dress you up like this for horseback riding!

As we were waiting in the airport for our flight to Jeju Island (by the way, it’s considered an international flight even though Jeju Island is considered to be part of Korea), my mother-in-law (MIL) asked whether we would like to go horseback riding, trekking through a national park, climb a volcano crater, and visit a circus.

Jeju Circus World, Jeju Island, South Korea

A Chinese circus troupe called Circus World. Surprisingly impressive feats. I guess we were expecting just some clowns and flowers that squirt water

“Wow!” I exclaimed, “That sounds like an awesome, action-packed long weekend!”

“No,” my MIL replied, “That’s just on the first day”

Jeju Island, South Korea

Eight activities a day?!

And then it hit me: we were going on an Asian holiday tour.  I had been on one before 5 years ago when I visited my dad’s family in China so I had an idea of what we were in for.  For those who have been lucky enough to have never been on an Asian tour, let me break it down for you.  People of some Asian races (i.e. Korean, Chinese, Japanese) love maximizing the value of their money.  They typically perceive something to be of higher value if they get more of it.  So when it comes to holiday tours, the more activities you can cram into the allotted time-frame, the better the value.

Ecoland, Jeju Island, South Korea

The four of us hamming it up on Jeju Island

So thus began our whirlwind ‘Honeymoon Island’ vacation.  For 4 days, we woke up every morning at 7:30am to a packed itinerary.  On average, we would have 7-8 activities scheduled per day.  I have to admit, it was pretty exhausting.  It probably didn’t help that we had all originally envisioned a long weekend of relaxing and lazing about on the beach.

The southern coast of Jeju Island, South Korea

Not-so-relaxing beach time on Jeju Island

But once we shrugged our shoulders and decided to go along for the ride, it wasn’t all bad.  The entire island is is 75% cheesy tourist traps and 25% beautiful natural wonders.  And amongst the 30 individual activities/sights/events we enjoyed/endured, there were quite a few gems.

We started off slowly and visited an impressive botanical garden called “Spirited Garden”.  The bonsai trees were beautiful and we enjoyed the leisurely stroll through the peaceful garden grounds.

Bonsai Tree in Spirited Garden, Jeju Island, South Korea

One of the many beautiful Bonsai Trees in the botanical garden

Spirited Garden, Jeju Island, South Korea

What do you do on Honeymoon Island? Take couples pictures!

We visited a beautiful little waterfall (Cheonjiyeon Falls) that Jason’s parents also visited over 30 years ago on their honeymoon.

Cheonjiyeon Falls, Jeju Island, South Korea

What do you do on Honeymoon Island? Take couples pictures!

We checked out the eerie underground Manjanggul lava tubes.  Flowing rivers of lava carved out these massive caves.

Manjanggul lava tubes, Jeju Island, South Korea

Inside the lava tubes. Funny story: Jason’s uncle hid behind a rock, jumped out, and scared the pants off this random couple, thinking it was me and Jason.

Then things got a little kooky at (what we dubbed) “Randomland”.  There was an indoor ice sculpture exhibit and a whole bunch of 3D scenes that you can take a picture with.  We had a great time taking cheesy pictures and cracking up at the ridiculousness.

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

Putting our acting skills to good use

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

Obviously, the acting abilities run in the family

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

I think I packed on a few pounds (and apparently, a few feet) after indulging in too much delicious Korean food.

After “Randomland”, things got even stranger.

When Jason and I first started our travels in June, my friend (who will remain unnamed) sent me a link (NSFW) and insisted we go there when we travelled to Korea.  It’s deceptively called Jeju Loveland.  It really should be called Jeju Sexland,  When my friend first told me about this place, I thought “Korea is pretty big – not sure if I’ll actually come across it”.  But when I found out that this outrageous theme park was actually on Jeju Island, I knew we had to add an extra activity onto the itinerary.

Jeanne was not so keen on the idea and who can blame her? It would be kinda weird going to a sex theme park with your parents.  Nonetheless,I somehow managed to get it onto the schedule.

Once we entered Jeju Loveland, this was the first thing we saw:

Jeju Loveland Jeju, South Korea

Welcome to Jeju Sexland Loveland!

Jeanne and Dave immediately bolted and disappeared into the park.  Soon after, Jason’s mom wandered off too.  So it was just Jason, my father-in-law (FIL), and I wandering through the very risque theme park.  The picture below is probably the only safe picture I can post here. If you want to see what else this park had to offer, you can click the link above. (Or here, if you don’t want to scroll up).  Seriously, this place was hilarious.

Jeju Loveland, Jeju, South Korea

No comment

I’m not sure why such a racy theme park exists on Jeju Island.  Perhaps because it’s known as a honeymoon destination and the tourism board wants to get all the newlywed couples in the mood?

Even the island’s natural rock formations were in on it:

Jeju Island, South Korea

Phallic rock formations off the coast of Jeju

Speaking of natural rock formations, this one was one of the highlights of Jeju Island: Seongsan Ilchulbong (or Sunrise Peak).

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

In front of the volcanic tuff cone

Formed by volcanic activity, this tuff cone and crater are one of the few well-preserved specimens of its kind.  This site map gives you a sense of what it looks like from the air.

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And this is what it really looks like from the air (Picture courtesy of Jeju World Natural Heritage website)  Pretty impressive-looking, eh?

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea

Aeriel view of Seongsan Ilchulbong.  Picture courtesy of Jeju World Natural Heritage website

It’s a short 20-minute climb to the top.  The views from the top weren’t too shabby either.

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View from the top towards the northeast

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View of Jeanne, Dave and I at the top

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View from the top towards the northwest

It was a great way to end our trip.  Okay, who am I kidding?  We ended our trip with a massive Korean feast (of course).  On the menu: Jeju Black Pig.  Don’t ask…it’s a Jeju Island specialty.

Black pig, Jeju, South Korea

Jeju Black pig BBQ. Loved the vents that sucked out all the BBQ smells. Don’t you hate it when you leave a Korean BBQ restaurant and smell like you’ve been marinating in kalbi sauce?

Yes, we complained about the cheesiness, the ridiculousness, and the jam-packed schedule – but in the end, we had a lot of good ol’ family fun (sex theme park and all).  Thanks, mom and dad, for treating all of us to a wonderful time!

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.

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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.

Patagonia: At the End of the World (Part II)

Fitz Roy Mountain, Argentina Patagonia

The iconic Fitz Roy mountain in Argentina Patagonia

After a couple of days in El Calafate, Jason and I hopped on a 3-hour bus ride to the less-visited sister town, El Chaltén.  There are three bus companies that bring you from El Calafate to El Chaltén.  First, they stop at the tourist centre in El Chaltén and then at the town’s tiny bus terminal.

Bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten

The early-morning bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten

The sole reason for El Chaltén’s existence is tourism and even during high season, it’s a pretty isolated little town.  It’s the self-declared trekking capital of Argentina, and is the gateway to amazing climbing and trekking territory.  It provides fairly easy access to the famous Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy mountains.  Those who are familiar with the Patagonia clothing company might find the mountain range here familiar-looking – the highest peak in the company’s logo is Fitz Roy.

Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains (Argentina)

Cerro Fitz Roy (right of the center) and Cerro Torre (left of the center) mountains

One catch though: since we were visiting during the off-season (Argentina’s winter months), the town would likely be almost deserted.  We had read that most accommodations and restaurants would be closed for the season, so we were a little wary coming here.  However, the California couple we met at Perito Moreno Glacier gave us a great tip on where to stay since they had just come from El Chaltén.

El Chalten, Argentina

The little town of El Chalten

Upon arrival, we discovered that – in the whole town – there were two hostels and one restaurant that were still open. Their local market was also still open so we ended up spending the next four days making our own meals in the hostel’s well-equipped kitchen.

I loved our time there.  It was quiet, relaxed and peaceful.  The town was a charming little place full of smiling locals and, since it was off- season, almost no tourists.  We arrived on a brilliantly sunny day and the friendly guide at the town’s tourist centre made sure we understood how lucky we were – calm, sunny days were rare during the winter.  Many travellers who arrive here in the winter never even get to see the mountains because of the snow and clouds.

El Chalten covered in snow

With the exception of the two sunny days, El Chalten looked like this for the rest of our stay.

Unfortunately, I was trying to get over a pretty bad cold so we “wasted” the sunny day by staying indoors.  Luck was on our side though, because I got up the next morning (rested and feeling much better) and was greeted by another sunny day.  And we weren’t going to waste this one.

At the beginning of the Fitz Roy hike

At the beginning of the Fitz Roy hike

Jason and I were getting pretty good at trekking, at this point.  But trekking through icy and snowy terrain was a little new to us.  Our trusted hiking shoes that got us through slippery rocky terrain in Cusco and dry, dusty desert in Arequipa were no match for ice-covered trails.  Luckily, only the beginning of the trail was icy since those trails remained in the shade for most of the day.  The terrain was pretty varied actually.  Some parts of the the trail looked like this:

During our Fitz Roy hike

Parts of the trail which were mostly in the shade during the day were snowy or icy

And then other parts of the trail looked like this:

During our Fitz Roy hike

Parts of the hike which were in the sun for most of the day were dry. You can see the summit of Fitz Roy peaking peeking out in the distance

But no complaints when you get to soak in scenery that looks like this for most of the trek:

Patagonia scenery

Patagonia scenery

We had chosen the slightly shorter hike (3 hr), which took us to the nearby lake (lago Capri) and look-out point near Fitz Roy.  We arrived at the lake to find it completely frozen over and covered in a blanket of snow.  There were signs everywhere that warned us not to step on the frozen surface but there were footprints all over the lake, so it seemed pretty safe.  The view of Fitz Roy from the lake was magnificent.  Again, we were so lucky to have such amazing winter weather – couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.

View of Fitz Roy on Lago Capri

View of Fitz Roy on Lago Capri

Iconic Fitz Roy

The iconic jagged peaks of Fitz Roy

Hiking in Patagonia was an awesome experience – the scenery is unmatched by anything else we’ve seen in South America.

Fitz Roy, Argentina

One last look at Fitz Roy

Patagonia: At the End of the World (Part I)

Just 24-hours after soaking in the subtropical heat of Iguazu Falls, we were greeted with this sight:

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Up close and personal with one of the few advancing glaciers left in the world

Patagonia in all its icy, snow-covered, wintery glory!

Argentina is definitely an amazing country of contrasts.  Packed away were the bikinis and tank tops – out came the toques, scarves, and wool gloves.  I was really looking forward to visiting Patagonia and after seeing the awesomeness of Iguazu Falls, Jason was also excited to see what else Argentina had to offer.

Patagonia is home to the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of my ‘photography travel‘ places, so I had high expectations of it.  From Iguazu Falls, we flew into El Calafate, a small little town that serves as a gateway to the glacier.

The morning of our glacier tour, there was a little mix-up and we almost missed our bus transportation to the glacier.  Luckily, we were able to grab a cab and catch up with the bus while it was still picking up people from various hotels in the area.  It was a pretty cloudy day, but I didn’t mind since that meant better lighting for pictures.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Beautiful blue ice

Our group’s first glimpse of the glacier drew audible gasps.  The glacier is magnificent.  A huge expanse of blue-hued ice that stretched back into the foggy horizon.  It was unlike any other natural wonder I had ever seen.  We spent an hour or so at the boardwalk area, which allows you to see the northern side of the glacier up close.

Northern side of Perito Moreno Glacier

Well-constructed and strategically placed walkways around the northern side of the glacier

Northern side of Perito Moreno Glacier

On one of the various walkways near the glacier

Even after an hour of taking in the spectacular sight of the glacier from all angles, the feeling of awe does not disappear.  I recalled to Jason about my first time seeing the Grand Canyon in the United States.  It was amazing when we first approached the canyon; but after 10 minutes, the view got a bit old and I was ready to leave.  With this glacier, however, I found that every time I looked away for a few seconds and caught sight of the glacier again, it would take my breath away.

We also got to board a boat that takes you right up to the southern side of the glacier.  One of the coolest things you can see while visiting the glacier is catching a rare moment when ice calves or breaks off from the main glacier.  It makes a incredible thunderous crack before giant slabs of ice fall away into the water.  We saw a couple of smaller ice chunks break away from the northern side but was never able to capture it on camera.

Southern side of Perito Moreno Glacier

Chunks of ice that had broken off the main glacier

Later on that day, as the group started packing up and putting their cameras away, the loudest crack I’ve heard all day split the air.  It happened so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to take my camera back out.  You’ll have to take my word that it’s pretty incredible to see in person.  I was able to get my camera out to capture a bit of the aftermath of the calving glacier though.

Southern side of Perito Moreno Glacier (glacier calving aftermath)

The aftermath of ice calving off the glacier

I would’ve been happy just admiring the glacier from the boat, but Jason and I were lucky enough to walk on the glacier!

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Another group of glacier trekkers that were making their way off the ice.

They strapped everyone up into crampons and gave us a few quick tips (“don’t walk with your feet too close together or you might end up stabbing yourself in the foot”)

Crampons for the glacier trekking

One of the guides helping me get fitted for crampons – HUGE metal spikes that they tie to your shoes. One lady wore high-heeled boots. Not sure how they found crampons for her.

And then we were off!

Walking on Perito Moreno Glacier

The first few hesitant steps on the glacier with crampons

Walking on Perito Moreno Glacier

In a couple of minutes, we were walking like pros. Crampons are like winter tires for people.

The steep parts were a little tricky but once you got the hang of it, it was pretty exhilarating walking on top of a glacier.

Glacier walking on Perito Moreno Glacier

Glacier walking!!

Glacier walking on Perito Moreno Glacier

Some awesome backdrop while walking on the glacier

Glacier walking on Perito Moreno Glacier

It’s not all fun and games. I got lectured for walking too close to this giant sinkhole.

Our guides even surprised us with a little treat near the end: Scotch on the rocks over glacier ice and alfajores!  Talk about an extravagant refreshment break.

Refreshments during our glacier walk

Now that’s what I call a refreshment break – Scotch on the rocks and sweets!

Towards the end of the day, the skies even cleared up a bit.  The glacier against the mountain setting is pretty breathtaking.  Seriously still can’t believe how beautiful Patagonia is.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

Mind-boggling that we got to walk on this!

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

View of the glacier while on the glacier

Bye glacier,  hopefully we’ll be back one day.  Don’t you go anywhere.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

View of Perito Moreno Glacier as we motored away

Iguazu Falls: Thundering Waterfalls and Peaceful Jungles

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Gorgeous view of Iguazu Falls, complete with rainbows (and unicorns…just kidding! no unicorns)

Argentina is a beautiful country of contrasts. After reveling in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks, Jason and I decided to hit the road to soak in some heat in the subtropical climate near Iguazu Falls. It’s wintertime in Buenos Aires so we wanted a bit of a break from bundling up in sweaters and scarves.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The main attraction of Iguazu Falls: Devil’s Throat.

Before arriving in Argentina, we were warned to be careful while in the country.  The economic situation had pushed a lot of people to desperate measures.  Jason and I (as well as our possessions) were safe while in Buenos Aires.  But on our way from Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls, we experienced our first theft.  We took an 18-hour overnight bus and I had my sunglasses, Patagonia rain jacket and the monogrammed Swiss Army knife (that my dad got for me from Switzerland) stolen from the secure luggage compartment under the bus. (Warning: Do not use Expreso Singer bus company if you want a bus company that cares about your belongings).

So upon arriving in Iguazu Falls and discovering our things were stolen, we had to deal with the hassle of filing a police report.  First of all, imagine the inefficiency associated with filing a low-priority report with the police, then compound that experience with trying to communicate with a police officer who does not speak any English whatsoever.

Main police station in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina

We were originally instructed to go to the main police station to file our stolen items report.

The 'overflow" police station in Puerto Igauzu?

However, we were subsequently directed to this little mickey mouse operation police station for our police report.

Inside the little police station in Puerto Iguazu

Inside the little police station, we were directed to a wooden bench. We passed 6 levels of ‘Plants vs Zombies 2’ on that bench.

Using whatever broken Spanish we possessed, we managed to piece together the story for the officer.  After two hours at the station, we finally had a police report that looked half-legit and half-joke.

On the upside, we had booked a few nights in a great little lodge in the jungle on the outskirts near Iguazu Falls. It was a perfect little getaway after the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires and dealing with the aggravation of having our things stolen.

The walkways at our jungle lodge, La Cantera, in Puerto Iguazu

The walkways between the main reception area and our lodge at La Cantera.

We spent the first day just relaxing and lounging by the pool.  It was perfect.  At one point, I turned over to Jason and said “I am so happy right now”.  The stress of having our things stolen had completely dissipated in the sun and fresh jungle air.

The infinity pool at La Cantera, Puerto Iguazu

Lounging by the infinity pool in the jungle

The next day, we made our way to the falls to see one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of Nature’.   It’s nestled at the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, although 80% of the falls fall on the Argentine side.  It’s probably the world’s most impressive waterfalls, with 275 separate falls spilling over jungle cliffs.

On the Iguazu Falls tram

On the Iguazu Falls tram, planning our route around the park. Would help if I was looking at the correct side of the map

Iguazu Falls was one place that everyone unanimously told us was a ‘must-see’.  Jason was a little skeptical. “It’ll probably be like Niagara Falls“, was what he said.  However, after seeing the jaw-dropping views and experiencing the thundering rush of standing over the falls, even Jason was gushing about how awesome Igauzu Falls was.  And ‘awesome’ is not a word Jason used lightly.

We spent the day visiting three main viewing sections.  The highest section lets you stand right over the main attraction of the Argentine side of the falls: Devil’s Throat.  There’s a free tram that takes you to a 1km-long walkway.  It spans the upper Iguazu river before ending at the main look-out point.

The 1-km long walkway that takes you to Devil's Throat

The 1-km long walkway that takes you to Devil’s Throat

The 1-km long walkway that takes you to Devil's Throat

Almost there! We can see the mist from here.

We (along with most visitors) got drenched so we weren’t able to get any good pictures up there.  Water and mist coated our camera lens and the wind gusts were a little crazy.

Devil's Throat, Iguazu Falls (Argentina)

Standing over Devil’s Throat. No escaping the misty gusts of wind.

Devil's Throat at Iguazu Falls (Argentina)

Another view of Devil’s Throat. This is probably the only clear picture I have of this section.

Leaving Devil's Throat, Iguazu Falls

Leaving Devil’s throat completely drenched.

The middle section lets you take a relatively short walk along the upper rim of the falls.

Iguazu Falls (Superior Walkway)

Standing at the edge of the falls. Pretty awesome view of the falls below us.

Coati lounging in the sun (Iguazu Falls, Argentina)

This little guy lounging in the sun is called a Coati. He looks like a cross between a raccoon and a possum. They are everywhere in the Iguazu Falls park. And are not afraid of people. They look pretty cute (IMO), but can be pretty vicious if provoked (or want your food).

The lower section is a longer walk but provides the most complete views of the falls.  It also lets you get up close and personal at the bottom of the falls.

Rainbow and Iguazu Falls

Gorgeous views from the lower walkway in Iguazu Falls.

Iguazu Falls (Inferior Walkway)

Getting up close and personal with the falls

We even visited some of the smaller falls scattered around the park – most of them overlooked by tourists clamoring for views of the larger falls.

Tiny falls in the Igauzu Falls park

The tiny hidden waterfalls in Iguazu Falls park

Iguazu Falls was one of our highlights in South America.  It was gorgeous to see and exciting to experience.  We can definitely see why Iguazu Falls was on everyone’s “must-see” list.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Buenos Aires: Tango and Football

There were two very Argentine things that Jason and I both really wanted to do while in Buenos Aires: go watch a football game and enjoy Argentine tango.

The two couldn’t be more different but after watching both, I have to say they’re so similar that I wouldn’t be surprised if Argentine tango dancers started wearing jerseys and football players traded in their cleats for tango shoes. Okay, perhaps I’m being a little extreme, but hear me out.

Venue

We wanted to watch the Boca Juniors play in the La Bombenera stadium but since the Boca Juniors fans are crazy, it would be really difficult to get tickets to a game. Instead we watched the River Plate soccer club play at the River Plate stadium – a huge venue filled to capacity with enthusiastic fans.

River Plate Football Stadium in Buenos Aires

The River Plate Football Stadium. And yes, that’s a water cannon on top of a tank at the bottom of the picture.

Jason and I were lucky enough to visit Buenos Aires just as the World Tango Championships kicked off. We were even able to score tickets to the World Tango Finals

Buenos Aires World Tango Championship tickets

We scored tickets to World Tango Finals. We only had to line up for 1.5 hours for them!

Like football, the Tango Finals were held in Luna Park Stadium – a huge venue filled to capacity with enthusiastic fans

Luna Park Stadium in Buenos Aires

Luna Park Stadium – where the World Tango Finals took place

Athleticism

Watching the River Plate team was pretty impressive. They were obviously the better team and played their hearts out. Their display of endurance, speed, and agility was pure joy to watch. There was no question they were world-class athletes.

River Plate vs Colon football match

River plate vs. Colon

The tango finalists that we watched that night were spectacular. Even Jason was impressed with how technical and difficult the Tango was – especially when it came to the intricate footwork. As with the football players, the Tango dancers’ display of endurance, speed, and agility was exhilarating to watch. World-class athletes here too.

Passion

A lot of what makes a live football game so exciting to watch can be credited to the team’s fans. Football fans are the pure definition of the world: fanatics. They are in love with the game, the players, the excitement and are not afraid to let you know. The whole stadium shook when fans chanted, stomped, and sang in unison. The passion was palpable. Side note: if the River Plate fans are considered to be tamer than Boca Juniors fans, then I don’t think I ever want to get on the bad side of a Boca Juniors fan.

River Plate fans

Football fans take their sport VERY seriously

Like a football game, the passion is also palpable when watching a pair of tango dancers ooze desire all over the dance floor. The best tango dancers make you feel a little voyeuristic when watching them dance. It feels a little wrong watching that much passion exchanged between two people.

Buenos Aires World Tango Finals

A passionate embrace in between intense tango footwork

Acting Ability

Two world-class tango dancers will make you believe they are absolutely in love with each other. I would not be surprised if every single dance couple up there were actually romantically involved by the way they touched (and locked lips with) each other.

On the tango world stage

Putting on a show for the audience and judges

Like tango dancers, football players also possess an incredible acting ability. More times than I can count, two football players will barely make incidental contact and almost always, one of them will roll around on the ground in agony. They writhe in “pain” until they are certain the ref won’t be making a foul or penalty call. At that point, they jump up and rejoin the game as if nothing ever happened.

The fenced in seating in River Plate Stadium

There is, however, one big difference between the two displays of athleticism – Security

While the security guards at the Tango Finals just waved us through without so much as an extra glance, we were met with this when we tried to make our way into the football stadium:

Getting into a River Plate game

Some serious crowd control before the football match

Fans were funneled down certain streets by the stadium where they were then subjected to full body pat-downs and bag searches by riot gear-clad police officers.

Pat-downs and bag searches before the football match

Pat-downs and bag searches by police in full riot gear

After the initial search, your bag is subjected to 3 more searches at various checkpoints until you are finally allowed into the general area around the stadium. One final bag search when you reach your entrance gate and then you’re allowed inside into this:

Fenced-in seating area in River Plate Stadium

Our “box seats” for the River Plate game

A fenced-in seating area topped with barbed wire.

This area is where fans of the opposing team are seated. After the game, the entire stadium is locked down for 30 minutes to allow the opposing team to leave the stadium and surrounding area first. Crazy football fans!

So there you have it.  Really, other than the barbed wire seating area, Argentine Tango and football are like two peas in an Argentine pod.