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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?”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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).


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:


And post-bibim:


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.


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.)


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!


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


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).


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


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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I Heart Busan: Shellfish, Eel, and Pork Souprice in Korea’s Second Largest but First Coolest City

The last time I was in Busan I was at the tail-end of a solo backpacking trip around Korea. I just just visited distant relatives in Ilsan and caught a cold toward the end of the my stay there. I was feeling pretty crappy but I wasn’t ready to go back to Seoul; Busan was the last stop on my itinerary and one of the places I was most excited about it, so I just soldiered on and got on the KTX. By the time I arrived I was so achey and groggy and exhausted that I just wanted to curl up and die.

I hadn’t even booked a hotel because I was 21 and living on the edge like that. As soon as I walked out of the train station, I saw a really dingy looking building with the words “Arirang Hotel” written in red and green neon signage on the front. The kind of shady station hotel that still has of its 70s decor and furnishings and caters to desperate, tired, non-discerning travellers, which was exactly me at that point. I was like… I don’t care what it looks like, I don’t care how much it costs, I just need a bed and I need it NOW. I walked in and I was pretty close to passing out, so all I could get out (in Korean) was “Do you have a room?” The receptionist looked a little surprised, probably because this was the kind of question they probably only got from nervous criminal fugitives and sleazy guys who walked in drunk with a girl on each arm. Luckily, they had a room for me and I just crashed. I didn’t feel that much better the next day so all I did was take a taxi to the beach and sit there for a little while, trying to enjoy the ocean.

That is my memory of Busan. The Arirang Hotel and twenty minutes sitting on Haeundae beach. But despite how sick I was, how short the visit was, or how little I did and saw, it’s a very fond memory. And since coming to Korea, going back to Busan has been on the top of my list.

It took us a while, but at the end of a long, exhausting, tough year Matt and I decided to treat ourselves and planned a super last minute trip to Busan over new years. It was winter – not the best time to visit – but I was more interested in the food than the beach so I didn’t mind.

When we arrived at Busan station I REALLY hoped to see my old friend the Arirang Hotel but sadly he was no where to be found. It was 2007 when I was there last, and 7 years is a long time in Korea. I guess there’s no place for an ugly, unfashionable hotel at the door of a modern, up and coming city like Busan. Shame.

We booked a hotel in Haeundae, which is the trendy part of town – home to Haeundae beach and also the biggest department store IN THE WORLD. As soon as we walked out of the hotel in the morning, I had one of those rare “Are we still in Korea?” moments. It was like t-shirt weather warm… in the middle of winter! The air seemed clearer and the sky was the kind of clear blue you only see when you’re close to the ocean. The area actually reminded me a little of Sydney or even the Gold Coast – all beachside hotels and chill atmosphere. And “chill” is not a word I have used a lot since moving to Seoul. Seoul is anything but chill. I expected Busan to be much the same, it is the second largest city in Korea, but the vibe is totally different. It took me all of 10 minutes to decide, “LET’S MOVE TO BUSAN!” … and I hadn’t even eaten anything yet!

We grabbed a taxi to have lunch at place I found on Naver called Suminineh that is famous for its grilled shellfish (Jogae-gui). We told the taxi driver the name of the restaurant and he was familiar with it so I was thinking, good choice. If it’s famous enough for the taxi driver to know it by name, it must be good. When we were almost there, he asked us, “Are you sure you want to go to Suminineh? It used to be good but since it started getting more popular the quality of the food has gone down. There’s another place right by the water that’s much better, and you can eat with a view of the ocean.” After recovering from the initial shock of having a taxi driver who was both well-informed AND helpful (non-existent in Seoul), we were like “Just take us to the yummiest place!”

So he took us to Hajinineh right by the water.


It’s set up like a makeshift tent, complete with plastic chairs, foldable tables, and gravel floor. Love it. Because you know, the shabbier the decor, the yummier the food.


Our taxi driver wasn’t lying about the view. The restaurant creates the illusion of a casual beachside barbecue.


And to top it all off, they have more framed celebrity signatures than they have wall space for!


The barbecue is old-school and uses a coal briquette (yeontan) for heat. This is what people used to use to heat their homes before electric and gas heating became widely available. Some OG Korean BBQ right here.


We couldn’t decide between shellfish and eel so we ordered both. Enough food for four people but who cares coz we’re in Busan and we’re not here to play games!!


First the shellfish. Those little white cubes are butter, not cream cheese. We learnt that the hard way.


So the Korean word used for this dish is just the generic word for shellfish, but I now realise that this isn’t some low-class poor man’s shellfish. Not in Busan anyway. By shellfish, they mainly mean scallops. Regular scallops and a couple of GIANT pen shell scallops that I didn’t even know existed before this meal.


DANG gurl. It’s like a scallop and a mussel had an oversized mutant baby.


So at first, you let the molluscs cook directly above the fire. Once they’re cooked enough to scrape out of their shells, you put everything (including the butter, the diced onion, chopped chilli, and enoki mushrooms) into the foil plate and let it sizzle down into a buttery shellfish stew.


You can imagine how good this tastes right? The broth turns into this amazing seafood bisque that infuses the strong flavour of the shellfish, as well as heat from the chilis and creaminess of the butter. It’s basically scallop-flavoured butter soup. Neither Matt nor I are huge fans of seafood but we were losing our minds over this. Best thing we’ve both eaten in Korea. I repeat, best thing we’ve eaten in Korea. This is worth traveling for. From Seoul, or from whatever place in the world you may be reading this. You need to add “Busan grilled shellfish” to your bucket list.

And that wasn’t even the end of the meal!


Our second course: a big plate of fresh eel. Grilled eel is another Busan favorite and Matt and I both huge fans of eel so we were pretty excited about this.


I think eel is something you need some experience cooking if you want to get it right. We ended up burning a lot of pieces and didn’t even know what to do with the bony spine bits that they gave us.


If, like us, you like your eel juicy and marinated, you can chuck it all in another foil plate and pour the chili sauce over it. It was really good, but overshadowed by the shellfish. I think we’d prefer our eel to be grilled and marinated by an expert Japanese chef.

Both plates were 25,000 won each, which is super reasonable for fresh seafood. Everyone around us ordered ramyun to end their meals but we held back because we were so full…. and later regretted it. Should have just gone for the ramyun dammit!

The restaurant (and many like it) is in a small fishing village on the edge of Busan called Cheongsapo. It was stunning. More blue than I had seen in a year and barely any high-rises in sight.


I don’t understand how this place is not one of the top destinations in Korea – even Busan locals aren’t very familiar with it. I could have stayed there forever.

Another thing Busan is famous for is its pork souprice (dwaeji gukbap). The concept of souprice is pretty unique to Korea I believe… I don’t know of any other food cultures that enjoy to dunk their entire bowl of rice into their soup as much as we do. I think it must be the legacy of post-war food scarcity… and then we just never stopped loving it because, generation after generation, it would always remind us of our mother’s cooking. It’s the ultimate comfort food.

There are plenty of famous places to eat pork souprice in Busan, but our friends took us to their favourite local place. Right by Gwangali bridge, it’s called Soobyun Chaego Gukbap (Waterfront BEST Souprice).


The menu had some more souped-up (ho ho ho…. wait, have I made that joke before? I hope not) choices, like pork with offal, or pork with blood pudding, but we all went for the classic pork only.


The soup is  a milky pork bone broth, with fatty pieces of pieces of pork scattered through it. The more specific seasoning of the soup will differ from restaurant to restaurant, and you can also modify it to your own taste with chili flakes, salted shrimp, and chopped chives. I luurrrvvee dem chives.


It might seem strange that the most famous ‘signature’ dish of this city is something as simple as pork soup, but once you eat it, you understand. Whatever secret seasoning they use in the broth, the flavour hits your umami taste buds right in their sweet spot. Even as you empty your bowl and the rice expands to fill your stomach beyond capacity, you end up scraping the bottom of the bowl like a desperate soup junkie. That reminds me that I NEED to find a good pook souprice place in Seoul because there is NO WAY I’m waiting until the next trip down to Busan to eat this again. It’s too good.

So, grilled clams and eel – tick! Pork souprice – tick! Not even halfway through my to-eat list… and then I get the worst food poisoning of MY LIFE. I’m not sure whether it actually was something I ate or this horrific “norovirus” that goes around every winter in Korea, but I was up all night on the toilet, and had stomach cramps so bad that I genuinely thought I was going to die. I didn’t start feeling better until I projectile vomited in the hotel shower the next morning.

No I don’t have any hard feelings agains the scallops, the eel, or the pork. If anything, it would have been the late night (non-blogworthy) fried chicken that I ate. But yes, I got sick and the rest of the trip was a write-off. I had planned to visit the seafood markets and have some of Busan’s famous street food, but that will have to wait until the next time I visit. Which I hope will be soon because man, I really fell in love with Busan. It has all the good things that Seoul has (food, shopping, entertainment, nightlife, convenience, public transport, history, mountains) but also manages to avoid a lot of the crappy things that Seoul has (overcrowded everything, rude, uptight, inconsiderate people, incompetent taxi drivers, expensive rent, bad air, proximity to North Korea, freezing winter weather). And on top of all that, it has beaches AND THE OCEAN.

Seriously, let’s just all move to Busan and eat shellfish and eels and pork souprice happily ever after.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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:


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*


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


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.


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. 


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


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.


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.


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

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