Sunday, January 31, 2010

Spam Taste Test

Question: What causes a grown woman to shriek with glee at a supermarket in Seoul?

My grandparent's apartment building has a grocery store on the first floor so whenever we're bored or hungry, we would just go downstairs and find things to eat. It's especially neat when you find things you can't find in the states. Like Spam Singles with mozzarella chicken, fresh onion and sweet potato flavors. My cousins and I were really curious to see what it would taste like, so we bought one of each and did a taste test.

Starting from the top, going clockwise was the onion, mozzarella chicken and sweet potato spam. The charring was my own doing, so don't worry, it didn't come like that.

I had my cousins try each one and try to guess which was which. The mozzarella chicken was a dead giveaway since it's lighter in color.

It was kind of funny to see my cousins' faces change from intrigue to befuddlement to disgust in a matter of seconds. I had to taste them for myself though. Maybe they just don't appreciate Spam like I do.

Dear friends, I am sad to report that these Spam Singles were the single biggest let down of 2010. I really wanted to like it, in fact, so much so that I was calculating in my head how many packages of Spam Singles I could fit in my spare carry on luggage bag that I brought with me to Seoul. Good thing we did a taste test before I committed to buying their whole stock.

The onion one had an unpleasant, artificial aftertaste and you could barely taste the sweet potato flavor to begin with, but once you started trying to exude all the sweet potato flavor from the spam with the surface area of your tongue, you begin to realize the utter foolishness you are partaking in. The mozzarella chicken one tasted the best out of the three, but it tasted like ham and cheese to me, in which case, I'd rather buy a slice of real ham and cheese rather than eat it in this coagulated form.

I'm not really sure what the Spam people were thinking when they came up with this concept. I guess you could get a clue from the pictures on the packaging, but why would you put pieces of mozzarella chicken spam in a Caprese salad? I guess you can make a spam onion sandwich, but just use a real onion for goodness sake. And pieces of spam in a baked sweet potato, that's just weird.

I guess I should have looked at the packaging a bit more closely, but I was blind sighted by my love of all things Spam and all things weird and the excitement of the new discovery got the best of me. I learned my lesson though, why fix something that isn't broken. I will just stick to my classic blue can of Spam, thank you very much.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fun Finds at the Supermarket in Seoul

I am of the rare camp that actually likes going grocery shopping, so going to a supermarket in Seoul is loads of fun for me. Look at this array of yogurt drinks. It totally reminds me of when I was little and would visit my grandparents' place in Seoul and we'd hear the echo of the yogurt lady as she went floor by floor of the apartment building. My cousins and I would rush to the door whenever we heard her and request bottles of bottles of yakult (야쿠르트). Anywhoo, clearly the selection has definitely increased since then.

Since they started importing or making yakult in the states, it no longer holds the same fascination. So now I've directed that energy into consuming lots and lots of yogurts and flavored milks whenever I'm in Korea. They have so many different kinds and they are all so yummy. My cousins buy a bunch of the mochachino milk drinks to take back to the states whenever they leave. I rarely drink milk in the states, but I guzzle so much milk and dairy products in Korea I'm surprised I haven't turn into a baby cow.

Here's their selection of canned tuna and Spam. What would Koreans do without Spam?

Did you know they have garlic spam?

Here's a Spam wannabe. "Curry Pam" and "Spicy Pam." Clearly Koreans love their Spam and Pam products.

Boxed individual servings of soju ... as if they really needed to give people more reason to carry around juice boxes of soju.

You better believe Jung bought a whole bunch of these to take back to the states, along with probably 30 liters of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) and other liquor that he claims he can't get in the states. Soju by the way is really cheap here. Like $1 a bottle at the market, which is the price of my banana milk. No wonder people drink so much booze here. Soju is supposed to be distilled from fermented grain, but most brands use highly distilled ethanol, dilute it with water and add some sugar or aspartame. The real stuff, as Jung claims, comes from the city of Andong. We unfortunately discovered this fact after he left and I had no such luck finding Andong soju at our neighborhood market to bring back for him. Here's a peek of different makgeollis at the market, it's really popular in Korea these days. They have all sorts of different flavors too, ranging from sweet potato to pine nuts to even root vegetables. FYI - the root vegetable one is weird.

Fruits and vegetables at the supermarket are packaged super fancy because they are quite expensive if you purchase them at the supermarket and even more so if you're at the department store's supermarket.

Look at the melons and pineapples craddled like delicate eggs. The price of one melon with a ribbon on top. $20. I kid you not.

One mango imported from Thailand was 10,000 won, which is about $8. Craziness.

Korean department stores are pretty over the top in general, if you couldn't tell already. I am a lover of the H2O but even I wouldn't go to a water bar.

Makchang - Seoul, Korea (Gangnam Station)

If you can read Korean, you will see that the sign clearly says Makchang, which means large intestines in Korean. Now, Jung and I decided to eat in Gangnam one day by ourselves and up until this point, we've either eaten at places I've tried before or places my mom or other family members have taken us to. This time we decided to just roam around and pick something on our own. There were literally rows and rows of restaurants on every street and somehow we ended up here ... by accident, of course.

We were walking down one of the BBQ alleys and couldn't really decide which one to try. They all looked the same. So we decided to base it on a place that looked pretty busy. Jung's been wanting to try to eat at a pojangmacha place, a tented restaurant where they sell drinks and grilled meats. We saw a tent with lots of people inside, didn't see the sign at all or care to look at it, and went in. In our defense, I would just like to point out that it was cold so we didn't look up at the sign and this picture was taken after our meal. =)

The lady brought out some side dishes. Some chives, kimchi and some doenjang paste and sesame seed oil and salt to dip the meat in. She asked what we wanted to order, I asked her what was good and she said the spicy pork and the grilled beef were the most popular dishes. So we ordered one of each. We looked around and observed the crowd amongst us and they were all young and looked to be enjoying the food. We patted ourselves on the back for picking a good place on our own.

Here's what came out. Jung and I both looked at each other and said, what the heck is this??? Then we looked outside the tent and saw the sign and realized where we were and then started cracking up.

Apparently, makchang gui (grilled large intestine) is a popular delicacy in the Daegu region of Korea and clearly other patrons of this restaurant were big fans. I'm not a very squeamish eater, but my imagination gets the best of me sometimes and when I start to visualize what part of the animal a particular dish is from, I get a little nervous. We could have just paid for our meal and left right there, but Jung and I decided to be good sports about it and try it.

I tried the spicy pork intestine first thinking, I bet I won't even taste anything because of the sauce. Wrong ... it was very chewy and the seasoning had a weird aftertaste, which didn't help my cause. So I tried the beef intestine instead. Chewy again but with pockets of fat that seemed to squirt out when you chewed. Umm ... this was going to be more difficult than I imagined.

In the end, we tried our best, but probably in the first time while we were in Seoul, we actually had leftovers. We also had some mae hwa soo, a plum wine, which was quite tasty. It's kind of on the sweet side, as you can gather from the floral motif, and reminded me of elderflower liquor.

We talked to my mom afterwards and told her what happened and she got a good laugh out of it. I told her we weren't the biggest fans of makchang, but she said that it can be really good if it's grilled till it's crispy. I think something was wrong with our grill because we couldn't get the pieces to char. We both had no idea so we ate it while it was still on the chewy side, but cooked - thank God.

I told Jung that this counted as my Andrew Zimmern moment of the trip and that I was off the hook for the rest of the trip. He's been on my case the whole time about trying bun daegi (cooked silk worm cocoons), but after this meal, he seemed to have dropped the issue all together, to my relief. Phew.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wooldolmok - Seoul, Korea (Seocho Station)

Wooldolmok is another han jung shik (Korean traditional course meal course) restaurant that specializes in fresh seafood such as abalone, fish, baby octopus and various types of seaweed. Can you tell I love han jung shik places? I can't get enough of it when I'm in Seoul. You will see the sign on your left, but no restaurant. It's because the restaurant is actually in the basement of the building.

There is a second entrance on the side of the building. There's a sign that reads that in 2006 the city of Seoul featured it as its preferred restaurants for visitors. I don't know if they are still featured or not, but it's still worth visiting in my opinion.

They specialize in using fresh seafood and local foods. At every table, you will see a platter of six different kinds of seaweed. I know the term seaweed sounds unappetizing, but it's actually a sea vegetable, which has tons of nutrients like iodine, folate, iron, vitamin K and calcium. So eat your (sea) vegetables!

A close up of one of the more intriguing-looking sea vegetables.

This is how you're supposed to eat it. You basically take a piece of nori, pile on the various types of sea vegetables, put some doengjang paste, roll it up and eat. The various textures just pop in your mouth.

This is one of their special house dish, burdock japchae. You will notice that the color is a bit darker than japchae you're accustomed to. It had a great earthy flavor to it.

Another plate of bossam. Whoever thought to put pork, oysters and shrimp together deserves a prize.

Here's an assembled bossam on a napa cabbage leaf for your viewing pleasure.

This is sliced, raw burdock that they dressed in a mild, creamy sauce with some slice almonds. Jung said that it tasted like something he'd eat at a Western fusion restaurant. I was kind of surprised to see it served like this at a traditional Korean restaurant too. The creamy sauce brought out the natural sweetness of the burdock, it was crunchy and delicious.

I think this was lightly battered and fried fish that they put a spicy marinade over. I've seen this a lot, but have no clue what kind of fish it is. I just eat it without any questioning.

The rice here rocked. It had assorted beans, pieces of sweet potato, garlic cloves, seaweed and abalone in it. I think liking beans in your rice is a true gauge of whether you're getting old or not. I remember as a kid whenever my grandma would make rice with beans or peas or any non-rice substance, I'd fish out each piece and put it off to the side or sneak it over to my dad's plate before I ate my rice. They would yell at me, but I'd still do it anyway. haha. Now, I think beans in rice tastes really yummy. I'm getting old folks, that's just the truth of the matter.

Here's a close up of the abalone. I thought abalone cooked like this would be tough and chewy, but this was sooo soft and tender, like cutting through a filet.

I just realized that I completely forgot to take pictures of all the side dishes and stews. Sorry folks, I guess I got distracted by the food and forgot to take pictures. Jung and I really liked this place. They had really fresh seafood and it was a bit different from the other han jung shik places we tried. We highly recommend it, if you're in the area.

Here's how to get here. Get off at Exit 2 of Seocho Station. Walk up a block and make a left at the first street you see. You will see the restaurant sign to your right.

We got the abalone rice course, which was 17,000 won or about $15 per person.
They also have a website, although it's in Korean. Apparently they have another restaurant in Samsung station.
(02) 521-6032

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Beautiful Tea Museum - Seoul (Insadong)

While we were looking at some old silverware from street vendors, Jung and I literally stumbled upon the Areumdaun Cha Bangmulgwan (Beautiful Tea Museum). According to the sign below, it's a museum, gallery, tea shop and cafe all in one. Sounded intriguing enough so we went in.

The museum is in a renovated hanok, an old, traditional Korean house.

The museum exhibits and sells over 200 different varieties of teas from Korea, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, India and Europe. They have a wide range of green, black, brown, herbal and flower teas. This is the tea shop, where you can buy different types of tea as well as tea sets. I loved this floating candle decoration in the center.

Visitors can enjoy sitting in the central garden, where they can view the rest of the albeit tiny museum while drinking some tea.

Here's the front cover of the menu. According to the front cover, they've been around since 1998. Why have I not known about this place till now???

We got the Teastory Greentea Waffle, a crispy green tea flavored waffle, topped with bananas, whipped cream, blueberry jam and two scoops of ice cream, to share. This waffle single-handedly redeemed Korean waffles for me. I could eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner any day of the week.

We shared the Chinese Pu-erh tea, which is an after-fermented tea.

Now why I love this place so much is because each table has an electric kettle so that you can boil water for yourself. I always feel so bad asking for more hot water so having your own supply of hot water is sooo convenient.

They gave us a little plate with two green tea rice cakes with some honey, just like they did at O'Sulloc Tea House.

This is my new favorite snack now. Nothing beats the yumminess that is crispy, hot rice cake with honey. They broiled the green tea rick cake till it was crispy on the outside and soft and chewy in the inside.

The Beautiful Tea Museum also exhibits porcelain artwork by young ceramists as well.

How come none of my pieces looked like this in my pottery class?

Here's how to get here: From Exit 6 of Anguk Station (Subway Line No. 3), walk about 40 meters to Insadong-daero (between Crown Bakery and GS 25 Convenience Store). Proceed about 400 meters, and turn right at the Golden Jewelry Store.

Beautiful Tea Museum

#193-1 Insadong Chonglo-gu

Seoul, Korea


Budnamujip - Seoul, Korea (Seocho-gu)

We saw an exhibit at the Seoul Arts Center in Seocho-gu and were debating what to eat for lunch. My mom mentioned that the galbi-tang or short rib soup at Budnamujip might be sold out already but that we should go check just in case. It was noon. How could it sell out already by noon, right? Apparently they stick a sign out front notifying people when it's been sold out. I failed to see said sign, so I made my mom park and we went inside to find blank stares when we asked if they still had galbi-tang. Oops. I guess you have to have a super early lunch or basically eat this for breakfast if you want to get a taste.

한우 (Hanwoo) or domestic Korean beef is way more expensive than imported beef from America or Australia and as far as anyone is concerned in Korea, Hanwoo is far superior. It's a lot more expensive too. In fact, restaurants are required to disclose whether their beef is domestic or imported beef. Budnamujip is one such place that serves a lot of Hanwoo beef. Since there is a lot of byproducts to be had from a Korean BBQ restaurant, they use it to make the galbi-tang broth and it is apparently very flavorful. I have not yet developed a palate to distinguish Hanwoo from imported beef, but my grandparents and family members claim that it's way tastier than imported beef. They try to force feed us Hanwoo whenever we're visiting.

We didn't get to eat the galbi-tang this time around, but just wanted to give it an honorable mention should you be visiting Seoul anytime soon. Another great thing is that they have several locations in Seoul and they have a website in English.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Honam Restaurant - Seoul, Korea (Namdaemun Market)

So remember how I said Jung wanted to try go-deung-uh jorim (seasoned mackerel), but they ran out at Hee-Rak. Being the craving pleaser that my madre is, she said we would go to another restaurant nearby to get mackerel jorim. After we finished our meal at Hee-Rak, we literally went down the alley, made a right and ran into an ajuma outside who tried to usher us inside her restaurant, Honam Restaurant. My mom asked if their mackerel jorim was good, to which she replied, yes. Of course she's going to say yes to us, but I guess it's somewhat reassuring to hear her say it anyway.

There was only one other party inside, so I didn't have high hopes, but the food turned out to be pretty good. They brought out some side dishes and gave us fried pieces of galchi as service. We thought the side dishes here tasted better than Hee-Rak's side dishes.

We had to order the gyeran jjim (steamed egg casserole) at Hee-Rak, but here they gave us a small one for free as well. Talk about great service for first time guests!

Here's the mackerel jorim. I think this was 12,000 won, about $10 for the whole meal. We felt bad for ordering only one dish, but we told them we ate right before coming and that this was our second meal. As you can tell, gluttony runs in the family.

It comes out boiling hot. You can hear it sizzling in the pot (and snippets of my mom asking for rice).

So what did we think of the dish? Jung really liked the seasoning but he didn't like the taste of the fish. I think it's because Korean mackerel is not as fatty as Norway mackerel, which is what we are used to eating in the states. Norway mackerel is known for its fattiness, probably because they live in colder waters. The fish tends to be more meaty in Korea and therefore, doesn't meld itself as well with the seasoning. So while the seasoning was tasty, the fish doesn't really absorb the flavors of the seasoning it's in. They also have galchi jorim here as well, but there was no room in our bellies to try that this time around. We were too full. I am partial to Hee-Rak, solely on the basis of having gone there for so many years, but the side dishes here and the service was very impressive.

To get here, from Hee-Rak's entrance, you turn right and walk down the alleyway, make a right and you'll see Honam on your right hand side. Look for the sign with pictures of celebrities on it. Korean restaurants get featured on TV shows a lot and you will see lots of references to the TV program that it was on or pictures of celebrities who have frequented the restaurant.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hee-Rak - Seoul, Korea (Namdaemun Market)

I used to have no clue where this place was because my mom would meander through the narrow and zigzagged alleys of Namdaemun Market from every which direction. It's almost like going through a rite of passage to find this tiny restaurant called Hee-Rak, which always had a long line of people waiting outside to eat galchi jorim or seasoned hairtail fish. I've heard galchi referred to as a silver belt and hairtail fish, not sure which is correct. I honestly haven't seen this fish anywhere else, but according to my grandmother, galchi only tastes good if caught in Korea. Koreans are quite patriotic about their food. =) I've only seen it served two ways: (1) salted and fried or (2) seasoned with soy sauce, red pepper and garlic in a jorim. They are quite tasty in both forms.

The ajuma cooks the galchi jorim in these old, rusty nickel pots, right outside the restaurant.

The gyeran jjim, a poached egg dish, is 4,000 won. It is basically scrambled eggs delicately poached with some sesame seeds, small pieces of green onion and carrots. The egg dish helps temper the heat from the spicy fish jorim you will also order below.

Here is their famous galchi jorim, which is 6,000 won per order. This was 2 orders worth of jorim, I believe. There are huge blocks of cooked radish on the bottom and whole pieces of kimchi cooked along with the fish. The best way to eat this is to take out the fish and put it on your plate and debone before you eat. It has a lot of bones for a small fish, so you have to invest the time to take out those suckers or it will end up caught in your throat. That has happened to me many a times and it's quite painful, so I've learned my lesson and always make sure to take out the bones first. FYI: for those unfortunate souls who fail to heed this advice and get fish bones stuck in your throat, the trick is to put a spoonful of rice in your mouth and swallow several times until the bone dislodges. Not a fun task if you ask me.

My method to getting rid of galchi bones is to take out the row of short bones on either side of the fish first. Then you can eat the meat of the fish on top till you see the single backbone. You then peel off the backbone and are left with delicate morsels to eat with the spicy and savory sauce. Equally tasty is taking a chunk of the soft and sweet radish with some spicy sauce and mixing it with your white rice and eating it. It's euphoric people, euphoric.

The menu lists several other dishes but I've never paid attention to those and if you look around, everyone orders these two dishes and nothing else. The gyeran jjim and galchi jorim are what make this small restaurant famous. Jung wanted to try the go-deung-uh (mackerel) jorim but they were sold out for the day.

It comes with some side dishes and some gim (roasted laver). It really tastes and feels like a home cooked meal. The place is surprisingly small, with only about 20 seats downstairs. There is also a tiny attic upstairs. It's quite an experience to eat up there, you should try it if you get a chance. This time we had our huge winter jackets and bags, so I didn't feel like squeezing through the narrow stairs to sit up there. Luckily there were seats downstairs so we were lucky. The attic ceiling is really low so you have to slouch the whole time until you sit down on the floor to eat. It really can't be safe to have all these people cramped up in a low ceiling attic, but clearly people don't mind because there is usually a line out the door waiting to get in.

Again, I have no clue how to get here on my own. Coming with my mom is a necessity, but I found directions online. I hope these are right. To get to Hee-Rak, leave exit 5 of Hoehyeon Station on subway line 4. Walk straight toward the middle of the Namdaemun market until you find a shop called Seoul Sang-hae on your left and an alley next to it. Walk into the alley and turn right at the first corner. Look ahead and you will find the yellow signboard that reads Hee-Rak in Korean. They are open from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday except for Sundays.

The alley where Hee-Rak is located has some 10 restaurants specializing in galchi jorim and Hee-Rak is one of the oldest and most popular restaurants. It has a strong following for a reason. It's one of my favorite places to eat just for the sheer experience.