Quin's Progress


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Some Stuff – Pacific Islands Edition

In Batangas, Philippines.

In Batangas, Philippines.

As of today, I have been on the road for exactly six months. I can hardly believe it. Seems like just a few weeks to me, and yet, when I consider how much ground I’ve covered since leaving San Francisco, how far away my life as an office denizen feels, and how many truly lovely people I’ve been privileged to meet along the way, it seems like an awful lot for such a short period of time.

IMGP0621

One of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. Steven, of Yap.

In this edition of Some Stuff, I bid adieu to the islands I’ve visited since New Year’s Day 2014, in Micronesia and the Philippines (I know the Philippines is officially categorized as part of Southeast Asia, but it’s also one of the Pacific island nations, so I’ll cover it here). There are so many wonderful people and amazing things I will remember fondly from my travels around the Pacific. Without repeating things I’ve already written in other posts, here are just a few.

Everything’s Pretty in Saipan

Saipan

Saipan

Banzai Cliffs in Saipan

Banzai Cliffs in Saipan

Saipan is pretty. It’s quiet and lush and the water is so blue it looks fake, like it was dyed with Tidy Bowl toilet cleaner.  But, when I say everything is pretty in Saipan, I mean everything is “Pretty” in Saipan.

Kokoda, Kelaguen & Corndogs

Foodspotting App.

Foodspotting App.

I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings by saying that I don’t think the food is the best reason to travel to Micronesia. The Philippines, yes. But, Micronesia’s culinary offerings are, to me, a bit less of a draw, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining fresh ingredients, other than fish and taro root. That’s just my opinion, but I don’t think I’m alone in it. In fact, the Foodspotting app—which uses GPS to direct foodies to delicious dishes in their immediate proximity—recommended popcorn at K-Mart as one of the top lunch options in Guam. This, I don’t understand, when there are corndogs on that island.

IMG_6843Yes, corndogs! There is a Wienerschnitzel inside the airport, and a Hot Dog on a Stick in the Micronesia Mall, where, on weekdays, it’s buy one get one free. IMG_6737I was so happy! By the time I left, the girls at the Hot Dog on a Stick and I were on a first name basis.

As much as I would like to try, one cannot live on corndogs alone, and there are a couple of stand out Micronesian foods that I still crave.

Kokoda

Kokoda

Kokoda is the Marshall Island’s coconutty take on ceviche. It’s a soupy concoction of lime-marinated seafood—squid, fish, clams, whatever is fresh—with chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro and coconut milk. You scoop it up with salty tortilla chips and wash it down with beer. So delicious, so rich, so messy.

Kelaguen is Guam’s culinary crowning glory (if you don’t count barbecued fruit bat, which is illegal now). Saipan’s, too. A Chamorro specialty, it is actually pretty healthy, and would be a huge hit with anyone watching carbs, or looking for a unique dish to bring to a barbecue or potluck. KelaguenEvery local family has its own recipe, and most of it is inexact kitchen science; a little of this, a little of that, spicy or not, as you like. Originally, kelaguen was made of minced raw fish or shrimp, cooked only in the acid of lemon juice. Today, the one I saw most prevalently was made with barbecued chicken, but you see it at the night markets made with any and all types of lean protein, including beef, shrimp, fish or even octopus.   Some add shredded fresh coconut, usually to chicken or fish versions, but I prefer it without. It’s served by itself with “titiya” flatbread, as a salad topping, or as a side dish with barbecue, or grilled fish. Here’s the recipe and instructions I got from Randy, the ATV driver on my jungle safari, after we bonded over a mutual love for kelaguen. It’s his family’s recipe.

Randy’s Chicken Kelaguen

ŸBarbecue a whole chicken, cut into parts, making sure to get it black in places, so the flavor of the smoke and char gets into the chicken meat, without drying it out. (You could use a rotisserie chicken, but Randy says it’s best to barbecue the chicken yourself, so you can make sure it’s good and charred and smoky.) Let cool, and remove skin and bones.

Ÿ Chop the meat very finely. The chopped bits should be about the size of grains of rice. You can use a food processor, or if you have some aggression to get out, a Chinese cleaver works well, too. Transfer chopped chicken to a mixing bowl.

Ÿ Finely chop about six or so scallions, and add to the chicken. You could use a red or a Spanish onion, if you prefer, or a combination, but the classic has scallions.

Ÿ If you like a little spice—and Randy and I both do—finely chop a Serrano, jalapeno, or bird chili—any hot pepper of your choice—and add as much or as little of that as you like. You can take the heat level down and keep the flavor by removing the seeds and ribs before you chop the chili. Add to the chicken and onions.

Ÿ Add the juice of one large lemon, and toss to coat well.

Ÿ Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ÿ If you want to add some coconut (I don’t care for it in this), mix in a handful of FRESHLY grated, unsweetened coconut. Don’t even think about using dried coconut. If you do, the police will spontaneously show up at your door and…pull your hair. I don’t know, just don’t.

Ÿ You can serve it right away, but Randy says it’s better if you let it sit in the fridge, and allow the flavors to marry really well, for a few hours at least.

Enjoy!

Candygram

Dear divemasters of Palau:

This guy was probably 12 feet long.

This guy was probably 12 feet long.

If there is even a slight possibility that there will be a school of huge sharks circling under the boat, please do your divers a favor and tell them about it before they jump in the water.  It’s just good manners.

Coconut-Eating Chickens & Snorkels the Pig

ChickenutsHere’s something I bet you didn’t know: Chickens love coconut. I learned this in Yap. I know chickens aren’t typically discriminating diners. I had chickens when I was a kid, and ChickensI saw one eat a piece of string so long once, that it started pooping out one end of the string before it had finished swallowing the other end of it. But, they go really bonkers over coconut. It’s like…chicken nip.

Also learned in Yap, vis-à-vis barnyard animals and coconuts: you shouldn’t park your pig under a coconut tree. This is Snorkels. Snorkels was my friend. Snorkels lived under a coconut tree.

(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)

Gentle friends, may you never hear the sound of a coconut falling on a pig. (Don’t worry, Snorkels was okay.)

Tuba

IMG_6543“Sweet Tuba” is not a really nice brass musical instrument. It’s a milky wine made of the fermented sap of a coconut tree. You see Tuba all over Micronesia and the Philippines.

Bottles of Tuba

Bottles of Tuba

The Tuba Man has to climb up the tree and hack at the base of the fronds every day to make sure the sap continues to run, so he can gather enough to make Tuba.  Tuba comes in sweet, for beginners, or the regular, high-octane variety for the hardened Tubaholic.

Sweet Tuba in a coconut cup.

Sweet Tuba in a coconut cup.

I only had the sweet version, which is not as lethal, but will still give you a hell of a hangover. The morning after I hung out with the Yapese Tuba guys, I felt like Snorkels after the coconut.

Subterranean Flows

On an island in Palawan, in the Philippines, there’s a deep system of limestone caves, through which one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world flows directly to the sea.

The mouth of the Underground River, Palawan, Philippines.

The mouth of the Underground River, Palawan, Philippines.

UNESCO put it on the World Heritage list in 1999, and in 2012, it was named one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” by that group in Switzerland that has appointed itself arbiter of such things. I can see why, too, it’s a pristine and eerie Underworld.

He's about to snatch my friend's purse.

He’s about to snatch my friend’s purse.

The mouth of the river is guarded by a band of extremely larcenous monkeys. Underground RiverIts vast caverns are full of bats, stalagmites and stalactites. They said there were tarantulas, too, but thankfully, I didn’t see any, or I would have jumped out of the boat.

Midget Boxing

If you’ve been watching the news about the vanished Malaysia Airlines jet, you may have noticed reports that the USS Pinckney—a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer—was dispatched to assist in the search. IMG_6853It was close by, according to the Pentagon’s official explanation, conducting “training and maritime security operations” in international waters. Well, apparently, by “training and maritime security operations in international waters,” they mean refereeing midget boxing matches over drinks at the Ringside Bar in Manila. Busted!

I want to join that Navy.


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Some Stuff–Taiwan Edition

Taiwan FlagWere it not for all the typhoons and radiation in Japan when I was in Korea deciding where to go next, I might not have landed in Taiwan, or at least, not planned to stay so long.  I’m so glad I did.

Yours truly in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei.  Forgive my hair, it was a rainy day.

Yours truly in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei.

I had a blast in Taiwan!  The people?  Oh my god, so friendly.  The food?  Oh my god, so delicious.  The island?  Oh my god, so beautiful.  Sometimes, the universe really does send you where you need to go.

Here’s some stuff I will never forget:

Some Groovy Buildings

Taipei 101

Taipei 101

Taipei is a big ol’ city, but its skyline isn’t full of skyscrapers.  What it doesn’t have in volume, though, it makes up for in style.  Taipei 101 is a grand landmark, sticking up out of the middle of the tony Xinyi District like a giant, green glass syringe.  Finished in 2004, Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world for a while, until 2010, when the Burj Khalifa in Dubai knocked it out of first place.  It still has the world’s fastest elevator, though.

See?  No other tall buildings.  I took this from Maokong, in the suburbs.

See? No other tall buildings. I took this from Maokong, in the suburbs.

I must say, it is a little bit wooziating to ascend 89 floors to the observation deck in just a few seconds.  There’s a sign that says pregnant women and people with blood pressure problems shouldn’t go up in the elevator, and now that I’ve taken the trip, I can see why.  tp101-2It pulls on you something fierce.  But, you can’t see that warning sign until after you’ve paid your 450 Taiwanese Dollars and stood in line for an hour, so by then, you know…screw it, if we faint, we faint.

Now, remember, Taiwan is in the Pacific Ring of Fire, so it’s a hotbed of earthquake activity.  Temblors awakened me in the middle of the night a couple times during my stay.  There are usually three or four small earthquakes per day in Taiwan, and real shakers on a fairly regular basis.

The Damper, from above.

The Damper, from above.  Look how little the people look next to it.

Between the frequent earthquakes and yearly typhoons, the architects of Taipei 101 had to make sure their masterpiece wouldn’t fall down too easily.  So, it’s got an incredibly stable foundation, and a massive, 728 ton steel pendulum, with the largest wind damper in the world, suspended from the 92nd to the 87th floor, to offset the sway from typhoon winds.  wind damper2They call it by its technical name:  the “Super Big Wind Damper.”  They have little miniature “Damper Baby” dolls in the gift shop, along with, for some reason, replicas of some famous jade cabbage that everyone gets very excited about.

The diagrams are super helpful, don't you think?

The diagrams are super helpful, don’t you think?

There’s also, apparently, an issue with people not knowing that you’re not supposed to squat and pee on the floor in front of the toilet.  The fact that they even needed to make this sign both disturbs and amuses me.

Speaking of buildings and earthquakes, there’s a very interesting memorial in central Taiwan, in the small town of Jiji.  The big 1999 earthquake—the second deadliest and most destructive quake in Taiwan’s recorded history—was centered near Jiji.

Wuchang Temple in Jiji.

Wuchang Temple in Jiji.

Wuchang Temple in Jiji collapsed in on itself, in a very tidy, almost purposeful heap.  fallen templeOfficials decided to rope it off and leave it that way, as a vivid reminder of the quake, and the nearly 3,000 people who perished in it.  It’s something to see.  It almost looks like it was built that way.

Bananarama

Bananarama

There’s not much else in Jiji, besides a stand selling bananas.  Lots of bananas.  The plethora of bananas in Jiji made me giggle, because I had been previously told that the word “jiji” is a Taiwanese slang term for penis.  P1060380I know, I’m hopelessly juvenile, I can’t help it.  They also say that someone who brags “blows air into a cow’s vagina,” and I’m still laughing about that one.

Some Stuff That’s Just Five Kinds of Wrong

french akitaI saw this poor pooch at Sun Moon Lake, looking all kinds of embarrassed.  He must have chewed up someone’s Jimmy Choos to deserve a shaming of this magnitude.

befroeWhat caught my eye about this sign at first, of course, was the hilarious ‘fro wigs on the babies.  “Befroe,” indeed.  That little guy in the darker wig is just not having it, is he?  Then, after examining the arrows and labels, I realized, it’s not about the hair…it’s about the eyes, and that’s supposed to be the same baby in both shots.  I don’t know exactly what kind of baby-improvement service they were advertising here, but I’m fairly sure it would get the CPS called on you in the States.

Self-explanatory.

Self-explanatory.

I love Taiwan’s open-air markets.  The lanes near the numerous temples in every city are crowded with vendors selling everything a body could need, from food to clothes to medicines to car seat covers.  pedicureYou can also get your toenails scraped and cut, and your chin hairs tweezed, right there on the sidewalk for everyone to see, right there next to the lady selling roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts.  threadingI’m sorry…that’s just nasty.  Maybe I’m a prude, but to me, some stuff should be taken behind closed doors, and hoof and tusk trimming is one of them.

modern toiletEver wanted to eat dinner out of a toilet bowl?  Me neither, but I did it voluntarily.  I’m sorry, but in my book, if there’s a restaurant called “Modern Toilet,” you go.  pottyAnd you order the curry.  I had hoped they might have pot roast, but no.  The dining room is done up like a big bathroom, with glass-topped bathtubs for tables and toilets for seats.  modern toilet2PooEvery entrée is served in a porcelain throne, and desserts come in a mini Asian squat toilet.  Latrine cuisine, at its finest.  And, yes, it tasted just like it looks.

Ahh, the air of New York at the "summer climax" is just the sort of scent you want to bottle and sell, isn't it?

Ahh, the air of New York at the “summer climax” is just the sort of scent you want to bottle and sell, isn’t it?

You have to have experienced the thick, chewy air quality of China to understand why “New York Air Flavor Spring Summer Climax Shower Gel” is something you might be willing to pay 500 New Taiwanese Dollars (about $17 USD) for.  At least, it was buy one get one free.

Some Stuff I Ate

Taiwan’s cuisine is the product of a lot of fusion of different things with Chinese food.  Gratins were surprisingly popular, and there are more pastries and baked goods than you would expect.

Dumplings...ohhhhh

Fried Dumplings…ohhhhh

My favorite bites include these crisp, fried green onion pancake thingies that you could get from street vendors, beef rolls that reminded me of Baja-style grilled burritos, but with Chinese flavors, the spicy beef soup with hand-cut noodles, and of course, the dumplings.  They have these “soup dumplings” that look like regular steamed buns, but when you cut or bite into them, soup pours out.  So good!  Good thing I did a lot of walking, to burn it all off.

coffee bagsOh, and whoever invented these single-serve drip coffee bags that clip onto the rim of the mug should be nominated for the Nobel Prize.  Although, the coffee that comes inside is definitely not created equal, let me tell you.  I can now vouch for Mr. Tom’s and a brand called “Blendy.”  Good stuff, and excellent for travel.

Some Stuff I Cooked

Ivy in her kitchen.

Ivy in her kitchen.

I had the good fortune to take several days’ worth of one-on-one cooking classes with chef and food writer, Ivy Chen.  What a wonderful, talented lady!  Ivy’s is a well-known advocate for organic, sustainable food in Taiwan, and regularly publishes articles and cookbooks about Taiwanese cuisine.  And, she teaches the occasional cooking class, if you’re lucky.

Floss Maker

Floss Maker

She took me with her to the market, and explained to me what all the weird things were I’d never seen before.  That was worth the price of admission, right there.  For example, meat floss.  They take different kinds of meat—chicken, pork, fish, beef, you name it—desiccate it, and then spin it into “floss,” like cotton candy.

Meat Floss

Meat Floss

The finished product looks just like upholstery batting, but tastes savory and salty and melts right in your mouth.  It’s the weirdest thing.  You eat it plain, as a snack, or use it as a garnish on stews or rice dishes.

Braised Pork with Peanuts and Floss

Braised Pork with Peanuts and Floss

We bought some pork floss and used it to garnish a typical Taiwanese dish of braised pork and peanuts on rice.

She also took me with her to the Chinese pharmacy to buy spices.

Ivy at the Chinese Pharmacy.  We were buying cinnamon and star anise.

Ivy at the Chinese Pharmacy. We were buying cinnamon and star anise.

She said you can get some spices in the market, but if you want really good quality spices, you have to go to the Chinese herbalist.  They use spices in Chinese medicine, so the quality is superlative.  Made sense to me.

Can you believe I made this?  So good....

Can you believe I made this? So good….

Thanks to Ivy, I am now the proud wielder of some wicked wok skills.  Wait until you try my—or, rather, Ivy’s—Taiwanese-style Kung Pao chicken.  Guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Traditional Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes

Traditional Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes

She also showed me how to make Taiwan’s trademark sweet—the pineapple cake.  Little shortcrust pastries with pineapple filling.  Kind of like pineapple Newtons, but the pastry is richer and crumblier.  They make the cakes out of other types of fruit, too, but pineapple is the classic.

Hello Pineapple!

Hello Pineapple!

There are pineapple cakes for sale everywhere; they even make Hello Kitty pineapple cakes.  Ivy said they used to be traditional for weddings, but now they are just everywhere, like macadamias in Hawaii.  We made some from scratch, from fresh pineapple.  I can hardly believe these perfect little gems in the picture above (not the Hello Kitty ones, obviously) were made by my own two little, clumsy hands.  I would offer to send y’all some, but I ate every last one.  Not all at once, of course, but I was not sharing these.

Just Stuff

If you're over the age of six, you have to have a high dork quotient to pull off riding one of these.  Thankfully, I qualify.

If you’re over the age of six, you have to have a high dork quotient to pull off riding one of these. Thankfully, I qualify.

I don’t know what category to put this in, but they have these big, plush animal cars for kids to ride/drive around on, and yes, they will let big kids ride them if it’s not busy.  My steed was the tiger in the middle of the picture.  They don’t go very fast, but they will tip over if you take a corner too tightly.  Don’t ask how I know that.  They should require protective headgear to ride these things.

So, Zàijiàn Taiwan, and Xièxiè for showing me such a good time!  Save me a pineapple cake!


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Some Stuff–Korea Edition

krlargeWrapping up almost two months in the “Land of the Morning Calm,” I thought I would start a tradition of saying goodbye to the lands I visit on my wanderings by jotting down some stuff that I saw/did/ate/learned during my time there that I will always remember.  So, in this, my 50th post on this site, I bid adieu to South Korea with the inaugural edition of “Some Stuff.”

Some Interesting Beauty Stuff

oliveThere have to be more beauty product stores in Korea than there are people.  Olive Young, Nature Republic, Skin Food, Etude House…I could go on for pages, there are so many.  They are often right next to each other, too, sandwiched between the endless sock and cell phone cover vendors.  I love potions and lotions and beauty gadgets almost as much as corndogs, and finding exotic ones always makes me smile, so I spent more than my fair share of time perusing these shops’ wares.  Let me just say, they put some fun stuff on their faces in Korea.

I saw a lot of these eyelid tapes and glues in various shops.  I was wondering whose eyelids were flapping around in the wind so badly that they would need to be glued or taped down.  But, it’s actually used to create an extra fold in the eyelid when the eye is open, to change the shape of the eye.  This made me a little sad.

Next time I go to Korea, I’m taking a suitcase full of Herbal Essences and Burt’s Bees products to sell on the street to finance my trip.  A regular sized bottle of that bargain basement shampoo that costs just a few bucks in the States will run you 13,900 Won, or about $14 USD, in Korea; a tiny tin of Burt’s Bees lip balm or cuticle cream is even worse:  about 20,000 Won, or roughly $20 USD.  I wonder if they know Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox?

flush buttonThis doesn’t really fit into the “beauty products” category, but it is under the umbrella of feminine modesty and demureness, so I’ll just stick it here.  In some public restrooms, they have these little boxes on the wall with a speaker and a recording of a toilet flushing, that you can play while you tinkle so you can delude yourself that no one can hear what you’re doing.  Staves off the bashful bladder syndrome, I guess.  Saves water, too, by keeping women from constantly flushing the toilet while they’re trying to go.  This is not just in fancy public powder rooms, either.  I took this photo in the KTX train station in Seoul.  They also have panic buttons in there that you can press to summon help if you’re in trouble, like, if you’ve run in there to hide from someone trying to attack you.  Pretty nifty.

Some Stuff I Ate and Will Now Forever Crave

Galbi grill and a kajillion banchan.

Galbi grill and a kajillion banchan.

Oh, gentle friends, I could devote several pages to waxing poetic about Korea’s food.  I now have a number of new temptations to resist.  The barbecue, obviously, is out of this world.  Whether galbi (short rib), or samgyeopsal (pork belly), or what-have-you, the tabletop grill and scores of “banchan” (side dishes) make for a blow-your-mind meal.

Pork of "8 Kind Tastes"

Pork of “8 Kind Tastes”

I was just lucky to have friends to go with, as the tables are those giant, communal deals, and you never see anyone sitting there solo.

Tteokbokki

Tteokbokki

My friend Jung Eun told me on my first day in Seoul that, unless you have eaten Tteokbokki (also known as topokki), you can’t say you’ve been to Korea.  So, she took me to her favorite shop and we ate a pile of it.  I was skeptical at first.  The dish is described as “rice cakes and fish cakes in spicy sauce,” and that just didn’t ring any bells for me.  But, I’m a good sport, so I tucked in…and I loved it.  It’s sort of like chewy pasta in red enchilada sauce.  You see it a lot at street stands.  It’s cheap, delicious snack food.

Half jjajangmyun, half spicy seafood soup

Half jjajangmyun, half spicy seafood soup

There was a Korean soap opera I watched that was basically a Korean re-write of the movie “Overboard” with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.  But, since it was 16 one-hour episodes, obviously they had to expand the story.  Anyway, one of the little bits of the Korean version of the story that was cute was how the rich, amnesiac lady–who had been such a snob before hitting her head and forgetting who she was–wouldn’t eat anything except this cheap noodle dish called “jjajangmyun,” or noodles with “brown sauce.”  Well, apparently, jjajangmyun is to Koreans what mac n’ cheese is to Americans.  And it rocks, hard.  Comfort food in the extreme.  Salty, slightly sweet, savory…so perfect on a rainy afternoon.  It is also one of the few things I could order coherently when I was alone in a restaurant, so I ate a lot of it.  mcdonaldsAt Jung Eun’s house, we had it delivered in these little divided bowls–half jjajangmyun and half spicy seafood soup, the perfect combination–and after we were done, the delivery guy came back and took the dirty dishes away!  I love that.  (You can get anything delivered in Korea; even KFC and McDonald’s deliver.  Not that it did me any good; I couldn’t order anything over the phone because I don’t speak Korean.)

I don't know what these little pancakey things are called, so I'll just call them Heaven Puffs.

I don’t know what these little pancakey things are called, so I’ll just call them Heaven Puffs.

In every market, some vendor will have a stand selling these nutty little pancake thingies, serving them folded in half in a paper cup.  Just to look at them, they reminded me a bit of the round puffs in face powder compacts.  They’re about the size of the palm of your hand (well, my hand), they have a chewy texture, and are filled with brown sugar, sesame powder, peanuts, and any number of yummy spices that melt into the dough as it fries on the grill.  Er-mah-gerd, people, these things are addictive.

Patbingsu

Patbingsu at Eskimo Hawaii

And then there’s Bingsu.  If “shaved ice with toppings” gives you visions of snow cones drizzled with syrups of colors that do not occur in nature, think again.  Bingsu is a whole different ball of wax…or, rather, bowl of ice.  Lots of places serve green tea flavored bingsu in a big, quart-sized Pyrex mixing cup, loaded with fresh fruits, mochi nuggets, and of course, the ever-present red beans (which makes it “Patbingsu”).  eskimoThat’s good, and much lighter than ice cream.  But the bingsu that will now forever come to my mind when I get an ice cream headache is from a place called Eskimo Hawaii.  Their “shaved ice” is made of milk that’s been hyper-frozen until it’s bone dry, and put through a shredder that makes it like sawdust.  So strange.  Then they top it with candied pumpkin, sweet rice cakes, and yes, red beans.  The milk flakes melt on your tongue and mix with the sweet toppings…it’s like milk and cookies all in one bite.

Some Stuff on a Stick

I love food on a stick.  Put anything on a stick, and it’s just better.  I think they should figure out a way to put spaghetti on a stick, I really do.  Korea agrees with me.  In every market and street food stall, there is no lack of stuff on a stick.

Meh.

Meh.

With all the pseudo-corndog teasing that I was subjected to, however, there was one cruel joke.  Long before coming to Korea, I had read about a mythical french fry-encrusted hot dog on a stick that was to be had in street food stalls Seoul.  Finding this unicorndog was on the top of my list of things to do while in Korea, understandably.  Accordingly, one day, I put on my walking shoes and set off to the big market in Namdaemun, vowing not to rest until I found it.  And find it I did.  And you know…it was just okay.  It needed salt, and it wasn’t as crispy as it either looks or should be.  Not at all worth a special trip.  Phooey.

Some Stuff I Ate and Was Surprised I Liked

fish intestinesWhen in Rome, as they say, do as the Romans do.  So, when in Korea, eat as the Koreans eat.  Some of that stuff can be pretty intimidating, though.  But, you know, if you just open your mind, and dispense with the preconceived notions, you just might slip one past your Western palate, and discover that you like fish eyeballs.  Yes, I ate fish eyeballs, and did not die.  They’re kind of like little savory raisins.  I won’t be getting into any slap fights to get my share of fish eyeballs anytime soon, but I can honestly say I didn’t hate it.  Also surprisingly good, the aforementioned sausages encased in fish paste on a stick.  It won’t be replacing the corndog in my heart, but they weren’t bad.  Fish intestine soup was pretty strange looking, but went down easy.

Those are not chicken breast tenders, they are fish egg sacks.

Those are not chicken breast tenders, they are fish egg sacks.

But the biggest surprise was pollack roe on rice for breakfast.  Had anyone told me a few months ago that I’d be happily nibbling on fish eggs and seaweed soup for breakfast, I’d have had them drug tested.  But, it’s true.  They marinate the egg sacks, and the roe takes on a smoky, very non-fishy flavor that, on rice, is about as close as Koreans get to lox and bagels.  I know you don’t believe me, but it’s the truth.

Some Stuff I Refused To Eat

Penis fish in the Busan fish market.

Penis fish in the Busan fish market.

I am a pretty good sport when it comes to most things, especially food, but even I have to put my foot down sometimes.  One of the things I just couldn’t bring myself to put in my mouth, was the penis fish.

Penis fish on a plate.

Penis fish on a plate.

Some try to make it better by calling it by its alternative name, the spoon worm.  Not helping.  In Busan, this creature is served live, sliced and still squirming.  Sorry…couldn’t do it.

silk worms

Boiled silk worm pupae (beondegi).

When I was in Mexico City earlier this year, I ate crickets (chapulines) and ant larvae (escamoles), and I won’t say I liked them, but I got them down without having to leave the table or spit them out in a napkin.  They eat roasted crickets in Korea, too, but I felt like I’d done my cricket duty in Mexico, so I politely declined.

Looks like I'm not the only one who had that reaction.

Looks like I’m not the only one who had that reaction.

But, when confronted with the Korean beondegi–boiled silk worm pupae–I almost threw up a little in my mouth.  This dish is common, too; you see it all over at street stalls.  The sight of it is bad enough, but the smell…oh god, the smell.  Imagine you’ve gone off and forgotten a load of laundry in the washer for a week during the hottest week of summer.  So very gross.

Umm...no thanks.

Umm…no thanks.

I know tomatoes are technically fruits, but before visiting Korea, I hadn’t seen them actually prepared like fruits.  Except, once, the Korean deli near my office in Oakland put cherry tomatoes in their fruit salad.  But, now I understand why.  Koreans treat tomatoes like the fruit that they are, making sorbet and sugary desserts and smoothies out of  them.  It just didn’t do it for me, though.

chickenbutt

I don’t see any bandages over his gizzard….

Finally, there was dakdongjib.  Literally translated as “chicken shit house” in Korean, dakdongjib is part of the alimentary canal of a chicken, close to the exit.  There is some dispute about whether what is served is actually the anal sphincter, or rather, the gizzard.  I don’t know the answer to that, but the restaurant in Busan that serves it has this illustration as its logo, so you do the math.

Some Stuff I’m Glad I Got Off My Ass To Do

Woljeongsa Temple in Gangwon.

Woljeongsa Temple in Gangwon.

Anyone who has traveled in Asia knows what it is to get temple fatigue.  After a while, one temple starts to look like every other temple, and they all require you to hike up bloody steep hills to get to them, and then prohibit you from taking any pictures.  By the time I was in Busan, toward the end of my time in Korea, I not only had a bad case of temple fatigue, but my Achilles tendons were inflamed, and I was in no mood to hike up any more mountains to then climb up another dizzying staircase just to see another statue of the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion who, I’m sorry, if she was really the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, she’d have met me at the bottom of the damned hill.

Yonggungsa

Haedong Yonggungsa

So, it is all the more remarkable that I was even open to taking the bus 40 minutes north of Busan to see Haedong Yonggungsa.  But, I’m so glad I did.  For one, it’s the only temple in Korea that isn’t on top of a mountain; it’s perched on a bluff above the ocean.  The story goes that some ancient Buddhist monk had a dream about a sea god, in which he was instructed to build this temple by the sea.

108 steps.

108 steps.

But, that didn’t spare me climbing stairs, oh no.  There are 108 steps from the gate down to the bridge across the rocks to the temple.  The number 108 is a sacred figure in several eastern religions, including Buddhism, which holds that there are 108 human feelings, and 108 “agonies,” the latter of which inspired these steps, I can testify.

yonggungsa2But the effort was worth it; Yonggungsa is an ethereal place that invokes anything but a somber mood in its visitors.  It’s joyful and bright and leaves you feeling clean and light, even if you are not a particularly spiritual person.

Traffic Safety Pagoda

Traffic Safety Pagoda

There’s even a special pagoda for “Prayers for Traffic Safety,” marked with a truck tire.  Very practical, I think.  And since I was planning to rent a car the following week in Jeju Island, I threw a few Won into the box, lit a stick of incense, and said a silent prayer, just in case.  There are other well-worn prayer spots, too, such as a granite Buddha statue whose belly you can rub to ensure that your baby will be a boy–that one was rubbed smooth and shiny–as well as heavily attended shrine where folks can pray for “Excellence in Academics.”  But, not by me, I’m done with all that, thank goodness.

Some Stuff I Was Too Lazy To Get Off My Ass To Do

"Come have a slumber party with me!"

“Come have a slumber party with me!”

Read any information on how to make your trip to Korea authentic and wonderful, and you’ll run across information on doing a “temple stay.”  I read this stuff, too, and thought seriously about checking it out.  Temple stay is where you check in to a Buddhist temple for a few days or weeks, live with the monks, meditate, eat with them, etc.  It sounded like the type of experience that might be interesting, if not fun.  monk signSo, I investigated it at a number of temples, such as Woljeongsa in Gangwon.  It’s affordable, and I know I could do the required work, and the meditation. I could even deal with the all-plant diet and the doing your own dishes and the scratchy clothes.  But, then I found out you have to get up at 3:30 a.m. every day, and I said “Oh, I’m out.”  If anyone hears of a swing-shift temple stay program, let me know.

Some Stuff I Bought

I just wish they had printed it the other way around, so it would look like he is looking up at me when I have the socks on.

I just wish they had printed it the other way around, so it would look like he is looking up at me when I have the socks on.

I don’t do a lot of shopping when I travel, especially on this trip, where I would have to lug anything I got around indefinitely, unless I shipped it home.  But, I have picked up a couple of fun things.  My favorite Korean soap opera heart throb is Song Seung-Heon.  He’s stars in at least seven of the K-Dramas that I’ve seen–some of which I watched simply because he’s featured–and I think he’s just so pretty.  So, when I saw these goofy socks with his face on them, that say “I Love You,” well, I just had to have them.  Turns out, they’ve been useful, as I packed too few socks, thinking I would be wearing sandals more than I have been.

I love you even if you are doing weird.

I miss you even if you are doing weird.  I really do.

The other useful thing I bought is this cute utensil set with a spoon and pair of chopsticks in a pink carrying case.  I got it so I could eat yogurt or noodles or such in my hotel room, so I wouldn’t have to go out to eat all the time.  The case says “Lovely Friend” above the little bear with his cap on backwards, and below, it says:

“Naughty Bear

I’m really missing you, even if you are doing weird.  You understand me and take care of me.  So I thank you.  I wonder what you are doing now.  I think you every moments.  Perhaps, I like you.  I am your valuable friend.”

Even if I hadn’t have been in need of a portable utensil set, I think I would have to have bought it just for that inscription.

Some Stuff I Learned

My Kimchi Baby

My Kimchi Baby

One thing I was determined to learn when I went to Korea was how to make kimchi.  And I did.  I learned to make a number of classic Korean dishes, in fact.  I took some one-on-one cooking classes at Food & Culture Korea, with the beautiful and talented Jae Jeong.  I told her I wanted to learn techniques more than recipes, so I could really understand how the food is prepared.  If you know the technique, you can cook without a recipe.

All prepared with my own two little hands.

All prepared with my own two little hands.

She gave me exactly what I asked for, and now, I am equipped to cook you all an authentic Korean meal when I get home.  My dumplings may be ugly little piglets, as I lack Jae’s dumpling folding skill, but they will taste good.  I didn’t get to try the kimchi we made, though, because it had to ferment for a few weeks before it was ready.  But, my little ball of kimchi fermented away in my friend Jung Eun’s kimchi fridge, and when it was done fizzing itself to readiness, she informed me that it was, in fact, edible.  I am so proud.

The Billboard

The Billboard

Before I left San Francisco, I was driving back into the City over the Bay Bridge one day, and I noticed a big billboard right off the 80, just past the Fremont Street exit, seemingly advertising a vacation destination called “Dokdo Island.”  It had a beautiful picture of a rocky, exotic seaside and a lovely Korean woman, and a caption that read “Visit Beautiful Island! Dokdo, Korea!”  I had never heard of it, but knew I was headed to Korea, so I filed it away in my mental notebook of things to look into when I got there.  Well, I didn’t get to visit Dokdo, it was too out of the way, but I did learn something about it.  dokdoDokdo is the center of a brewing new dispute between Korea and Japan.  Dokdo is out in the East Sea between Korea and Japan, and apparently, despite centuries of settlement by Korean people, Japan has recently taken the position that Dokdo belongs to Japan.  This has Korean wigs in a major twist.  They are, after all, a tad sensitive when it comes to having their land claimed by Japan.  to NYTSo, there is a rather urgent PR campaign going on to make sure the world knows very well that Dokdo belongs to Korea, not Japan, and that the sea in which it lies is not the “Sea of Japan” but the “East Sea.”  That’s what that billboard was all about–planting in the minds of anyone who drove past the name of the island, and it’s association with Korea…just in case.

There is more…so much more.  My memory is full of vivid colors, wonderful people, funny signs, idyllic towns and oh so many teeny tiny towels.  Maybe next time, I’ll get to the bottom of why all the towels are so very, very tiny.  Or, I’ll just bring my own towel.  Either way, I am pretty sure I will be coming back.