Category Archives: Japanese

Seoul Food Safari: Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Japan

New year’s resolution: revive food blog.

I published 14 posts in 2015, a little bit more than one per month, which is actually not that bad but I think I can do a lot better. I blame the strange and uncharacteristic fitness kick that took over my life in the summer… spent all my spare time run-walking and didn’t eat out that much. I don’t know what came over me. But thankfully, I have now entered winter hibernation which means a lot less moving and a lot more eating.

The smart thing to do would be to trash everything in my backlog and just start from my most recently eaten meal… but the very very small OCD part of me can’t bear to just let all these photos and experiences disappear into oblivion. So I’m gonna do a few quick photo-dump bulk-blogging posts to clear my library and actually get things up-to-date here. Because these places are still worth posting about, provided that they still exist.

I noticed that most of my backlog consisted of international food spots, so I’ve dubbed this series “Seoul Food Safari” and today our tastebuds travel to Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Japan. Click on the name of each restaurant for address and Naver map!

1. Samarkand Restaurant, Ansan (technically not Seoul but . . . eh.)

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On our second visit to Ansan, we had dinner at Samarkand which is an Uzbek restaurant that comes highly recommended by everyone on the internet who has written anything about good food in the Ansan area.

The waiter greeted us at the door and didn’t seem to want to let us sit inside. “Inside? Smoking only outside.” Because we clearly look like pack-a-day kind of people. I blame Matt’s long hair and facial scar (actually from chicken pox).

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It’s a small cafe-style restaurant, with an Uzbek mini-mart in the back. Walls decked with traditional Uzbek clothing (still in their plastic cover? maybe it’s just the owner’s drycleaning…)

I always get really confused about how to order at these kinds of restaurants. It feels most natural to speak in English because obviously I can’t speak Uzbekistani but it feels so weird to speak Korean (my second language) to another non-Korean person. But EVERY SINGLE TIME my English gets blank looks and I end up just awkwardly pointing at menu items. And then I overhear the waiter speaking fluent Korean to another table and feel like an idiot.

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Prices have gone up in recent years, but they’re still pretty reasonable. We ordered the Plov on the recommendation of an Uzbek friend who always talks about how much he misses it.

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Plov (also known as pilaf in other cultures) is a very simple dish of seasoned rice, carrots and lamb. The rice is incredibly flavourful because it’s actually cooked on top of the lamb and carrots in a dutch oven, infusing it with all the stock and spices.

The servingware here is beautiful too.

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We also got Samsa which is huge triangle-shaped pastry packed with a meat and onion filling.

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I LOVE meat-filled pastries, but they sadly do not form part of Korean cuisine (the closest thing would probably be fried dumplings). But these really hit the spot after being long-deprived of my Aussie meat pies and sausage rolls. I really liked the mix of spices that were present in each dish – relatively mild compared to Asian or Middle-Eastern cooking, but still gave every mouthful a very distinct and interesting flavour.

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We ended our meal with some barbecued lamb skewers which were charred and juicy and amazing. Lamb is the rarest of the meats here (most Koreans hate the smell) so its always a special treat and whenever I eat it I always exclaim something like “LAMB! I almost forgot how delicious you were!”

I knew absolutely zero about Uzbek food before this meal but I really enjoyed it. It was somewhat similar to the Middle-Eastern food that I know and love, but was also a new experience in itself. If you’re not keen enough to travel to Ansan, the goods news is that there’s a Samarkand Cafe in Dongdaemun that is also pretty well known (very close to Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station). I’m not sure if it has the same owner, but from the photos I’ve seen the food looks almost identical. Totally worth a visit if you’re sick of Korean food and want to try something completely different.

2. Lie Lie Lie, Yeonnam-Dong 

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In my quest to find the best Vietnamese pork roll in Seoul, Lie Lie Lie is the current frontrunner. It’s a tiny shop hidden in the alleyways of up-and-coming “hot place” Yeonnam-dong – an area next to Hongdae that is brimming with cool little shops, cafes, and eateries.

This place is great for a number of reasons. Firstly, all the bread is freshly baked daily on premises.

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Here is the oven to prove it.

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This is the closest thing I’ve found to the Vietnamese rolls from the “hot bread” bakeries in Sydney. While I do love banh mi served in a classic french baguette, this is the kind of bread that defines “pork roll” for me.

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Second, they stock cans and cans of the essential ingredient: LIVER SPREAD. Pork roll is not pork roll without the dodgy pâté, but this is the first banh mi place I’ve found in Seoul that actually has it. Pâté has a flavour and texture that Koreans wouldn’t typically enjoy, so I understand why places don’t bother with it but without the spread, whatever you’re selling isn’t banh mi; it’s a banh mi-inspired sandwich.

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They have four different types at the very good price of 5,500 won and of course I happily paid the 500 won extra for the chicken liver pate. I was only really interested in the cold cut version, but I was with a friend who had never tried banh mi before so we ordered three different ones for the sake of variety.

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The grilled chicken and spicy pork banh mi were both really good (the spicy pork one tasted a bit like Korean-Vietnamese fusion) and all the essential vegetable components were present:

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Cucumber, carrot, pickled radish, fresh chopped chilli, spring onion, and coriander. They could be a bit more generous with the fillings, but hey, at least everything was there and nothing weird was added (I’ve had some banh mi here with iceberg lettuce. That’s no-no.)

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The best BY FAR was the cold cut w/ pâté. The only thing missing was the maggi sauce, so it wasn’t quite the lovely, messy, sauce-soaked experience of a Sydney pork roll but it was more than good enough to satisfy my cravings.

A word of warning: the rolls are quite small. One roll per person is not enough for lunch – we were quite happy with three rolls between the two of us but I could easily polish off two myself if hungry enough.

There are a couple of other banh mi joints on my radar, and if any other place manages to beat Lie Lie Lie on flavour and authenticity, it will for sure make an appearance on this blog, don’t worry.

3. Fukuoka Hamburg, Hongdae

I have learned to embrace the hamburg “steak” – the minced beef steak substitute enjoyed in cattle-poor nations, otherwise known as a “patty” or “rissole” in places where red meat is more of a staple than a luxury. It is sad excuse for steak, but it does the job when my belly craves beef but my wallet can’t afford it.

I first had hot-stone self-cook hamburg in Tokyo and I loved it. Every bite of fatty hamburg is perfectly cooked to your liking, still sizzling from the magic stone. It’s also just a fun eating experience, and having individual cooking stones feels much more refined than grilling meat in a barbecue grill built into your table.

I found this place after watching two characters go on a date here in a Korean drama. The drama sucked, but at least it led me to Fukuoka Hamburg – a trendy chain restaurant that has a few locations around Seoul These photos are from about six months ago but I actually went back the other day and it was just as good as I remembered.

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This is the “egg garlic” hamburg that comes on a bed of scrambled egg and garlic chips. You can also just get egg hamburg, egg cheese hamburg, or the PREMIUM egg cheese AND garlic hamburg. You can get the hamburg steak without the egg too, but why would you?

The steak comes in XS, S, M and L sizes and even as a pretty big eater, S was enough hamburg for me (even without any rice!) The self-cooking forces you to eat quite slowly, so I was quite satisfied by the end of it.

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You not only get your own personal cooking stone, each person also gets their own smoke ventilation pipe. And if your hot stone starts to cool down, they give just replace it with a new one.

Safety tips: DO NOT TOUCH THE HOT STONE. Not even when its cooled down. And wear the disposable aprons they give you if you want to protect your clothes from sputtering beef fat.

It’s on the pricey side for casual dining in Seoul (starts at around 10,000 won for S size) but it’s 100% hanwoo from cattle bred and raised in Korea – so the quality of the meat and the self-cooking makes it taste so much better than your everyday hamburg. And none of that gross ketchup/Worcestershire sauce nonsense that hamburg steaks usually come swimming in.

The first time I had Fukuoka Hamburg, I ended up at a Japanese dessert cafe by complete coincidence. We were just wandering around looking for something sweet and came upon Be Sweet On, a really adorable cafe that does house-made Japanese style desserts.

Seoul is generally very good at desserts, but most cafes just have a variety of pre-made cakes and/or bingsoo. This place is unique because it serves these beautifully made-to-order desserts that look like what you’d get as the final course at a fancy restaurant.

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This is the Mont Blanc -puréed chestnuts with a quenelle of dark chocolate ice cream.

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And this is the tarte tartin – puff pastry with vanilla cream, caramelized apples, vanilla ice cream, and a thin apple chip on top.

This place ain’t cheap but they’re the prettiest desserts I’ve had in Seoul.

So that’s it for this instalment of Seoul Food Safari. In the next episode, we take our bellies to China, Britain, and Hong Kong. See you then!

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Super Quick and Easy Tamago Udon

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned my love for the hand-made tamago udon that I had for breakfast in Japan. Well I found a couple of decent recipes online and thought I’d have a go at it myself. This is almost too simple to call a “recipe” as the difficulty level is probably only one step up from instant ramyun. But that’s the beauty of it, super simple, quick and easy to make for those lazy, lonely nights at home. You only need four ingredients:

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First, the eggs. I did some research online about salmonella poisoning and the internet recommends that you use fresh, organic eggs to minimise the risk.

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I’m not actually sure whether these eggs are organic… I just assumed they were the safest available eggs because:

1. I bought them at a health food store

2. There are green leaves and grass on the packaging.

3. They were expensive.

How bad could a bout of salmonella poisoning be anyway? Nothing a few days on the toilet and a course of antibiotics won’t fix.

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Fresh udon noodles – conveniently sold as a single serving size. Koreans like putting udon noodles in a lot of things, so these are really easy to come by. If you’re living in a non-asian country, fresh udon shouldn’t be too hard to find if you can access a Korean grocery or other asian supermarket.

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This is hon tsuyu. I figured this would do the job since I don’t want to bother making a dashi from scratch just for one bowl of noodles. Hon tsuyu is normally used as a dipping sauce, and is diluted when used as a soup stock. However, since I just want to add flavour to my noodles, I will simply add a couple of tablespoons to my cooked noodles.

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Spring onion. WAY more than I needed, but the store didn’t have a smaller bunch.

And here is the cooking process in three ridiculously easy steps:

1. Cook udon noodles (for however long it says on the pack… around 4 minutes should do)

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3. Drain noodles. Do not rinse because you want the warm noodles to cook the egg slightly.

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3. Crack an egg on top, throw in a handful of chopped spring onion, and add two tablespoons of the hon tsuyu.

THE END!

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Looks pretty boring from here, but let me tell you, the simple combination of raw egg, hon tsuyu and spring onion is like an umami explosion in your mouth. It confirms that raw egg is the world’s greatest condiment.

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The egg white gets a bit foamy, which sadly makes the dish look a bit soapy. Next time I’m going to try and track down some tempura flakes (tenkasu) and use wider spring onions, so they are more easily caught by the noodles and chopsticks.

This now officially one of my favorite things to make when I am home alone and don’t feel like cooking. It is much easier and quicker than cooking rice or making a sandwich and I think it would be hard to beat in terms of the cost+effort+time to taste+enjoyment ratio. That is, assuming you don’t get a nasty salmonella infection.*

* Has anyone actually ever contracted salmonella from a raw or undercooked egg in recent history? I would really like to know. I’m starting to think it’s an urban legend.
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Dirt Cheap Dining in Japan (Part 2)

Part 2 of my tight-arse Japan food adventure took place in Osaka and Kyoto… but mainly Osaka. I fell in love with Osaka. And our love story was made sweeter by the fact that it was completely unexpected. Osaka is the third largest city in Japan, but unlike Tokyo which is full of its own charms and attractions, it is mainly used as a hub to nearby cities like Kyoto, Nara and Kobe.

Kyoto is usually the people’s favourite, but Osaka won my heart through my stomach. I didn’t realise this until I arrived (because I planned my itinerary around sightseeing, not eating) but Osaka is the food capital of Japan. You don’t need a guide book to tell you this – it’s obvious as soon as you enter the Dotonbori district and are greeted by the giant crab.

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And the giant gyoza.

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And all the other giant food-themed billboards that line the main strip of downtown Dotonbori.

I visited Osaka and Kyoto during cherry blossom season, hiking Mount Yoshino and its 30,000 blossom trees, strolling the fairy-tale like Philosopher’s Path, and walking through thousands of bright-red gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine. But to me, the highlight of the whole trip was Dotonbori, which is probably one of the most vibrant food districts in the world. It is literally buzzing with the sizzle of teppans, the blasting music of pachinko parlors and skill-tester arcades, the hungry footsteps of curious tourists and the enthusiasm of spruikers trying to get you into their restaurant.

I could have spent days there… but I had sadly only planned one night in Osaka so I needed a strategy as to how I was going to make the most of it.

I asked my travel companion, my little brother, what he wanted to eat for dinner. He wanted sushi but I was like… “No! We’re in Osaka! We need to eat Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki and other local specialites” To which he replied “Yeah, we can eat those too. Let’s just eat a little bit of everything.”

Genius idea. Filled me with sisterly pride.

So we found a random sushi train first and limited ourselves to three dishes.

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Tuna roll (350 Yen)

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Seared salmon (200 Yen)

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Classic salmon with salmon roe (350 Yen)

Not the most adventurous of choices, but we were starving and just wanted to eat something delicious and reliable. Which it was – you can tell how high quality the fish was just by looking at the photos. So it’s true that the sushi at any random sushi train in Japan is better than even the most high-end restaurants anywhere else in the world. Sushi is indeed an art, and the Japanese are the original masters.

It was really really hard to stop at three, but I needed to stay focused. This was only the appetiser.

Next, Osaka’s signature dishes…

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Osaka is famous for these little squid balls and they are EVERYWHERE. I did do some research to try to find the best takoyaki in Osaka, but as I mentioned in my previous post, the little restaurants were impossible to find. So we just picked a popular-looking cart with a long line.

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Takoyaki can be a bit doughy at times, but in Osaka they make it with huge chunks of cooked octopus leg resulting in a much tastier meat to batter ratio.

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Our much anticipated street snack – hot off the grill! Covered in sauce and huge moving fish flakes (hence the blurry photo). I think this was around 500 Yen. Very tasty, but not that different from the takoyaki I’ve had in Korea, or even in street markets in Sydney. Maybe we chose the wrong cart… I was tempted to buy another six balls from a different vendor but we didn’t have the stomach space to spare.

And now it was time for Takoyaki’s older cousin, Okonomiyaki. We walked into a restaurant called Creo Ru, which is more famous for its takoyaki, but I figured it’s Okonomiyaki couldn’t be too bad.

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Each table had it’s own teppan… I hear that at some restaurants, they actually make the okonomiyaki at your table but here the dishes were all prepared in the kitchen. I guess the teppan helps keeps things warm?

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Thought some Suntory beer would help wash down my Japanese pancake.

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Okonomiyaki literally translates to “what you like, grilled”, so I think the approach is “put all your favourite ingredients in a batter, mix it, and fry it”. I don’t even know what was included in our pancake – there were a few different options on the menu and I think we chose the one that was equivalent to ordering a pizza with “the works”.

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My guess is chicken, pork, seafood and a variety of vegetables? Definitely not the simple and sophisticated Japanese style of food we’re used to, but this sort-of pancake, sort-of omelette, sort-of deep-dish pizza has its own, humble appeal. This was around 1,000 Yen, but I’m sure you can get it cheaper from street vendors or smaller restaurants.

The other notable thing I ate in Osaka was from a little restaurant down the road from our Air BnB apartment.

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Handmade tamago bukkake udon (around 400 Yen). I had this for breakfast both mornings I was in Osaka – fresh noodles, chopped scallion, raw egg, tempura flakes and a tablespoon of rich soy sauce (with a korokke on the side). So simple and perfect and delicious – totally worth the salmonella risk. I’m used to my udon being served in soup or stir-fried but I now know that udon is at its best when simply covered in a gooey, salty, egg-soy sauce. I know this won’t be the same with store-bought noodles, but I’m going to try to replicate it at home.

Now moving on to Kyoto… which has much to see and do if you’re looking for nature, culture and history but very little to offer in terms of food. Everything is so touristy, which means it’s expensive and of low to average quality. If I had hundreds to spend on a Kyoto ryori course meal, I’m sure it would have been amazing, but our budget didn’t allow for that.

What you will find amongst the temples and palaces are tea-houses, some even offering a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Though these seemed like tourist traps, I couldn’t leave Kyoto without trying some Japanese matcha, so on our last day, we found a lovely modern-style cafe called Ten, on the road leading down from Kiyomizu temple.

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Ten is also a gift shop that sells hand-made and hand-painted paper goods, well worth a visit if you can find it amongst the frantic crowds and souvenir shops of the area.

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We ordered a roasted tea set – which included a pot of Hojicha and three traditional sweets. The green tea jelly was my favourite. The Hojicha was lovely too – made from roasting tea leaves and stems over high heat, resulting in a tea that is low in caffeine and has a really gentle flavour with none of the bitterness of a typical green tea.

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I chose a less traditional green tea latte, which came with a cute little fabric cup holder and a matcha whisk. Larger versions of these whisks are used in the traditional method of brewing matcha as it creates a layer of froth. I’m not sure exactly why matcha needs to be frothy, but I guess all beverages are more fun with a little bit of froth on top.

We really wanted to eat sushi one more time before we left Japan, so we managed to find a place downtown with pretty decent reviews on TripAdvisor called Musashi.

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I didn’t take any pictures of the sushi because it wasn’t worth photographing… this was one of those every plate for 130 Yen sushi trains and the quality of the sushi reflected the price. Also,  it was a bit like a sushi roulette because the chefs were really rough and inconsistent with the amount of wasabi they included in each nigiri. Kind of contradicts my above theory about sushi trains in Japan… but this didn’t stop us from eating around 20 plates between us. Only 130 Yen per plate! We went to town.

For our final meal in Japan, we wanted to try some ramen. Lucky for us, on the tenth floor of Kyoto Station we found Kyoto Ramen Koji – a food court of eight ramen restaurants that each specialises in a particular regional style. Because we had a train to catch, this time we had to chooose the place with the shortest line.

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It’s a pretty cool concept if you’re a ramen lover but don’t have the time or the money to travel around Japan to try all the different types. The food court is styled like a traditional Japanese street, with wooden store fronts decorated with red lanterns and noren curtains.

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The restaurant we chose turned out to be Hakata Ikkousha, a franchise that seems to be very popular in Singapore and Indonesia. Prices are decent too with most ramen under 1,000 Yen.

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We both had the “Special” which was a very thin noodle with mild broth, in a bowl completely lined with thinly sliced pork. It looks almost sickeningly heavy, but the thin noodles were so light and easy to eat.

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And finally, some karage chicken. One the closest things I’ve experienced to PERFECT fried chicken. Batter was crispy and full of flavor, and the meat was so tender and juicy.  This, of all things. was what my brother liked most out of all the food we ate in Japan.

If were to do Kansai again, I would stay in Osaka as a base and do day trips to the surrounding areas just so I could eat something new in Dotonbori every single night. Actually – that’s what you should do. I’ve already seen the sights – I’ll just stay in Osaka and eat all day and night. Only a short plane ride away – I hope to be back soon!

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