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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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

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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!