Tag Archives: dessert

The Chois Eat Their Way Through Jeonju + Gunsan (Part 2)

I really don’t know where this year has gone. The food in this blog was eaten in May. It is now November. There have been a few times like this in the past when I haven’t blogged in months, have accumulated an overwhelming backlog of food photos, and thoughts like “Should I just not bother? Is it finally time to hang up my amateur food blogger hat?” start to enter my mind. But I’m always too stubborn to quit. I’ve pushed through a six-month lag before and I can do it again. I just gotta sit my butt down and remind myself how much I enjoy writing these, that it’s worth opening my laptop and pumping out some words even thought it would be much easier to turn on the TV and binge-watch K-dramas.

So where were we? It’s Spring. I’m in Jeonju. With my parents. Trying very hard to preserve my sanity.

On the morning of our second day in Jeonju, we asked our hanok stay host to recommend a restaurant for another signature Jeonju dish: soybean sprout souprice (콩나물 국밥/kong-namul gukbap).

I LOVE having soup and rice for breakfast. My parents were so well assimilated to Aussie-culture that I grew up with the standard cereal, toast, and eggs for brekkie so having Korean style gukbap in the morning is still a novelty for me and I love it. I don’t care if I have garlic and kimchi breath all day – gimme that breakfast gukbap!

Our sent us out of the hanok village to the Nambu Shijang, an old-school market where the goods on sale look like haven’t changed much since the 1960s.

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The market is like a maze without a map and the restaurant was pretty hard to find – I was expecting to see a massive line since it seemed like you needed to stand in line to eat anything decent in Jeonju. But it turned out to be a tiny, dingy looking place with a few shabby chairs and tables and only a couple of people inside. It made me think, “Did our host just send us to his aunty’s restaurant?” We were too hungry to care at this point, so we just sat down. This kind of food is best made by an aunty anyway.

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In the kitchen there’s a huge vat of broth, a big bowl of rinsed soybean sprouts, and an impressive array of spices and sauces. Soybean sprout souprice seems like a very simple dish, but I guess there really is an art to it.

I actually hated this kind of soup growing up – it was one of the few Korean dishes that just made me groan when I saw it on the dinner table. There’s no meat involved – the broth is made with dried anchovies which gives it an unpleasant bitter flavour. And the soybean sprouts were just… I mean, who ever gets excited about soybean sprouts? It was just a sad, boring, bland loser of a soup.

Coming to Korea, however, I discovered that Jeonju-style soybean sprout souprice was a much-beloved hangover cure soup that people were willing to travel for. I gave it a try in Seoul and I don’t know what it is – maybe some special broth recipe, maybe MSG, maybe the salted shrimp sauce and spices that they add on top – but I LOVED it. It’s still a very simple soup based around an incredibly unexciting vegetable but there’s something about it that’s very comforting and addictive.

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This one came out with the rice already in the soup because you need the rice bowl for the thing that makes Jeonju-style souprice truly special: the lightly poached egg-sauce. First-timers might be confused about what to do with this little bowl of egg, but don’t the mistake of putting the eggs in the soup. What you’re actually meant to do is put the soup in the eggs.

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It’s egg as sauce!! My favourite thing!! You’re meant take your soybean sprouts and dip them in the runny egg yolk. You can also take spoonfuls of souprice and mix it all into the egg bowl too. This just proves the egg makes everything – even boring old soybean sprout soup – more awesome.

The soup is wholesome and satisfying, but also has a very clean taste thanks to its simple ingredients, with just enough kick from the garnish of chopped fresh chillies, chilli powder, salted shrimp, crushed garlic and sesame seeds. It’s strangely refreshing, and the heat will get you sweating, which I guess is what makes it the perfect hangover cure.

It wasn’t really much different or more special compared to the soybean sprout souprice I’ve had in Seoul, but I’m glad I got to try at a dinky little no-name restaurant, with zero tourists and just one ahjumma in the kitchen working up a sweat in her floral apron. Much much better than standing in line for an hour to eat it at a place so famous it’s got two branches in Seoul, which completely defeats the purpose of going all the way to Jeonju to try it.

After breakfast, we headed back to the Hanok Village to have morning tea at one of its many cute cafes.

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It’s a place called 1723 and it has a particularly special dessert that came up in several of the blog posts I’d come across while researching this trip.

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Injeolmi icecream: vanilla soft serve with chopped up pieces of red bean-stuffed sticky rice cake, extra bits of mochi, topped with injeolmi bean powder. So good! This is maybe the best modernized Korean traditional dessert I’ve had. And Koreans are very very good at modernizing their traditional desserts. Incredibly simple but so delicious… got me singing

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Injeolmi-themed desserts are quite common since Koreans lurrrve their bean powder, with injeolmi bingsu being one of the bestselling items at Sulbing (one of the most popular dessert cafes in Korea). But the texture of the bean powder works SO MUCH BETTER with ice cream than it does with shaved ice. And the red bean mochi which is a sickly sweet to eat by itself is much better served in little pieces as a topping.

Do you miss my mum? I do, too. Here she is modelling our dessert and wearing sunglasses indoors like she’s Kanye.

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And we couldn’t leave Jeonju without one last tumbler of slushie beer.

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Cheers!

So that was the end of our time in Jeonju, but because people told us there wasn’t enough  to do in Jeonju to last us three days and two nights (they were wrong… there was plenty of stuff left to eat do) we also booked a night in Gunsan, a little-known town that’s most famous for the Japanese style houses and buildings that have been preserved since the occupation. Not sure why Koreans would want to preserve Japanese architecture from such a dark time in its history . . .  but this is a food blog so let’s not go into that.

Gunsan is definitely not the food-mecca that Jeonju is . . . in fact, there was so little to see that my mum couldn’t help but mention to every local she met, “There’s not much to do here, is there? Honestly, it’s a bit disappointing.” I called her out for being a rude, obnoxious tourist and she called me out for being a mean, overreacting daughter . . . but this is a food blog so let’s not go into that.

I managed to find a couple of matjibs that looked pretty decent, one specializing in soy-marinated crabs (간장게장/Ganjang Gejang), which is my mum’s all-time fave but for some reason, I had never tried it.

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We took a cab to the restaurant which was in the middle of nowhere. We were told we had to wait 45 minutes for a table and possibly even longer for our food, so clearly everyone else in Gunsan also realized that this was the only decent restaurant around. Annoyed and hungry, we still waited because we had no where elseto go and no way to get there. I really really hoped that the food would be worth the wait, because three grumpy, hungry, annoyed, disappointed Chois is NOT a fun time.

We finally got a table and ordered the jungsik which was 23,000 won per person (very decent price for this kind of meal) and came with the marinated crab, soup, rice, and a bunch of sides.

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Apparently, soy-marinated crab is all about the roe. There are certain seasons when the roe is more abundant, and the better gejang restaurants only serve super-fertile crabs that are overflowing with that gooey bright orange roe.

Roe is something I’ve been developing a palate for since I moved to Korea. I’ve always loved salmon roe because of the way it pops in your mouth, but HATED cooked roe (still do) because of its grainy, rubbery texture. Other types of raw or marinated roe I didn’t really enjoy because I found the bitter taste off-putting. But thanks to the gradual Koreanification of my taste buds, I’m finding that I like it more and more. So while a raw, roe-based dish like ganjang gejang wouldn’t have interested me at all before, I was pretty excited to try it.

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Gejang is prepared with a soy-based marinade that is boiled, cooled, and then poured over fresh, salted crabs. According to mum, our resident gejang expert, the cheaper places serve the crabs after they’ve been sitting in the marinade for a while because the crabs can stay preserved for up to a few weeks. But as a result, they become extremely salty, tasting more like a pickle. The better restaurants with fresher crabs don’t let the crabs sit in the marinade for too long – so it just tastes like crab sashimi with the delicious soy marinade poured over it.

This place was one of the good ones – the crab was so fresh and the marinade was perfectly balanced – sweet, salty, infused with the flavor of the crab with hints of ginger, garlic and chilli. Gejang’s nickname is “rice thief crab” (밥도둑) because something magical happens when the sauce and roe touch those fluffy grains of white rice. The marinated crab tastes great by itself but it’s what happens when the dish is mixed up with rice that makes ganjang gejang ganjang gejang. Even the carb-conscious will stare at their reflection in the empty steel rice bowl and not think twice about ordering another one.

More than the fleshy crab legs and roe though, my favorite part of this dish was taking the shell with all its yellow-green guts and salty-sweet sauce and mixing up all my rice in there. I don’t have a photo because I was too busy eating it.

The next day we visited Lee Sung Dang, the oldest bakery in Korea. It’s been around since 1945 and is famous for its red bean bun and vegetable bun which apparently haven’t changed much since its opening. There was actually a separate line for those two signature items, and it stretched all the way out the store to the street corner. They had run out of vegetable buns (boo) and even though none of us really like red bean buns, we forced dad to stay in the line because we couldn’t come to the oldest bakery in Korea in a random place like Gunsan and NOT get their most famous bun. Mum and I went inside to check out what else they had on offer.

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This is what most Korean bakeries looked like twenty years ago. Much simpler than the stuff you see these days at Paris Baguette and other bakeries that are trying to be more Western and are moving away from these traditional Korean sweet breads. These kinds of bakeries are actually not that easy to find now.

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This is my old fave – sesame sticky rice bread (깨찰빵) – the bread batter is mixed with sticky rice powder which gives this slightly sweet hollow bun a crusty/chewy texture – so good but quite hard to find these days. Regret not buying the whole tray.

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Here are my parents and their bread haul. Both wearing sunglasses indoors like they’re Beyonce and Jay-Z. LOL at the fact that everyone else captured in this photo looks like they’re staring at us thinking, “Who are those freaks and why are they taking a photo inside a bakery with their sunglasses on?”

People were leaving the bakery with massive boxes packed with the red bean buns, but we were quite self-controlled and only bought five. I’m kind of a red bean bun hater but these were so fresh out of the oven that I actually really enjoyed them.

And here ends the Choi family’s eating adventures around Jeonju and Gunsan. I’ll sign off with a photo of mum looking ever-so-chic drinking a tri-coloured slushie.

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“See you next time, fatties.”

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Eating Like Fat Pandas in Gwangju and Damyang

Visiting different cities throughout Korea is kind of like time-travel. You always start in Seoul, which represents present day (or even the future, if you’re from a small town like Sydney, Australia) and then depending on which city you choose, you can travel 5, 10, 20, 30 years back in time simply by catching a train.

Korea has a unique story in that it went from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest within the span of 50 years. Seoul is the city that leads the charge in terms of wealth, innovation, development and westernisation, while the other cities play catch up, some faster than others. I hear that Busan is not far behind Seoul, but other cities seem to be in much less of a hurry to build a Starbucks at every corner and replace clear sky with high-rise apartments. They are happy to live a simpler life drinking instant coffee, residing in humble brick villas that are only a few floors off the ground.

Gwangju is one of those cities. I went there to visit a friend, and as soon as my bus drove into the bus terminal, I was surprised to feel something a lot like culture shock. It seems ridiculous to experience culture shock simply by traveling from one city to another in such a small country, but I don’t know how else to describe it. It looked and felt like Seoul 20 years ago, the one I visited when I was a kid in the 90s. And it dawned on me that even after only living there for a few months now:

I had become an elitist Seoulite.

I was now in a city where people actually stared at me with wonder because I spoke English, and I felt a little bit uncomfortable. But you know the best way to break the ice with an unfamiliar city? With food. Yes. It only takes one meal to change your attitude from “I don’t know how I feel about this place” to “I could live here forever”.

My friend saw the discomfort in my face and, because she knows me well, quickly took me to her favorite restaurant (even though it was late in the evening and we’d both already eaten dinner).

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When working in a Korean company, it is the norm to go out to dinner and drinks after work with colleagues almost every day. You get very familiar with “late night food” like fried chicken and jokbal (족발 = pig’s trotter). Jokbal is usually served seasoned and steamed with some dipping sauces, but this place marinates their jokbal in a really rich spicy sauce. It is her late-night guilty pleasure.

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We ordered the mild “one chilli” version (see menu below).
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I’m pretty good with spicy food, but people from Gwangju must have tongues and stomachs made of steel because this was actually painful to eat. Really tasty but SO spicy that we were sweating and almost almost had tears coming out of our eyes. Even all the pickle they gave us and my bottle of cider didn’t soothe my burning mouth.
We doubled checked that they had given us the right degree of spiciness, and the waitress was adamant that she had. Man, if that was the “one chilli” version I wouldn’t event want to be within a 10m radius of the four chilli version!!! That stuff will burn a hole right through you!!

The next day, we took a thirty minute bus ride to Damyang (담양), a country town that is famous for its bamboo forest. This was like travelling another 10 years into the past. Was walked down a long, dusty road of shops and restaurants, which all looked like tiny family-owned businesses – no sign of the urbanisation and Samsung-isation that is everywhere in Seoul. I’m ashamed to admit that I started to think, “What good could come from this godforsaken town?”

We turned a corner and then all of a sudden we met this long, leafy stretch of pure picnic.

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It is the famous “Damyang Noodle Street” (담양국수거리) – one side is lined with restaurants and the other side is lined with trees and bamboo mats for sitting, eating and chillaxing.

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I was so excited about eating noodles on a bamboo mat under the sunshine that we ordered WAY too much food.

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The noodles were simple – the first one served cold, in a refreshing, spicy sauce, and the second served hot in a dried-anchovy based broth. They also sold eggs boiled in chinese medicial herbs (한방약계란 – I love that I live in a country where you can buy boiled eggs at a restaurant) and a really yummy pajeon (favourite of all non-korean korean food lovers).

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And so cheap! Only 4,000won ($4) for the noodles, 1,000won ($1) for three eggs and 5,000won ($5) for the pajeon. That’s the great thing about the sticks – food that is twice as good as the food in Seoul, but half the price.

Sigh, is there anything better than eating noodles and boiled eggs outdoors with your bestie? No, I don’t think there is.

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My friend works at the Biennale Association, so she is totally “in” with the Gwanju arts scene. She took me to a beautiful gallery cafe called Dae Dam (대담), which was on the other side of a little creek flowing parallel to the Noodle Street.

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This stylish, contemporary cafe and arts center seemed a bit out of place in such a sleepy country town, but I think a lot of artists find their refuge in places like this. Seoul is great, but it’s the kind of place that suffocates creativity.

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We had a beautiful traditional bingsoo (빙수) which is shaved ice, some condensed milk topped with misugaru (미숫가루, mixed grain powder)  and a glossy heap of red-bean. It also came with a view toppings on the side: mochi, shaved almonds and cereal.

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I have learnt that you can judge the quality of red bean by its shininess. This is the good stuff.

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The cafe is a blend of modern and rustic, and overlooks a very pretty garden and outdoor garden area. They have a woodfire oven for pizza, but we were too stuffed on noodles to give that try.

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The best thing about this place is that next to the cafe, there is a room where you can have PLASTER FUN TIME! It’s meant to be for kiddies, but you can’t deny adults the pleasure of plaster fun! We chose small ceramic plates and painted them very seriously. I took inspiration from the Noodle Street and painted a masterpiece that looks like it should be displayed in a bus-station souvenir shop.

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My much more elegant friend painted some juicy Korean grapes.

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Afterwards, we visited the famous bamboo forest. This is Damyang’s ONE AND ONLY claim to fame so, naturally, the city takes a lot of pride in it. Everything in Damyang is bamboo-themed, the restaurants, the cafes, the shops and gift stores. You’ll even find giant panda sculptures  – though there aren’t any actual panda’s in Damyang. Their image is just used for its association with bamboo.

I was more concerned with the heat (Korean summer is the worst) and what we’d be eating next, so I sadly don’t have any photos of the bamboo. If you’re interested in the bamboo forest, you can just Google “Damyang” and an entire gallery of tall green stalks will come up.

My friend took me to a restaurant just outside the forest that does Han Jung Sik (한정식) which is a traditional Korean banquet table. In other words, a table filled with simple side-dishes (banchan) , a main course, a soup and rice.

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Of course, in Damyang, the rice is steamed in bamboo stem.

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With the huge variety of side dishes, the table looks really impressive. Out of the fifteen or so side dishes, however, around 10 were made from bamboo shoots. What does bamboo taste like? It tastes like a twig that has been soaked and softened. Woody, stringy, earthy, bland and tough… none of these are enjoyable flavours or textures.There’s a good reason why bamboo is the food of choice for pandas, NOT humans.

They’re alright when they’re thinly sliced, canned and then soaked in a Thai curry… but as a kimchi, battered and deep fried, boiled and covered in chilli sauce. . . no thank you. It’s admirable that the restaurant takes so much pride in the town’s main attraction that it tried to turn it into a cuisine . . .  but I don’t think bamboo’s destiny is on the dining table. It belongs in garden chairs, in picnic mats and in the hands of hungry pandas. The Ddeokgalbi (떡갈비) main course was nice, but we left most of the other side dishes untouched.

The next day we were back in Gwangju and my friend took me to her workplace, the Biennale Museum. But we weren’t there to see art, we were there to eat.

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There’s a popular cafe on the museum grounds called “Dadam” (“다담”, not to be confused with “Daedam”)

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The interior is really lovely blend of new and old. Its wooden tables, lattice artwork and paper lantern light fixtures are a really sophisticated throwback to traditional Korean art and design.

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In the spirit of pigging out like there’s no tomorrow, we ordered one “to share” dessert each.

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This deluxe bingsoo came with black sesame ice cream, mochi and crushed nuts, with a side of handmade ddeok (떡, glutinous rice cake).

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We also got a giant swirl of delicious cranberry soft serve. The presentation here is beautiful – that is a real leaf under the rice cake and a real single flower in that tiny little ceramic vase.

We ate a lot this weekend. We actually ate a lot more than is shown above… including DIY wine and cheese platter, late night ramyun  and buffet lunch on the day I went back to Seoul…. but I have too much shame to post those up in detail.

Gwangju and Damyang are not the most glamorous travel destinations in Korea, but if you’re here for a while and have a weekend to spare, I definitely recommend a visit – especially the Damyang Noodle Street! That was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in Korea so far – the setting is so unique and actually quite romantic. It’s only a 3.5 hour time machine ride away from Seoul 🙂

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