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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The End's Not Near

On the eve my departure...

Literally, I'm leaving for the airport in about an hour. The sad thing is, I'm feeling pretty much the same way I felt the day before leaving the United States. I guess the thing is, after being in a place for a certain amount of time, you start to get sort of attached to it in a way. It's not exactly home, but there's people here who you've become close with, places you're familiar with, smells and sights you've grown accustomed to. You have that coffee shop you stop in at least every week where the guy knows your order, and your favorite spot right in the corner. You've memorized the bus schedule by heart so you no longer have that scary sinking feeling when you have to venture out on your own. You finally have your stuff in just the right arrangement, and yet...after all this adjusting, it's time to move on again. What is it about human nature that makes us prone to mold, to adapt to our surroundings? Is it pure drive for survival? Or is it a nesting instinct? Even nomads have to make their bed to rest for a short time. So what am I to take from this? That South Korea was only a place to make my bed for a time before moving on?
I've learned a lot from coming here. I've learned that sometimes hand gestures are the best form of communication. I've learned that a smile and thank you can go a long way. I've learned that life isn't fair, and sometimes that's okay. I've learned to take criticism with a grain of salt. And most of all, I've learned to glean everything you can from each experience, because it is just that, an experience. Some of the best memories I have in Korea were the spontaneous ones, the ones I never planned for, never prepared for, never could have prepared for. So I guess this was my biggest lesson. Prepare all you can, but most of all, be prepared for not being prepared.
I'm on to another adventure now, off to enigmatic and mystifying Vietnam where new experiences await. So is life, "everything passes, everything changes...just do what you think you should do." Bob Dylan said it right, in the end it's all gonna change anyways, but that doesn't mean your decisions won't have an impact...on you, on the people around you, on the world you live in. Live with curiosity, live with a drive to do the things you feel compelled to do, and live with the remembrance that "everything you do will be insignificant, but you should do it anyways."

From A to Kimchi

So I've been here all this time, and I realized.... I haven't hardly touched on the subject of food! How could I leave out such a rich and necessary element of Korean culture? I guess I'm just a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of dishes to cover! I haven't gotten a chance to try everything, but I kept my mind open to trying new things, and I did my best to try as many different things as possible; here's the short list:

KIMCHI. The holy grail of Korean foods. Fermented spicy cabbage equals yuck zone for me, but Koreans have an affinity for it like no one else. I can't tell you exactly what it is about this side dish that makes Koreans crazy for it, is it the alluring red color? The spicy flavor? That wonderfully stinky cabbage smell? The world may never know, but suffice it to say, you will see this at every Korean meal, even breakfast.
Takuan, pickled radish....also a common compliment to Korean meals. It has a slightly acidic, yet sweet taste which I've grown to like, also, it's believed to aid digestion.

Bibimibap- literally meaning "mixed meal" It has a little bit of everything served inside a sizzling hot pot to fry the rice sitting underneath. 

Cold noodles. Pretty much what the name suggests, this dish is basically noodles served in ice water. I don't know why, they just are. I guess in the summertime it's just too hot to eat that cup-o-noodles!

Gimbap, which is basically the Korean equivalent of sushi.

The thing with gimbap is you never quite know what you're getting...this one has egg, some vegetables, and some type of ham, or spam? (Did I mention Koreans love spam?)

Tebokki- rice cakes served in a hot red sauce. Chewy and filling, and also a common street food. 

beef bone soup: Honestly, I ordered this one without having any idea what I was ordering (the result of not being able to read the menu, and having no Korean with me to translate) the best thing I learned to do in this situation is just to follow the pictures. So I did just that and pointed to the one I thought looked the most delicious. The man ended up bringing us this huge pot of soup, and a bottle of some of the worst tasting alcohol I've ever tasted. But the soup turned out to be pretty delicious and satisfying! Plus there was this cute older Korean couple next to us who offered advice on how to properly eat it...with the help of their pocket translators of course!

Bulgogi! A necessary part of every Korean menu! But it's not as common as I would have originally fact, beef is somewhat hard to come by here in Korea since much of it is imported. In any case, bulgogi has a delicious flavor to it, and note all the complimentary side dishes- kimchi, korean "cole slaw", bean sprouts, tofu, bok choy etc. 

The less cultured version of bulgogi: The McDonald's Bulgogi Burger. For all you food snobs, before you turn up your nose, I must say, I'm normally not a fan of McD's burgers, they are something akin to a tasteless lump of meat to me- but the bulgogi burger has a tasty glaze on it, making it more tolerable, haha.

Korean hotpot. While there are many versions of this dish, not only in Korea, but also across the world, the version I had is pretty standard. A basic broth is heated right on your table (a pretty common thing to see in Korea) and then the server will periodically come by to drop in vegetables, beef, seafood, noodles, complimented by garlic and a myriad of sauces. When the last bits of broth are finished, the server drops in some rice to soak up the tasty morsels left at the bottom of the pot, delish!

Notice the burner built into the table? Like I said, this is a very common Korean cooking method, and while it offers the convenience of watching your food be cooked properly right in front of you, it has the same effect of hibachi in that it gives you that burnt/oily smell when you leave the restaurant...oh well, all part of the experience!

Looks like chicken eh? It's actually seagull! The texture isn't as chewy as I expected, and it actually has quite a delicious flavor to it, highly recommend trying, if only to get the opportunity to dive into something new.

Chicken Galbi, basically marinated chicken in a spicy sauce. This is how it starts out, but afterwards, it ends up looking something more like this: 

spicy and delicious.

An unhealthy portion of meat, I am aware (typical American!) But we were at a meat buffet, $16 for all you can eat...a steal for some hard to find beef! Once again, the ubiquitous table burner....making us work for our all-you-can-eat beef, sheesh. 

Grilled pork lettuce wraps. I featured these early in my blog, since this was my first real Korean meal, still I have had it many times since...I just can't seem to get away from it. Koreans and foreigners alike love it, and what's not to love! It's like a big fat piece of bacon just calling your name :)

sashimi from fresh as you can get since we were right by the ocean. 
This lady served as both our waitress and our cook as we ordered, and then she walked into the adjoining room and started cutting and slicing away!

Maeuntang- spicy fish stew. The whole fish is boiled in a spicy broth with scallions & other vegetables. Honestly, I did really enjoy this dish...although it really started to burn my lips after a few sips. I guess I just haven't built up the Korean tolerance to spicy food yet, haha.

This was my experience of Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving...(thank you to my friend Amy!) As you can see, just like American Thanksgiving, no sparing the amount of dishes.

Pajeon- spring onion pancake. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Seriously, so delicious. It's often known as "Korean pizza" but really, it's more like a pancake. There are all different kinds, but my favorite is seafood, with squid and green onion cooked inside.

On to the weird and wonderful. Beondegi, which means "pupa" in Korean is a boiled silkworm. Couldn't bring myself to trying some, if not for the worm-like form, than definitely for the revolting smell. Easy to find along most main streets, just follow your nose!

Dog soup. Yes, Korea is possibly the only developed country around that still commonly eats dog. Although even most of the Koreans I met shriveled their nose at the mention of this dish, it's still pretty commonly found in restaurants here.

I swear, if I never see another instant noodle package again, I will be a happy girl. While I was just as happy with a bag of Ramen as any other regular person...well actually, more than the regular person..I was actually quite a fan. Since coming here however, I have I'm pretty sure my sodium levels have skyrocketed, I've tried pretty much every type on the shelf- and let me tell you, they all pretty much taste the same. Plus, they have the same effect as take out Chinese food in that, you're hungry again in an hour. 

Who is Mr. Pizza? Only the best pizza chain in Korea! Mr. Pizza markets their brand well, with the slogan, "love for women" to brag about their fresh ingredients and "healthy" choices- (although, who are we kidding? Pizza is NOT a vegetable, as much as United States Congress would like us to believe)
don't believe Koreans can make good pizza? Check out this video, a commercial for Mr. Pizza. Hilarious :D

Mr. Pizza is pretty darn good quality in my opinion, and what's more, there are wayyy more options to choose from than in the United States. So you want some potato wedges and corn kernels on that? No problem! How about some sweet-potato filled crust? Coming your way! There seems to be no end to the toppings Korean will put on pizza....kimchi pizza  anyone?

and here we have the three necessary components to compliment every Korean meal: beer, makgeolli, and soju.


Monday, December 5, 2011

The Rise of the Bang

One Korean fad I haven't seen or heard of in any other country is that of the "bang" Okay, now that you've got your snickers out... it's not that kind of bang, although the locations are frequently patronized by couples, but in Korean, the word bang means room, and it's come to represent a huge culture fad for the younger Korean generation. Where did this fad come from? And how did it become so popular? Well, let's start by introducing different types of bangs:

You've got your standard video bang, a cheaper alternative to a movie, and often with free snacks... plus, you can talk or take a nap and no one will judge! 

Then you've got the PC bang, popular with young kids and gamers who want to kill a couple of hours surfing online or playing starcraft (super popular in Korea!)

Then you've got the norebang, by far the most popular Korean tradition of karaoke rooms. Okay, you can find karaoke rooms in plenty of other countries, but Koreans take them to the next level. And after a long night out, it's a great way to unwind. 

norebang, literally- "singing room"

yep, that's me! Okay, I'm not participating in this particular song, but I sang, I swear!

Then you've got your multi-bang, which has got everything from DVD players to PS3s, and often free snacks and drinks are included in the price of admission (hardly ever more than $20 for a couple hours) 

Finally, we have the jimjibang... a traditional Korean bathhouse.

start with a nice relaxing soak in one of the salt baths...

followed by a little shower...

and relax away!
Oh...and did I mention people go naked? For the non-exhibitionists, I wouldn't recommend trying...go naked, or don't go at all, it's part of the jimjibang experience.'s a little uncomfortable, but if you can get yourself outside of your comfort might find yourself feeling sort of...relaxed!

I'll admit, I was a little skeptical before trying. What's the point really? I can watch a movie or take a shower at home, why pay to do it somewhere else? But, as I got to trying the different kinds of bangs, I'm starting to get why they're so popular. For one, real estate in Seoul is expensive, and well... cramped. Therefore, spending a couple extra dollars for some leg room doesn't seem like such a bad trade-off. Also, for younger couples, it offers a little privacy. Since most college students live at home, and bringing your significant other home to mom and dad is something akin to a marriage proposal, bangs offer a little privacy for the lovebirds without having to resort to a cheesy love motel. In general, Americans shy away from this concept of bangs because, frankly, we like our privacy. Why would I take a nap in a room with strangers when I can do it in the privacy of my own home? I had a hard time figuring this one out, so I asked my Korean friends: 

me: so why do you go to the jimjibang?
korean: to relax
me: yes but why don't you go home and relax?
korean: well, at the jimjibang we can just come and do nothing for a little bit
me: okay, but why can't you do that at home? 
korean: well, we can, but jijibang is for relaxing
me: yes but why?

after about five minutes I gave up and satisfied myself with the obvious's a Korean thing.  Koreans work hard, study hard, party hard...turns out, they even turn relaxing into an extreme activity! Later on, my friend pointed out to me that an inherent advantage of the jimjibang are the heated floors, a long held Korean tradition, seen even in the ancient palaces around Seoul. Older people especially crave the feeling of a warm wooden floor to sleep on, not often included in more modern apartment buildings. So there you have it, privacy, relaxation, warm floors...what more could one wish for? 

Jeju is for Lovers

In my attempt to cram in every possible experience in my last few weeks here in Korea, I ventured on a trip to Jeju Island, a volcanic island off the Southern coast of Korea. Because it's an island, the culture of Jeju is distinct and somewhat unique from the rest of Korea. For example, Bangsatap, a spiritual tradition of piling rocks while saying a prayer in order to ward of evil. The island is covered with tall towers of rocks, a reminder of Jeju's rich tradition of folklore and traditional stories.


 In recent years, it has become a popular vacation and honeymoon destination for both Korean citizens and foreigners. For those visiting Korea, it's definitely a must-see. While tourism is popular here, you will nevertheless feel like you are on a tropical island far from the hustle and bustle of Seoul's streets. Because Jeju is a honeymoon destination, you are likely to find a myriad of quirky museums and theme parks such as Loveland, the Teddy Bear Museum, Mini Land, and many more. The nice thing about these museums is that they are located within a close proximity of each other, making it easy to hit a bunch in a couple hours of a day. On the other hand, don't go in these museums expecting a lot...they are mediocre excuses to draw in tourists, but still fun for a quick look-around. On the subject of proximity, the only way to get around Jeju is to drive. So, look into renting a car for a couple days and follow the Olle Trail, which will take you around the coastline of the island as you hit all the major destinations along the way. So you're not interested in kitschy sculptures and stuffed animals? Opt for the nature route- there's more than enough to go around in Jeju! Here's some of the highlights:

Jeonbang Waterfall

Sangumburi Crater
from the bottom of Sangumburi Volcanic Crater

coastline scenery

Manjanggul Caves & Lava Tubes- the longest in the world!

Also the largest lava stalactite in the world
 Manjanggul Caves & Lava Tubes have been named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, as well as a UNESCO heritage site, so it is definitely a must see while in Jeju. 

In warmer weather, Jeju is a great location for scuba, but since it was only about 10C on our trip, we opted for horseback riding instead. There is a saying in Korea: "People should go to Seoul, and horses should go to Jeju" and in this case, the horses have in fact brought the people! It's easy to find places that offer horseback riding, and it's a really great experience as well as a good opportunity to see the landscape

Another spot we decided not to miss were the green tea farms of Jeju. Okay, so it's not the most exciting trip, but I think it's a trip worth taking nonetheless, if only for the endless supply of green tea. Literally, you can drink all the green tea you want.. (A decision my bladder was regretting on the car ride to the airport!) Aside from this, the farms are actually quite beautiful, and they offer a view you won't forget...


look at all that yummy green tea... I'm a big fan of green tea normally, but this was out of this world green tea, the flavor was so intense, you knew it was fresh. 

we couldn't resist some green tea ice cream...yum! :)

this particular farm offered a green tea maze....more difficult than it seems, we couldn't find our way out!

While you're picking up some yummy green tea in Jeju, don't forget to get some chocolate as well! Jeju is famous for it:

this particular flavor is tangerine, the most popular choice for tourists and locals alike
Jeju is also famous for its Gamgyul, super sweet and delicious tangerines grown in on Jeju's warm island. Driving around Jeju, you'll see orchards everywhere... who couldn't resist picking up a few to snack on during the car ride? 

ripe for the picking...