Carlos Eats Korea: The 1st Korean Food Tour for Foreign Foodies

My second food tour in South Korea brought me down to Jeollanam – the Southern tip of South Korea. This food tour was sponsored by Hansik – the Korean Food Foundation. My team was called The Nakji Hunterschosen by our team leader Juanita Hong. We visited a number of towns during my trip and although the trip was lots of work (we were being filmed by KBS and camera work for a documentary is much harder than I imagined…especially when most people speak a foreign language) – the trip was still a great success. I met many people in Jeollanam and learned much about Korean cuisine and culture.

We rode in a charter bus around the region. Our first day was spent at a seafood market in Mokpo.  During our visit to the market we were able to see live fish and then enjoy some fresh seafood. The restaurant used every piece of the fish during our visit and the owner mentioned that in Korean culture they do not believe in wasting food – so the parts of the fish that were not used as sashimi we used in a fish soup and then also as side dishes or banchan in Korean. The banchan were numerous and indeed Jeollanam is known for its lavish and tasty variety of banchan.

The most interesting thing I tried was a bloody clam – it was slimy and actually not as bad as I imagined, although I am unsure if I would try it again without some other kind of sauces mixed in.

The sashimi was made Korean style and tasted good, but didn’t quite melt in my mouth like I hoped it would. The seaport itself had a great view of the water and our hotel, the Muan Beach Hotel, had a beautiful beach-front view at sunset.

After we settled into our hotel, we departed to a town where a man is famous for making octopus or nakji in Korean. He brought out live nakji and together we made the nakji that is traditionally used by Koreans for funeral processions and other ceremonies. Nakji is very expensive (just one can cost at least 25,000 won or more).

The restaurant owner has cooked nakji for more than 17 years and showed us his techniques and how to make nakji soup and nakji on a stick. We also tried nakji raw – which I found to be unappetizing but some of my teammates enjoyed. I was a little disturbed by the nakji and I am sure many foreigners might feel the same way during their first encounter – but for Koreans this just another one of their delicacies and I think learning about that was an important and valuable experience.

After we finished we retired to our hotel and then woke  the next day and headed to meet a fisherman who was going to take us hunting for nakji (hence our name The Nakji Hunters). This was a true workout during a chilly day, but one of the best experiences of our trip. We headed out with our boots and raincoats into a boat that brought us to mud islands where nakji wash up in the early morning.

The fisherman (full of energy) ran around the island with us chasing behind (shovels in hand) and guided us to the small mounds where the nakji are trapped in mud. Nakji eventually escape into the water from the mud and it was essential that we work as fast as possible before they all made it back to sea.

We managed to catch nine nakji. When you step on the mounds they are trapped in, the surrounding water releases and if you dig in the middle you will find a nakji sitting in the middle of the mud. You use your hands to pick it out of the ground. The feeling of a nakji on your hand is an experience itself and I think many travelers to Korea would be interested in this. Some Koreans eat the nakji whole after discovering it, but I decided to hold-off on that, feeling adventurous enough with the blood clams the day before.

Once we left the fisherman behind we headed to a Traditional Korean Market where we visited stands and eventually sold our nakji and seafood off to local townspeople. It was a fun experience and elderly lady managed to haggle down the price of our fish to just 3,000 won! A lesson was learned: never haggle with the elderly – they are experienced.

After our experience we headed to a Korean meat shop and purchased Korean beef and mushrooms for dinner. It had to have been one of the best meals of our trip. One of the Hansik employees posted a photograph on Twitter of my huge smile as I devoured the food. The quality of the meat was superb and during my interview I noted that Westerners would love to have the experience to purchase and make their own meat in this self-cook Korean style. The meat rivaled the taste of some steakhouses I have tried in Tampa and that means a lot since Tampa is the home of Outback Steakhouse and highly esteemed Bern’s Steakhouse – as most of you readers are aware.

After dinner we headed to Boseong and retired in a traditional Korean house there right on the tea farm. We met with the employees on our film and Korea crew and had some late-night snacks while playing some Korean games before heading to bed. We awoke early the next morning to head to the Daehan Boseong Tea Plantation.

The plantation was absolutely beautiful when we awoke in the morning and headed outside. The valley was stunning and although the key blooming season for the fields is in spring and summer – the leaves were still surviving through the autumn. We walked through the field as the camera crew filmed us and discussed some of the health properties of green tea that has made it become famous through the world. You can read some more about my experience on Hansik’s website.

Our last stop was at a Boseong restaurant, Che Heom Jang, that specializes in dishes made from a patented green tea extract. The restaurant owner guided us through the process of making green tea kimchi, a dish that was excellent and unknown even to many Korean people I know in Seoul. The beauty of green tea is it neutralizes the smell that kimchi tends to acquire over time and also tastes great. We put oysters inside the kimchi to enhance the taste even further.

The two women at the restaurant also guided us through other dishes and one looked especially cool in her traditional Korean outfit called a hanbok. We made green tea rice cakes and also green tea rice balls among other dishes and enjoyed several green tea banchan including a nakji soup with green tea thrown inside. Being a huge fan of green tea since my childhood, this experience was special to me and brought me some new understanding about Korean cuisine being innovative and working hard to attempt new heights.

I felt the green tea restaurant was a fitting end to our journey and as we boarded our charter bus back to Seoul – I headed back home with a new perspective about Korean food and culture that I will carry with me as I experience many new foods in the future.

Make sure you check out our Tumblr at http://www.thenakjihunters.tumblr.com and our Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/thenakjihunters for more updates and insights on Korean food and culture and look for the KBS2 documentary to air in the near future on Korean television!🙂

Carlos Eats Seoul: Chois’ Tacos Burrito Challenge Preliminaries in Sinchon

This is a guest blog written by Emanuel – a friend from USF who is studying abroad with me in Seoul, South Korea. He participated in the Chois’ Tacos Burrito Challenge and made it to the semi-finals. Chois’ Tacos has been in making tacos and burritos in Sinchon for years.

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Me and Carlos go way back. At least three months. Maybe even more.

Actually, we met at a Christmas party a few years ago, and hadn’t realized that we were both coming to Korea until a month or two in advance of our leaving. We recognized each other in one of the orientations where they tell you not to commit grand larceny and not to inappropriately touch the locals, and knew we were in for a treat.

Fast forward a few months to a brisk night in Seoul, South Korea.

As we rounded another street corner, coming closer for the destination for that night, Chois’ Tacos alongside one of the main commerce streets in Sinchon, I reflected on our coincidental visit to Korea, and how it ended up in a group of international students walking to an eating contest preliminary. Of all the things to do in South Korea, stuffing your face full of burrito at an alarmingly gluttonous rate was not exactly on the travel brochure. I don’t think it’s on any brochure, actually.

So we get to the burrito joint, and the owner, Chois, is already making burritos for two entrants who are to go just before us. The deal is this: eat an entire large burrito in two minutes or less, and it’s free. Place in the top 15 of qualifiers, and you’re invited to the prestigious contest that Sunday. A a quick glance at the board showed a slew of names recognized for their triumphant efforts – thirty or so names below the two minute barrier, etched in permanent marker for all eternity. Or until the ink wears out. Whichever comes first.

Among the names, at the very top, laid Someone Somebodicus from the USA. I can’t remember his name, but that was probably it. Clocked in at 1:11, his herculean effort was recognized as the quickest time set. We joked about his American origins, and after a few fat jokes from the Europeans in the group, realized that we’d be lucky to break two minutes and get our free burrito, let alone put Somebodicus in his place.

The two Korean entrants had just finished at a rapid pace of about two and a half minutes. Their red, strained, and painfully taut faces reconciled the pain me and the other entrants were about to endure. For sure, we wouldn’t be able to break two minutes. Some of us began to falter and wonder if competing was even worth it – after all, if you’re going to buy a burrito, you may as well enjoy it.

No one chickened out, however. We all took our seats, paid our respects to the pile of meat, cheese, and random assortment of vegetables wrapped in tortilla in front of us, and grabbed them like the hungry, angry, and determined men that we were. I took a sip of water to wet my gullet, put on my serious face, and brought the burrito to my mouth. The gaping maw of despair and darkness that is my mouth readied for the imminent feast. “Forgive me lord, for I realize not the tortuous and disgusting things I will wrought upon this innocent burrito. I am but only a hapless man.” I thought to myself.

I was not going to pay for this burrito, even if it killed me. I may enjoy eating, but I largely enjoy not paying for things even more. And I also forgot my wallet. I took a deep breath, looked at Mr. Chois as he readied the stopwatch, and reminded myself that obviously, placing in the top 15 was impossible, but if I had to pay for this burrito, I’d surely be tired from all the running from Mr. Chois, because he did look like a nimble fellow.

He said go, and I shoved the burrito in my face. Bite by bite, I slid the bits of cooked flesh and assorted plants down my throat at an alarming rate. Something took hold of me, and I became a burrito eating demon. I don’t remember much from the actual feast, but when I came out of my crazed haze of hunger and darkness, all I remember was cheering. And before I knew it, my hands were empty, my mouth half full, and as I swallowed the last bit, I shouted “Chois’ Taco!” and my time was set.

One minute, and twelve seconds.

Not only had I broken the two minute barrier for my free burrito, I’d placed second in the preliminary, guaranteeing my seat in the competition on Sunday, as well as a complimentary five free burritos for my performance.

It was, without a doubt, the happiest day of my life.

The burrito was good. It was hearty. It was delicious. It was all a man could ask for. Well proportioned, cooked to serve right in front of you, and in a lovely little shop by the street, at a reasonable price at around $5.5 USD. The steak used was actually cooked perfectly, even if it was going to just be shoved into my face at seventy six miles an hour, which leads me to believe that it’s probably even more scrumptious when the chef knows the eater will probably get to take their time and enjoy it.

Restaurant Name: Chois’ Tacos

Cuisine: Mexican

Neighborhood: Sinchon

Address: 13-27 Changcheon-dong, Seodaemun-gu (서대문구 창천동 13-27) +82 2 362 2113

Directions: Take the subway, 2 line/Green line, to Sinchon Station. Go out exit number 3 and head towards Yonsei University. At the first intersection with a traffic light turn right. After about 100 meters, Chois’ Tacos will be on your right.Phone Number:Website: