Friday, December 30, 2011

Post 73: 48 Hours of Seoul Food

I flew Asiana Airlines to Taipei this time, which called for a stopover at Incheon Airport on the way to/from LAX.  I took this opportunity to hop outside of Incheon Airport for a quick 48 hours to take a first glimpse at Seoul and spend some time with old schoolmates Rina and Myung who now live and work in Korea.  Here is a look at my 48 hour whirlwind in the capital city of South Korea.

My first bite of food in Korea (not counting the donuts I scarfed down at Incheon Airport) was from this harmonious plate of kimchi tofu.  Kimchi tofu is a type of anju, or Korean drinking snack, that pairs two major Korean staples together onto one plate.  When the tofu and kimchi meet in your mouth, the smooth, velvety, mild flavor of soft tofu engulfs the crunchy, tangy, spicy bite of stir-fried kimchi in a way that I can only parallel with my exhausted body collapsing into my pillows and comforters at the end of a long day.  Kimchi and tofu together makes as much sense as mashed potatoes and gravy, and it brings the same kind of soothing comfort to your soul.  I chased my first bite of dubu kimchi with a refreshing shot of Chamisul.  Ahhh... my first taste of Korea.

It didn't take long for the highly anticipated haemul pajeon to arrive.  This crackling seafood pancake is one of my favorite foods of all time, and to have the opportunity to enjoy it as part of my first meal in Seoul was just so insanely satisfying.  Various bits of seafood are mixed into the thinly grilled batter, which means that each piece varies from bite to bite.  The first bite might contain tender calamari... the next bite might contain a smidget of succulent shrimp... and the subsequent bite might contain clam meat or a jiggly octopus tentacle.  But no matter what sea creature you discover in your piece of pajeon, every bite contains a web of sliced green onion, which not only provides sweetness but holds the entire pajeon structure together.  Dipping it in a soy sauce mixture (sometimes simply called pajeon sauce) and then chasing it with more alcohol made the pancake taste better with every subsequent bite.

There was no way the meal was complete without more soju and tteokbukki (stir-fried rice cake).  But by this point in the meal, I wasn't sure if I was more drunk from the dozen shots of soju and many sips of makgeolli or from the cyclone of spiciness of the rice cake.  But to make certain it was the former and not the latter, we paid the bill and made our way through the streets of Seoul to a hof, a Korean style pub where the many more shots of soju confirmed that... yes, I was drunk from alcohol and not from spicy food.

In the midst of all this food talk, I have neglected to say that my newly assimilated Korean pal Rina had led me down some narrow, dark alley in Insadong for this first meal of various anju.  But a single file trek through an unfamiliar territory is just mind over matter if there is hope of good food and chilled soju at the end of it.  Dangle some seafood pancake at the end of a dark tunnel, and I can almost guarantee you that I'll walk down that path.

After a dozen blocks through Seoul's spirited streets and a couple of pit-stops at the batting cages and local arcade, we made our way up a few flights of stairs to the hof of choice.  Rows of wooden tables in dim lighting with second hand cigarette smoke drifting through the rafters, intermittent roars of laughter and high pitched feminine squeals broke the constant drone of K-pop over the restaurant's loudspeakers.  The most prominent noise that truly broke the muffled off-key karaoke was the clack of the soju glass as it was pounded on the wooden tables by hof's many night owls.  The feel was similar to the environment in Korean bars like Crazy Hook in LA or Min Sok Chon in San Diego.

The first item we were served was a complimentary bowl of fried macaroni chips.  Okay, so I made that name up, but I have no idea what they are actually called.  The crunchy, edible Styrofoam peanuts got dropped on the table immediately upon arrival, and shortly after the little hollow chips were plopped down, everything became a blur... really.  Other than the preliminary rounds of soju and beer, the remainder of the night was a complete haze... and it didn't help that no one else could piece the night together.  So if I didn't actually remember anything, did it still count as a memorable first hof experience in Seoul?

When I woke up, I was enshrouded in bedsheets, and my left elbow was supporting my bruised face on a strangely warm tile floor.  A couch or perhaps just some pillows would have been nice, but I was just thankful that the floors were heated and that I didn't wake up on the streets of Seoul like these other party animals.  

Luckily, Seoul has many options for curing hangovers.  Rina led the way down some alleys in a neighborhood near Hanyang University to a restaurant that requires its guests to slip off their shoes before stepping inside.  After walking in I saw the many low sitting tables with individual cushions placed where the chairs would typically be.  Sitting crossed-legged on the wooden floors sounded like fun.  And just in case I keeled over from my hangover sweats, I'd already be closer to the floor.  Nice.

The hangover remedy placed in front of me was yukgaejang, a spicy beef soup simmered in red pepper, green onions, and bracken fern.  I didn't realize there was a fern in my soup until I researched it later.  I thought it was a token leaf that fell in from one of the banchan on the table.  But never mind that.  The spicy and fiery yukgaejang did a good job battling the burning residual alcohol that engulfed my head and stomach.

When I was finally ready for some solid food, I jumped in on the ojingeo bokkeum, squid stir-fried with vegetables and spicy red pepper paste (gochujang).  The sauce in the dish, made of spicy yet sweet gochujang, paired beautifully on top of steamed white rice.  The meaty squid, crunchy onions, and tingly green onion were cut to the similar length and size, and the red sauce that was drenched all over made my mouth water.  The radish kimchi was crisp and refreshing.  Its inner juices that burst with each bite were cool and sweet, and it helped clear any lingering spice on my tongue.  I completely forgot about my hangover by then.  It looked like Rina picked the right place for breakfast.

But what was for lunch? After an obligatory touristy stop at Gwanghwamun gate and Gwanghwamun Square, we strolled through the hip streets of Samjeong-dong and stopped at a chocolate shop before we taking respite at a hole-in-the-wall kimbap store.  If you don't already know what kimbap is, the best way I can describe it is the Korean version of sushi.  Whereas Japanese sushi is mostly rice and raw fish, Korean kimbap focuses more on the vegetables.  Another difference between kimbap and sushi is that meat is second in importance to the veggies, and the meat is almost always cooked.

The two types of pickled daikon, carrots, spinach, beef, and imitation crab meat rolled into this kimbap made for a perfect ten tummy tickling pieces of bite-sized heaven.  Yum.

Where there's rice, there's also noodles.  And I love noodles.  So I ordered a big bowl (big bowl is a bit of an understatement) of kimchi ramen.  The wavy strands of fried instant noodles dripping with kimchi broth led to a symphony of euphonious slurping noises... euphonious for me but more likely cacophonous for Rina and her good friend Hannah.  Granted, this was packaged ramen... the same packaged Shin Ramyun that we can get in the States.  But it was good.  And I became quite the chipper fellow.

Breakfast was soothing, and lunch was pleasing... but dinner was just plain magnificent.  No one comes to Korea without having its world famous barbecue.  And no one leaves without a taste of its amazing pork belly.  Don't get me wrong... kalbi and bulgogi are great, but springy little pieces of pork and its fat never tasted so good.  The sight of that gorgeous pork belly still raw sprinkled with just a touch of sea salt got my juices flowing.  It made for a great starting point for a night of memorable KBBQ.

If a piece of raw pork could make my mouth water like that, imagine what the cooked version of it with grill marks and crackling bubbles of oil could do.  Add a side of grilled onions, roasted garlic, and salt and peppered sesame oil for dip... and you can forget about all the beef on the table.  Really, forget beef.  Pork belly can solve the Korean's aversion to imported American beef.  You heard it here first.

Stuffed to the brim with barbecue pork belly, we made our way through the streets of Seoul (yet again, this seems to be a recurring theme) to Hongdae Park, which is where I had one of the most interesting people watching experiences of my life.  On this warm but breezy Saturday night, Hongdae Park was packed with college age young'uns in hoodies and baggy jeans rapping freestyle (in Korean, might I add) around a boombox.  There were girls with primped outfits and pressed hair sipping beer through straws (while their boyfriends held onto the cans and their designer hangbags).  But of all sights to see, what most surprised me was a throng of music fanatics jumping and dancing silently in front of a DJ booth wearing massive headphones... Hongdae Park gave me a first hand look at a silent disco.

In the video posted above, the first section is a group of young rappers (both aspiring and recreational) passionately practicing the love for their music.  Further back toward the right side of the shot is the silent disco.  Music lovers listen to the DJ's tracks with their own individual headphones.  The rhythmic music is a mix of the beats from the boombox and the music playing across the park, but it is not the same music that the DJ is spinning.  Music from the silent disco can't be heard until a set of your own headphones are put on.  I was quite intrigued to see a mass of people jumping up and down to silence and screaming, oohing and aahing whenever the DJ spun a fan favorite.

Fast forward through alcohol in plastic bags, shots with 151 set on fire, and beer galore to... midnight munchies! The kids in Korea were craving Taco Bell (and yes, there is a Taco Bell in Seoul), but Taco Bell had closed by the time we left the bar and lounges.  Lucky for me, we found a Korean shop that was open late.  This was my chance to dig into some famous Korean dishes... a hearty tofu stew (soon dubu), rice cake soup (tteokguk), and bibimbap, which I employed as my alcohol sponge for the night.

The next morning I was awakened by an earth shattering phone call from Myung, a roommate from college who had relocated to his motherland for work.  He treated me to what I can only describe as the cleanest, purest and most cleansing morning meal I've had in a long time.  It was a simple bowl of udon paired with a delicately formed onigiri... nothing spicy, nothing red, nothing oily or greasy... just Japanese influenced, petite culinary detox.

After a short visit with Myung, Rina and I visited Myeongdong for some dak galbi and a few final shots of soju.  The chicken was barbecued on a large round griddle along with onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, green onions, cabbage, and gochujang... all of which became folded with rice, eggs and sesame oil into an avalanche of fried rice at the very end of the meal.

Soju was brought back into my system as quickly as the clear udon broth flushed the alcohol out of my body from earlier that morning.  My final meal of my 48 hours in Korea completely negated the cleansing detoxifying meal from earlier in the morning.  But go big or go home, right? Or... go big, and then go home and rest.

48 hours in Seoul (half of which was blurred by soju-toxication) was truly not enough time to experience the sights and sounds of everything Korea had to offer.  I resorted to eating famous noodle dishes such as jjajangmyeon and naengmyeon at Incheon Airport while waiting for my transfer and home bound flights.  I will be back, Korea... there is much more pajeon to be had.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20110916-18

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Post 72.2: Taipei - Wrapping Up Two Weeks in Taiwan, Part Two

Wrapping up two weeks of eating in Taiwan is not an easy thing to do.  It seems like every time I have finished deciding on the highlights of the trip, I find more that simply can't be left out.  Here are some more places I frequented while in Taipei.

Big, fat, fluffy pork belly buns:
藍家割包 (Lan Family Guabao)
台北市 中正區 / Taipei City, Jhong Jheng District
羅斯福路 三段 / Roosevelt Road, Section 3
316巷 8弄 3號 / Lane 316, 8th Alley, No. 3
全家便利店隔壁 / Next door to Family Mart

Potstickers grilled to order:
永和佳佳香鍋貼/ Jia Jia Xiang
新北市 永和區  / New Taipei City, Yonghe District
 永和路 一段 114號 / Yonghe Road, Section 1, No. 114
臺灣銀行對面 / Across the street from Bank of Taiwan

AYCE spicy hot pot with unlimited Taiwan Beer:
台北市 中正區 / Taipei City, Jhong Jheng District
汀州路 三段 86號 / Tingzhou Road, Section 3, No. 86
捷運公館站 4號出口 / MRT: Gongguan Station, exit no. 4

Organic pineapple cakes:
幾分甜烘焙工坊/ How Sweet Bakery
台北市 松山區 / Taipei City, Songshan District
南京東 五段 80號 / Nanjing East Road, Section 5, No. 80 

Buttery soft cranberry pineapple cakes:
佳德糕餅 / ChiaTe
台北市 松山區 / Taipei City, Songshan District
南京東 五段 88號 / Nanjing East Road, Section 5, No. 88

Thanks to Christine, Diana, and Duke for suggesting and bringing me to these hot spots.  Thanks also to Anna, Anne, Christine, Diana, Jimmy, Kevin, Nicolas, Rina, Sophia, Tiffany, Yvonne and everyone else for romping around Taipei with me... fun times, indeed.  And extra big thank you to my aunt and my relatives... hope to see you all again soon! Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 201109XX

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Post 72.1: Taipei - Wrapping Up Two Weeks in Taiwan, Part One

I ate so much during my two weeks in Taipei that I could write one post about each meal per week for an entire year, and I wouldn't even be finished.  But since there's a huge backlog of meals from this year that need major attention, it's time for a Cliff's Notes version of my Taipei trip.  Here is one picture that was the most memorable part of each day of my two weeks in Taiwan.

September 1: Anxious to board
Sporting my enthusiasm for the trip by way of button at LAX.

September 2: A more than welcome first meal
After a total of 24 hours of traveling (front door to front door, including a 6 hour layover at Incheon Airport), I was desperate for any meal outside of an airplane or airport.  We stopped by a local place (金春發牛肉店) for their specialty beef dishes.  The curry chow mein (咖哩牛肉麵) and this bone marrow dish (骨髓) stir-fried with tomatoes, garlic, chili and Taiwanese BBQ sauce really hit the spot.

September 3: A cup of home
I discovered many Western style coffee shops serving American breakfasts after waking up in our newly relocated family home of Tamsui.  The cafe downstairs is owned by a Taiwanese-Australian, and it serves eggs, toast, and lattes.  Heinz and Tabasco, labels of American authenticity are self-serve, a friendly reminder of home.

September 4: Pineapple cake by the box
Overly excited at the thought of pineapple cake, I immediately bought two boxes of 10 each upon seeing the organic variety displayed in a local bakery in Yonghe District.  Pineapple cake or shortbread, one of Taiwan's most famous pastries, must be consumed immediately due to the lack of preservatives.  I had forgotten that I had two weeks left before returning stateside.  Consequently, I ate one pineapple cake per day til the day of departure... then I bought a few more boxes to take home.

September 5: Star sighting
A fellow Triton invited us to CTV (中視) for a taping of One Million Star (超級星光大道), Taiwan's version of American Idol.  The majority of the audience was middle-aged housewives who squealed like school girls at the sighting of Aska Yang (楊宗緯).  If seeing Aska weren't enough, a connection to the executive level of CTV led us to meet David Tao (陶喆) who happened to be a guest judge on the show.

September 6: Student union
I met up with Diana at Insomnia (睡不著), a dimly lit café filled with local college students chatting about the campus gossip and studying for exams.  Diana and I reacquainted ourselves with simple phrases in Mandarin such as 7-Up (七喜), long removed from our memory due to the lack of language practice in America.

September 7: Taiwanese live to eat
During a visit to Sit Fun for traditional Taiwanese food, my uncle pointed out some of the local sayings posted up on the restaurant's walls.  This phrase, uttered in the local Taiwanese tongue, says that eating trumps even the emperor.

September 8: A bowl of Taiwan's national dish
Almost a week into my trip, I finally scored some beef noodle soup from Old Chao.  Sweating from the humidity, the heat, and the temperature of the piping hot soup makes for an exhilarating eating experience.

September 9: I'm eating... don't bother me
Anna stealthily takes a shot of me scarfing down some noodles from my favorite hole-in-the-wall while my aunt peers over from her side of the table.  Spicy stinky tofu gets heated up by the fire under the steel hot pot.  Noodles and stinky tofu... just another day in Taipei.

September 10: Merciful sub-tropic summer weather
Summer in Taiwan is a force to be reckoned with, but one this sunny Saturday afternoon in Taipei, the sky revealed some beautiful blue hues to display as a backdrop at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

September 11: Mid-Autumn Festival
This holiday means different things to different people.  For some, it might mean a day to eat mooncakes to commemorate the overthrow of the Mongol rule in the Yuan Dynasty.  For others, it might simply mean an outdoor barbecue in the summer night.  For my family, it means eating Japanese food... no clue why... we've eaten sushi and sashimi on this holiday for years now.  Not to break from tradition, my aunt and I dined at a Japanese restaurant (川賀屋日本料理) in Tamsui District.  While there I was able to capture the celebration in the streets outside the restaurant.

September 12: Sausage and beer, Taiwan style
What's better than grilled Taiwanese sausage? Grilled Taiwanese sausage wrapped with a sticky rice bun! We call this delightful delicacy small sausage wrapped with big sausage (大腸包小腸).  Throw in an ice cold Taiwan beer... and I'll be able to tackle on any crowd and navigate the mini mazes at Shilin Night Market (士林夜市).

September 13: Riding along the Tamsui River... on a bike
Having finally mastered how to bike ride in the recent years, namely from a biking adventure around Stanley Park in Vancouver, Rina urged me to take another biking tour... this time along the Tamsui River in Taipei.  We took the ferry across away from the city to the Bali District (八里區) side of the river and rented bikes for just 100 NTD (a little more than 3 USD) for unlimited usage.  Low tide, fishermen taking respite, an ah gong practicing some tai chi... there was something just so tranquil and peaceful on this side of the river.  This is something I must do again.

September 14: Uni fusion
A visit to Taipei or Tokyo requires a trip to indulge in exotic Japanese fusion pastas from Bellini.  Thanks Nicholas and Tiffany for joining me in the cod roe spaghetti with yuzu (和風柚子明太子麵), calamari and squid ink linguine (茄丁墨魚汁扁平), and this sea urchin cream linguine with king crab meat and mushrooms (北海道蟹肉膽醬扁平).  Oh, and don't forget about the two pizzas, appetizer, dessert, and bottle of red... a great way to wrap up two weeks of fooding in Taipei.  Good job, guys.

September 15: Nanjing Road nightscape
Even at midnight the streets of Taipei bustle with rapid movement from mopeds, taxis, buses and pedestrians.  While standing on a pedestrian walkway over Nanjing Road on the final night of my trip in Taiwan, I wondered where everyone needed to go in such a hurry.  This city definitely inspires you to go, go, go!

September 16: A contrast to city life
From bustling Taipei proper to Tamsui District in New Taipei, anyone can distinguish downtown city life from what is arguably one of the calmer, more serene suburban areas of the city.  An hour outside of Taipei City, you can hear the song of the cicada louder than the roar of the moped motor.  There is fresh air, blue sky, and a street to safely jaywalk across.

There are bound to be more trips to Taipei in the near future... so far I've counted six visits in six years.  Two weeks is not nearly enough to capture the essence that is Taiwan let alone experience the magnificence that is the city of Taipei.  From the (second) tallest building in the world to the most humblest of people, the Taiwanese have really contributed to a place worth visiting.  Au revoir for now, Taipei... I'm off to Seoul.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

金春發牛肉店 (beef specialty restaurant)
台北市 大同區 / Taipei City, Datong District
天水路 20 / Tianshui Road, No. 20

Insomnia Café (睡不著)
台北市 大安區 / Taipei City, Da An District
師大路 93巷 13號 / Shida Road, Lane 93, No. 13

Kawaga Ya (川賀屋日本料理)

新北市 淡水區 / New Taipei City, Tamsui District
中山北路 一段 157號 / Zhongshan North Road, Section 1, No. 157
頂好超市對面/ Across from Wellcome supermarket

Bellini Caffé
台北市 中山區/ Taipei City, Jhongshan District
復興北路 288號 / Fuxing North Road, No. 288 
捷運中山國中站 / MRT: Zhongshan Jr. High School Station

ML - 201109XX

Friday, December 23, 2011

Post 71: Taipei - Atkins Impossible (Taipei: Datong District / 台北: 大同區)

When Anna visited Taipei during my trip this summer, she commented that there was bread everywhere in Taipei.  The first time that she said there was bread everywhere, I laughed and didn't say anything in response.  The second time Anna that said it (about an hour later), I passed her observation off as something a first time visitor to Taipei would say.  The next time that Anna mentioned it, she said, "Wow, there really is bread everywhere here," so I actually gave it some thought.  Everywhere I looked there was some sort of bakery... whether traditional or modern, whether truly Taiwanese or influenced by the Japanese or French, whether a brick and mortar store or one of those little shops inside the metro station... Anna was right.  I guess I had never noticed it because bakeries were literally everywhere.  For bread lovers in Taipei, the Atkins diet is simply impossible.

I've decided to post on the moment I realized that Atkins was truly impossible for me.  It was when I was walking around Zhongshan Station, and a window display full of bread caught my eye.  I didn't even look up to check the name of the store.  Knowing that I wanted what I saw (not even hungry at the time), I walked into the shop and picked up a tray and tongs immediately.  It was Ijysheng Bakery (一之軒時尚烘焙) that I had walked into, and this is what I picked up:

Cod roe French bread (明太子法國麵包)

Nothing can keep me from anything that has cod roe... even if there's just a little bit.  Lucky for me, this loaf of French bread has cod roe all over the top and in between the top and bottom crusts.  The cod roe gets toasted after it gets smeared over the bread, which means two things: the cod roe essence is completely baked into the bread, and it can't escape the bread.  This cod roe French bread can't escape from my mouth either.  Cue evil laughter... my aunt sliced it up for me, and it was all gone before she could return from the kitchen.

Shenmu tree bread (神木麵包)

The idea is that the little swirls of this red bean bread represent the inner vascular tissue and outer bark that run through the length of the tree.  What may be water and sugar that typically run through xylem and phloem in a tree is butter cream and red bean in this faux chocolate bread.  With just a sprinkle of powdered sugar on top, shredding the fibers of this fluffy, sweet bread apart is only half the fun of eating it.

High rise cheese toast (高達起士吐司)

A crispy, cheesy crust, a pillowy soft interior, and cubes of heavenly cheese throughout... what more could you want from a mini loaf of cheese bread? I love tearing the slightly burnt crust of cheese off the top first and then picking out the little cubes of cheese lodged in the niches of the bread.  The only thing better than this is a second loaf.

Chocolate popsicle (巧克力冰棒)

I picked this up for one reason only: it looked cool.  I mean, it's bread in the shape of a popsicle, and it even has the popsicle stick holding it all together.  I wasn't the only one who thought it was cool.  Apparently, my little cousin did too because while I was polishing off the cod roe bread, he picked up the chocolate popsicle bread and chomped down on it.  Sadly, I have no idea what it tastes like, but the swirls of chocolate and the crushed peanuts on top sure look tantalizing.

German cheese (德國鹹乳酪)

I'm not sure what exactly constitutes this as German cheese... but if I were to name the pastry, I would simply call it a ham and cheese quiche.  Why? Well, because it's simply a ham and cheese quiche.  It's buttery and crumbly (instead of flaky) on the outside, and it's buttery and creamy on the inside... and it's even better reheated in the oven.

Aside from the fact that I ate everything in sight (including French toast with a fried chicken filet sandwiched in the middle and two grilled Taiwanese sausages from the vendor next door), I would submerge my fork into another one of these Taiwanese-German quiches... and another mini loaf of cheese bread.  Oh, and that cod roe bread too.  Yum.

On a slight tangent, Ijysheng Bakery produced an overly emotional, heart-wrenching melodramatic video about a boy's dreams of his mother's hand-made mochi.  I got a good enough kick out of it to share with everyone.

Some of my favorite bakeries in Taipei include Maison Kayser in the basement floor of Breeze Center (微風廣場) and chain bakery Sun Merry (聖瑪莉).  There's also another bakery inside Sogo that makes an almond and chocolate, double crusted wheel of bread with chocolate hazlenut ganache spread inside (pictured above).  My favorite bakeries in the Los Angeles area include Cuban rooted Porto's Bakery, the French influenced but Japanese owned Frances Bakery in Little Tokyo, Taiwanese chain JJ Bakery, and the ever popular 85°C Bakery, which sprouted from its roots as a coffee house in Taiwan.

My love for bread is too great.  Just last month I scarfed down four small loaves of squid ink garlic cheese bread from 85C with half an hour of purchase... bread addiction, much? Sorry Atkins, you'll never win me over.  Until the next carb crazed moment, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

Ijysheng Bakery (一之軒時尚烘焙)
台北市 大同區 / Taipei City, Datong District
南京西路 33號 / Nanjing West Road, No. 33
捷運中山站 2號出口 / MRT: Zhongshan Station, exit no. 2
台北牛乳大王對面 / Directly across Taipei Milk King

ML - 20110906