Chungmuro Kalguksu (충무로 칼국수)

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Kalguksu, literally translated as “knife noodles”, is Korea’s staple noodle dish, right behind ramen. The noodles, as the name suggests, are made from slicing thin strips of wheat flour and afterwards, the noodles are added to a broth made from (traditionally) anchovies, shellfish and kelp. Now priced at around 4USD a bowl, the dish wasn’t always so cheap. In the Goryeo era of Korea’s history it was considered a rare treat due to the high price of wheat. Beyond this anchovy based standard, kalguksu can also be found with a variety of other broths, including a spicy yukgaejang broth, a cold soy milk base and janchi guksu, known for it’s especially thin noodles.

While this dish can be found anywhere around Seoul, it’s not all created equal. Out of all the places I’ve eaten it at, Chungmuro Kalguksu, near Chungmuro station, right behind Namsan Xai Apartments, is one of the best. For one, you get a bang for your buck. The menu consists of two soups (Kalguksu or Kongkuksu), each priced at 6,000 won (around 5 USD), and the portion sizes are generous. What at many restaurants would be a 곱빼기 serving (double size) is the standard here. Add to that, the kimchi’s always fresh. The bowl itself has a really nice, clean, light broth heaped with dried seaweed and a bit of pepper powder. The restaurant is always packed, with sports games or dramas usually playing on the overhead TV and the older men and women working there are always in a rush, bustling around, but always kind. Every time I enter and leave I’m greeted by smiles. Overall, worth the visit if you’re in Seoul.

And to my friend who said, after I posted this photo on Facebook, “…I’d venture to guess one of the reasons you choose to stay in Korea is the food”…I’ll just say, let’s talk once I finish this bowl.

Wonjo Ssambab Jip (원조쌈밥집)

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Somewhere hidden along this street is Wonjo Ssambab Jib, a meat restaurant included amongst Baek Jon Won’s plethora of chains. Yet, at first glance, you’d have no idea his name’s attached, famous more as a successful businessman than a food connoisseur/cook, his restaurants are staples amongst the Korean food scene. A shabby looking place like this doesn’t quite evoke images of the clean and polished exterior’s of his more recent additions, BaekDabang (Dabang being the name for old style Korean cafe’s and Baek his name), and Chadolbaki Jeonmunjeom (Chadolbaki being a type of thin sliced beef and Jeonmunjeum meaning “specialty house”)…The restaurant itself is hidden down a tight little side alley…As we approached a foul smell emanated from the door and inside multiple large table spreads were covered with food left uncleared. I’m pretty adventurous but I’ve had enough bad experiences with unsanitary food in Asia to become a bit hesitant around places like this. At first glance you’d be hard pressed to place the name Baek Jon Won with the interior and atmosphere, yet that’s not to completely bash on the place either. It had a old style charm to it and a cozy atmosphere, with wooden lockers and keys to drop your shoes in before sitting down. On the wall were cliche spread posters of ancient Tigers and electronic bells (like doorbells, common at Korean restaurants) on the walls, indicted by squiggly lines drawn around them in red marker.

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The food came out fast and it was good, albeit likely low end in quality..Consisting of a wide wooden tray of lettuce and other green leafy vegetables (for wrapping the meat), the standard doenjang jjigae (soybean soup), and a seafood ssamjang paste (a paste added to the meat consisting of gochujang (pepper paste) and doenjang (soy paste) combined with added bits of squid and octopus. Two servings of thin sliced beef was probably enough, but the food was good and the atmosphere pleasant so we chose to go for a third round of samgyeopsal (pork belly, like thick cuts of bacon), before heading out to walk off our full stomachs.

Wonjo Ssambab Jib’s not a easy find, tucked in the backstreets of Dongdaemun. Nor is it ideal for those picky about cleanliness, but it offers a peak into old Seoul, or as Winnie put it..into a “very old school Korean restaurant”. Give it a shot, and if you get lost along the way, there’s no lack of other options nearby as you can see by the picture above.

 

Lounge 6 (라운지식스)

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The other day, after waking up, I decided to make my way to Myeongdong. I had some time to kill before my afternoon appointments, so I figured I’d look for a nice cafe in Myeongdong as a place to start my day…Somewhat of a challenge in Seoul, if you exclude Starbucks and other 24 hour chains. Seoul, unlike Taipei, Hong Kong and other asian cities, is rather dead in the morning…the city never sleeps, but the city is slow to get started the next day. Since most Koreans eat breakfast at home and quickly run off to work or school, there isn’t a strong culture of breakfast restaurants and cafes. Really, breakfast joints are few and far in between and most cafe’s open their doors at 11.

So it came as a surprise when I found a restaurant in Myeondong selling curry rice and Udon soup meal sets at 9:30 AM. I expected, at most, to find a cafe selling coffee and muffins…but while looking around Lounge 6’s sign caught my eye…faded photos of Japanese/Korean fusion breakfast sets, marked with a “6F” on the side. I looked up and couldn’t tell where the cafe might be, but stepped in the musty, glass panelled elevator and got off at floor 6. The cafe, or lounge, was empty, and a bit dark, so I wasn’t sure if it was open…an older woman came out and I asked her if it was too early for coffee or curry. She said no and to take a seat, ushering me outside. I made my way to an outside seating area, crowded with plants and small buddhist-style statues, overlooking the streets of Myeondong. Shortly after, the curry set and coffee I ordered came out…The curry was nothing special…but good enough, similar to curry I’d make at home..but the coffee was surprisingly good. Rich, smooth and served in a pitcher offering 3-4 full cups.

I was surprised to find such a unique, quiet spot, in the middle of Myeondong…more surprisingly, offering a full meal as early as 9AM. On the way out, I looked around, and saw a mini-stage, with an amp and microphone. Thanking the woman for the meal, I grabbed a business card and noticed the restaurant/cafe’s name: Lounge 6. On second glance, it made sense…the environment was more a lounge environment than anything…with a plethora of liquor bottles behind the counter. It had the atmosphere of an old lounge that might attract middle aged and later aged customers, a bit out of view from hot-spots for the young crowd…I’m curious, so maybe I’ll make a trip back for a late night drink to see what’s going on…If not, it’s a great place in Myeondong for a quiet coffee in the morning…somewhat of a niche in Seoul.

 

 

Suwon Hwaseong Palace (수원화성해궁)

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I first visited Suwon back in 2014, as a way to kill time during a free afternoon. At the time, I went with the aim to visit Suwon’s famous Hwaseong Fortress wall, stretching a total of 5.52 km and dating back to latter period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The Fortress Wall, demarcated at the four cardinal directions by four gates – Janganmun (nort), Paldalmun (south), Changnyongmun (east), Hwaseomun (west) – and the Sumun gates. which flank the point where the stream meets the palace, is a highlight of the remaining Joseon history in Korea, and provides a great day-trip from Seoul. Yet, at the time, I didn’t make it to the palace itself, seated below the iconic Hwahongmun pavillion. The palace was used as a temporary palace, to retreat from war, by the king and royal family during the Joseon era. Aside from this function, the palace had a particular purpose and value as a place for King Jeongjo to worship his father’s tomb, housed in one of the palace’s quarters.

This rich history, however, wasn’t what brought me back to Suwon. Rather, it was Hong Sang Soo (a famous Korean independent film-maker)’s 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다), that planted the thought in my mind. While watching the film, one quiet night in my apartment, I recognized the film’s background. The two main characters meet, at the start of the film, inside the palace, followed by an awkward exchange where the male protagonist (Jung Jae-young) asks Kim Min-Hee’s reluctant Yoon Hee-jung for coffee. “Insists” might be a better choice of words than “ask”, typical of the desperate male characters that appear in his films. Later on the two characters meet at a cafe and end up drinking soju, paired with sashimi and sushi at a small sushi bar near the palace.

With only a plan to visit the palace, I unexpectedly stopped by the sushi bar as well. I met my friend Jun-ho one afternoon, and we spent time catching up while walking along the fortress wall, meandering our way towards the main palace, where Jun-ho explained to me both the palace’s history and unique architectural characteristics. We spoke together, mixing English and Korean, helping each other find the words we needed at times, as the language used in describing palaces and Korean history can be uncommon and complex. While a lot of what I learned has since left my mind, one image remains. It was Jun-ho’s description of the chimney’s used in the palace…To the western mind, it’s hard to imagine a chimney without a thick cloud of black smoke ascending from it’s mouth. Yet, these palace chimney’s were designed in a way so that the heat emerged clear. Jun-ho described the interior of the chimney as being composed of a complex tube system which cools/alters the smoke in such a way to reduce it to clear heat. Again, science isn’t my specialty, so I don’t quite remember nor understand how it works..but the image stuck in my mind, as another example of Joseon-era innovation.

After our walk around the palace, we stopped by the sushi bar I previously mentioned, sharing a beer over a mixed sashimi/sushi platter, as the day winded down. Scenes from Hong Sang Soo’s movies repeatedly sprung to mind as I ate, a experience I’ve repeatedly had in Korea, having watched many Korean films prior to first arriving here. The sushi was okay, nothing to rave about, but the quiet atmosphere and the cold beer made the meal a pleasant end to the day.

Gwangjang Market (광장시장) and Cheonggyecheon (청계천)

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(Cheonggyecheon)

      I’m still studying Korean here in Seoul, but as a way to transition more into a work-mode I’ve been studying at a more casual pace at YBM in Jongno, a 20 minute bus ride from Sinchon. I’m really enjoying studying in this area (the center of the city both now and historically). Being the cities center since the city’s inception, the area’s full of history. 4 of Seoul’s major palaces are located within this area, as well as Bukchon folk village, King Sejong’s (the creator of hangul, the Korean writing system) home, Insadong, an area packed with traditional shops, tea cafes and traditional food, and of course the now iconic Cheonggyecheon stream. I typically finish my class, grab a quick bite then make my way to Culcom cafe across the street to study for a few hours.

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(Mao)

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    This past week, my friend Mao decided to visit my area for lunch together. I hadn’t gone to Gwangjang Market, a large, often cramped and busy yet vibrant and energetic market located along the Cheonggyechon stream, in a long time. Despite living here for going on a year and a half I still haven’t tired of the market scene and energy. Feeling the urge to revisit I proposed the idea to Mao and we made our way there for binddaeddeok (빈때떡), a pancake made from mung beans and Dubukimchi (두부김치), pork, with mixed vegetables and fresh kimchi over squares of soft tofu. I suggested we make our way from my school’s area to the market by the stream. Along the way we stopped a few times to watch the fish along the river and just relax a bit.

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 (Binddaeddeok)

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(Dubukimchi)

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(Big picture along the restaurant’s back wall)

After reaching the market, I returned to a spot I’d visited a year ago, a little restaurant tucked away from the long rows of food vendors. We ordered a bottle of Makgeolli (rice wine) to share and ate and talked for a good hour. Towards the end a young man and older woman working there got in a fight, yelling at each other for a few minutes. I’ve seen it before so just laughed it off, but the man apologized to us profusely as we reassured him there’s no need for concern. Anyway, was a fun trip to market as always.

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Saturday out with Samchon

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Met up early morning with “Samchon” (korean name for “uncle”) as my friend prefers to be called, for a easy 2 hour hike along the Seoul Fortress Wall. The sky was hazy but the weather really nice, hot but with a cool breeze. It’s been a few months since we last met, as samchon’s been really busy. He showed me his schedule for the next month and it’s packed every weekend with golfing trips with his colleagues and friends. I was surprised he’s making a trip to Japan to golf. He laughed when he told me it, because he has very few good things to say about the country. He said the food is good and he can enjoy his travels there, but nonetheless the Japanese are always trying to “rock the boat” as he, to my surprise, expressed in English. His english is really limited, but he’s clearly using a phrase book to study because some of the expressions he used impressed me. Nonetheless, at this point, we speak primarily in Korean but I still help him practice.

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Today, we met for a hike and finished with a meal and beer as we usually do. The restaurant we chose doesn’t sell beer, but allowed us to purchase some next door. They said they usually don’t let customers do that, but it’s okay today. I waited for the food as Samchon went to the nearby convenience store. Once he came back and we drank beers, he made it clear the tall bottle was mostly for me. He said “I’ll have one glass, you drink the rest”. He told me he went out with coworkers last night and drank more than usual so had a headache this morning. He encouraged me to enjoy the beer and filled the cup as soon as it got a little low. He’d remind me to “enjoy the beer” as we spoke. After our meal, despite saying how full he was, he took us to get Busan style Odeng (Busan = southeastern port city, Odeng = fish patties), ordered 4 sticks and ate really quickly.

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During lunch today, he told me he’s thinking about me a lot even though we haven’t been able to meet. He said I’m always on his mind. He’s been somewhat of a teacher to me here in Korea, and it’s great to have the extra support from someone who knows there way around this culture far better than me. He’s one of the few people I know who eats faster than me.

Chuseok and My Birthday

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(Jamwon Park, along the Han River, Seoul, Chuseok day)

  I’ve had a somewhat busy past week. Busy in the best possible sense. It’s been a week of celebration for me as Chuseok happened to fall on the same day as my birthday. Chuseok, originally named Hangawi, is a celebration of the changing of seasons and the end of summer. Every year it falls on the 15th day of the 8th month according to the lunar calendar, meaning always on a full moon. The full moon is symbolic of a completed cycle and as a time to appreciate the harvest of good crops. To the American mind, it’s akin to Thanksgiving. Yet, the spiritual undertones are deeper (if I dare say), as the harvested crops are considered blessings from ancestors past.

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   (Two older women walking in Jamwon Park, Chuseok day)

   During this time Seoul resembles a ghost town, an amazing sight, as families leave for their hometowns to celbrate or retreat indoors. The reason for visiting their hometowns is both to spend time with existing relatives and honor their ancestors spirits. Most families will still visit the gravesites of their deceased relatives and honor them by trimming cleaning the area surrounding the tomb. At home, traditional foods are offered on an altar to the spirits of the ancestors. I say spirits because to the Korean mind, death does not entail an end. The spirits of deceased ancestors are thought to live on and protect their descedants. As a way of honoring and offering thanks to their ancestors, traditional foods are arranged in a specific pattern, according to the four directions. The most characteristic food of Chuseok is Songpyeon, a rice ball in the shape of a moon or a half moon and filled with stuffing that often includes honey, sesame seeds, walnut, jujube and many others. The Songpyeon is then (traditionally) finished by steaming it over pine needles. Along with Songpyeon are offered, and eaten, varieties of meat dishes, ddeok (rice cakes) makgeolli (rice “wine”) and soju (korean sweet potato vodka).

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     (Pizza in Sinchon, Seoul)

    This year, this special day aligned with my birthday on September 8th. It’s my first year to celebrate my birthday in Korea and the first time I’ve celebrated outside of the states. I jokingly was telling my mom it’s a rather auspicious occasion. While I don’t have literal crops to harvest, this past year has been full of enriching experiences. I consider these experiences as nourishment for my soul as I enter a new year of life in Korea. As families honor their ancestors, I have my own ancestors to thank, as well as those living now. There’s a lot of people that came before me who have helped me along way in life and a lot living now as well. Instead of seeing Chuseok as just another birthday, it felt like a particularly rich day. There’s little I can really say about this holiday because I’ve yet to celebrate with a Korean family. I’ve been dating my Korean girlfriend for over a year now, but it still wasn’t considered the best time to meet the whole family, yet her and I were able to celebrate my birthday a day early.

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(Typically a very, very busy street during this time. Very quiet on Chuseok, in Apgujeong)

    We met on the day before Chuseok, a Sunday, in Sinchon. We began our day with pizza at a new flatbread pizza restaurant. We had a Korean/American style pizza, half pepporoni, half potato and a variety of toppings. In Seoul, most of the available (and best) food is still Korean, but it’s becoming an increasingly international city as pizza places, microbrew bars, etc. continue to frequently appear. It was refreshing to eat some decent pizza. From there, You Jeong had a plan in her mind for my day, so we went back to my apartment where I found a few bags of gifts awaiting me with a nice card. You Jeong knows I love coffee and Korean cafe coffee is quite expensive. So, she bought me a coffee maker. I’ve since been drinking a little over my average amount of coffee per day but loving the machine. She also gave me an old coffee/tea mug she made in school as a 10-year-old. This one was hard for me to accept, but meant a lot. Her parents also gave me a gift related to Chuseok – a large box of Ddeok (Korean rice cakes), in many assorted flavors, including red bean, honey, green tea and fruity flavors. As Ddeok is relatively heavy and starchy food I’m slowing working my way through the box.

Afterwards we saw a movie at the theater then visited the Bukchon/Samcheong-dong areas of Seoul. Bukchon is known for it’s collection of existing Korean traditional style Hanok homes. It’s also been re-developing as modern Hanok (traditional korean homes) are built. Samcheong-dong is a famous fashion/art area that flows into Bukchon. These areas are two of my favorites in Seoul, offering some quiet on weekdays and a taste of a more traditional Korea as well as some sophistication. Plus, the coffee you can find here can be of very high quality. We walked for a while, just taking in the sites, until reaching a small traditional korean home/cafe. You Jeong had a bought me a cake at Paris Baguette (a chain bakery here in Korea) and we were able to celebrate in a small loft of the cafe. Sitting in the wooden interior, cross legged, we set up the cake. I’d always somewhat dreamed about a birthday in Asia so this was a wonderful way to celebrate. The interior of the cafe was calm and warm. I sipped a hot americano as you jeong prepared the candles. Once done, she sang happy birthday to me in Korean and I blew the candles out. We talked for a while then finally made our way to our homes.

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    (Itaewon area, on Chuseok during a walk)

    It was a really special day, followed by a few more filled with wishes from family and friends back home as well as new family/friends here in Korea and surrounding Asia. Having been here a year, I felt upon my birthday, a sense of connection to both places. The greetings that came to me around my birthday were equally balanced between Asia and the states. I was proud of this, as my goal for myself in Korea has been to open up to the country and culture and become half a step in Vermont and America, half a step in Korea – to become a multicultural man, neither clinging to America nor rejecting it in favor for the east, remaining both flexible and open. This was my celebration this year on this sacred day in Korean history. Celebrating the development of my progressing cross-cultural relationship, the progress I’ve made in my Korean studies and the adjustment process I’m on in understanding myself as a expat and international citizen.