Everything Else I Ate in Taiwan (Yong Kang Street and Din Tai Fung)

My husband and I had conflicting agendas for our trip to Taiwan. His was “Sleep” and mine was “Eat.” In our five day trip, I had breakfast by myself three times. Who chooses sleep over complimentary, luxury hotel, buffet breakfast?! Makes no sense to me, but it did show how much my poor hubby needed some good rest. So in the battle between “Sleep” and “Eat”, I let Sleep win… most of the time.

We arrived at our hotel in Taipei in the early afternoon and after dropping off our luggage I was ready to GO! GO! GO! LET OUR EATING ADVENTURES BEGIN! But Matt crawled into the bed and curled up in a “I have no intention of leaving here any time soon” kind of way.

“FINE. But I’m setting the alarm for 8pm and then you and I are going OUT!” I said, in a “If you don’t wake up, I’m leaving you here alone and I may never come back” kind of way.

Thankfully (for our marriage) Matt managed to wake up and we headed out to Yong Kang Street, a vibrant little area full of restaurants, cafes, little shops and young people.

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It is home of the original Din Tai Fung and also the famous Yong Kang Beef Noodle.

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The 50-year-old restaurant had a nice line outside it – long enough for you to feel confident that “Yes! This is where it’s at!” and short enough for you to happily wait without getting hangry.

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The line moved incredibly fast, because this is the kind of place where you slurp your noodles, pay your bill and leave – no loitering. While famous for its beef noodle soup, the Chinese menu had a lot of items and the people sitting around us looked like they were enjoying a variety of side dishes alongside their noodles.

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The English menu, however, was just a one-pager with nine items. We wanted to try something a bit different so we ordered the steamed pork spareribs (not quite adventurous enough for the steamed large intestines).

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This was really good! Tasty streamed rice and spareribs, and some surprise sweet potato hiding underneath.

And then, the main event:

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Dang. My mouth waters even now just looking at that photo. More than anything we were exciting about those MASSIVE chunks of super-soft beef! It felt like so long since we’d had beef because it’s so crazy expensive in Korea. We live off white meat – which I’m fine with – but seeing a whole steak’s worth of red meat sitting on top of the noodles… we were both very  very happy.

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The broth is actually quite mild, despite its dark-red colour, and the noodles are thick but light and so easy to slurp up. I am a soup-noodle fiend so this was one of my personal favourites from our trip – especially because it’s so unique to Taiwan. Apparently all the famous beef noodle places make their noodles slightly differently, and I wish I could have tried some other restaurants but as I mentioned before, sleep > eat.

We were pretty full, but my friend had recommended a really good Taiwanese-style pop corn chicken place and I was determined to find it. She said to look for the place with the chicken giving a big thumbs up.

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Found it!

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But everything was in Chinese and only Chinese! We were so confused, just staring at the different types of battered items for ages with no idea what any of them were. We gave up and just asked the lady, “Fried chicken?” and she understood. They also had a big photo of what was obviously fried cheese, so we ordered that too. Then she had to enlist the help of the girl next door to ask us what kind of seasoning we wanted, and we opted for chilli and garlic. After that ordeal, she told us we had to wait 20 minutes, so we took a stroll around the street and came back to collect.

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THUMBS UP PRO!! FRIED CHICKEN!

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Okay, the photo really does not do any justice to how freaking delicious this was. TFC (Taiwanese Fried Chicken) really gives KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) a run for its money – I LOVE how the batter is light, ultra crispy and then seasoned with a really generous amount of flavoured salts. Garlic and chilli was definitely a good choice. And the fried cheese! Fried cheese NEVER disappoints. NEVER. It is one of the most reliably delightful foods in the world.

We concluded our evening with a visit to the famous mango shaved ice dessert at Smoothie House. This was one of the things EVERYONE I spoke to recommended as a “Must Eat” but I was somewhat skeptical. It’s just mango shaved ice – I can get this at any cafe in Korea. How good can it be?

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A wink and a thumbs up must be the Taiwanese symbol for “You can trust us for best and delicious foods!” There were a few things to choose from, but we went for the panna cotta mango shaved ice.

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How good does that look??? Soft, delicate snowflakes of shaved ice, huge chunks of FRESH MANGO and a little cap of panna cotta on top.

So, just to give you all a bit of context, prior to this trip I had spent my entire summer eating shaved ice. Korean summers are stinking hot, and nothing quite refreshes like a big bowl of bingsoo. I’d had red bean bingsoo, green tea bingsoo, royal milk tea bingsoo, black sesame bingsoo, strawberry bingsoo, blueberry bingsoo, mango bingsoo, five-grain bingsoo, lemon bingsoo, oreo bingsoo, cheesecake bingsoo… and I could go on. I’d tried all types and textures, from crunchy, chunky ice, to melt-in-your-mouth shaved milk.

This depth of experience makes me feel qualified to award this Taiwanese mango shaved ice with the official, coveted crown of:

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In the sub-categories: Mango beats strawberries, blueberries and bananas for best fruit topping. Panna cotta beats yogurt, ice cream, soft serve and whipped cream for best dairy topping. And snowflake shaved ice beats snowflake shaved milk and coarsely ground ice for best texture. All-round perfection.

And you don’t even need to go all the way to Taiwan to taste it – Smoothie House has branches in Korea! But sadly they’re all in Busan. I’m hoping it’s only a matter of time before they expand to Seoul – but even if not, Busan is only a 2 hour train ride away!

We saved Din Tai Fung for our last day in Taipei. We had arranged to meet Matt’s cousin and his friend which was awesome because between four people we could get so much more variety. Din Tai Fung between two people is not very exciting.

We arrived at the Taipei 101 branch of the restaurant to find this ridiculously large crowd of people.

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And then we were told there was a 90 minute wait. SERIOUSLY?! For a chain restaurant that has been around for years and has plenty of branches around Taipei city?? I couldn’t believe it – but I’m told this is pretty normal, particularly for the Taipei 101 branch.

We went all the way up and down the second tallest building in the world and came back at around 3pm to eat lunch.

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The restaurant is HUGE – like, bigger than your average food court huge. We sat down, and wrote down all our orders for the waiter to come and pick up. When he looked at our order he started talking to our cousin’s friend like something was wrong and my heart sank thinking “Omg… they haven’t run out of XiaoLongBao have they? Impossible!”

When he left I asked whether something was wrong. Turns out the waiter just thought that we had ordered too much food and suggested we remove some things from our order. Luckily, our Taiwanese friend had the wisdom to assure him it was okay and that we’d be able to eat everything. I laughed. PUHLEASE. Just look at us! Any good waiter would see that these fatties could eat the entire menu.

Since Din Tai Fung is available all over the world, I won’t bore you with a dish-by-dish account of our meal. Here’s a collage of the twelve dishes that we ate.

I am kind of ashamed to admit this, but this was my favourite meal from Taiwan. Ashamed because when I said this to my Taiwanese friend she took personal offence and informed me that Din Tai Fung is “not real Taiwanese food.” Real or not, I am in love with Xiao Long Bao and might even go so far as to say it’s my all-time favourite dumpling. I also really liked the pickled cucumber and potstickers. And I know its a franchise but I swear it tasted better than Sydney’s DTF and you can’t even compare it with Seoul’s DTF, which really sucks.

Before I end my Taiwanese food story, I want to add one more thing I forgot to include in my previous street food post. Of all the things I tried, the little street snack I actually liked the most this fried quail egg on a stick.

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The eggs are cracked into those little moulds, fried and then flipped over to cook the other side like Takoyaki balls. They skewer three onto a stick and drizzle salty soy-like sauce on top. So good! I bought one stick, ate it while I walked, and then we happened to pass another guy selling them, so I bought one more. This doesn’t seem to be a very famous snack, and maybe I only liked it because I’m such an egg-addict, but I wish someone would set up a cart like this outside my house so I could eat it on my way to work and again on my way back in.

And that is all! I didn’t get to eat everything on my list, but what’s more important is that my husband and I had a wonderful, relaxing holiday… well that’s what I keep telling myself anyway.

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Street Food Mecca: Shilin Night Market & Jiufen Old Street (Taiwan)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that food just tastes better when it is cooked in a dirty cart, served in the open air and costs next to nothing. All Asian countries do street food pretty well, but according to popular opinion, Taiwan does it better than any one else. It’s a pretty big call, but it is one of the only countries I can think of where food is the no.1 attraction and people visit with no other agenda than to eat.

We traveled to Taiwan in September during the Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday and I was equipped with the usual custom-Google map and daily itinerary but for the first time I’ve traveled, every single thing that I had pinned and planned revolved around food and food only. Whenever I told my husband where we’d be going on a given day, he would ask “What are we going to do there?” and the answer would always be the same: “Eat.”

The trip was so food-centric that it prompted us to have the following exchange.

Matt: You really, really love food don’t you?

Me: Uh, we’ve been together for nine years and you’re realizing this NOW?

Matt: No I always knew you loved food, but now I understand that it is your first and greatest love.

Poor guy probably wishes he knew that before he married me. Oh well, too late now!

Before hitting the famous night markets of Taipei, we did a day trip to Jiufen – a hilly, historic village with sweeping views of the pacific ocean and a famous “old street” full of fascinating things to taste and see. The long but narrow old street was packed with tourists, and unlike a lot of Asian markets where you just see the same things being sold over and over, everywhere we looked there was something different to eat and something different to buy (or in our case, something different to pretend to browse as we found some temporary relief in front of the store’s air conditioner.)

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We were starving by the time we arrived so we stopped at one of the first little restaurants that showed off an array of fat, juicy fish balls, in all shapes and colours.

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Using the universal language of pointing at a photo menu, we ordered fish bowl soup and braised pork price because they are Taiwanese classics, and also a bean-sprout rice noodle thing because it just looked delicious.

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Really simple, street-side food to be enjoyed by locals and hungry travelers alike. I thought the fish balls would have more variety in taste though – are different shape/coloured fish balls meant to taste different or are they like Foot Loops in the sense that they always taste the same regardless of color?

We walked past stinky tofu a couple times and even though it’s one of Taiwan’s most famous dishes I just couldn’t bring myself to try it. I have a real distrust of food that smells bad – I mean, if something smells like butt, how can it possibly taste any good? I feel the same way about Durian. So yeah, big pass on the stinky tofu.

For dessert we bought the famous ice cream crepe:

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Topped with shavings from a GIANT block of peanut praline!!!

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And sprinkled with the strange and secret ingredient: coriander. Except wait… they didn’t actually give us the coriander!! It all happened so quickly I didn’t even realize they had left out a crucial ingredient until after I’d walked away. Is it usually an optional extra you need to ask for? Or is it because they knew we were Korean and, as experts in Korean tourists, also knew Koreans generally don’t like coriander? I don’t know… but I feel like we were left with something that was not quite the “real thing.” It was still delicious though.

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That is Matt’s “Yom Yom” face. (Matt refuses to acknowledge that the correct term is either “Nom Nom” or “Yum Yum” and that “Yom Yom” doesn’t actually exist. Well, it does now only because he invented it and uses it all the time. Don’t think it’s going to catch on though.)

Old Street is LONG, and near the end we were so exhausted and sweaty that we sought refuge in a tea house.

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Despite being overpriced and quite tourist trappy, the Jiufen Tea House was actually a very nice experience. The tea was brewed, stirred with a (real sakura blossom!) twig and poured for us, served in beautifully delicate ceramic pourers and cups. And we were able to take home the remaining loose leaf tea that we didn’t drink.

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The place is also a ceramic art gallery. Sigh.. hand made ceramics always make me swoony.

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We enjoyed our little tea ceremony… but then ten metres down the road turned out to be the end of the Old Street and the start of a row of cafes lining the cliff face and facing the ocean. Alas, we couldn’t justify another tea break so we just took photos.

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After a long nap back at our hotel, we ventured out to the famous Shilin Night Market. There’s several night markets in Taipei, but my Taiwanese friend advised me that I only needed to go to Shillin – it’s the biggest and has EVERYTHING I could possibly want to eat.

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First stop, where else but HOT STAR CHICKEN!!

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I waited in the fast-moving line while Matt went to a nearby fruit cart to get some juice for us.

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He came back a few minutes later with two plastic bags FULL of huge mango and melon pieces and a look a deep, deep shame.

“Babe, the lady took advantage of me”

Poor thing just want a small cup, but got bullied into buying two whole bags of tropical fruit.

“It happened so fast and I didn’t know what to do I was so frazzled!”

“How much was it?”

“…. 600 dollars”

Shocked

600 TWD equals about 20 bucks which is WAY MORE than you should pay for ANYTHING in a Taiwanese market. I felt so dirty about it but Matt already looked like he wanted to cry or punch something so I held in my rage.

Luckily, we had a giant, crunchy, deep-fried, piece of chicken in our hands to ease the pain …. and oh, what sweet sweet medicine it was. Maybe I was just hungry, but I took one bite and announced “This is the best fried chicken I’ve had in my life!!”

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So crispy! So juicy! So substantial! So perfectly spiced with garlic and chilli salt! We needed to save room for other types of street food, but I held onto my Hot Star and took bites out of it at regular intervals throughout the night.

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We browsed through the market, played some arcade games, won a plastic Doraemon, and then lined up again for the famous “little sausage in big sausage” (I am told the name of this street delicacy sounds a lot less silly in Mandarin).

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I couldn’t think of a better way to “Asianize” the classic American hot dog – this is a Chinese pork sausage wrapped in a glutinous rice sausage, topped with your chosen condiments. Nothing like anything I’ve ever tasted before and just an explosion of salty sweetness with each bite.

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Then we tried some giant Ba Wan pork dumpling. The way they make this is quite fascinating. Balls of red pork meat are covered in a batter that looks something like white plaster, and then steamed, which turns the dough translucent.

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I’m not sure if I like my dumplings as sloppy as this… but it’s definitely unique and worth trying.

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Aaaannddddd…. that’s it. Yes, we only ate three things at Shilin Market … don’t judge me! We were tired and overheated and still had the dirty taste of 600 TWD spent on fruit pieces in our mouths. But don’t worry okay? Taiwan is only a two hour flight from Seoul and with so many things left uneaten, I would love to go back!

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Noryangjin Seafood Market (노량진수산시장)

When I lived in Korea a few years ago, I visited some relatives I’d never met before and to celebrate the arrival of their distant English-speaking cousin they told me they’d be treating me to some raw fish. To me, “raw fish” is synonymous with “sashimi” so I expected to be eating big, fleshy pieces of salmon, tuna, kingfish, snapper and bass presented on a huge boat-shaped platter with pickled ginger and fresh wasabi. So when I was presented with a small styrofoam plate of greyish-white shreds of unidentified fish, slimy strips of sliced squid and other chopped bits of unknown sea creature, I was like… “What is this pathetic excuse for sashimi?!” and decided definitively that “Korean raw fish SUCKS.”

So when my friend who was visiting from Sydney suggested that we have lunch at Noryangjin Seafood Market, I was happy to take her for the cultural experience but I wasn’t really interested in what we’d be eating. I’m not that huge on seafood to begin with (I’ve only been the Sydney Fish Markets once in my whole life) but Korean seafood? Even more “Meh.” No big red cooked king prawns. No beer battered fish and chips. No crumbed callimari. Expectations were low.

Noryangjin Market is the biggest wholesale fish market in Seoul and is actually only a few subway stations away from my home. Seoul is not a coastal city, but it’s close enough to the ocean for people to trust the freshness of the seafood sold here.

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Walking in from the footbridge that connects to the subway station, the view was impressive. A massive well-organised grid of individually-run vendors presenting their goods in red buckets and shallow glass fish tanks. Some stalls are more shell-fish focused, some are more fresh-fish focused, but they’re all pretty much selling the same thing. And on a Sunday morning, it was quite busy, but not in a crushing “GET ME OUT OF HERE I CAN’T BREATHE” kind of way.

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The most fascinating thing about this market is that almost everything sold here is whole and still alive. Nothing is scaled, shelled or filleted – everything is as fresh as you can get, in that the fish still have breath in their gills. It’s almost like a really depressing, overcrowded aquarium.

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The second most fascinating thing about the market is the variety! So many different things – fish, shellfish and molluscs I’d never seen or even heard of before!

Walking around I started to realise that Korea actually has its own, very distinct raw fish culture. The word for raw fish is “회” (Hweh) which some people translate to “sashimi,” but I think the more accurate definition is “Korean raw fish.” Sashimi and hweh are very different things. The essence of sashimi a distinguished sushi chef artfully slicing through high-grade fish with a diamond-sharp knife. The essence of Korean raw fish is a grumpy old lady squatting by a port, with bucketfuls of wriggling sea critters that she chops up roughly with a cleaver and sells to passers by.

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Japanese sashimi says “This is the best that the ocean has to offer.” Korean raw fish says, “Hey ocean! We’ll take whatever you’ve got to give!” Perhaps it has something to do with Korea’s history of extreme poverty, but it’s amazing how the average Korean person will happily eat all kinds of ugly sea-dwelling organisms that I’m quite sure God did not intend for human consumption.

For example, let me present to you the “spoon worm”

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This delightful creature is called “개불”/Gaebul in Korean and has a number of other nicknames thanks to its uncanny resemblance to….. well, a lot of things that you would never want to eat as food. I consider myself an adventurous eater but…. just, no. I don’t need to try this to know for sure that it tastes as bad as, or even worse than, it looks. But yes, people will actually pay money to eat this.

Moving on from the weird to the wonderful, the market is also full of high-class seafood that I couldn’t afford so just took photos of.

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This MASSIVE king crab.

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Big red lobster and a variety of other delicious looking shellfish.

The first thing we were set on trying, just for fun, was the world-famous live octopus or “sannakji.” Sannakji is often portrayed as one of the “weirdest” things Koreans eat, and a lot of people are grossed out by the idea of eating still-wriggling octopus and are paranoid that they’ll choke if the tentacle gets stuck in their throat. This misconception that sannakji is gross or dangerous may come from this famous scene from the movie Old Boy, which is definitely not the recommended method of consumption.

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Sannakji is actually more popular amongst curious tourists than locals, but they’re all over the market. We bought one little octopus and the lady gave it to us in plastic bag… we were mainly concerned that it would die before we ate it which would defeat the purpose of the whole thing.

Then we went about trying to find some fish to eat raw, knowing absolutely nothing about what fish was what or what a reasonable price was. The vendors at the markets are pretty aggressive, especially once they see you’re a foreigner, and its a bit annoying but you can’t really blame them, they’re just hustling to make a living. We chose one at random and put ourselves at their mercy.

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They recommended 광어/Gwang-uh (flounder) for sashimi and a small, fat blackfish to be steamed or stewed. All up, it was about 40,000 won which seemed okay for fresh seafood. We then witnessed the quick, bloody and brutal death of flounder, who was filleted and sliced up for us.

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The system of buying/eating at the fish markets works like this: The vendors only sell and slice – if you want to sit down and eat your purchases straight away, you can pick one of the many restaurants on the outer edges of the market who will serve up your fresh seafood in any way you please. We were completely new to this, so we asked the live-octopus lady to recommend a restaurant, and she directed is to “Seoul Sikdang” in the basement.

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The place was full of middle-aged people who looked like they knew what was up so we figured it was a good choice.

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The restaurant makes you pay a small cover charge for sauces and greens, and then they prep and serve your raw fish. We paid a bit extra to have one of our fish served as Maeun-tang (“매운탕” – literally translates to “spicy stew”)

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The flounder was very generous, despite being such a flat fish. So much better than the raw fish I remember from dinner with my relatives – it’s very chewy and just has a nice, clean flavour. I’d still prefer salmon, but this isn’t a bad substitute. You can eat it with in soy sauce and wasabi, chilli sauce, or wrapped in a lettuce leaf with special ssam-jang and fresh chopped green chilli and garlic.

Our live octopus came out chopped up, and to our delight, still wriggling!

We squealed like little girls as we used our chopsticks to try and pick up tentacle pieces that stubbornly stuck to the plate.

Caught between our chopsticks and dunked in chilli sauce, it was still wriggling.

Once we got over the gross-out and novelty of worm-like wriggly tentacles and put the sannakji in our mouths, we realised that it’s actually pretty freaking delicious!! Soft and chewy, but not tough at all. Soooo good with the tangy chilli sauce! And yes, there is something to be said for the fresh taste of something that is still kind of alive when you bite into it. Is that cruel? I don’t know… I apologize to any octopus-rights activists out there.

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Our maeun-tang came out later on a portable gas stove. It’s a really simple fish-bone broth with plenty of chilli, radish, seaweed, soybean sprouts and greens. The fish gets poached to soft, flakey perfection.

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It may not look like much but this maeun-tang has now made it into the top-five things I’ve eaten in Korea. The broth has this amazing clean taste that combines hot chilli and the nectar of the freshest possible fish. The generous serving of vegetables, fish oils and the (hopeful) lack of MSG makes it feel incredibly healthy to eat too. Throw in some rice to soak up the soup and it’s heaven. Also, if you get a bit tired of the texture of raw fish, you can throw your leftover pieces into the stew and let them cook.

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We were already full from the flounder and octopus but we demolished the stew without even realizing.

In a clever marketing move, there was a dude walking from table to table offering samples of fresh pineapple that he was selling my the bag. We didn’t know it until we tried it, but fresh sweet/sour pineapple is the perfect dessert to follow a feast of seafood and spicy stew. We paid 10,000 won for a small bag like suckers.

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Though it doesn’t appear on many of the official “Top 10″ or “Best things to do” lists, in my opinion, Noryangjin is a MUST visit for both the cultural and culinary experience. It’s not the most foreigner friendly place, but do not fear, I would happily be your guide! Just pay me in prawns and king crab ;)

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