The Foodosophy of Food Gift Giving


This post is another reflection from my summer travels to Asia and in particular the two weeks I spent in South Korea.

The tradition of bringing back some local treats and gifts when one travels in an Asian country, especially when you have been to a more rural area and the city folk you left behind want to know what’s there, is one that I enjoy.  Especially when I’m one of those who are stuck in the rat race and urban jungle, and get to taste some goodies brought back from someone’s travels.  On this particular trip, it was the other way around, as I decided to purchase some sweet snacks that were reputed to be the best representation of what Gyeongju has, and I was told, would be appreciated by the Seoulites who would be on the receiving end of my generosity.

As with many food gifts, packaging is key, especially when one is challenged by a large display full of various types.  As people “eat with their eyes”, I can see why so much effort is spent on making the containers, boxes, etc. as appealing as possible and thus help boost sales.  Convenience for me is often key (especially when I’m traveling by air) and so a slim package such as the one above is much favored.  This particular pair of items was bought in a gift shop just before departing Gyeongju city.  A last stop kind of place to get your fill of this resort area before returning to the more populous (and non-touristy) places around the peninsula.

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Kyochon Chicken – Namyangju, KOR


Kyochon Chicken
Namyangju, KOR

After a busy day this past summer checking out various tourist sights in Seoul, I hopped back onto a train back to the suburbs to where I was spending some nights sleeping early on in my journey.   On the short walk back to the residence from the station, I noticed a boisterous establishment that seemingly was a pub/fried chicken kind of joint. I suggested to my travel mate that we go check it out – despite having finished eating a hearty dinner an hour before – but was told there was a better place they knew about, and the family I was staying with vouched for it. Sounded good to me.  It allowed some more time to digest our dinner and was really convenient too, as all it required was a phone call, as they delivered!   A change into some more comfortable clothes later and soon enough the door bell was ringing.

Reportedly there is an outpost of this popular Korean-style fried chicken known as Kyochon Chicken in Koreatown (Los Angeles) as well, but its the first I’d heard of it.  Not being able to read anything around me probably had something to do with it.  The logo I’d seen before though around the Korean capital city.  It seems to be mainly a delivery/takeaway kind of business model.  I think the places that serve Korean chicken that I’ve seen here in the GVRD are kind of like that (lots of “to-go” orders), but have seating areas as well where the beer (that goes so well with these things) flow freely.  As this was a second dinner, I just asked that we get a dozen or so and I wanted to try the original flavor, so not enhanced with the sweet-spicy sauce that really makes Korean-style chicken so yummy.

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Omija Cafe – Mungyeong, KOR


Omija Cafe
Mungyeong City
North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea

Schisandra chinensis.  Yes, difficult to pronounce but as one can guess, it has its roots in China.  The viny-plant produces a rich berry that is beloved for its five different taste sensations and its herbal/medicinal properties.  With various practical uses including its use in teas and even wine, it has a modern day application that you can enjoy today if you know where to look.  I had such an opportunity in the remote city of Myungyeong, nestled amid lush green forests spanning rolling mountains and hills that make this a spectacular visual landscape in North Gyeongsang Province.

On my way to visit some tourist sights, I came across this tiny cafe at the base of the town site before the long trek up past some re-created rural villages that were even used for present day movies and television sets, and up into some of the nearby hills.  It was a brutally hot and humid day so a rest was needed even before the hour long journey that I was about to embark on.  Spotting several people lined outside, I knew I had to check it out and find out what the commotion was all about.  So here I present to you, the Omija Cafe.

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Cheontong Son Kalguksu – Gyeongju, KOR


Cheontong Son Kalguksu
206-3 Cheongun-dong, Gyeongju City
North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea
+82 (0)54-745-3010

Returning to another report on another stop from my August stay in South Korea.  I remember this lunch well, as we were racing to leave Gyeongju City as the powerful typhoon ravaging the coast was approaching fast and already the rain was falling horizontally due to the swirling winds.  We spotted Cheontong Son Kanguksu from the road as we approaching this area that was populated by a few restaurants.  The lights seemed to be on inside but nobody could be seen, so one brave member of our party stepped out into the falling rain and knocked on the door to see if they were indeed ready for customers.  Perhaps it was the weather and the lone female proprietor felt sorry for us, as it seems she was still doing her preparation work, but she let us inside and told us to make ourselves at home.

The wet, humid weather made it perfect for something hot to try and warm up our cores.  Kalguksu or hand-cut wheat noodles served in a bowl of rich, mainly seafood (shellfish)-based flavorful broth, topped with a mix of thin sliced vegetables.  While the ambiance was nothing special, perhaps even on the dilapidated side and I could spot a few flies spinning around in the air, I was just grateful to be indoors and away from the storm.  Although being in a fully glass encased building was not something one should probably do when powerful winds are ravaging all around.

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To Go Coffee Shop / Seomi & Tuus House Object Gallery – Seoul, KOR


To Go Coffee Shop / Seomi & Tuus House Object Gallery
32-21 Chae-Dong, Chongro-gu
Seoul, South Korea
+82 (02)-720-5001

With long business hours (Mon~Fri, 7am to midnight; Sat, 7am to 11pm; Sun, 9am to 10pm) and a serious dedication to contemporary art and design – given their ties to a nearby gallery – the To Go Coffee Shop housed within this quaint brick-and-glass building made for the best of both worlds. Open early enough for a warm cup of coffee to get your day going, but also laid back and aesthetically interesting with its display of modern artwork to make you want to stay longer than you normally might just to take in the scene.

The bukchon neighborhood follows a similar dual dynamic.  Retro remnants of a by-gone era with traditional architecture and residences that take you back in time, flanked by rows of ultra hip and trendy shops popular with the city’s busy youth.  The latter characteristic reminded me of the ura-Harajuku area of Tokyo. I have a friend who works as an assistant director at one of the many galleries here, and I’d always heard interesting things from her about hanging out and working in this district, so I had to check it out for myself, camera in hand.

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Kongerang – Gyeongju, KOR


Kongerang
346-2 Ha-dong, Gyeongju City
North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea
(054) 743-6282

After a morning spent outdoors in the sweltering summer heat taking in some live acrobatic performances and a long walk around the touristy Shilla Millenium Park, we headed back to the cooling comforts of our air conditioned car and sought out more places on my native host’s list of places to eat at.  A simple search in the auto’s GPS device turned up another location that was not too far away and so off we went.  Best known as a restaurant that specializes in dishes that contain beans (soybeans, peas, lentils, etc.), Kongerang was set just off the main road that passed by it.  It was situated in an older looking, traditionally-built Korean country home.

An ample parking lot was situated right on its parcel of land and it was full of cars!  A young man (who’s job I would never want) was sitting on a folding chair on the side of the road and as we approached, he came to our driver side window and explained their parking system.  Essentially, there were no open spots available now (and thus no unoccupied tables inside), but he was soon on his headset conversing with someone inside and gave us an estimated wait time of thirty minutes.  He allowed us to park on the shoulder of the street, and as one car left the lot, we were permitted to move the car onto the rocky stone-lined parkade.  This however did not mean our table was ready yet, but this place was prepared as they had a large tented (and air conditioned) area towards the back where other waiting patrons were patiently sitting.  Later on, a voice came out over the speaker inside noting our number and we then proceeded into the building housing the restaurant where our freshly set table was waiting.  A swift and efficient system!

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Shilla Tteokgalbi Chongshik – Gyeongju, KOR


Shilla Tteokgalbi Chongshik
226 Nodong-dong, Gyeongju City
North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea
(054) 741-7600

On day two of this three-day visit to Gyeongju, we continued to mow through the list of restaurants that my local friend had created through his own research and advice from contacts very familiar with the area. Nestled in a building that was offset from the main street that we navigated through on this rainy evening was Shilla Tteokgalbi Chongshik.  As we climbed up the stairs to the main entrance, we were quickly greeted by a gentleman who seemed to be the manager this evening.  Occupying the entire second floor, it was quite spacious inside.

As mainstream Korean cuisine overseas is highly associated with beef, in particular barbecue, our visit on this occasion was to explore another meaty dish.  Tteokgalbi is derived from the words for marinated meat and also those thin sticky rice cakes.  But, there are no such rice cakes involved at all in this.  In fact, I’d describe it as being more like a hamburger patty.  In most cases, its made from a melding of beef short ribs and fattier pork to balance out together in a juicy meaty delight that young and old can enjoy.  Plus, there is no killer spice to deter anyone who is sensitive to heat.  Instead a drizzle of sweet tasting sauce usually completes the picture.  I’ve seen these patties made small (tinier than the palm of your hand) or larger, and shaped in a square or circular like a disc.

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Kangsanhanwoo – Gyeongju, KOR


Kangsanhanwoo
220 Shinpyong-dong, Gyeongju City

North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea
Tel. 054-776-9200

Okay, now we’re finally getting to the literal ‘meat of the matter’ from my trip to Korea this past summer.  One of the key locations on our hit list was this Korean barbecue joint recommended by many Seoulites to us.  Kangsanhanwoo was situated in its own large building at the intersection of some major roads in this resort town, with its brightly lit signage there was no trouble in finding it.  A huge parking lot directly in front provided ample spaces as well, as we made our way in after nine pm and a long day of sightseeing…

While most of the diners were already fully engaged in their meals and were Koreans by and large, we did spot a few tables of foreigners so its appears this is on the international food lovers’ radar when one comes to this popular tourist location of Korea.  To aid everyone coming in, there is a large display case of various types and cuts of beef, much like a butcher shop, immediately as you come inside.  I’m sure there is a lot of pointing and gesturing to get what one wants when language is an issue.  All part of the joys of international travel I say.  With the hot temperatures and the air conditioners running full blast, there was a huge barrier of condensation on the glass, which the two fellows behind the counter would wipe across with a hand-held windshield wiper like tool (similar to those you see at gasoline stands) to give you some visibility.

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Hyundae Milmyeon – Gyeongju, KOR


Hyundae Milmyeon
Seobu-dong 232, Gyeongju City
North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea
054-771-6787

The mercury was already climbing into the high thirties C. as we began our driving journey from the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul to the southeastern province of North Gyeonggsang, specifically with the intent of spending a few days and nights in the coastal city of Gyeongju.  Its a part of the country that I had never visited before despite its popularity with tourists interested in exploring the sights of some of the nation’s historic treasures, including many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  For those interested in food, the region also holds delivers on Gyeongju specialties that are known throughout South Korea, some of which I was able to indulge in and will report on in coming posts as I catch up on this summer trip…

Being it was my first trip on the highways heading down to this region, I was immediately struck by how beautiful and geographically interesting South Korea is outside of the major city center of Seoul.  Low to mid-range undulating mountains curved their way along side the routes we traveled, all covered in lush green trees and shrubbery.  Then we would enter some lower valleys that were home to smaller villages and towns that were supported mainly by agricultural industries, enabling us to see many rice patties, other crop fields and livestock facilities, no doubt the backbone of the many Korean barbecue restaurants you find in this country.  If you have the opportunity to travel in the countryside here, I highly recommend it!  With proper air conditioning and regular breaks frequenting the amazing rest stops along the way (that have everything from restroom facilities, restaurants, food stalls, convenience stores, etc.) and you are good to go – I really wish we had these kind of places in North America, as it puts the gas stands along the highways here to shame.

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Cheongtong Bapjip – Namyangju, KOR


Cheongtong Bapjip
Sampaedong 358-2,
Namyangju City
Gyeonggi Province, South Korea
031-577-5700

Whenever I travel and have the opportunity to indulge in some well known dishes that have made their way to North America, I make sure to partake in them whenever I can.  The only time I’ve ever turned down an offer was when I was in Manila two years ago and came face-to-face with a dare to try balut.

Why do I do this?

Partly to experience how its made in the “home country”, and pick up any hints as to what has been adapted by the Canadian version, and to become aware of any obvious misinterpretations.

Throughout these experiences and discoveries, I’ve come to learn that more often than not, despite how connected our planet has become in the present day, there are two factors that seem to stand out for me.  One, the availability of certain ingredients in “authentic” dishes that are just too rare/expensive/bothersome/perishable for transport to ever retain its presence in the North American versions of these dishes.  Two, the acceptance of some ingredients by North Americans is a hard one to overcome, for whatever reason: flavor, scent, appearance, source, etc.

I guess there are some things that will just take more time to become mainstream enough to be readily available and acceptable.

Nestled along the banks of the mighty Han River quite close to where the north and south arms converge together, is a stretch of walking/bicycle paths and fields that are popular with families out visiting the countryside from Seoul, especially on weekends.  I can understand this human need to get one with nature, as when I lived in the city of Calgary, I would often hit the road and go to nearby Bragg Creek, Kananaskis, or even out to Canmore/Banff just to get away from the concrete jungle after a busy workweek.  Being in Asia this time, the way the city slickers were out and about in Namyangju‘s beautiful  parks and public water lily gardens, reminded me of how busy Hong Kongers head out to the New Territories to get their quiet waterside, “resort” experiences.

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Sodamgol – Youngin, KOR


Sodamgol (Sinbong branch)
Sinbong-dong 582, Suji-ku
Youngin City, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea
031-276-7373

Korean royal court cuisine (in Korean, gungjung yori) is an elaborate affair that involves the presentation of numerous dishes in an extensive meal that originated in one of the golden eras of the peninsula’s lengthy history and is steeped in Confucian traditions.  The dining style that was for the ruling class of the Jeseon Dynasty has been adapted in the modern era and can be found served in many restaurants in Korea today for those wishing to adventure into a culinary time machine.  Fortunately on this recent visit to the Asian nation, I was presented with the choice of indulging in this branch of the country’s cuisine.   Actually, I was given a choice between two locations: one described as being more upscale in a fancier setting but with weaker food, and the other in more homey conditions but with better food.  I chose the latter and thus we ended up at the Sinbong branch of Sodamgol.

With various set meals (priced per person), our group of six opted to all get the same, making it much easier for the restaurant to handle.  At the different price points, the items would differ.  What follows below is a summary of what was included in the 16,000 won/person listing (so about C$14 each).  Also note, the portion sizes are representative of what was served to each table of three, aside from the rice and chigae that we each received our own bowls of.

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Hanubang – Namyangju, KOR


Kwangrung Hanubang
Changhyun-ri 220-1, Jinjeop-eup
Namyangju City, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea
031-529-9988

In Korea and not in the mood for barbecue?  Possible?  Yes, well at least on this mid-morning in the outskirts of Seoul where I began my day.  With the humid weather already beginning to test my personal tolerance levels and with the lunch hour quickly approaching, a random stopover led us to this slightly gaudy, castle-looking building that housed a restaurant known as Kwangrung Hanubang.  The nearby area is populated by many residential apartment complexes and appears to be building up into a major suburban district that is well connected by major roads into the capital city.  No doubt, this restaurant (one of many along this busy street) is a popular place for locals to dine.

Proudly featuring domestic Korean beef sourced only from the prized Kwangreung region of the same Gyeonggi province, the signage outside on the pop-up stands and also inside on the various frames that were displayed and given by local and regional associations and food industry organizations,  it was clear that the beef was something to definitely take in.  Despite the temptations, and believe me they were strong, we were looking for a light lunch amid the air conditioned environment and did not order any, much to my amazement in hindsight.  Nearby, other groups were happily grilling and the aromas were intoxicating but we managed to hold off, knowing our day was still long and opportunities to eat still lied ahead.

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Coffee Mama – Namyangju, KOR


Coffee Mama
Various locations
Location visited: Namyangju City, South Korea

Asian desserts.  For some they are a welcomed treat.  For others, I’ve heard words like strange, confusing and not appealing as descriptors or reactions.  I will take a stab at this topic despite not being a huge sugar-goodies fan and say that one of the main causes for this seesaw result is the source of the sweetness within many Asian desserts.  That being azuki beans.  I think for most westerners, the concept of sweet tasting beans is unusual and hard to comprehend, given that beans are generally used more for savory dishes in North American cuisine.  This juxtaposition is a concept that for some, that I think is hard to overcome.  Its perhaps more a mental hurdle than anything else, that perhaps more experience can help people overcome.

When it comes to after-meal sweets in Korea, one of the things that pops into my mind right away is the summer favorite known as patbingsu.  In English, I’ve seen it being referred to as red bean sherbet.  But really, its a compilation of shaved ice, ice cream, diced fruit (strawberries, banana, etc.), jelly, bits of rice cake as staple elements and toppings.  And for added texture, some places even add in some dry cereal flakes.  I’m sure there are even more creative approaches and touches that some places add, but these seem to be the standard set from my own experience.  Of course, the a fore mentioned sweet azuki beans are always involved.

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The Foodosophy of South Korea – General thoughts


Taking a cue once again from my colleague aka the Foodosopher, I thought I’d jot down some random thoughts from my past two weeks of eating in South Korea, as I slowly begin the process of recovering from the time zone switch as I’ve landed back on North American soil.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel throughout the country this time (and not just bogged down in Seoul), hitting the metropolitan area of Seoul and neighboring province of Gyeonggi-do, as well as venturing through the central parts of the country (Chungcheongbuk-do), and the eastern province of Gyeongsangbuk-do. Almost made it down to the major southern city of Busan, but with the havoc being raged by Typhoon Dianmu, we elected to retreat northward.

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