Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Seoul Food

46,300 websites may have used the above semi-pun in some shape or form before me, but given the subject matter and my own penchant for corny tricks of the English language, I really couldn’t title this post anything else.

As you may have guessed, I just spent the weekend in Seoul, where despite eating two zinger burgers in one day, I also managed to get a taste of some of the street food.

Shortly after arriving we discovered our camera was missing – either left on the KTX or nabbed at Seoul Station – so forgive the shaky details and lack of accompanying photos!

First up, a midnight stroll in Insadong yielded a bowl of steaming shell dwellers from a busy pojangmacha. The shellfish in question were large, round and cone shaped (I’ve forgotten the name) requiring the use of a toothpick to pry out the body. Once liberated, the meat was chewy and earthy, reminding me immensely of mushrooms. Dipped in gochujang and washed down with an ice-cold beer, I could think of worse things to do on a balmy night in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world.

The next day on a trip to Dongdaemun market we stumbled across some bindaeduk. Bindaeduk has been on my “to-eat” list for a while now, so it was fortuitous to come across it and an opportunity not to be missed. Similar to pajeon, bindaeduk is a pancake made out of mung beans and despite the absence of potatoes the closest thing to hash browns I’ve come to in Korea yet. The one we tackled was thick and crispy on the outside, strewn with beansprouts and green onion and incredibly garlicky. Luckily, my buddy soy sauce was there to temper the flames making bindaeduk a good, hearty post-lunch pre-dinner snack.

Finally, I rinsed away the day with a handy cocktail in a bag in Hongdae. A little stall serves these in thick plastic bags with straws sticking out. I opted for a kahlua milk, and retired to a nearby park to drink it among a few hundred other people who had the same idea. Fantastic.

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Sunday, 28 June 2009

If Kimch-jeon is a marriage made in heaven, I am a home wrecker.

In my last-post-but-one I felt I had purged myself of my often inappropriate love of pajeon, the Korean seafood pancake. I thought that was it for my online paj-love, and I was just coming to terms with the comedown when I happened across another Korean pancake classic, kimchi-jeon, being served on the street behind the Lotte Department Store in Seomyeon.

I documented my then burgeoning affair with Kimchi on my old TV Casualty blog, and since then the relationship has flourished. I routinely hoover the kimchi at our lunchtime diner and though I’m still too much of a lily-livered westerner to stomach anything that’s been fermenting too long, I think I’m getting a good grip on the range of tastes that’s out there.

Kimchi-jeon marries the best of both worlds. The crisp, doughy batter plays a gracious host to the kimchi, which in turn passes on all its best assets to the pancake. Although kimchi is spicy, it’s rarely a tongue-burner and it’s rounded, garlicky heat shines through in the jeon, which takes on a sort of spongy texture in response.

Kimchi has the added bonus of taking on a new dimension when it is cooked, with the fried-out fish sauce kicking things up in the flavour stakes. As usual the pancake was great on its own but elevated by quite a few notches when dipped into the accompanying dish of soy sauce.

I just hope the pajeon won’t get jealous.

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Wednesday, 24 June 2009


Down a side street not far from Gukje market, the bustling pace of Saturday Nampodong suddenly slows a little as you hunker down amidst a clutter of metal buckets and plastic stools and let one of the resident ajummas take care of your eating needs for ten minutes or so.

These ladies specialize in one or two dishes maximum, and it requires little more than a point and a smile to get you on your way. In this instance, I was extending my finger toward a bowl of glass noodles, sliced carrot and sliced leek, which the vendor promptly dumped into a small pan on a portable gas burner and cooked along with a ladle of dark brown bubbling stock from a nearby pot.

“Japchae,” as I found out it was called, is a deceptively simple noodle dish I’ve only ever seen for sale in this particular alley in Nampodong. The dark brown stock I saw ladled into the pan soon identified itself as having sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil components, along with a slightly fishy under taste that suggested there may have been a few bones lurking around in the bottom of that pot.

The sliced carrot and leek did more that add colour to the dish, alternately giving a little crunch and bite to mix things up a little, while the thick glass noodles retained all the flavour of the stock and had a nice slurp-happy consistency.

Not bad for an afternoon when my other purchases consisted of a pair of Obama socks, some fake Ralph Lauren shorts that were too big for me and a KFC Zinger Burger!

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Saturday, 20 June 2009

Tempura alert!

A while back I wrote about Korean Tempura, the lightly battered and deep fried bits and pieces that seems to be one of the most popular street foods here in Busan. At the time, I was in the middle of open class hell (just finished!) and found my stall of choice to be fresh, satisfying and cheap.

A few days ago I visited another tempura stall and realized I could probably start a blog solely about the different food that manages to make its way into the deep fat fryer. Having just spent the best part of six years of my life living in the land that gave the world the deep fried mars bar, I thought I was unflappable. It turns out I was wrong.

What attracted me to the stall in the first place was the onion bhaji looking construction at the top of the page. With a little help from an onlooker, I ordered and found it to be mixture of thinly shredded potato, carrot and chili. Good in principle, but by the time it reached my plate it was cold and dry, though the soy sauce it was served with did manage to lift it up a little.

Next I moved onto a suspicious looking ball of batter I’d been eyeing up for a while. When I bit in, I found it to be none other that a whole boiled egg. Again, the batter and the egg were cold by the time I bit into it, leading to the incredibly rare situation wherein I was unable to finish what was on my plate!

I also saw battered sesame leaves and a few other unidentifiables sharing the same stall - feel welcome to pitch in with any strange tempura discoveries of your own!

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Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Pajeon and on.

I have wanted to write about pajeon, the Korean seafood pancake, ever since I started this blog. It was one of the first street foods I ever tried in Korea and since then I’ve eaten it in a countless number of bars, restaurants and tents throughout the city. It’s hands down my favorite Korean food and when someone doesn’t like it, I can’t help but take it a little personally, such is my relationship with the stuff.

Although the best pajeon (the ones walking the crispy tightrope and loaded with prawns and octopus) are usually found in places with four walls and a roof, I can’t help but retain an affection for the street variety. It’s quick, cheap and delicious, and in my mind the best place to get it is in Nampodong, an old port area home to several markets (including Jagalchi Fish Market) and what’s soon to be one of the tallest buildings in the world (if it’s ever completed that is.)

On a recent visit to Nampo I went to one of my regular pajeon haunts and ordered myself one of the usuals. Some places stack’em high and wait for the orders to roll in but these ones were being cooked to order, and a slightly worryingly short time my paejon was ready and good to go.

My doubts about the cooking time proved to be unfounded, as I found the paejon to have a very agreeable consistency; golden on the outside yet soft and doughy in the middle. It was also riddled with super-thin spring onions punctured by an occasional flash of carrot and red chili, giving it a good onion-y taste with a bit of occasionally spiciness. The most surprising thing about pajeon however was the lack of any octopus. Pajeon usually abounds in the chewy tender stuff but this one was completely without, though I have to say managed nevertheless to hold its own in its absence.

Complimenting the pajeon was a bowl of deep, dark, delish soy sauce spiked with chilis onions and sesame seeds. I literally couldn’t get enough of it and found myself drowning my pajeon in it. The friendly lady next to me also took the liberty of dribbling a little dukbokki sauce on my plate from a nearby vat, which though agreeable enough, reminded me too much of dukbokki to ever really be a contender.

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Sunday, 14 June 2009

Dakbal: Chicken Feet

“Put enough spicy sauce on anything and it will taste good” I repeat to myself as I prepare for my first Dakbal moment. Slowly, I pick up one of the spindly chicken feet in front of me and, checking for toenails, prepare to put yet another alien object into my mouth (no jokes please, I’m aware of how that sounds.)

To be honest, Dakbal was an easier jump to make than the above paragraph lets on. First off, the feet were suffocated with a red hot sticky spicy sauce (I had a bit of a Lady Macbeth moment in the bathroom afterwards) so I knew hot would be the dominant sensation. Secondly, they looked like they had more meat on them than some of the odds and ends you find in a box of mediocre fried chicken, and last but not least, the toenails had been removed, something I usually insist on in a pre-dinner snack.

As for the eating of the things, that was a different story. I first attempted using chopsticks, but despite my ever-improving skills was unable to angle it sufficiently enough to get a bite in edgeways. Next I downed tools and plunged in fingers first, making a pass at the chicken feet head on. This time however my teeth barely scraped the skin and I ended up with a face full of hot sauce that reminded me of when I dressed up as the Joker at Halloween. Thankfully my next attempt proved more successful, and I was soon dismembering, biting and slurping my way through the whole batch.

Once in, most of what was going on had to do with the hot sauce they were covered in. It was like that crimson, sticky, slightly sweet lava you sometimes get at fried chicken places, with a fair number of chilli seeds and slices thrown in for good measure -REALLY hot! The meat meanwhile clung together in little pockets of goodness and was by in large, tender and easy on the way down, with some slightly crispy skin giving it a bit of extra character to boot.

At 1000 won for ten, you really can’t ask for much more.

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Friday, 12 June 2009

Jokbal: Pigs Feet

Recently I’ve been worried my posts are getting a little pedestrian. Who wants to read about pork skewers, I thought to myself, Internet users vote with their feet and if you’re not careful Danny boy, they’ll surely leg it somewhere else instead. You’ll never get a foothold in the blogging game if you carry on like this, do something different you idiot!

Ok, before I get carried away and really put my foot in it, I’ll dispense with the puns and get on to the post’s real topic. Jokbal is a dish made by simmering pig’s feet (hair removed) in leeks, garlic, ginger, rice wine and water until tender, before being slicing it up and serving with a variety of condiments. I bought mine at our local market where whole joints of Jokbal wrapped up in cellophane compete for space at several different stalls. In addition to a generous tray of Jokbal, my 5,000 won also bought me a tray of sliced onion, sliced chili, a smudge of wasabi and two little bags of soy sauce and bean paste, as well as a tub of spicy sauce and another of saeujoet (fermented shrimp sauce.)

The slices of Jokbal were thick and cold, reminded me of the cold cuts of ham and roast beef left over after Christmas dinner, with clear seams of fat swirling through them at seemingly random intervals. The overall result was an even distribution of fat through a meaty, fibrous slice of pork. Had there been a little pastry involved the whole thing could easily have passed for a Heston Blumenthal deconstruction of a pork pie, such was the easy familiarity of it. The only place where it differed to what I’m used to at home was with the skin. Here it was thick, undisguised and a little chewy, though didn’t put up enough of a fight to be a problem.

Among the condiments, the saeujeot really made me sit up and take notice. Tiny tiny shrimp with big black eyes floated around in a salty, briny liquid concoction that is apparently one of the key ingredients of Kimchi. When introduced to the Jokbal, the saeujeot provided a good counterweight to the greasiness of the pork. The same could be said for the vinegary soy sauce and wasabi, which is fast becoming my favorite dipping sauce ever.

Although Jokbal may initially sound a little alien to the western palate, there’s really nothing strange about it. In my opinion Jokbal would find a great home underneath a lid of pastry or between two slices of bread and compared to some of the other pig bits I’ve tried recently, it’s a real walk in the pork.

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Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Wow for Now (Hot dogs)

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve talked shit about Korean sausages in the past. In my experience, they either amounted to little more than rolled up spam, or they were dripping with so much of that scary looking see-through fat, just looking at them set one arm a-tingling. Why, I often wondered, couldn’t they be more like those little Thai firecrackers I saw on Eating Asia that time?

As usual however, it appears that I was being a little unfair. I came to this realization recently when on a scour of PNU I decided to give a street hot dog chain called Mr. Wow another shot. I’d had one of their hot dogs in Kyungsung soon after I first arrived in Korea, and although at the time I hadn’t been overly impressed, a healthy queue and the smell of sizzling pork was enough to convince me to give it a second chance.

The sausage was good; coarsely ground sausage meat peppered with just enough onion to impart a decent flavour but so much as to feel like you’re getting screwed. Overall, the sausage had a slight frankfurter twang to it and (this being Korea after all) managed to get a good spiciness going. Meanwhile, ketchup, mustard and peanut sauce represented the condiments, with varying results. The ketchup and peanut sauce were good additions to the sausage (the latter staying comfortably low key) but with regards to the mustard, three was most definitely a crowd. Synthetic and watery, it was like getting an earful of background noise while trying to watch TV – quiet enough to still get most of what’s happening, but loud enough to threaten ruining your enjoyment altogether.

Mustard aside Mr. Wow knows how to hot a good dog. While they may not be on a par with the chili dogs I ate at Harry’s Café de Wheels in Sydney or New York’s eponymous hot dogs, while I’m in Korea at least, Wow for Now will do.

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Thursday, 4 June 2009

Do the oki-dukkboki

Ok, I realize the above is not going to win pun of the week or anything, but you can only do so much with what you’ve got, something which kind of applies to this post’s subject matter as it happens.

Dukkboki and I have never got on. Frankly, I find something artificial and creepy about the most of the rice cakes I encounter. The way they slide about the plate like little congealed logs of lung butter never fails to send shivers down my spine, and I am no fan either of the spicy sauce or compressed fish jelly that usually accompanies them.

Recently however, two factors have led me to reconsider my position. The first was a mouth watering post about dukbokki on fat man seoul. These rice cakes looked nothing like the ones I’d had before and led me to believe dukbokki offered more than I was giving it credit for. The second factor was the discovery in PNU of a dukbokki tent that always seemed to be packed. What’s more, the people within always seemed smiling and what they were eating, despite my prejudices, always looked incredibly appetizing.

Armed with these two mindsets I recently rode into PNU ready and willing to come down off my high horse and give dukkboki another shot. When I arrived however, the tent had, in fact, vanished! I cantered around the block a few times trying to figure what to do and considered getting some takoyaki instead, but with the title pun of this post already rooted in my mind, I decided to go to another dukbokki stand instead.

I don’t wish I hadn’t, I just don’t see any reason to do so again. The rice cake was, as-per-my experience, squeaky on the teeth and possessing little qualities to recommend itself. The sauce meanwhile was syrupy and spicy, due no doubt to the masses of corn syrup and msg that are probably key materials in the manufacturing process. Not necessarily bad but nothing to write home about (which I should probably do soon instead of wasting all my time blogging.)

Alongside the dukbokki, the stall also sold little fried balls I don’t know the name of as well as fried mandu. Much to the bemusement of the vendor and obviously against protocol, I ordered one of each. The ball was unexpectedly sweet and hollow, caving in as soon as I put my fork to it, while the mandu was crispy, hot, and packed with steaming pork and onions, reminding me I should eat mandu more often.

Overall I'm not convinced. I’m not saying I won’t eat dukbokki ever again, but I’m still waiting to see what all the fuss is about.

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Tuesday, 2 June 2009

My Hoe: Raw fish at Jagalchi Fish Market.

I realize that this post kind of stretches the parameters of what might be considered street food, but in my defence when I started this thing I always thought I’d include markets and hawker centres in my range. Also, after eating the stuff I just couldn’t help myself!

Jagalchi Fish Market is probably my favourite place in Busan. The place is literally teeming with every kind of sea creature you can imagine, and a fair amount you can’t. How most of it manages to end up on someone’s plate is beyond me, as its variety is matched by the sheer abundance of the stuff.

The raw fish operation at Jagalchi largely centres around one of the older market buildings just off the right of the outdoor section. It consists of a vast warehouse of sorts containing dozens of small traders and their catch, all packed in tight so that produce, prep area and eating counters all seem to spill onto and over each other. The floor is constantly awash with water and the low hung lights and lack of windows make you feel like it could be anytime of the day or night. On Saturday I decided to take a trip down there with my friend Roy for some hoe (pronounced whay, get the crap pun now?)

We quickly decided on a snapper for 30,000 won and before it could contemplate its fate it was quickly stunned and eviscerated, then carried off for further prep. While we waited, the vendor brought us a few bits and pieces to chew over.

I’d never tried gaebul before and considering this is known to Koreans as “dog’s penis” I wasn’t really that bothered. Lucky for me however what was on the plate had been sliced up into a more appetizing shape and I quickly got stuck in. To improve the texture of you are supposed to lift it off the plate with your chopsticks and then fling it down again several times. This causes it to curl up a little (I’m getting used to my food trying to get away from me) making a little more al dente. Anyway, when I finally ate it I found it to be pleasingly chewy and, as with a lot of this sort of thing, tasting more of the dipping sauce than anything else. This, along with some salty, fresh tasting mongae (sea squirt) served as a great appetizer before the main event.

Spectacular. As per photo the snapper had been gutted, de-scaled and sliced up into half inch thick slices scored at regular intervals around their outer edge and arranged to resemble a large scallop shell. Later inquiry also told us the fish had been ever so slightly cooked at its outer edge to firm it up a little (cooking method unknown but possibly some sort of blow torch) before giving way to the translucent flesh.

And what flesh! If silk was remotely ingestible it would probably still fall short of this. Again, not so much taste as feeling; alternate passes at a spicy vinegary dip called chojang and a bowl of the ubiquitous soy sauce and wasabi tooled up for the flavour but the real money maker was the way the hoe glided around my mouth and down my throat like a piece of Teflon. At the same time it was literally bellowing FRESH at me, and not even the cuttlefish eying be reproachfully from a nearby bucket could infringe on my wellbeing at that moment.

About three quarters of the way into the plate, our server brought us what remained of our fish bobbing around in a broth with dropwort stalks, red chili and green onions. The heat had been kind to the fish, it now taking on a flaky fleshy quality in a broth so deep I might as well have been at the bottom of the sea.

Good times.

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