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.

 

Summer Heat

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It’s been a really hot summer in Seoul so far. I’ve experienced this type of heat during summer each year since first coming to Korea, but this year’s been especially rough. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he was saying how lately the weather forecasters in Korea can’t get anything right. As we talked over a cup of coffee he told me that people are starting to ignore anything the forecasters say. This week’s been no exception. The weather agency kept saying this week would be the beginning of a drop in the heat and humidity. A few days in and it’s been just as hot if not hotter than the prior weeks. One article I saw on a news stand here said something along the lines of, “In contrast to predictions, Seoul this week is a sauna”. It’s not just the heat itself but the humidity that can make Seoul summers so hard to endure. So it’s spaces like the subway and buses that offer some respite. It wasn’t always this way though. A few students of mine were telling me about growing up in the 80s and 90s when air conditioning wasn’t so common in Korea. They were saying how people would flock to the banks during hot days to cool down. During that time, banks were one of the few public spaces where air conditioning was used. So people would go without any particular motive other than to escape the heat.

Seoul’s changed a lot in a short amount of time, as an older man working at a tteokbokki shop reminded me last night. There’s no lack of air conditioned spaces now…as most cafes and restaurants are kept chilled, or at least have many fans on. Understanding how expensive electric bills can be for apartments in Korea I was curious why so many small businesses kept their cafe’s so cool. My friend described to me, while sharing some patbingsu (a summertime dessert food, made from ice cream, condensed milk and red beans on top of shredded ice), that in Korea businesses are charged very cheaply for electric costs relative to residents of apartments. So, the people get the short end of the stick. Meanwhile a lot of the old generation slog and sweat through the summers in old-style apartments without AC. I’m living in a rooftop apartment now. Anyone whose lived in a Korean rooftop apartment during the summer will say the same thing, “mot salgessoyo” (“can’t live”). Without AC, it’s like living in a sauna. Fortunately, I have a fan and AC to get me through, but without it I’d be looking for a way out soon.

Everyone handles it differently, but the sentiment is shared. This has been a long, hot summer. It’s clearly not just Korea…according to a recent study, it seems that this month was the hottest month in recorded history of the Earth. Couldn’t be global warming? Right? Anyway, the philosophy of many older Korean’s is fight heat with heat. So, certain body warming foods like samgyetang or yukgaejang (ginseng/chicken soup/spicy beef soup) are enjoyed to get a sweat going, with the idea the sweat will cool you down while releasing heat. I can see this, and I’ve enjoyed eating these foods and sweating profusely but this summer I’ve taken the opposite approach, eating lots of cold buckwheat noodles and fruits and iced drinks. Yet, I’ve also chosen to try and embrace the heat as best as I can. I usually moan and groan my way through humid summers. I won’t lie and say I didn’t do the same this year, but I’ve had many times too where I’m walking the streets at night, sweating and just enjoying the experience of moving and taking on the heat….Until it’s time for bed…Then on goes the fan and cross my fingers I’ll wake up alive (Kidding…but “fan death” is a superstition here).

Hoe in Sindang Jungang Market (신당중앙 시장, 회)

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(Flounder sashimi)

When most people think of Sindang, a neighborhood located in central Seoul, they think of tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes the area’s famous for. Yet, there’s more to Sindang. I’d argue even that tteokbokki isn’t the true highlight of the neighborhood, history aside. Jungang Market, right next to Sindang Station Line 2, is home to many small restaurants offering foods ranging from jokbal (pigs feet), to kalguksu (literally “knife noodle soup”, made with wheat flour noodles), to dried fish. However, just exploring the upper level of the market it’d be easy to miss what’s underneath: a large seafood market in the shape of one long hallway, extending the underground length of the market, shops stretching into the distance across from each other.

Walking down the walkway towards the lower level I had to duck my head to avoid hitting the low hanging ceiling. After turning the corner into the lower floor, the dark, low lit atmosphere of the upper/ground level market floor was replaced with stark white light (reminiscent of lighting in large supermarkets). The walls and floor, too, were all white, as is traditional in many Korean fish/seafood markets, and older Korean women and men were sitting around in each restaurant sharing drinks, eating fish, laughing, yelling, all the above. A typical scene at a Korean market.

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(Banchan, including: sea snails, quail eggs, squash, shrimp, tofu, corn and grilled mackerel..)

We went for Hoe (or “sashimi”), cuts of raw fish served with banchan (small side dishes with assorted meats/vegetables). I’ve never really been a huge fan of seafood, particularly fish, but I’ve been wanting to expand my horizons and try a larger variety of Korean food so when Winnie suggested we try Sindang’s raw fish market I was all game. A smiling middle aged woman ushered us into her restaurant where we sat and looked over the menu, deciding on the 40,000 won (around $35 USD) set, which included a platter of raw fish with a variety of banchan, 8 sushi rolls and followed by maeuntang (a spicy seafood stew). I ordered a soju (the ubiquitous (and notorious) green bottled 1 dollar sweet potato vodka Korean’s are known to drink like beer) as I thought it’d complement the meal well. Winnie doesn’t drink so I poured her an empty shot glass of water and we cheered to our meal.

Shortly after it came out, first with the banchan then followed by the large platter of sliced, raw flounder (광어회, gwangeo hoe) served with a soysauce dipping sauce and wasabi (or in this case, died horseradish). After talking and eating our way through the main course, the maeuntang came out (literally “spicy soup”), consisting of a wide variety of vegetables, mostly strong and pungent in flavor, such as hot peppers, chilli peppers, onions, garlic, ginger and mushrooms along with red snapper fish, clams, and shrimp over a pepper sauce based broth. Everything was good, but I wouldn’t call it great. Being someone who’s never been inclined towards seafood, I wasn’t expecting to love it, so I wasn’t surprised. Yet, nonetheless, we both ate well and the experience itself was worth the trip. When going to Sindang, I’d recommend not simply limiting yourself to the famous “Tteokbokki Town”…For two reasons. One, I think there’s much better tteokbokki all across Seoul than what you can find in that area. Two, the market itself and surrounding restaurants have a lot of great food to offer. While I’m not a huge seafood guy, this market’s definitely worth a visit as well as the ground level where you can find lots of tasty street snacks and soup restaurants.

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.

Stroll in Chungmuro

11227975_10153301204564125_634471438042286328_o        I’ve been back here in Seoul for 3 weeks now, after a month-long trip back in the states. A friend recently asked me whether I noticed a difference in the air after my return. My hometown in the states, Vermont, is a small state with little industry and no large metropolitan city. The air is on an average day very crisp and the sky clear. Anyone who knows Seoul knows that’s not often the case here. When I first arrived in Seoul in 2013 the air bothered me. This time around, that wasn’t the case. I didn’t notice a thing. Maybe I’ve lived here long enough I’ve adjusted. Whether this is true or not, it’s also true the air’s been unusually clear for the past few weeks, during this change in seasons from summer to fall. The temperature too has cooled down and walking to and from school and around the city, I look up to a deep blue sky. For anyone whose seen Seoul in it’s rough stretches of pollution, these periods are something you really appreciate.

The weather was so nice I decided to meet my friend in Chungmuro, central Seoul, an area just north of Mount Namsan for a mid-day lunch. It’s a surprisingly quiet area of the city, considering it’s central location, squeezed right between Myeongdong and Dongdaemun, two of Seoul’s largest shopping districts, and near to City hall and Seoul’s main train station. Being located near Dongguk University, there’s plenty of suljib’s (bars), fried chicken and barbecue meat restaurants. Yet, there’s also a lot of history in this area, as evident by the historic apartments, shops and homes that are still standing. In Seoul, day by day, old neighborhoods and homes are being demolished and transformed into modern spaces at an incredible rate. An area like Chungmuro, where you can really see and feel the older Korea is a special thing in 2015. Walking around with my friend, we strolled through a printing street, past warehouses and shops full of workers printing papers in lines of old-style print-presses. Next we wandered through the back street twisting, narrow allies, packed with small restaurants selling soups, meat and traditional korean foods, dodging motorcyclist’s along the way as they sped through these tight “alternate streets”. Finally, we settled down at a restaurant in an area nearing Myeongdong. The area’s interesting because it feels caught between the old and new Seoul, showing signs of gentrification but not there yet. This image really is microcosm of Seoul, sitting right in between the old and new. We talked over kimchi soup and sweet/spicy pork before making our way back to the train station to continue on our ways.

Quick Bite

This evening I ate at a little restaurant near my apartment. It was an old little restaurant, maybe the size of my room…cramped, with a tight kitchen space in the back. The name was “Gimbap Town”, gimbap being a sushi-roll like “korean sandwich”…It’s quick bite food. There are “Gimbap” restaurants all across Seoul..little holes in the wall offering quick, cheap bites…my personal favorite being the most popular Gimbab Jeonguk (meaning Gimbap Heaven, oddly enough started by the head of a large church in Korea). This was similar to a lot of cheap Korean fast food joints I’ve been to, but lower quality. I couldn’t eat the banchan (side dishes) and the kimchi soup was plain. I felt uncomfortable eating because it was such an intimate space and I really didn’t want to finish my meal. The restaurant ajumma (middle aged woman) kept looking at me and I’d pretend to enjoy my food, fake half smiling. In reality I was counting down the bites while trying to stay present. Nonetheless, the environment was fun..A huge woman sat a few seats away from me, a stern look on her face, with what appeared to be her son or nephew…They ordered 4 large dishes: fried pork cutlet, spicy rice cakes, gimbap and kimchi soup…The table next to me a couple, talked and joked over shared gimbal rolls. The boss was an outspoken older Korean woman, barking orders across the restaurant, despite the cook and waitress not being able to hear. “What?” they’d repeat, until finally getting her message.

Outside was a typical night in my neighborhood, people lining the streets drinking soju at street food stands selling meat and seafood. Most of the food stalls you find in Seoul are selling variations on rice-cakes, fried veggies/meats, fish soup, and a popular dish called sundae, made of intestine…The street food stalls outside my new apartment are a little more unique, selling cheap cuts of barbecued meats and grilled seafood along with alcohol. Large groups of students and businessmen as well as other locals gather there most nights of the week, talking over drinks in the lively night. Even though it’s 8 o’clock the shops are all still open, an older couple still selling ddeok (rice cakes) late into the night and an old woman sitting atop a pile of vegetables, earlier for sale, smoking a cigarette to herself. A few stray cats wander around picking up scraps of food where they can.

I walked pass the scene, nothing out of the usual for me now but once a really unique sight. I now have to remind myself to take photos. It’s funny feeling at home in a place that’s still in so many ways obviously not my home.