D.I.Y. Dosirak at Tongin Market (통인시장)

It’s been a while, but don’t worry I HAVE been eating. I’ve been eating all over the place. I have Busan, Chuncheon, Ansan, and even Texas in my backlog right now but I’ve just been slow in getting my butt in front of a computer and writing it all down.

While busyness and laziness both have a big part to play in this, I think another big reason is that, to be honest, Seoul food-blogging is really not as fun as Sydney food blogging. It’s hard to articulate exactly why this is, but I think a lot of it has to do with the difference between Sydneysiders’ and Seoulites’ attitude towards food.

In Sydney, we care a lot about authenticity, originality, and the passion that goes into putting food on a plate. Our affection for good food goes deep. It makes people quit their jobs and then cry about how much food means to them on national television. We care about what goes into our food, and the stories behind it. We line up for food, and we’re not ashamed of it. We pay a lot of money for good food, and we understand that it’s totally worth it. We cook, we serve, and we eat for the love.

In Korea, when it comes to food, there is really only one thing that matters: “DOES IT TASTE GOOD OR NOT?” This one-dimensional approach to food is even reflected in the language. When you watch Korean cooking competitions on TV, the judge’s comments are all incredibly boring and useless because there is only one piece of vocabulary that people use to describe the quality of food: “맛있어” which literally translates to “there is taste.” When something tastes bad, you just reverse that to “맛없어” which translates to “there is no taste.” So that’s the only thing people really care about, is there, or is there not, taste?

As a result, there is A LOT of tasty food in Korea. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find food that doesn’t taste good. It’s a lot harder to find food that is thoughtful, inventive (but not gimmicky), and that cares about details like authenticity, balance of flavours, textures, and quality of produce. Yeah I know I sound mad snobby right now. Don’t get me wrong, the food in Korea is GREAT for eating, and I have two new chins to prove it. But for discussing, reflecting upon, and blogging about… there isn’t much substance and so, it’s harder to find the inspiration. That’s all I’m saying.

Anyway, this post wasn’t intended to be a philosophical musing about Korean food culture… I actually just wanted to do a simple write-up on the time when me and my girl MJ visited Tongin Market (통인시장) earlier this year. to01

Tongin Market is a smaller market located next to Gyeongbok Palace, and is just a short walk up from Tosokchon. The market is one long under-cover alley that attracts both tourists (us) and elementary school kids (pictured) because of it’s unique payment system

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At the entrance, you will meet a man with big stack of dosirak (lunch box) trays and gold tokens shaped like old Korean money.

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These tokens are the official currency of Tongin Market and you can buy a stack of 10 for 5,000 won. Once you have your tokens and tray, you are now ready to construct your own dosirak!

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There are plenty of vendors in the market with all different kinds of banchan (side dishes). From classics like kimchi, pickles, and nameul.

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To favorites like ddokbokgi, odeng, jeon, and kimbap.

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To really anything and everything that your hungry heart desires. They even have more substantial dishes like galbi-jjim (beef short ribs) and jay-yook-bokkum (spicy pork). Each spoonful of banchan will cost you at least two tokens, and larger-size, meatier things will cost you more. Luckily, the vendors don’t trade exclusively in tokens, so if you run out, you can just pay in cash. Whats the point of even having the token system then? The point is FUN, guys. Coz it’s way more fun to pay for stuff with gold tokens than it is paying with cash… (right?)

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One thing that seemed really popular with the kids was this “gireum ddokbokgi” (oil-fried rice cake), which is a simpler, “dry” version of traditional ddokbokgi that just fries the rice cakes in oil and gochujang, giving them a crusty, crunchy coating on the outside.

After you fill up your dosiraks, you can head to one of two eating halls where you can get your cutlery, water, and rice (which you need to buy for 1,000 won). The main one upstairs was full, so we went to the one in the basement which was huge and had plenty of seats.

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Here is what our 20 tokens (and a few extra 1,000 wons because I got greedy) bought us:

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Clockwise from top left: Jang-jorim (soy-braised beef brisket and quail eggs), gyeran mari (Korean egg roll), fish jeon, mozzarella sticks (unconventional, but I’m a big sucker for these), seaweed salad, getnip jeon (stuffed perilla leaf) and rice cake sausages.

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Clockwise from top left: getnip jeon (we got one each… stuffed perilla leaf jeon is the best jeon), mayak kimbap (same “drug kimbap” that you find at Gwangjang market), janchi guksu (Korean noodles with anchovy broth), zucchini jeon, gireum dookbokgi (the oil-fried rice cakes I mentioned above) and ham + crabmeat jeon.

We were really excited about this place because it looked like a lot of fun, and it was our first time visiting, but food-wise, it was just okay. We spent a lot of time walking from vendor to vendor, stressing over what to include in our lunch boxes, so by the time we sat down to eat, everything was cold. We were also incredibly hungry and I think that led us to not making the smartest choices in what we ended up buying. It would have been more interesting if we had been more adventurous and tried new things instead of our old favourites (I mean, egg roll and mozzarella sticks?! What was I thinking?!)

The gireum ddokbokgi was good, but the jeon is FAR better at Gwangjang market. Actually, a lot of the food here kinda tastes like it’s been sitting around all day. It’s a decent feed for around 5,000 won per person, but if you only have time to visit a couple of markets in Seoul, this one definitely ranks below Gwangjang and Noryangjin. On the plus side, it’s one of the few places you can go that offers a “banchan buffet” and you can eat all your favourites without having to wait until your next extended family gathering. Located right next to the palace, it’s also an easy stop to add to your walking tour of Seoul, though I’d recommend visiting in the warmer months when the cold air won’t make your food taste like leftovers straight out of the fridge.

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The Sydney of My Dreams (Three Blue Ducks, Porch, and The Bucket List)

The other night, I dreamed of Sydney. Not the house in the suburbs, or the high-rise office, or the long bus ride in between. I dreamed about the Sydney of postcards and bayside soaps. Where the ocean is a perfect reflection of a cloudless sky and the sands of the beach fade out to white.

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It’s a weekday, I’m blissfully unemployed, and I take two beautiful girlfriends to brunch somewhere famous. It has a silly name that makes no sense, but it’s okay because ducks can be blue in a dream.

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It’s small, cramped, and busy and the staff are cool and inattentive like we’re invisible. And maybe we are, it is a dream after all. Maybe our breakfast will just appear on our table like magic.

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But it appears that my imagination does not extend to magic, not even my dreams, so we order like in real life and wait a really, really long time for our food, like you would in real life, in real Sydney, at a real hipster cafe.

The food is, of course, vivid and specific.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, two poached eggs, one small salmon steak, wilted spinach, a small pot of hollandaise sauce and several fresh basil leaves.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, two poached eggs, half an avocado sliced and fanned out, one cherry tomato, halved, a small pot of hollandaise sauce, some red onion and several fresh basil leaves.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, baked eggs with chorizo and cannellini beans and several fresh basil leaves.

It’s strange that I would dream up food so dull – especially at a highly anticipated meal at one of the most popular brunch spots in Sydney. The large plates and sparse presentation make each item look cold and lonely on the plate, and the flavours are entirely plain and ordinary. Anyone can toast a piece of bread. Anyone can roast a tomato. Anyone can rip some leaves off a basil plant. Anyone can slice an avocado. Anyone can (with some care) poach an egg. Hollandaise sauce is something to be poured over a plate with no concern for calories, not served “on the side” in a pathetic quantity that even Gwyneth Paltrow would approve of.

In real life, I would politely pay the bill and silently vow never to eat at this place again. But this is a dream, and in dreams you can do things without fear or consequence, so I flip the table and yell “I WOULD RATHER EAT A MCMUFFIN!” and teleport to North Bondi.

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We end up at a place called PORCH and order our second coffees for the morning.

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This tiny little cafe has more pretty white people than I’ve seen for over a year.

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My friend Minju is there, so I must really miss her. But all she does is chat with her fiance on her phone, so she obviously doesn’t miss me at all. But then I realize that what I’ve missed more than anything is this:

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Aussie coffee. Coffee in Korea may meet my daily caffeine needs, but it is so soulless. You, however, are full of heart. It’s not just a matter of beans or milk or technique, it’s a matter of love. It’s how you soak up the Aussie sun that keeps you warm on the outdoor table. It’s how you carry the care and passion of the barista who made you; a bearded priest of a coffee-worshiping faith. It’s how you’re presented in playful ceramic mugs, made to resemble paper cups, that boast the name of the local group of blenders and roasters from which you were born. I wish I was there with you today and I’m sorry that I can’t be. *weeps*

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The dream goes on and we’re hungry again. We stop at a colorful beachside bar that sells food in buckets.

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I see more bare female skin than I have in over a year. All shapes, ages, and sizes in bikinis and sarongs. This is the Straya I love.

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I swear this isn’t a drug-induced hallucination but the bar where we order is crazy psychedelic. One-eyed aliens, pickled brains, and neon tigers. C’mon everybody lets all be friends and dance together until the end. 

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There are floor to ceiling windows that curve around the whole restaurant so that all you can see is beach.

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We order a bucket of prawns, that turns out to be half-full of ice, but it’s okay because I have a beer in my hand, a good mate by my side, and everywhere I look, all I see colour and sun and sea and sky.

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Also, fries. Thick-cut, crunchy fries. And fries make everything okay.

I feel so happy to be home but sad to know that I can’t stay much longer. I look to my right and see a message tattooed on the wood panel beside me.

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And I think, “Yes, you will always be.”

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Sokcho: Seafood by the Seaside

My pork/chicken dominated food blog is now being taken over by seafood. Korea really does change people.

I’m starting to understand now. I’m starting to understand the obsession that drives my people to swarm Sydney’s fish markets every weekend, illegally harvest pippies at the beach, and risk their lives rock-fishing before the sun rises. Noryangjin Market is great, but there’s something different about eating seafood with a view of the ocean, listening to the sounds of the water. Even though I’m told (by cynical party-poopers) that coastal seafood markets are tourist traps where prices are higher and most of the products are imported from other countries anyway, the sheer novelty and fun of pigging out on seafood on a seaside holiday is not to be underestimated!

Sokcho is a city on the eastern coast of Korea, most well-known for its proximity to Seorak Mountain, and is mainly used as base for travelers who want to hike during the day and sleep in affordable “pension” style accommodation at night. I went with my bestie to admire the autmnal colors of Seorak in October, and taste the all-year-round delights of the Sokcho seafood markets.

We arrived in the late afternoon, and just wandered around exploring the area, looking for something to snack on before dinner. We found a decent looking restaurant and just ordered some stuffed squid (ojingeo sundae). Regular sundae is a Korean street food staple, and is a simple blood sausage filled with noodles. Ojingeo sundae is a little fancier and is stuffed with a mix of squid tentacles, vegetables, meat, and sticky rice. This one was served “jeon” style, meaning it was covered in egg and pan-fried. We all know that jeon-style is my favorite style.

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Nom.

We were staying near Daepo-hang, which is a port on the southern end of Sokcho city. It has its own markets, and since they were walking distance from our pension, we decided to go there for dinner instead of the central fish markets in Sokcho.

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The market is just one, long enclosed lane that wraps around the inlet, both sides lined by seafood vendors and restaurants with no discernible differences between them.

This place operates a little differently to Noryangjin. Each shop is also a restaurant: fish tanks in the front, tables and seating in the back. The shopkeepers have also conveniently put together little baskets that include a variety of fish and other sea creatures, and sell them at a package price.

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This is very handy when you’re a tourist who has no idea what tastes good or what anything is called. We went for the little green basket in the corner, minus the squid, for around 40,000 Won.

We also considered taking the mung gae (or sea pineapple) out too, one of the many strange, alien-like sea critters that Koreans like to eat for reasons that are still a mystery to me. But we thought we may as well try it since it is such a well-loved Korean delicacy.

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It came out sliced up and looking even nastier than it does whole. I mean, look at that. It looks like something that was blown out of a whale’s bloody nose. And it tastes like it too – like a chewy, saltwater-soaked, whale booger. Ugh. Never again. (EatYourKimchi share my distaste and quite accurately named it “Satan’s booger”)

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Here is the sliced, raw flesh of the two fishies we bought. Delicious, but a gets a bit tedious after the first ten slices.

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A meal of raw fish must end with maeuntang, which is my favorite part. Never disappoints.

Tummies full and looking for something to eat for dessert, we came across the Wonjo Twi-Gim Gol-Mok, which roughly translates to the Wonjo Alley of Deep Fried Delights!

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It’s a mini-market that sells a variety of deep-fried Korean favorites – but the main attraction are the jumbo prawns.

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Like all Korean markets, the stores sell basically the same thing so we chose one at random and ordered a couple of things.

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Yes we had just had a really big dinner… but you don’t find an alley full of deep-fried prawns and just walk away empty handed!! That would go against everything I believe in.

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We got two of the largest-sized prawns (deep-fried whole, with shells still on). Korean twigim is a bit heavier than tempura – the batter is quite thick and very crispy. The thing in the background is a deep-fried perilla leaf… which totally counts as salad, right?

The next day we went hiking in Seorak Mountain. Hiking in Korea is really special, not just because of our many beautiful mountains and the dream-like autumn foliage, but also because of our very unique “hiking culture.” Korean hiking culture involves men and women, middle aged and upwards, who spend hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars on professional hiking attire and gear (hiking boots, pants, shirts, jackets, gloves, sticks, hats, everything – head to toe, the more brightly coloured, the better), and join clubs where they hike different mountains with a group of very similar people every single weekend. These guys are no joke. They’re the first ones to arrive at the mountain and the last ones to leave. As we were huffing and puffing up the easy, half-day track we had chosen, this technicolor army stormed past us in the opposite direction, on the final stretch of a trek that started at 4am and had reached the peak at noon.

I’m not really sure what fuels their passion – it could really be a love for the mountains and a desire to stay fit… but I also suspect that they just like to show off their expensive hiking gear and get drunk on makgoli (Korean rice wine) in the open air.

There are many makgoli pit-stops along every hike… which I don’t quite understand because national park + mountain + drunk hikers does not seem like a good mix to me… but you know, give the people what they want.

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They also sell pajeon (seafood pancake) as an drinking snack and it smelled so good we couldn’t resist it on the way back down from our hike.

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Demolishing a pajeon in the mountains after a good hike is just glorious. Didn’t get any makgoli because I really, really hate it. I think it tastes worse than soju, which says A LOT.

On our last day, we walked to the port near the bus terminal to find something to eat for lunch. We really wanted to have king crab, which is THE THING to eat when you’re in Sokcho, but it’s so expensive in not justifiable between only two people. We found a row of abalone restaurants that looked pretty legit, so we decided to try one out. We ordered grilled fish and seafood ttukbaegi (clay pot).

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I used to hate Korean grilled fish. It just seemed so small, bony, and inferior in flavour compared to the salmon, trout, snapper and barrumandi that’s readily available in Sydney. I never ate it. I didn’t even count it as meat. But now, thanks to the Koreanisation of my taste buds, I freaking love it. I don’t even know the names of these three fish, but I’ve fallen in love with the dry yet oily, salty and slightly smoky flavor that all Korean grilled fish has.

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Perfect with rice, gim (seaweed) and a little bit of ssamjang.

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The ttukbaegi came out overflowing with all sorts of shellfish – prawns, clams, muscles, and a seashell that was so pretty I couldn’t bear to eat the rubbery little mollusc inside it.

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The main event, however, was the abalone. Believe it or not, this was my first time eating one. I guess with my general lack of enthusiasm for seafood and high price tag attached to abalone, I never got around to trying it. And while it looks really ugly, like a giant cooked slug, I kind of understand what the fuss is about. It has this perfect texture which is neither rubbery (like squid), mushy (like oysters), or grainy (like muscles), and has a really pleasant, mild taste.

So that was Sokcho, and also the final Korean eating adventure I would go on with my bestie, who’s back in Sydney now. This one’s for you, babe ;)

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