Wrapping 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
There 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?
This 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
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.
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.
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.
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. At 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.)
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.
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”). That’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.
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
When 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
But 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.
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
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. So, 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 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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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. Dokdo 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. So, 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.