Matjib anxiety, unlimited eggs, spicy pork ribs, and a fried rice love confession

Matjib (맛집) is a relatively recent Korean food phenomenon. The literal meaning is clear (맛/mat = taste, 집/jib = place) but I looked up the term on Naver Dictionary to see if there were any nuances in the term that I was missing. This is what it told me:

tasty

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Definitions are so much more fun in Engrish! And you know what, they’re actually pretty accurate.

The term matjib can be used pretty loosely to describe any half-decent restaurant, but from what I gather, to be a true, legitimate matjib, the restaurant needs to have:

a) great tasting food that has earned it a good reputation among local diners; AND

b) a pretty high level of fame obtained through online blogs, or by appearing on one of Korea’s MANY food-centric television programs.

Also, this may just be me imposing my own beliefs on this concept, but I think a matjib has to unique. For example, even though there are lot of really good chain restaurants in Korea, I don’t think a restaurant that has an outlet in almost every suburb deserves to be called a matjib. I mean, a spin-off restaurant or two is okay, but what seems to happen here is that once a restaurant gets really popular, it just spreads across the city like a virus. I get it, the restaurant biz is tough and you gotta capitalize on your success. But to me, the best kind of matjib is a small family-run restaurant in a random suburb that specializes in one dish and has gained its reputation on the basis of the quality of its food alone. This is probably just me being a food snob.

On one hand, matjibs are incredibly easy to find because every neighborhood in Seoul has at least ONE, and trendy areas like Gangnam, Itaewon, and Sinsa have DOZENS of matjibs each. But their ubiquity actually makes genuinely outstanding restaurants hard to find and a lot of restaurants will just create their own reputation by paing “power bloggers” to write about them and TV programs to feature them. So, for example, if you look up “Gangnam matjib” on Naver and one restaurant shows up 7 times in the first 20 results, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s actually good. It could have just thrown a lot of cash to a lot of bloggers. One trick, I am told, is to include the world “oppa” (오빠) in your search terms so you pick up genuine bloggers who write things like, “me and my oppa went on a date to this amazing matjib!”

There is no chef’s hat system here, no good food guide, no Michelin stars, no Urbanspoon/Yelp equivalent. There are a couple of semi-decent matjib apps, but they don’t attract enough user reviews to really be helpful. Basically, it’s chaos and there’s no available map to navigate this dense and ever-changing jungle. This has led to what I call matjib anxiety – the stress that results from the tension between your greedy desire to eat at ALL the best restaurants and the knowledge that, with only one body and one lifetime, this is actually physically impossible.

Because everyone knows me as “the one who’s obsessed with food,” I’m always the one choosing the restaurant, so matjib anxiety is like an everyday thing for me. That’s why I LOVE when someone else does the research and recommends a great place for dinner. It’s even better when they manage to find an absolute GEM that meets all my snobby matjib criteria. I had that rare experience lately when a friend shouldered all of the matjib anxiety (and probably some added “Dinner date with a food snob and I’m choosing the restaurant” anxiety) and took me a to a great restaurant in an area I’ve never been to or heard of.

We took the train to the eastern edge of Seoul and arrived at Cheonho station, a place where the most famous attraction is a grassy mound of land. We were headed to a place called “등갈비달인” or “Master of Pork Ribs.” The original restaurant did so well that it has two spin-offs, but they’re all within 100 meters of each other! I love that. This means that they cater to demand by saving people the annoyance of standing in a line and and at the same time stay loyal to their neighborhood.

It is a typical “college student” eatery – cement floors, plastic stools, and round steel tables. Pretty soon after we ordered, they brought out the complimentary side dishes, including FRIED EGG AND CHEESY CORN ON A HOT PLATE.

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This takes banchan to a whole new level. And you know what’s even better than free fried egg and cheesy corn on a hotplate? Free fried egg and cheesy corn on a hotplate WITH UNLIMITED REFILLS. At this point, I was already like, “I’ve found my new favourite restaurant.” You can also choose the option of a full plate of corn or two eggs, but the combo is hard to beat. We went through three of these that night. “Only three?” I hear you ask? Look, I gotta leave room for the food I’m actually paying for.

Because there is no such thing as too much egg, we also ordered a steamed egg stew (gyeran-jjim) as a side. As we were waiting, the server comes up to us with a can of upside-down spoons. Each had an item from the sides menu written on it, and he said whichever one we picked would be on the house. MORE FREE STUFF? My goodness, this was a restaurant after my own heart. I wasn’t really interested in any of the sides apart from the egg stew… so I was praying that I would pick that one so we could just eat it for free. And in a rare stroke of luck, I picked it. Free egg stew woop woop!

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It’s not just any egg stew, by the way, it’s CHEESE egg stew (3,000 won). I’d never seen this before, but why not? It makes so much sense. And it’s freaking delicious.

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I was already 100% satisfied with my experience before the ribs even came out. There is a cheese option for the ribs too, but for the sake of our arteries we ordered the original version (11,000 won per person) that comes with a mountain of soybean sprouts (kind of healthy, right?) There are degrees of spiciness you can choose from, but from my experience, I’ve found that at places like this, “mild” actually means “really spicy” and “really spicy” means “burn a hole through your stomach.” So we chose mild and it still had plenty of kick. The pork ribs are stewed with a special spicy marinade and kimchi, and the crunchy sprouts balance out the heaviness of it all. In the background you can see the “Coolpis” drink (unfortunate name) that is commonly served here wherever ultra-spicy food is the specialty. It’s a milky peach juice which sounds disgusting, but is actually quite good and does a great job at cooling down the fire.

The ribs were yummy, but they weren’t so spectacular that I would rave about this place based on the main dish alone. It was the combination of endless fried egg and corn, free cheese egg stew, and really good service that made this place so enjoyable. On the topic of good service, it is REALLY rare to get good service at normal Korean restaurants, because they’re usually staffed by cranky stressed-out ahjummas or underpaid “care factor less than zero” arabite kids. But the service here was super friendly, attentive, and fast. There was one waiter in particular who was suspiciously nice… so nice that I started to think he may have taken a liking to my friend who happens to be a smoking hot mother of four. I teased her about it, half joking, but my suspicions were confirmed when I looked through the night’s photos the next morning and noticed this:

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FRIED RICE LOVE CONFESSION! Too shy to ask for her number, the waiter put his heart on a plate …. literally. Too bad we didn’t even notice and ploughed straight into the bokkumbap (3,000 won). Which was amazing by the way… complete with cheese (couldn’t resist) and flying fish roe. This roe with rice thing is new to me, but I love it now! The salty smokiness and crunchy texture of the roe adds another dimension to the humble bokkumbap, and is totally worth the 500 or 1,000 won extra.

One of the most fun, satisfying matjib experiences I’ve had in Korea – mainly because I got so many free egg-related goodies! But all the food was really good, quite unique, and the service was exceptional, though that may have had more to do with the fact that the waiter was in love with someone at my table… so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the same level of attention :)

등갈비달인 (Deung Galbi Darin)
서울 강동구 성내동 12-37번지
12-37 Beon-ji Sung-neh-dong Gang-dong-gu, Seoul
(Short walk from Cheonho Sation, Exit 6) 

서울 강동구 성내동 12-37번지
02-488-4638
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Ansan Multicultural Food Street: Noodles Worth Traveling Pho

A question I get asked a lot by people is “What food do you miss the most from Australia?” They’re probably expecting an answer that has something to do with Vegemite or meat pies or avocados or kangaroos. But truthfully, what I really miss most is the ethnic food. One of the greatest things about Sydney is how multicultural it is, and all the amazing, authentic food that comes along with that. I get cravings for random things all the time… in fact I can give you a list of the top ten foods that I miss right off the top of my head:

1. Kebab
2. Pork roll
3. Yum cha
4. Pho
5. Hainanese chicken rice
6. Laksa
7. Pad thai
8. Indian curry
9. Lebanese meat plate complete with falafel, garlic sauce, hummus, tabbouleh and bread.
10. Wonton noodle soup

Thai curry would make that list too, if only I didn’t have a life time supply of Marion’s Kitchen and other miscellaneous curry pastes in my pantry thanks to the black market curry smuggling operation I have going on.

And yes, there are versions of these things available in Korea (except Hainanese chicken and laksa . . . IF YOU’RE MALAYSIAN OR SINGAPOREAN AND YOU’RE READING THIS YOU NEED TO MOVE TO KOREA BECAUSE THERE IS A MASSIVE MARKET OPPORTUNITY HERE FOR YOUR DELICIOUS FOODS) but they all seem to be lame Koreanised imitations of the real thing and/or come with premium “foreign food” price tag. You can get a cheap kebab in Itaewon but it’s really just a glorified chicken salad wrap. You can also get delicious, authentic Turkish food but it’ll cost you more than 20 bucks for an iskender plate. I miss Auburn and Parramatta and Granville and Harris Park and Haymarket and Greenacre and Eastwood and Haberfield! I’m back in Sydney for a week in October, but that’s already more suburbs than days I will have to see them again!

So I’m always complaining, “Wah wah wah, this pho tastes like dishwater… whinge whine whinge, a pork roll without pate and pickled carrots is NOT A PORK ROLL, etc etc” And then one day, somebody tells me that there’s this magical place on the outskirts of Seoul called “Ansan.” The pho there is actually good, they tell me, and actually made and eaten by actual Vietnamese people. It’s the Cabramatta of Seoul. Where the bulk of Seoul’s migrant population live, work, and eat. Not only is there good Vietnamese food, but there’s also Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Uzbek… it’s the most multicultural place you’ll find in this largely homogeneous country.

I made it my mission to visit as soon as I had the opportunity. It’s an hour away by subway which is a long way to travel for a bowl of pho, but I was quite confident that it was going to be worth it.

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The “Multicultural Food Street” of Ansan is right opposite the station and stretches several blocks. We went on a Saturday night when the area is alive with hungry locals and curious visitors. We decided to walk around and explore for a little while before we sat down for dinner.

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As I walk around, I start tripping out. are we still in Korea? Did the subway take us through a magic portal into a different universe? There are signs everywhere in languages that are NOT Korean OR English … OH MY G… IS THAT WHAT I THINK IT IS?! IS THAT A FREAKING BANH MI CART?!

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YES! OMGOMGOMG IT’S A BANH MI CART!!! A REAL VIETNAMESE SANDWICH CART!!

At this point, Matt had to tell me to calm down and lower my voice. It looked like the cart had closed shop for the evening, but I vowed to be back again during lunch hours.

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We walked down the main plaza and there were just ALL KINDS of street food that I had never even seen before. Signs we couldn’t read. Languages that I couldn’t even identify. Shop owners we couldn’t communicate with. Almost all traces of Korea had been taken over by foreigners.

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“Excuse me, what is that big round thing?”

“This? It is like pizza. Very good!”

“Pizza? Is it like a roti?”

*blank look*

“Is it sweet? Savoury?”

*blank look*

“How much is it?”

“Very delicious! Just two thousand!”

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Even though we didn’t know what half the stuff was – it all looked delicious. I saw this lady’s spread of meats and got excited thinking it was Chinese BBQ, but on closer inspection it was mostly offal and offcuts. Not quite brave enough to try it, but still happy to see something completely different and exciting.

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See the big red words that say “개고기”? That’s a sign for dog meat. You know you’re truly in the Korean ghetto when the local butchers specialise in dog meat!

Taking in the smell of all this unidentifiable ethnic food made us hungry. We walked over to a Vietnamese restaurant that a couple of Korea food blogs had recommended.

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It’s called Dieu Hien Quan. I love that I have no idea how to pronounce that or what that means!

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The place was covered with gorgeously tacky Chinese New Year decorations. There were a few other diners there, but none of them were Korean. And they were all eating fetal duck eggs! Which I had never seen in real life before! I felt like a foreigner in my own home country. It was great.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a sauce caddy. Just like the ones back home… *sigh*

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I wanted to order the deep fried spring rolls, but Matt’s on a ridiculous diet so we got the summer rolls instead.

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It came out with some sexy looking sauce that bizarrely resembled the Aboriginal flag.

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Really simple fresh rolls – mostly vermicelli with some greens and mystery meat. But tasted so good! Especially with the sauce. Fresh flavours and textures that are unmistakably Vietnamese. I missed you mystery meat!!

And now the moment I had been waiting for. One half of me bursting with anticipation, the other half trying to stay calm, knowing that almost all of the ethnic food I’d eaten in Korea had been a disappointment.

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First the garnishes. There was plenty of coriander… but no Thai basil! Coriander is fine, but the pho I know and love is always served with Thai basil. Surely someone in Korea must grow it. Okay, this was slightly disappointing but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I still had high hopes for the soup.

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I took a deep breath before my first spoonful and said something theatrical like, “Okay, here it is. The moment of truth.”

And… thumbs… are …. UP!

This is good pho. Not the BEST pho I’ve had, but it’s good. Really good. Needless to say, INFINITELY better than the el blando bowls of rice noodles they sell in Seoul. The broth is clean but full of flavour (I added some chopped birdseye chillis to mine for extra heat). Worth an hour on the subway? Definitely yes.

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Matt had chicken pho. Pho is the only time our preferences switch and he always takes the chicken option while I take the beef option. I still don’t understand chicken pho… I feel like pho is in it’s essence a beef based dish. You can choose to have raw beef, beef brisket, or beef tripe, or any other part of the cow! But chicken? Seems wrong. Well, whatever, his life, his choices.

I just realised I didn’t take note of the price. How very unlike me!! That just means it wasn’t cheap enough to excite me, but it wasn’t expensive enough to outrage me. I’m guessing each bowl was around the 8,000-9,000 mark? Seems about right.

Once we we were done, we decided to hit the streets for some dessert.

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I like my dessert savoury, and these big pastries with specks of green were catching my eye. But then I spotted the rolls in the corner that looked like they were filled with chives and possibly, scrambled egg? SOLD.

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Doesn’t look like much but gosh…. this little thing was SO DAMN GOOD. Something about that salty egg and galicky chive combo… one of the best street snacks I’ve had in Korea! And it’s not even Korean! Google tells me that it’s Chinese and called Jiu Cai He Zi. Jiu Cai He Zi, I’m in love with you, and I will come back for more of you.

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Ansan is an adventure. There’s a lot to explore and try, much of it unfamiliar, some of it even a bit scary. It’s like nothing you’ll find anywhere else in Seoul; it is the anti-Itaewon. Just pack a good book and take line 4 all the way down. I’ll be back soon for banh mi, more Jiu Cai He Zi and a Pakistani restaurant a friend recommended. And then I’m going to find a pho place that has Thai basil and actually try that big pancakey thing. This may turn into an Ansan food blog, just warning you.

***

Dieu Hien Quan

경기 안산시 단원구 원곡동 788-19번지
031-493-3756
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Exploring my Food Heritage in Chuncheon: Dakgalbi, Makguksu, and Sundae Gukbap

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write up a blog about Chuncheon. It’s the city I visit most outside of Seoul – my father grew up there and my grandma still lives there, so it’s basically my second home in Korea.

Chuncheon is only 1 hour north-east of Seoul by train, and it’s a really great day trip – especially for couples! Chuncheon is where lovers from my parent’s generation would travel to spend long afternoons together away from Seoul, so there’s a bit of romantic nostalgia associated with the city. It also peaked in popularity as a tourist destination in the early 2000’s after mega-hit Korean drama Winter Sonata came out. The early episodes of the drama were set in Chuncheon and Chuncheon’s “Myeongdong” is where the ill-fated lovers Yu-jin and Jun-sang agree to meet for a date, but then Yu-jin is left waiting and heartbroken after Jun-sang “dies” when he is hit by a car on his way to meet her. The nearby island, Naimseom, is also where the couple enjoy their sweetest moments of first love, riding bikes down the tree-lined lane and making kissing snowmen.

If you haven’t guessed already I was one of the thousands of girls/women who cried buckets over this drama and fell obsessively in love with its star, Bae Yong Jun.

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Sorry, couldn’t resist.

These days, more than ten years later, the glow of Winter Sonata is finally fading from Chuncheon, but there’s plenty of other reasons to visit. And by plenty I mean two. And they’re both food reasons.

First, let’s talk about dak galbi. I’ve written about this before, but Chuncheon is the home of dak galbi, one of the most universally loved dishes in Korea. I eat it every single time I go to Chuncheon, but these photos are from recent visit when I went with my American friend who LOVES dakgalbi and wanted to see if the original version was any better than her favourite local restaurant in Seoul.

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This is the entrance to the famous dakgalbi alley in Chuncheon’s Myeongdong (the main shopping district). There has to be 20+ restaurants in there – ALL dakgalbi and impossible to differentiate if you haven’t done your research.

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My grandma’s favorite is a place called Yumi Dakgalbi, but I wanted to try somewhere different so I used my Naver skills and picked a place that had gotten pretty good reviews.

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It’s called Woomi Dakgalbi and it’s right near the end of the alley. According to the sign, it’s been around for about 45 years.

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Very basic menu – but surprisingly they had a choice between original dakgalbi and spicy dakgalbi, which is unusual. I realized this after we had ordered – I had just asked for dakgalbi like I always do and the waitress didn’t even bother asking whether I wanted spicy or not. Probably had something to do with the white girl at my table… how racist! Well, so much for stereotypes because this particular white girl likes her food HOT so we asked them to add some extra chilli sauce to our chicken.

The prices were higher than I expected – my friend’s favorite dakgalbi in Nowon (northern Seoul) is a sweet 7,000 per person and the portions are MASSIVE. They also have the option of adding cheese-stuffed rice cakes to your chicken. The four-item ‘extras’ menu here was a bit sad. I was starting to get nervous that my friend wouldn’t think this place good enough to justify the 1hr travel + 4,500 won per person.

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The chicken comes out within seconds: huge chunks of marinated, boneless chicken (skin ON), sliced cabbage, spring onion, perilla leaf and long white rice cakes.

The story of dak galbi is one that involves ingenuity and the noble desire to create food that is both cheap AND delicious. In the 60’s, marinated pork ribs barbecued over a charcoal grill (dweji-galbi) were a really popular “anju” (dish eaten with alcohol) in Chuncheon. However, pork supply became unstable and in the face of possible ruin, one restaurant owner had the genius idea of simply substituting the pork with chicken, and dak galbi was born! It became popular among university students as a cheap eat you could share with friends, and then just took the entire nation by storm.

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The original dak galbi, which is just marinated chicken grilled over charcoal, is coming back into fashion these days. I’ve tried it, but I honestly like this version better – mixed with veggies and other goodies, and cooked on a cast iron plate. My favorite thing to add-on are udon noodles. Sweet potato is also a favorite of many. Oh, and mozzarella cheese if you’re feeling particularly decadent. But it’s also perfectly delicious on it’s own, and that’s how we decided to eat it.

Arguably, the best part of eating dakgalbi is actually the fried rice (bokkumbap) at the end. You have to pay extra for the rice but it IS NOT OPTIONAL. Dakgalbi is not dakgalbi without the bokkumbap. You’ve heard of the “dessert stomach” right? Well in Korea, we have something called the “Bap Bae” or the “Rice Stomach.” No matter how full you are from the main meal, you always have room for bokkumbap. Don’t EVER make the mistake of saying something stupid like, “Oh I’m too full, let’s just pass on the fried rice today” because you will be judged and you will lose friends.

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I like leaving it on the hot plate for a while to let the nooroong-ji crust get nice and crunchy.

I think what makes dakgalbi and dakgalbi fried rice so addictive is the marinade – it has all the elements of a good Korean sauce (gochujang, garlic, soy, and sugar) but also has an extra kick to it that’s quite unique. From the recipe’s I’ve seen, the secret is actually curry powder, which is not a very common ingredient in Korean cooking. But the cast iron plate must have something to do with it to, because I tried to make it at home once with a regular frypan and it was an absolute disaster.

So is dakgalbi in Chuncheon worth traveling for? I’d say yes. Even though my friend and I both agreed that we’d had better dakgalbi in Seoul, it’s just more fun when you eat food in it’s hometown, made by people who have been making the same thing, everyday, for decades. You know, like eating a croissant in Paris or a pizza slice in New York.

Also, you’ll get to try Chuncheon’s SECOND most famous dish, makguksu. “Makguksu” roughly translates to “recklessly made noodles” because back in the day, the noodles were made from unhulled buckwheat. Now that buckwheat is much easier to hull and process into noodles, makguksu has evolved into a much more elegant dish that is quite similar to bibim neng-myun, but MUCH better.

The cold buckwheat noodles are served with a small amount of icy broth, spicy sauce, some thinly sliced veggies, picked radish, seaweed and sesame seeds. You mix it all together and it is THE BOMB. There is a perfect balance of sweet/spicy/tart in the sauce that makes me think this dish also has a secret ingredient… A-Ha! Naver tells me that the sauce includes crushed apple or Korean pear, which totally explains the fresh, just-sweet-enough flavour.

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It’s quite photogenic too, don’t you think? There are many restaurants in Chuncheon that specialise in makguksu, but we just ordered it as a side because it goes well as a light and refreshing accompaniment to the dakgalbi. The makguksu at Woomi was really good… I’d actually rate it higher than the dakgalbi.

Makguksu and Dakgalbi are the main event in Chuncheon, but while I was there I ate one more thing that was too good to leave out of this post. Hanging out with my grandma after church on Sunday, she took me out for lunch nearby at a popular sundae gukbap restaurant.

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Sundae gukbap is blood sausage souprice and has long been a favorite of mine and my brother’s. People are always a bit shocked when they find out how much we like it, because it is real Korean country town old-man food, and we’re two very culturally Australian immigrant kids. But I am 100% Korean by blood and nothing proves that fact more than my love for sundae gukbap.

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Looks kind of like Busan’s pork souprice, right? In many ways the two soups are similar but Sundae Gukbap raises the intensity level to about 9000. The base is a milky beef bone broth, and the soup is packed with pieces of blood sausage, a variety of offal (liver, kidney, heart, etc) and sometimes, if you’re lucky, pieces of actual pork meat. This is all very tasty, but the thing that makes this soup truly awesome is the spoonful of crushed perilla seeds that is added as a seasoning. Perilla seeds have a very unique flavour that is something like roast sesame seeds mixed with strong black pepper, and adds this gritty texture to the soup, which doesn’t sound pleasant, but makes the soup taste really wholesome.

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The soup varies from mild to spicy depending on where you go but of course I like mine nice and hot. This particular restaurant specialises in a spicy version of the soup, so you if you can’t handle it, you have to ask them to make it a milder for you. I sweat like crazy eating it and went through about ten napkins just wiping my brow, but it was the best sundae gukbap I’ve had in my life. The flavour is so rich and just overpowers you with heat and salt, which I love so much and will probably be the death of me one day.

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They also sell the steamed blood sausage separately, but it wasn’t that great. It’s the type of very firm and glutinous sundae that works much better in a soup than just by itself. I’ve had much much better.

I am yet to try a gook sundae gukbap place in Seoul – it’s not exactly the kind of food that young people (particularly foreigners) get excited about eating (unless they’re hungover…) I suspect, however, that being a country-town food, it is probably done best in restaurants like this, outside of the main cities.

Spicy chicken, spicy noodles, and spicy souprice – no prizes for guessing which side of the family my tastebuds are inherited from! Chuncheon is a great food-adventure day trip from Seoul – really easy to get to (there’s an express train called the ITX that goes straight there from Yongsan station) and really easy to navigate since it’s a small city. They also have an annual Makguksu and Dakgalbi festival every August, which shows you how much pride the city takes in these two humble dishes. All the best Dakgalbi and Makguksu restaurants in the city come together and set up outdoor food stalls right opposite Chuncheon train station – sounds looks like a pretty fun time.

And just in case you’ve actually come to this blog looking for helpful information, here are some handy links and maps :)

Woomi Dakgalbi
50-5 Joyang-dong
Chuncheon-si, Kangwon

강원 춘천시 조양동 50-5번지
033-253-2428

Jobuja Maeun Sundaega
61-3 Joyang-dong
Chuncheon-si, Kangwon

강원 춘천시 조양동 61-3번지
033-252-1655
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