Tag Archives: best street food

The Chois Eat Their Way Through Jeonju (Part 1)

My mum hates my food blog. Well, she hates that I write a food blog because she blames it for making me fat. I’m pretty sure she’s never read it because scrolling down through photo after photo after photo of all the fatty foombah carb-a-liciousness would just make her sick at all the food her daughter is ingesting and converting into fat cells. I would get an angry phone call after every post I publish.

We’ve had a lot of conversations that go along these lines:

“Heather, I’m worried because your cousin told me that all the photos on your Instagram are of really high-calorie and high-fat foods.”

“Mum, it’s because those kinds of photos get the most likes.”

“But why can’t you just eat more salads?”

“WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LET ME LIVE MY LIFE?!”

But since we live in a different countries and only communicate via messaging and phone, the frequency of her nagging had really died down, leading me to think, oh-so-naively, that maybe she had accepted that I had grown up into my own person and could make my own adult decisions about my body and the food I put in it.

When my parents told me they were visiting in the Spring, I thought it would be nice if we went on a short trip together. Conveniently, I planned a trip down to Jeonju which also happens to be one of the top foodie hot spot in Korea. I’d been wanting to go since I first heard about it. This trip seemed like an amazing idea: I could spend some quality time with my parents, pig out on amazing food, and get some great material for the blog. Little did I know that I was actually signing up for three-day fat camp.

As soon as my mum saw me, she unleashed a tirade of fat-shaming that did not end until I waved goodbye to her as she rode away on the Airport Limousine to catch her flight back to Sydney. Padded with affectionate squeezes of my butt and belly, and assurances of “I’m only saying this because I love you!” her incredible ability to never run out of things to say about my weight gain gave my self-esteem a good ol’ fashioned beat down.

“What happened to you? What did you eat to gain so much weight? Heather . . . are you depressed? If you’re not depressed then why are you eating so much?! Stop ordering delivery! Why are you so lazy? Just make yourself something healthy for dinner! I thought you would actually lose weight because of how skinny girls are here in Korea… don’t you feel bad when you see how thing and pretty all these girls are? How much do you exercise? I thought so. You need to exercise!! Just go for a walk after dinner. Matt’s lost so much weight, so why can’t you? You disgust me.

(Okay, she didn’t say the last thing, but it was strongly implied.)

Suddenly, a trip where eating would be the main activity didn’t seem like such a good idea. But with accommodation and bus tickets booked, and my will not yet broken by my mum’s incessant harassment, I just went ahead with it. What followed was one of the greatest tests of my emotional and mental fortitude of my life thus far.

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Me and my mum.

Jokes, that bear is way skinnier than me.

So mistake #1 was planning a foodie road trip with my fatphobic mum. Mistake #2 was planning a trip to Jeonju on a long weekend.

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This is meant to be a quaint “hanok” village made up of traditional Korean houses and cute little shops but because of it’s increasing popularity as a local tourist destination, on weekends and public holidays it is literally swarming with people. Hungry people. Standing in lines. Lots and lots of really really really long lines.

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Mandoo lines. Kalguksu lines. Bibimbap lines. Sandwich lines. Gukbap lines.

I’m not one to be afraid of a long line if I know that the food pay-off at the end will be worth it, but I did not want to spend the entire weekend waiting in line with my 60-ish parents who would probably spend the whole time lecturing me about how only fat people wait in line for food. Fortunately, thanks to the fierce competition here and Korean people’s willingness to shamelessly rip of a popular shop’s food and concept, there are plenty of copycat shops that offer pretty much the same food as the more famous places, but without the long wait.

Our first stop was flame-grilled octopus on a stick (문어꼬치)

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Big fat chunks of octopus, skewered and grilled, then served with worcestershire-ish sauce and bonito flakes.

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Kind of like a naked takoyaki. I’ve never really been a fan of octopus, so this is not something I would usually be attracted to, but Koreans LOVE it. It’s delicious – chewy on the inside and charred on the outside.

We shared one of these between the three of us because, you know … calories.

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Then we went right next door for some jumbo cheese chicken skewers (치즈 점보 닭꼬지).

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About double the size of a regular chicken gochi, this sexy beast is covered in sauce (you choose how spicy you want it) and a helluva lot of melted cheese.

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Here is mum taking a huge bite out of this high-fat high-calorie treat.

“Give it to me, you shouldn’t eat too much of things like this.”

“Yes, mum.” *cries on the inside*

Although the hanok village mainly consists of little permanent shopfronts, everything here is very street-food. Most things are served on long wooden skewers (gochi) – they have their own special rubbish bin.

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Because we wouldn’t want these things poking holes in the rubbish bags… or in people. Given the volume of people squished into this place when its busy, there’s gotta be a few gochi related injuries per day here.

There’s a shop here that’s really famous for its hand made mandoo (dumplings) but it had the longest line of ALL the restaurants. Actually it had two lines, and both looked at least 40 minutes long. I love my mandoo, but even I have my limits.

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So we went to the place next door that we hoped did a pretty good imitation of the original.

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Whole-prawn steamed dumplings. There was five between the three of us, but I only ate one. I didn’t want to get my hand slapped in front of all these people.

These tasted just okay – made me feel a bit sad about missing out on the real thing. But I plan to come back for them someday soon – when it’s less crazy busy and without my fat camp coaches.

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Mum got these water cakes (물방울떡) for dessert – there’s a bit of a craze happening around these lately, but I’m not a fan. They taste like nothing. They’re just big blobs of colorless, flavorless jelly.

And that was our lunch. I didn’t get to try as much as I wanted, half because of the lines, half because my mum’s hawk-eyes were watching me, with her claws ready to pounce if I dared get near “over-eating” territory.

We took a short nap in our tiny hanok stay and then headed out to dinner. Before the hanok village food street took over, Jeonju was mainly known for its bibimbap. We asked for a recommendation from the ahjusshi was ran our accommodation and headed over to restaurant called “Hangook jib” (literally: Korean house).

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Outside the boundary of the main touristy area, this place was pretty quiet but our guy assured us it was authentic and delicious and kind of famous because a former president had dined there once.

Bibimbap is normally a humble dish, but in Jeonju it gets quite fancy. The Jeonju version is based on a dish that was served in the royal court of the Joseon dynasty. It is presented in a gold metal bowl and includes some very special ingredients that you won’t find in your standard bibimbap: raw beef, yellow mung bean jelly, pine nuts and gingko nuts.

Here is how it looks pre-bibim:

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And post-bibim:

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My mum used to tell me off all the time for the “unladylike” way I would mix my bibimbap. Rice and gochujang would go everywhere and I’d end up with more outside the bowl than inside. But I’ve discovered a new technique to elegant bibim – use your chopsticks instead of your fork. It mixes things more evenly more quickly and is much less messy. See – only a few stray rice grains on the side of the bowl!

Unlike the usual bibimbap, all the ingredients of Jeonju bibimbap are cold to preserve the special flavor of the raw beef. The rice is still warm, but not steaming hot. So the resulting taste and mouthfeel is quite different – it’s fresh and the unique flavour and texture of each component is kept distinct. It’s interesting and tastes great, but given the choice, I think I would still choose the standard dolsot (hot stone) bibimbap over fancy Jeonju bibimbap. Dolsot bibimbap is my death row dish.

I’ve clearly inherited my tastes buds from my mum because despite being in Jeonju, she couldn’t resist the hot sizzling call of the dolsot. It came with the exact same ingredients except that the beef on top is already cooked.

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The ONE thing I was a bit disappointed with was the absence of a glossy raw egg yolk, which is the golden crown that sits atop the dish in all the photos I’ve seen. According to my dad, historically accurate Jeonju bibimbap doesn’t include the raw egg, which is a more modern addition. I still felt gypped. If I had to choose between authenticity and egg, I choose egg.

Even without the egg, its about as high-class as bibimbap gets. I loved it – but I made sure to leave at least a spoonful of rice in my bowl to create the illusion of self-controlled eating. But it didn’t really matter anyway – my parents were too busy lecturing me about my foolish reluctance to resume my legal career to even notice how much I was eating.

After dinner, we walked back to the Hanok village to grab some slushie beer which we had been coveting all day. Everyone we walked by seemed to have one in hand, but we had to wait until after dinner to get ourselves one to avoid being red-faced and drowsy in the daylight (all Chois have a very severe case of Asian Flush.)

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The concept of a beer slushie is pure genius. It combines the most loved beverage of our childhood (slushies) with the most loved beverage of our adulthood (beer) into the perfect summer refreshment. I don’t understand why it isn’t EVERYWHERE. It’s amazing!

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They mix cold beer on tap with the syrup of your choice (we got grapefruit) then top it off the cloudy white beer slush.

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Mrs Choi approves.

A few sips of slushie beer got my mum in a good mood, so I convinced her that we also needed to try some deep-fried whole squid on a stick (통오징어튀김).

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Mrs Kang smiles tipsily and has no idea how many grams of fat she will soon be consuming.

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Of all the [blank]-on-a-stick things I’ve eaten in Korea, this one WINS. It’s a whole squid lightly battered and deep-fried, and then seasoned with whatever flavor your heart desires. It comes to you hot, fresh, salty, crispy and chewy and is even better when washed down with a sip of slushie beer. It was so good that mum completely forgot to give me her favorite smackdown about the perils of eating fried foods late in the evening.

It was an emotionally taxing day, but I managed to get through it without bursting into tears, causing a scene, or stabbing someone with a wooden skewer. And I still got to eat some yummy food… just conditioned on the promise that I would exercise regularly and eat more salads back in Seoul. A promise I had no intention of keeping, but in wartime, you just gotta do whatever it takes to survive.

To be continued . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For dessert we bought the famous ice cream crepe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First stop, where else but HOT STAR CHICKEN!!

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

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

“Babe, the lady took advantage of me”

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

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

“How much was it?”

“…. 600 dollars”

Shocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pigging out at Gwangjang Market (광장시장)

I’ve been in Seoul for about a month now and when people ask me “So what have you been up to?” the only true answer I can give apart from “Settling in” is “Eating”. THERE IS SO MUCH FOOD HERE. The only word I can find to properly describe the Seoul food scene is “Overwhelming”. I honestly cannot think of any city in the world more obsessed with food than Seoul.

I mean, Sydney-siders LOVE food and our food scene is pretty alive – any Sydney foodie will probably have about 10-20 restaurants/cafes in their to-eat list. But Seoul is just… another world altogether. Like, there’s no point making a to-eat list here because it’ll need to have hundreds of restaurants on it. I don’t know many people who love food as much as I do and even for me… the number of restaurants in this city gives me a headache. If you walk through popular areas like Itaewon or Gangnam you will see street after street after street of just restaurants and cafes and bars next to each other, on top of each other… it’s crazy.

And it stresses me out! I mean, a normal person wouldn’t be bothered by it – but as I walk through these areas all I can think is “Wow that place looks good! And that place! And that’s a cute cafe! Ooh Thai food – wonder if it’s any good! Look, there’s pho! Oh that place looks popular – and that one looks busy too! I need to try that one – and that one, and that one too! I think that place is pretty famous… need to come back here, and there, and here, and over there, and — *EXPLODES*

Lucky for me, I’m here long-term so at least I’m not time pressured. I potentially have years to explore everything. But what if you’re here in Seoul just to visit – where do you even start?

Let me be your guide. Put the trendy cafes and fine dining to the side for the moment, and I’ll show you a place where you’ll find the history and the heart of Korean food.

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This is Gwangjang market – one of the oldest markets in Seoul. It’s been here since 1905, and is home to more than 5,000 stores selling all sorts of things like fabric, bedding, traditional crafts and clothing. But the real attraction here is the food market – it’s almost like a museum with everything weird and wonderful about traditional Korean food on display.

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You’ll find ladies selling dozens of varieties of unidentifiable Korean side dishes. Some appealing to the eye and some…

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… not so much.

All sorts of dried fruit, traditional rice cakes, sweets and medicinal foods like ginseng.

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More types of Kimchi than you’d know what to do with.

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Seafood ranging from fresh sting-ray…

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… to not-so-fresh dried fish.

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And food that will test the boundaries of even the most adventurous foodie…

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Blood jelly and appetisingly grey-coloured tripe.

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Whole steamed pig’s head – oink.

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The biggest blood sausage known to mankind.

For those not in the mood for ears, snout, intestines or blood – there’s plenty of more palatable food on offer. The markets are actually famous for a few things – the first thing we tried was their “Mayak Kimbab” which translates to Drug Seaweed Rice Roll. Like true tourists, we actually asked the ladies selling it where the name came from – and they told us that it’s because the rice rolls are addictive. Well, we’ll be the judge of that.

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With stall after stall selling the same thing – how do you know which one is best? This is a rough guide – but I think it’s generally safe to go to the ones with signs and photos showing that they’ve been featured on some Korean TV show or news program – if they’re good enough for television, they’re good enough for me.

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The rolls are very simple – just rice, carrot, yellow pickled radish wrapped in seaweed and sprinkled with some sesame seeds and oil dipped in a mustard and vinegar sauce. I suppose they are addictive in the way that simple salty things are addictive – like popcorn and potato chips.

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You can wash it all down with some tteokbokgi (rice cake in spicy sauce).

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Next on the must-eat track is the bindaetteok, which is a savoury pancake made from ground mung beans and other ingredients like spring onions, beef, pork and maybe even kimchi. It’s fried on a hot plate in plenty of oil until it’s golden brown and irresistibly crispy. The mung beans make it taste so wholesome – it could almost be a health food if it wasn’t so deep fried.

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The bindaetteok vendors also sell different varieties of “Jeon” – I don’t know what that translates to directly, but it is basically anything dusted in flour, and then egg, and then fried. From fish, to zucchini slices – even hot pepper paste (gochujang) can be turned into a Jeon! I associate Jeon with new years feasts with my whole family and it’s one of my favourite things – but cover anything in egg and I’ll be pleased.

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We thought we’d try something different to eating at a stall, and went into one of the many small restaurants in the market. The place looked exactly like it probably looked in the 70s. We ordered a bindaetteok and assorted jeon which came with pickled onion and kimchi instead of dipping sauce.

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On this plate there is fish jeon, kimchi pancake, chive pancake, sausage jeon, liver jeon, gochujang jean, seafood stick jeon, and stuffed chilli jeon. They’re not kidding when they say ‘assorted’ – makes me want to experiment with what else I can dip in flour, egg and fry – pork belly? banana? pumpkin?

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There’s plenty of other things worth trying at Gwangjang market – too much for one visit and one stomach. It’s as Korean as street food gets – you won’t find any hot-dogs-on-a-stick here – everything is hand-made by a middle-aged lady wearing an apron, a tight perm and a grumpy expression. I can’t tell you that the food is made with love, but it’s made with sweat, toil and the trademark Korean battler spirit.

Gwangjang Market (광장시장) 
You can access the market from Jongno 5-ga Station (Subway Line 1), Exits 7 and 8 or Euljiro 4-ga Station (Subway Line 2), Exit 4.

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