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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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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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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