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 🙂

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Eating: (and Savouring) Arequipa

Our next stop was Arequipa, Peru – a beautiful city surrounded by impressive volcanoes on the country’s southern coast.

El Misti, Arequipa Peru

The majestic El Misti volcano that’s visible from almost anywhere in the city of Arequipa, Peru

After finishing the rather tough trek to Machu Picchu, Jason and I just wanted to sprawl out in relative comfort for a few days. So we rented a beautiful little apartment in a Spanish-style house for a week – complete with a full patio set and a fancy, modern BBQ!

Spanish-colonial house in Arequipa, Peru

Our home in Arequipa for the week!

We made immediate use of the BBQ upon arrival. We picked up some summer eats (i.e. chicken, vegetables for grilling) even though we’re in the middle of winter here in Peru.

Arequipa, Peru

Jason in his natural element – barbequing meat

Eating on the patio in Arequipa, Peru

Me, in my natural element – eating!

It was great to be able to cook up something that reminded us of Toronto in the summer – chicken on the barbeque, grilled veggies and cold beer!

Arequipa, Peru

Another fantastic home-cooked meal by Jason

Arequipa is a very liveable city: beautiful little neighbourhoods, an impressive main square, and clean, pedestrian-friendly streets.

Arequipa's main square

The palm-tree lined main square of Arequipa

It felt very different from drab Lima and tourist-choked Cusco. We actually didn’t check out many of the tourist attractions while we stayed in Arequipa.. Instead, we just “lived” in Arequipa for the week: walking into the city every day, window-shopping, checking out cafes, people-watching, grocery-shopping, and of course eating food.

Eating ice cream on Calle Mercaderes in Arequipa, Peru

Eating ice cream on the pedestrian-only Calle Mercaderes in Arequipa, Peru

We spent an afternoon walking around and eating whatever looked good to us.

Ceviche in Arequipa, Peru

Ceviche: a must-have in Peru. This dish pictures here cost us 11 Soles (CDN $5)! It might be a little sketchy to have cheap ceviche, but we lucked out with this dish – so delicious and fresh!

Portuguese-style tart in Arequipa, Peru

Portuguese-style tart – as delicious as it looks!

A strange thing I kept seeing on the streets of Arequipa were these little stands that were labelled with the words “Queso Helado”. I looked up the definition – it literally translates to “Iced Cheese”. Sounds gross, yes? I tried it anyway.

It tasted delicious – sweet, light, icy, creamy with a touch of cinnamon. Upon further research, I found out that this delicious dessert had nothing to do with cheese. It uses the unfortunate description of cheese because of the way it looks when you prepare it. It actually consists of sweet milk and sometimes a touch of coconut or cinnamon for flavour.

Queso Helado in Arequipa, Peru

Queso Helado stand: she scoops out the sweet, icy treat into little plastic cups and sprinkles a bit of cinnamon on top. So good!

And then for dinner, nothing says Peruvian cuisine like cuy (guinea pig). The thing to do in Peru is to try this delicacy. In Cusco, they bake it which dries it out a bit. We were advised to try cuy in Arequipa where they fry it, which helps retain some of its juices. But we were going to do something completely different: we were going to prepare our own cuy! Warning: kind of gory picture coming up!

Pre-cleaned cuy (guinea pig) from the butcher

Cuy (guinea pig) cleaned and gutted by our local butcher.

I debated awhile as to whether I wanted to try cuy in Peru. I knew it was a delicacy and people had told me about what it’s like (note: it’s a little gamey, not very meaty, and tastes like chicken). You see, I had a guinea pig as a pet when I younger. I have a personal thing about never eating any animal that I would own as a pet (i.e. dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish, cat, bunnies). However, Jason mentioned that I owed it to my blog to try cuy – since the blog is partially about our travel adventures in food. So I put my big-girl pants on and bit the bullet (or guinea pig?), and made the conscious decision to try the Peruvian delicacy.

We bought some Peruvian spices, picked up a pre-cleaned cuy from the local butcher, and some more grilling vegetables. Warning: another kind of disturbing picture coming up!

Marinating cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

Marinating the cuy. Jason kept putting the guinea pig in these little poses. Sigh.

Barbequed cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

Cuy on the barbie

Barbequed cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

The finished product: barbequed cuy with grilled vegetables.

The guinea pig was actually as described: tasted like chicken and not very meaty. Not my favourite thing to eat, but it was better than expected.

The next night, to make up for the traumatic experience of eating an animal that can be a pet, we went out for a nice, fancy dinner. Date night! Our first one since we started our travels over a month ago.

Zingaro in Arequipa, Peru

Date night at Zingaro

Travelling for 6 months means we have to stick to a pretty strict budget. Jason and I typically stick to street stalls, little hole-in-walls, or places that seem to serve mostly locals – which is totally fine by us since we prefer to eat that way. But once in a while, it’s nice to scrub the backpacker dirt off our faces and get all dolled up for a nice night out.

Bread basket at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Complimentary bread basket! We haven’t seen that at any of our meals since we left Canada. Why yes, I’ll have 5 refills please.

Our rare splurges requires quite a bit of research though, since we don’t want to walk into just any ol’ tourist-trap restaurant. We checked online for restaurant reviews, read through all the comments, cross-referenced it with travel blogger recommendations, and then cross-referenced it some more with other travel literature. Sounds a little obsessive-compuslive, eh? Well, when we only get to splurge once a month, it better be on a really well-prepared meal.

Zingaro kitchen (Arequipa, Peru)

We got a prime spot where we watched the chefs at work in Zingaro. They weren’t messing around – it looks like an episode of Iron Chef in there all night.

We ended up choosing Zingaro for a few reasons: 1) we wanted to have traditional Peruvian cuisine 2) it looked like the restaurant catered to locals and tourists.

Jason and I had slightly different impressions of our the meal. He wasn’t that fond of it, I thought it was fan-frickin-tastic! I’m perhaps a little biased because seafood is probably my favourite food group.

For an appetizer, we ordered the rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers), which is made using the very spicy rocoto pepper (which looks deceptively like a normal red bell pepper). Good thing both Jason and I love spicy food, otherwise we would’ve both been pretty surprised by how spicy the pepper was. It’s stuffed with ground meat, egg, olives, and then covered with melted cheese. It was amazing. I, unfortunately, don’t have a good picture for you, since we gobbled it down before I even remembered to take a picture of it. This is what it looked like, if you’re curious.

I ordered the chupa de camerones (shrimp chowder) – but it actually translates literally to ‘suckage of shrimp’. Which doesn’t sound as appealing….but might be more accurate. Why, you ask? Because this hearty bowl urn of soup is filled to the brim with succulent, suck-able shrimp and crayfish. The aromatic broth seeps into the shells, heads, and tails of the shrimp – just begging you to slurp the deliciousness up with happy abandon. Then, there’s still the flavourful potatoes, corn, egg, and melted cubes of cheese to savour after all the ‘suckage’. Seriously, a bowl of heaven. (Gimme a second while I close my eyes and reminisce).

Chupa de camarones at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Chupa de camarones (shrimp chowder) – a bowl of deliciousness

Jason ordered the ceviche – which he thought was too chewy, but I adored. It was the way ceviche is supposed to be prepared – with pieces of raw fish that’s marinated in citrus and hot peppers. I’ve noticed that a lot of ceviche we’ve had uses cooked fish (which might be safer), but a really good restaurant will use sushi-quality fish to prepare it. The few pieces of sweet potato to balance the tartness of the citrus juices was perfection.

Ceviche at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Delicious and fresh ceviche

Arequipa definitely served up some delicious delights. Some of the ones mentioned above originated specifically from Arequipa (i.e. chupa de camerones, rocoto rolleno, queso helodo), so make sure to definitely seek those out if you’re ever in this wonderfully gastronomic city.