Sunday, February 20, 2011

Good bye Seoul...Ahn Young!

Tomorrow I board the plane back home.  I'm looking forward to sleeping in my bed and seeing my dog.  Unfortunately Michael won't be there when I get there, but I'm trying not the think about that as I'm trying to jam almost a months worth of clothes, gifts, toiletries back into my green suitcase.

I'm satisfied that I've been able to reflect Seoul through my eyes...mostly because I never write anything down and it's nice to leave knowing that I've documented something other than 200 photos of Namsan Mountain and Korean Folk Villages.

I'm forever grateful to my cousins on my mother's side who spend their vacations navigating me through Seoul, translating, and showing me that squid ink really isn't anything to be afraid of.  It just turns everything black.  Anyway, I was touched that they would cart around their clumsy American cousin.

I totally thought I was going to lose weight as I walked (while eating street food) everywhere (to go eat). 

Fried Chicken Thigh on a stick smothered in spicy Korean red pepper sauce.  I know you can't tell by the picture, but I am lunging in excitement.  First food lunge ever.

Since this is a cooking blog I guess I should share one of my favorite meals here.  There are plenty of restaurants here that are just like back in the states.  Wait staff (NO tipping in Korea), tables with long legs and chairs, Cokes...however my favorite were the ones that literally look like you are stepping into someone's old fashioned living room.  Heated wooden floors, heavy wooden doors that slide, short tables with mats to sit on the floor, and you must take your shoes off before entering the dining area.

We drove and drove and drove for miles until we took a sharp turn under an underpass into a small restaurant situated next to a mountain and a rabbit stew house.  Restaurants in Korea generally specialize in one thing and you will know it by the name or reputation. We stopped at a "Bo Saam" house.  This just means you will be wrapping your delicious food in some sort of lettuce, cabbage, leaf, whatever is green. We were in the country, about to eat some real country food.  Food that makes you feel so at home that you are compelled to take the dishes to the sink in the back.

I don't like to write about food because a. I hate writing.  b. Writing never does justice to what is going on in the mouth.  But I can say that kimchee was crisp, spicy, salty and sweet.  It reminded me of tasting my mother's kimchee as a kid right after she made it.  Some people prefer the stuff that's been able to sit and ferment longer.  I prefer it fresh, right after it's made.  There was a piping hot pot of Soon Dubu Chigae (spicy tofu soup) with home made tofu and a spicy broth that makes my mouth water simply thinking about it.  There's whole fried fish (guts and all, just avoid them), fermented bean paste stew, sprouts....the table is a rainbow.

Nobody speaks, the universal silence of  "this is some good food".

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The machines all sing me a chorus and a real life European shoulder bag

-  My insides have finally adjusted to the spicy/unusual food, jerky taxi driver driving, the subway and buses.  Now it's time for me to leave next week.  I am finally able to enjoy myself without wanting to shut myself in a dark room.

- Nobody, nooobody ever has their cell phone on vibrate.  It is generally on the loudest setting with the flashiest song.  I was at my cousin's daughter's kindergarten recital (which was...the cutest) and at least 4 phones singing songs of techno beats, Tchaikovsky, K-Pop and the like went off.

The equivalent to our youth dressed in tri -cornered hats and bonnets. Only this is cuter.

-  Speaking of which...everything mechanical in Korea sings rather than beeps.  Why beep when you can...SING?  The rice cookers, notifications on the subway that tell you when a stop is arriving, doors even (a lot of apartment complexes have electronic doors)..they all sing a melodic jingle as they are operated.  We even went across some rumble strips on the highway and no joke the different frequencies formed a melody...Mary Had a Little Lamb.  My mom is constantly asking where that noise is coming from.  Something is usually being turned on or off.

-  5 out of the 5 computers I've used only have IE installed. One had IE6.  I expected more out of an incredibly technically advanced society.  I mean, there are automatic door handle sanitizers on some doors...yet the browser of choice is one that doesn't work.

-  Noodles and soup are to be slurped.  At first this was alarming.  However, now that I've been a slurper I understand why.  It actually does taste better this way, and if every one is doing, hey, no big whoop...I will do it too.  I think it has to do with the way the food moves across the tongue.  Have you ever been to a wine tasting class and they tell you to slurp you wine across your tongue so you can properly taste the wine in all its glory?  Well, this is what that's like.  And it cools things down quite nicely.

Lots of floor eating.  This is in a take your shoes off at the door and step up to the floor where the tables are.  My butt and legs constantly fall asleep.

-  I couldn't resist...though this is more of a satchel, I thought the British nationalism would be a nice touch.

-  Korean food really does taste better in Korea.  The cabbage is sweeter, which I think makes for a more balanced kimchi.  I went back to the little hole in the wall near my aunt's studio and had another piping hot (they boil the soup right at the table) pot of the seafood bouillabaisse.  Then had a cup of slightly burned rice bits (the kind that stick to the bottom of the rice cooker) and hot water, served from a small stone stove attached to a stove pipe in the middle of the dining area.  I felt like it would be an insult to take pictures...this one will just have to live in my memory.

- To clear the record...Koreans are not poor drivers, they are just really aggressive.  And they can seriously park their car into the tiniest of tiniest.  I seen it!

- My aunt is a talented sculptor.  She ever let me play with some is my masterpiece.  A naked chubby girl with a crazy perm (I copied from a picture in a book I saw of Eve).

-  I found this dog on Namsan Mountain.  I wanted to take him home.

I followed him around screaming "here doggy", there was no owner in site. My mom told me not to touch him and that he probably doesn't understand English.

- My mother just asked "what is that noise? Is some one's phone ringing?" was the washing machine.  The load is done.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Chicken Butt and Potty Humor.

- Turns out I was wrong. So wrong.  My Korean age is 31...not 30!  Give a girl a break.  However, I did get carded at the movie theatre the other day.  This happens a lot in the states...I didn't expect it to happen here.  Turns out we even fool ourselves.

-  Korea is very high-tech.  Everyone has a smartphone here.  Even the streets have giant interactive, touch phone-shaped screens that provide maps of the city, tourist attractions and will take your picture and send it to your smartphone.  This has to be the coolest/germ-ridden thing ever.

(us examining the picture and putting a tasteful frame around it before sending it to our respective phones)
 Yet, the bathroom I tried to use in the subway looked like a porcelain hole in the floor.  I had not the patience (nor the knees) for the gymnastics involved in trying the relieve myself.  I was later told by my cousin that the hole in the ground/floor was an old school thing.  I am so glad I am visiting Korea after most of the buildings caught up with more modern plumbing.

-   The cars have small wide screens for GPS...and get this...a TV.  This has to be dangerous.

-  I'm learning lots of good Korean cusswords.

- I finally got a night out in the city to do some drinking.  Turns out I am a heavy drinker, even for a Korean.  My cousins told me that Korea was number 3 in big world drinkers (after Ireland and Russia) I wore my extra thick drinking pants.  You serve yourself liquor here.  It's pretty tight...and can get out of hand fast.  Soju is a lot stronger than I thought.

In Kangnam...famous for its impressive bar (or "sul jcheep" translated literally to "house of booze")  per square foot.
-  I ate chicken sphincter.  Please do not confuse this with the delicious "Pope's nose" or the area by the tail feathers.  This is actual chicken asshole.  "Dak-Ddong-Jcheep".  This literally translates to " Chicken Poo House".  So descriptive when you think about it. 

Harness Your Chicken Butt

Anthony Bourdain ate this on the Korean No Reservations episode.  I too was downing soju (distilled rice liquor)...which I think is required to drunkenly forget that you are eating chicken asshole.

Me.  Dropping chicken butt.  A combination of inebriation and weak chopstick hands.
-  I was a little full from the I missed out again on some street food...but it was tempting.  It's been cold out, so the venders all have thick plastic curtains around everything.

-  Irish pubs in Korean are gimmicky too. 

And holy chicken asshole are they expensive.


I will miss you Michael...have a safe trip and hurry home to your wife.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Paradise in Phuket and other things I shouldn't be laughing at.

I constantly balk at the act of snapping photos of the colorful variations of the English language I see here.  The way I see it is, who cares..the point is generally coming across.  The translations are generally literal and are on the verge of getting it, but no cigar.  For example, I saw a reusable canvas bag yesterday at the mall, presumably promoting the "green" movement here in Korea, that read " I Love Growing Grass".  Or the "Face Shop" (Body Shop knock off) that sells skin care for the face.  I could go on.

The versions of American food, if not coming from a chain restaurant, here are liberal translations as well.  I had a pasta with white sauce and I'm pretty sure the bechamel was not made with white flour (rice flour maybe? is that even possible?).

This got me thinking foriegn countries need to be authentic in translating the western culture?  If a culture wants to enjoy a food or language in their own context, they should totally be able to. 

Which came to my conclusion that if I opened an authentic American food restaurant here it would probably flop.  Unless I serve kimchee on burgers...which isn't a terrible idea.

Moving on.  Some notes.

-  My gauche Korean continues to embarrass me and has inspired me to purchase "Survival Korea" written by an English's pretty good so far.  But I still feel like an idiot.

-  Turns out I have a but of a country accent with certain Korean words I say!  Who knew!  My mother grew up outside of Seoul on the countryside, so this makes sense.  But I've been laughed at by my proper Seoul cousins.

-  Though people like to push you around on the one says anything about it.  I kind of like it.  Having made the trip from the Vienna stop into Arlington every day for who knows how long on the DC Metro, it is refreshing to not have to constantly apologize for bumping...or hear fights break out from a cranky rush hour rider.  My rifled responses of "Excuse me, sorry, etc" only make me look like a foreigner.

-  The subways here are creepily quiet and pleasantly clean.  What a fastidious people.

-  I couldn't resist showing you what the Etiquette Bell/Button looks like.  I pressed it for shits and giggles (wacka wacka)

- Explaining what FML meant to my cousin was hilarious.

-  I'm warming up to foods I wouldn't touch in the states.  I had a seafood bouillabaisse in a tiny hole in the wall with six tables that will knock anyone's socks off.  But that's always how it is right?  The obscure mom and pop places are always the best.

- My family continues to amaze me in a way I'm puzzled that I'm related.  My uncle and cousin are mechanical engineers and build actual this stereo (below).  My other cousin is a music producer. My aunt sculpts...she took me to her studio, I'm actually working on a little thing myself.  Hopefully I will be able to mail it back home!

- Vinyl is in.  (Don't know if you can see...but Band of Horses, Belle and Sebastion, Radiohead, Gorillaz, Curtis Mayfield)

-  I'm having a bit of an identity crisis.  I'm Asian and not white (obviously) in America, but I'm not Korean enough in Korea.  So...anyone want to claim me for the racial draft?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Family...numbah one! Beating indigestion...numbah two!

For being such a sturdy looking girl, I am made of weak constitution.

I'm thinking the jet lag, overindulgence of the pork belly saam, and the worst bus ride of my life all led to the very moment I found myself hurling in the Lotte Department store ( pretty much as fancy as it gets in Seoul’s Meongdong neighborhood)...5 minutes before I was going to meet one of my cousins for the first time.

Let me back up.

The day before we visited a Korean Folk Village.  I have to say it was special to see how my people lived back in the day.  I have about a hundred photographs of horse stalls and huts (think...a Korean Williamsburg)...but this was my old fashion kitchen! Imagine getting served a piping hot bowl of kimchee stew from one of these bad boys:

Also, did you know that we had heated floors back in the day before electricity?  The floors were heated by a fire in another room using the “ondol system”. And magic.  For more pictures, please refer to the Flikr page.

For lunch we stopped at a Korean BBQ place.  If I'm in Korea do I need
to put the Korean in front of everything?

Anyway.  The set up was cool and I overdid it i admit.
But not more than usual.  Pictured below, pork belly and pork kalbi over hot coals. 

The next day I was to go with my cousin Hak Seung to meet my cousin Wookguk in Meongdong (Seoul is broken up into several neighborhoods).  I had skipped a few meals, I strangely still felt full from the night before.  I was also still terribly jet lagged. I felt as if I hadn't slept in days.  The town is a good 30 minute bus ride from Bundang where I am staying. 

Allow me to set the stage.

My cousin and I board the bus.  There is no place to sit. We have to stand and hold on for dear life as the bus lurches forward with every stop.  It is like, 80 degrees for some reason on the bus.  I have no room to even take off my giant down parka that I thought I needed for the trip.  I'm sweating bullets.  Someone is eating something with sesame oil in it.

My stomach is churning.  We get off as soon as we can.  I start to dry heave. Hak Seung runs to buy me water and medicine.  This is all in vain.  I will leave the next part out.  But you know this story ends with me hurling in a fancy bathroom.  Seriously, the public bathrooms in Korea are some of the nicest I’ve ever been in.  There is even an “Etiquette Button” which is a small speaker that you push to mask any noises that come from the bathroom.  It simulates a toilet flushing.

Anyway.  I come out to meet Wookguk for the first time and what does he have in his hand for me?  Motion sickness pills.  Family is numbah one.

I have never, in my life been around so much family.  I really am thankful to have this opportunity to meet my relatives.  They are are truly kind and thoughtful people.  And I'm seriously related to them.

I hope I can return their hospitality when/if they ever come to the states.

This wouldn't be a post without some notes...

I realized that the European should bag isn't as in as I thought. Half of the guys I see with shoulder bags are sweet guys carrying their girlfriend’s bag.  The other half are legit wearing murses.

Koreans take home food delivery to another level.  They deliver and serve in reusable bowls.  You then put the bowls out on the sidewalk and the restaurant comes by and picks them up.  What a country!

-  I see the occasional white person.  I resist the urge to speak to them since I miss speaking English.  Half of them are European anyway.

-  There is no concept of personal space or yielding to pedestrians.  This is taking some adjustment.

-  I continue to struggle with the informal and formal speak.  There are like 50 ways to say “thank you” and it all depends on who you are talking to.

-  There is a lot of floor sitting.  My feet are constantly falling asleep.

Until next time...Ahn young!  (or if you were older than me..."Ahn young hee geh seh yo")

Friday, February 4, 2011

Happy New Year! / some notes

Koreans celebrate the Chinese New Year.  It is a very serious holiday compared to the amateur hour of the American NYE.  Folks set a decadent table of fruits, rice cakes and savory dishes.  There's octopus, fish, and traditional rice cake soup (dok guk).  We hang the names of the deceased and bow to them...pouring cups of wine and pouring it back out  (eg. "one for my homies"), designating one cup for each deceased relative going back several generations.  We then burn the names of the deceased.  It's solemn stuff and I'm lucky to have witnessed and taken part in such a tradition.  This is followed by visiting with relatives and wishing them a happy and prosperous new year.

The spread:

The bowing:

The octopus:

Now some more notes:

- My Korean age is 30.  I'm not sure how I feel about this.

- I am average height here.

- Everyone looks like my mom and I'm having a hard time picking her out in a crowd.  This is not difficult back home.

- The European shoulder bag for men is totally in.

- I saw lots of dogs today...unlike the other day.

-  If you think Asian drivers are bad imagine a whole country full of them.

-  Translating the difference between informal (between friends) and formal (to elders) speak is incredibly difficult.

- My mom and aunt have the exact same voice so I have Mama Lee in surround sound. Jesus save me.

-  If you order an American food item in English and properly pronounce it, no one understands you.  I will have to, from now on, imitate my mom to get food.  What a country!

My cousin Hak Seung and I in Insadong.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Day #1 in Korea complete, spicy foods, and jet lag.

I've completed my first day here in Korea.  I'm staying at my uncle's place with my mom in Bundang (I'm not sure I'm spelling it right...I tried to find it on Google Maps but everything is in Korean and I don't even have the patience for my elementary Korean skills right now).  It's 5:15am, I'm starving, and I can't go back to sleep.  This 14 hours ahead thing is messing with me and I can't get over that I lost a day going over the date line.  Weird.

Pierce Brosnan welcomed me at the Inchon Airport.

I've had mixed feelings about blogging about this trip since I know you guys don't want to hear about every detail about my trip...but I have surprisingly received a number of chats, texts and emails asking me about ole K-town (there IS Internet access here!). So here we are.  So I'm going to try and keep it short and funny:

-  So far everything here is really spicy.  The cognitive dissonance driving my inability to accept that my insides rebel against spicy food continues.  That's as much detail as I can go into without grossing everyone out.  Or did I just do that?

-  Whisky and fresh steamed octopus with Korean red pepper sauce is a great pairing.  I ate this on the floor with my legs criss crossed.  With chopsticks.

-  I'm a chopsticks wuss. I've had to request wooden chopsticks at every meal since the metal dowels most Koreans use are too heavy for my weak Western hands.

-  I have yet to taste anything that rivals my mother's cooking.  So...she legit IS a phenomenal cook.

-  There is no beef or chicken stock at the grocery store (Kim's Club..not at all like Price Club).  But there is Arizona Iced Tea.  The import sections needs to get their priorities straight. 

-  There is a huge career in sales for anyone incredibly loud and aggressive.  I was practically acosted in the meat department and threatened into buying their pork belly (which, if you know me, know that there should be no coaxing involved).  It made me America sometimes I feel a bit invisible, like sales people may not help me because they are not sure if I speak English or not  (I have once or twice been approached by people in the states speaking s l o w, LOUD case I didn't understand).  Here, I look like everyone else.  So I'm fair game.

-  I have yet to see a single dog.  I couldn't resist snapping this.  This has actually been the butt of many jokes between my uncle and myself.

-  Below is a picture of the ladies (my mom, her sister, and my uncle's wife) preparing some traditional Chinese New Year dishes (zuccini, oysters, and fish fried in an egg batter).  I helped!

Today we will be celebrating the Chinese New Year...more to come!

Miss you Michael, terribly.