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.

no01

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.

no02

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.

no03

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.

IMG_6333

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”

no04

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.

no06

This MASSIVE king crab.

no17

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.

no07

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.

no08

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.

no09

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.

no16

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

no15

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”)

no10

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.

no11

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.

no12

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.

no13

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.

no14

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 ;)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Brooklyn vs. Left Coast: The Battle of the Burgers

When I first came to Korea, I vowed to only blog about Korean food. Not for patriotic reasons, but because I firmly believed that foreign food in Korea sucked and was barely worth spending money on, let along blogging about.

In the almost-year that I’ve been here, I’ve had plenty of sloppy Tex-Mex, crappy Thai curry, bland Vietnamese pho, brunches with soggy bread and hard-boiled “poached” eggs, and a really really poor excuse for a kebab. But, to be fair, there have been some surprising exceptions. A Spanish restaurant in Itaewon served me the best paella I’ve ever tasted, and at an Italian restaurant in Apgujeong had a caprese salad that rivaled Cafe Sopra’s.

Another genre of food that Seoul does pretty well is “American.” Unsurprising, because the majority of foreigners in this country are from the States, and compared to people from other countries, I think Americans find it harder to adapt to foreign cuisines and more sorely miss the food of their homeland.  I mean, I miss kebabs, grainy bread and yum cha a lot, but Americans will actually salivate and get a bit teary as they talk to you about In-and-Out Burger.

So naturally, burgers are a big deal amongst the expat community. To cater to demand, a few very impressive burger joints have popped up around town. From the Americans I have spoken to, the current people’s favorite is Brooklyn the Burger Joint. Though recently, a new entrant has arrived with the potential to upset this east-coast dominance. Today, I will be reviewing my experience with both.

Brooklyn Burger has three locations in Seoul, including one in the hallowed halls of Apgujeong Galleria’s Gourmet 494. 494 is a luxury food hall in the basement of the Galleria department store that has been designed to gather all of Seoul’s hottest eateries in one place. It is a foodie paradise.

Legend has it that the owner’s love for burgers was so obsessive that he spent his honeymoon traveling the world with his wife to find the perfect burger. Brooklyn the Burger Joint was born out of that international search. Some of my American friends even go so far as to say that Brooklyn’s burgers are the best they’ve ever had. That is high praise coming from people who were raised in the nation responsible for McDonalds, Burger King, and the global obesity epidemic.

The signature burger at Brooklyn is the “C.R.E.A.M.” which stands for “Cheddar Rules Everything Around Meat.” The name first seems like another awkward Konglish acronym, akin to “High Five of Teenager” or “Ubiquitous Korean International Idol Super Star“, but is actually a play on a Wu Tang Clan song. The burger is a beef patty with sharp cheddar, bacon, horseradish mayo, and a slice of fresh tomato.

1-IMG_5023

Here’s a cross-sectional view.

1-IMG_5028

It’s sloppycheesysaltycreamymeaty all at once. It’s no doubt delicious but also kind of one-dimensional. And no, I don’t expect burgers to be complex gastronomical creations with layers and layers of different flavors and textures. But eating this did make me realize that Americans and Australians do burgers very differently.

This is going to sound mean, but this tasted like kind of like high-class McDonalds. It makes sense though, because McDonalds is just the fast, cheap, mass-produced version of the type of burgers Americans love to eat.

Australians however, have a somewhat different approach to burgers.  The one thing that distinguishes Australian burgers from other burgers worldwide is our inclusion of a slice of canned beetroot – which tells you something about our tastebuds. Beetroot adds a crunch, sweetness and tang that gives more variety of flavor and texture to the burger. We also like to use fancy bread like sourdough or brioche, add plenty of fresh vegetables like raw red onion and more than a single leaf of lettuce, care a lot about the quality of beef in the meat patty (we love our Angus and Wagyu) and most of the time, cheese is an optional extra rather than an essential ingredient. These are the burgers of my homeland.

So I’m not so crazy about the C.R.E.A.M., but there are plenty of other burgers on the menu. Such as:

1-IMG_6312

THE CHEESE SKIRT!!

giphy

Be still my beating heart. OH FRIED CHEESE. The guiltiest pleasure of my former fat kid days!!

You know, for a while I really thought fried cheese was my own original invention. I may have not been the first to do it, but I discovered fried cheese as a result of my own fat kid ingenuity. I used to come home from school every day and make myself a grilled cheese sandwich on the frypan. I would use two slices of tasty cheese, not only because that’s how fatties roll, but because this increased the chance of cheese oozing out of the sides of the bread and getting browned and crisp from the pan. The crunchy cheese bits were my favourite part of the sandwich so one day I thought “I wonder what would happen if I put the cheese straight onto the pan?” It sounds like craziness but it totally works – the cheese sizzles and bubbles but retains its shape, and once the bottom gets golden brown you slide it off the pan and let it cool. The result: BEST SNACK EVER.

The “cheese skirt” is not a Brooklyn Burger original either, a Google search will show you that many kindred fatties have had the same idea.

1-IMG_6309

By the size of the skirt, it looks like it might be made up of 3-4 cheese slices melted together. When you eat it, you can either eat the edges of the cheese skirt first, break them off to save them for last, or fold them into the burger to get a double-whammy of fried cheese with every bite.

The melted cheese fat solids are still dripping off the skirt so this is a very greasy burger – it is probably a million calories and half a pound of fat but WHO CARES IT’S A CHEESE SKIRT!!!!! You only live once and cheese skirt makes that one life so much more delicious!!!

(BTW these photos come from two separate visits to Brooklyn Burger. I did not eat both the C.R.E.A.M. and Cheese Skirt in one sitting. My power level is not that high.)

If you want to further increase your risk of lifestyle diseases, you can order a side of chilli cheese fries.

1-IMG_6310

Thick cut fries smothered in bright-orange American “cheese” sauce and sloppy, spicy chilli on top. I actually like my chilli cheese with shoestring fries, but these aren’t bad at all. The All-American cheese sauce is an acquired taste, but I’m starting to love it – especially with corn chips!

Brooklyn burger is also famous for its milkshakes, but unfortunately the Gourmet 494 branch doesn’t sell them. Some would argue that a review of Brooklyn Burger is not complete without the milkshakes, but as someone who is not really a fan of milkshakes, I don’t think it would have added much for me personally. And I don’t think I could have handled more than a few sips after pigging out so hard on my burger and fries.

Moving on now to new entrant Left Coast Artisan Burgers, a hip burger restaurant/bar in Itaewon owned by Korean-Americans from California.

When you go to a restaurant with the word “Artisan” in the name, your expectations are automatically raised. It’s easy for burgers to be “gourmet” – all you need are some fancy ingredients like Wagyu beef or camembert cheese. But “artisan” burgers? Is it even possible for ground beef and veg inside two halves of a bun to be “artisanal”?

6-IMG_6289

Left Coast has its own signature burger called the “Juicy Lucy.” It is lettuce, grilled onion, Left Coast’s house-made sauce and cheese-stuffed patty. Yes. CHEESE STUFFED PATTY. It looks unassuming from the outside but when you cut it in half…

3-IMG_6237

dayum

This crazy idea was obviously conceived by some cheese-obsessed genius who wanted to get as much melty cheese in the burger as possible without having it run down the sizes. It appears to be American cheese as opposed to cheddar, so it’s quite creamy and the overall taste with the sloppy onions and sauce is similar to the C.R.E.A.M. Lesson learnt: Americans like sloppy burgers. I’m not such a huge fan… the next time I went to Left Coast I tried something different.

7-IMG_6290

This is the “Hot Stuff” burger with pickled onion, hot pepper and garlic spread. Unlike many, I love pickles and spice in my burgers because it cuts through the grease of the beef patty and this was so good!! No cheese and didn’t feel heavy at all, just a really juicy, perfectly seasoned and grilled burger with great flavours coming from the pickle, peppers and garlic sauce.

I think Left Coast takes more care with its burger patties than Brooklyn. Their patties are a lot fatter and seasoned so well that you could eat it by itself like a steak, without any garnishes or condiments, and it would still be delicious. It might be great quality beef, or it might just be salt or MSG but whatever it is, it works really well. I guess this is whey mean by “artisan” – perfectly hand-crafted beef patties, made with love.

The burgers all come with a few potato chips (crisps) on the side. You can pay bit extra and get a side of fries, or if you’re feeling a bit gluttonous, you can order the Kalbi Fries.

5-IMG_6287

Hand cut fries with pulled marinated Korean-style beef ribs,  pickled peppers and onions, scallions and sour cream. Strongly reminiscent of the famous Kimchi Fries at Vatos Urban Tacos (a Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant), but not quite as good due to the lack of the key ingredient: kimchi. The combination of soft pulled beef rib with fries and crunchy pickles is still delicious, and a much classier version of your typical chilli fries.

1-IMG_6233

They also have deep fried mac’n’cheese – which sounds awesome, but is just okay.

2-IMG_6235

Too much mac (that’s not even mac actually… it’s seashell pasta) and not enough cheese in my opinion.

And then if you still have room, you can order the only dessert on their menu.

4-IMG_6238

What is that? Is it a pudding? A tart? A cake? No. It’s  GIANT COOKIE. A massive, fresh out of the oven, barely even baked cookie. I don’t think you could even call this a cookie… it’s more like… warm, gooey, caramelised cookie dough a la mode. It comes with two boulder-sized scoops of vanilla ice cream and some whipped cream to ensure that the fat to sugar ratio is just right! You gotta be a pretty hardcore sweet tooth to stomach more than two spoonfuls of this – but it’s a lot of fun.

FINAL VERDICT

For me, Left Coast wins. The Californian influence on the food appeals to my Australian sensibilities: freshness, respect for high quality ingredients, and a dessert that appeals to the inner child. And I’m not sure if I’ve ever tasted a better burger patty before.

Left Coast also has delicious pulled pork sliders (failed to take a photo, sorry) and Momofuku-style buns which I have not tried yet, but look like a pretty decent imitation.

I will be back to Brooklyn, however, for the cheese skirt. Though I feel like I should only let myself eat that burger once every six months… I don’t want to end up as one of those people who dies of a sudden heart-attack at 30, shocking the whole world because “She was SO young!”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ginseng Chicken Soup @ Tosokchon (토속촌)

If you Google “Best things to eat in Korea,” you will find that one name appears consistently across all travel websites, food blogs and review sites. That name is “TOSOKCHON.”

This place has been blogged to death but I still want to dedicate a post to it because in the eight months that I’ve been here, this is still one of the best things I’ve eaten. And I’ve eaten a lot, believe me. I have about five kilograms of weight gain to prove it.

Tosokchon is a restaurant that specialises in “Samgyetang” (삼계탕) or ginseng chicken soup. It’s always been one of my favorite Korean dishes and it’s something that Korean restaurants in Sydney don’t really do, so it was the one thing I was most looking forward to eating in Korea.

The restaurant is conveniently located right next to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which makes it very easy to add to your Seoul sightseeing itinerary. But best to go on a weekday outside peak lunch/dinner times because the lines on the weekend are CRAY. I went once on a Saturday, at around 11:30 am, and there was already a 50-person line. I mean, it’s worth the wait, but try to avoid it.

to11

We visited Tosokchon on a cold night in winter, after a day trip to the ski fields. To me, Samgyetang seems like the perfect winter comfort food but Koreans prefer to eat it in the summer. It is traditionally eaten on the hottest days of the year to replenish your body with all the nutrients that you lose sweating under the summer heat.

The restaurant looks like a traditional Korean “hanok” style house, but on the inside it opens up into several spacious dining rooms. My guess is that the restaurant has been through a number of expansions due to its ridiculous popularity with tourists.

to08

The menu has three items, but people come here for one thing only. The classic Samgyetang is the second item and costs 15,000 won. The other two are souped-up versions of the dish (pun not intended ho ho ho). They both include some sort of exotic mountain ginseng, and the third item uses the silkie fowl instead of regular chicken, which means black meat!!! Worth a try if you’re feeling adventurous.

to01

In Sydney I would often judge a restaurant by the quality of its bread. In Korea, you judge a restaurant by the quality of its kimchi, which is always the first thing to come out. And dang, this was some of the best kimchi I’ve ever had. I could have just eaten this with a bowl of rice for dinner and walked away happy.

to03

Us kimchi-loving Koreans fall into one of two camps: those who prefer fresh kimchi, and those who prefer ripe, well fermented kimchi. I am of the former camp because the cabbage in fresh kimchi still has its crunch, and you can more distinctly taste the salt and red pepper flakes that it is seasoned with. I much prefer this to the vinegary, pickled flavor of ripe kimchi. But the best kimchi is just on the cusp of ripeness, bringing together the best of both worlds. Maybe it depends on the day and the batch, but the kimchi I had at Tosokchon was of that rare and delicious variety. The radish kimchi (gakdugi) was very good too.

Now moving on to the main event. So what exactly is Samgyetang and what’s the big deal?

Think about it like this. Let’s pretend that chickens have their own social system and hierarchy. The poor, peasant chickens end up as processed deli meat and frozen chicken nuggets. The working class chickens end up battered and deep fried, or on a rotisserie. The high-earning, professional chickens end up stuffed with lemon and sage, and roasted for Christmas dinner. The exotic, ethnic chickens end up as steamed chicken feet or hainanese chicken rice. The mega-rich, millionaire chickens end up as a ballontine or a mousse at a fine dining restaurant. But the highest class of chicken, chicken royalty, the demi-gods of the chicken kingdom – they will meet their final destiny in a glorious, steaming hot-stone bowl of Samgyetang.

The beauty of Samgyetang lies in its simplicity. The dish is designed to allow the chicken to reach its fullest potential, taking nothing away and adding only what will enhance it’s natural God-given flavour. A whole chicken is used, so that no flesh or bone is wasted. It is then stuffed with glutinous rice that soaks up all the chicken flavors from the inside and is cooked in a broth of ginseng, dried jujube, garlic and ginger; ingredients that not only draw out and highlight the flavors of the chicken, but also have their own medicinal properties. This is why Samgyetang is considered by Koreans as a sort of “cure for everything” superfood. There is also usually a chestnut involved, but I’m not sure whether it adds any flavour or is just intended as hidden treasure to be found amidst your stuffing.

Anyone who reads this blog would know how obsessed with chicken I am, and as much as I LOVE fried chicken, roast chicken and hainanese chicken rice, I think Samgyetang takes the coveted crown as “Heather’s all-time favourite chicken dish in the whole wide word.” That is a very, very high honour.

to04

The Samgyetang is served and it is breathtaking. The broth is miky white and bubbling in its stone pot, exposing a few glossy curves of naked chicken flesh and topped with chopped spring onion and an assortment of seeds.

Is it inappropriate and creepy to describe a chicken as “sexy”? It may be, but I can’t think of another word that more accurately describes the look of this dish.

to05

The stock is perfectly seasoned, but I always like adding some extra pepper to my chicken soup. If you tear away a bit of the flesh, you’ll find the cavity stuffed to the edges with rice. I like to scoop it out into the soup, so that it soaks up even more of the broth. A spoonful of rice soaked in tasty soup is one of my, and the entire nation of Korea’s, favourite things.

to06

Because the chicken is boiled whole and slow in a rich broth, the meat is incredibly tender and easily falls off even the trickier bones, like the wing. The soup stays very very hot because of the pot, so the trick is to use one of your side bowls and spoon out a bit of rice, soup and chicken meat to let it cool before you eat it. Your table should also have some salt and pepper that you can dip your chicken into if you would like some extra seasoning.

to07

If you are truly hardcore, you can eat the ginseng once you find it. I personally can’t handle it… I don’t care how good it is for you, ginseng is gross. It is, however, a crime to leave any meat on your chicken – have some respect!!

to10

Tosokchon’s location and popularity may make you suspicious of its legitimacy because it does has all the warning signs of a tourist trap. But take my word for it, this place is worth the hype. I am a Samgyetang enthusiast and I haven’t found a restaurant anywhere in Seoul that does it as well as Tosokchon. Whether you’re living in Korea or just visiting, this place is a must-visit. Your life will be better for it.

Tagged , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 84 other followers

%d bloggers like this: