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:

Carlos Eats Seoul: Huku (후쿠) Sushi Take-Out (Edae)

Sushi is one of my favorite things to eat in the United States. When I arrived in Seoul, I was anticipating an endless amount of sushi due to the proximity between Korea and Japan. Unfortunately, I soon found out sushi is often over-priced and the taste of fish in Korea is frequently either frozen or spoiled. There are a numerous buffets in the area, but you get what you pay for. My discouragement was remedied when I decided to stop by a small sushi stand by Ewha Women’s University one day as I walking home to Yonsei: Huku (후쿠) Sushi Take-Out. The stand is located between Bob & Dogs and not too far from the Pharaoh Nightclub and bowling alley, you’ll notice bamboo on the outside.

The sushi chef is a Korean man from Australia. His dream has always been to have his own restaurant and now he is living his dream. We had plenty of conversations about sushi and his opinion on various aspects of Japanese food culture. He told me normally people don’t converse with him during their meal, but as a sushi enthusiast I believe the smart diner (looking for the best fish) will always sit at the sushi bar and strike up a conversation with their host.

The price of the sushi has to be one of the best aspects about Huku Sushi.  The owner keeps his prices low to cater to his dominant crowd of college women in the area. You can have either 6 pieces of nigiri (full piece of fish on top of Japanese rice) for 5,500 won or 12 pieces of nigiri for 8,000 won. Also on the menu are Nori Maki (rolls) for 3,000/3,500 won and Sanuki Udon for 3,500 won. I decided to order the 12 pieces of nigiri.  As the name of the restaurant states, all orders can be made to-go and you can call in advance to place your order. If you decide to dine-in, don’t bring more than 2 friends since there are only 3 seats in the sushi booth.

These two items are sea bass (suzuki) and flatfish (hirame) and these two fish normally are not on the menu in Florida. Both were refreshing. The chef puts a small amount of wasabi between the fish and rice and you can feel it open your nostrils. The taste of the wasabi was fresh. I only slightly dipped the rice into soy sauce, enjoying the fresh flavor of the fish. I told the chef my favorite fish was salmon (sake) and he mentioned I was in luck as the salmon was really fresh today.

The salmon was amazing, I think there are very few places where it has been this flavorful. It literally melted in my mouth. An indiviual order of salmon is 1,200 won, but someday I may just go on a salmon binge and go for just salmon. The salmon brought my meal to a whole new level.

Complimentary miso soup is provided when you order a set of fish. The miso soup was light and and had an enjoyable broth that was quite different to what I am used to (either tons of tofu or tons of onion).

The vinegared shrimp was enjoyable. Sometimes shrimp can have this over-powering taste, but this shrimp went down nicely.

The cuttlefish was enjoyable and one thing I started to really notice about the nigiri was none of the fish smelled fishy. One of the ways to tell if fish is bad is to use your nose, bad fish will almost always have a strong fishy scent. The color of the fish is another good indicator and as you can see, the colors of the fish here were still vibrant.

The octopus (tako) came with a slightly spicy sauce on top that the chef notes Koreans enjoy on their fish. Although I have an aversion to some spicy foods, this fish was excellent.

The seasoned fried tofu (inori) and the egg (dashitaki) that followed were both a nice balance to the sushi assortment and brought an enjoyable balance to the meal. I hardly ever order egg at sushi restaurants in Tampa because it normally comes out all wrong, but this egg tasted closer to what I would enjoy in San Francisco restaurants (the mecca of sushi in the United States).

The last fish I had was the eel (unagi). Eel was one of my favorites when I lived in California, but when I moved to Florida it quickly fell off my list. The fish was either bony or drenched in sauce or smeared in cream cheese in Tampa restaurants. This eel at Huku Sushi was closer to what I would have in San Francisco and hit the spot. When you taste it, you just know the place is legitimate.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with Huku Sushi Take-Out. The owner and sushi chef was welcoming and all the food was fresh and packed with mouthwatering flavor. The prices are perfect for college students and for anyone trying to dine on a budget and with take-out orders you just cannot help but consider this place to be one of the hidden foodie finds in Edae. Ewha and Yonsei University students should put this restaurant on their to-do list. I know I’ll be back.

Restaurant Name: Huku (후쿠) Sushi Take-Out

Cuisine: Japanese

Neighborhood: Edae

Address (Korean): 서대문구 대현동 37-32

Phone Number: 010-2088-0535

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

When I was researching about South Korea before I traveled to study abroad I came across an interesting event: the 1st Korean Food Tour for Foreign Foodies, sponsored by The Ministry for food, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and the Korean Food Foundation. Applications for participants were being accepted and I was lucky enough to be chosen as a finalist to join a team of college students to be featured on this food tour.

During the first orientation I learned that I will also be on television, KBS2 (Korean Broadcasting System 2) and cameras will follow us on every step of our way through the Jeollanam-do province of South Korea. We also found out we have to plan our own trip through our province step-by-step and explain why and how we decided to pick each restaurant or location we will visit and that in the end there will be a roadmap created for future foreign visitors to South Korea looking for the best foodie destinations (I get to make a difference!). Lucky for me my South Korea travel book states “ask anyone any they’ll say the best food in South Korea can be found here [Jeolla]”.

Jeolla-do is the ancestral home of the Yi family of the Joseon family (one of the longest cultural development periods in South Korean history including the invention of the writing system called Hangul by King Se-jong) with cooking techniques handed down for centuries. Jeolla is one of the least developed areas of South Korea, which makes it a perfect place for sightseeing. Warm weather allows for large agricultural  production in the region. There is certainly much to be seen in Jeollanam-do and much to be written. Stay tuned for updates on my journey to the southwestern province of South Korea.🙂

 

Photo credit:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/briandeutsch/2270777402/

http://briandeutsch.blogspot.com/2010/10/viewing-fall-foliage-in-and-around.html

Carlos Eats Seoul: 400 Won Wing Night Tuesdays @ Beer O’ Clock

During my freshman year of college, I spent every Monday at Wingstop with the Vietnamese Student Association eating 35 cent wings. It was an experimental event that become a weekly tradition. There is nothing better than cheap and delicious wings (my two favorite words). Sometime later, Wingstop changed some of their policies and we stopped our visits. Last week, I started craving wings in Seoul and a quick Google search directed me to Beer O’ Clock.

Beer O’ Clock is a Canadian bar in Sinchon. When you enter you find American football on televisions and plenty of foreigners around. We came for their 400 won wing night. There are plenty of tables and open seating to provide ventilation to the room. The wing promotion has five varieties and to get the deal you must order a beverage. The waiter was quick to bring us our drinks and take our order.

Soda and basic beers are both 3,000 won. I decided to order a coke. I drank it down it down fast and then learned after asking that there were no free refills. You’ll want to be careful about this since I find it very difficult to enjoy wings with water. Some American food, mainly burgers, wings, fries, and pizza just taste great with some soda or beer.

Our table ordered two types of fries. The bacon and cheese fries cost 9,000 won and are delicious. The cheese is melted perfectly between the fries and the bacon tastes great as well. The price is certainly high for french fries, but split among a few friends it wasn’t too bad. Each person at my table order 10 wings for a total of 4,000 won per person.

The regular plate of fries costs 7,000 won and is also great. They went much faster than the other fries, but were enjoyable down to the last bite. The wait for the wings was a little long, I would say we waited at least 30 minutes for our wings. When they arrived we were ready to get our wing fix on.

The BBQ wings were appetizing, but needed to be dipped in a sauce. I asked the waiter for some ranch dressing, but he disappeared after dropping off the wings and never came back to ask if we needed anything else. Nevertheless, it was nice to have some BBQ as finding food in BBQ sauce is a rare find in Seoul.

The plain wings were just that: plain. Make sure you have something to dip them in.

The hot wings were quickly being eaten by my friends. I personally don’t eat hot wings so I can’t comment on the taste. However, they looked pretty appetizing.

The Rancho-Relaxo wings had an interesting sauce to them. Different, but not particularly my favorite. I could take or leave them.

My personal favorite were the Greek wings. They had a lemon pepper taste to them that was invigorating. I could not stop myself from grabbing more and I actually felt a little sad when they were all gone. It was the most memorable part of my meal and in the future I would be sure to order these wings again.

Overall, Beer O’ Clock is a decent pub with some delicious and cheap wings. Perfect for a college student and someone who wants to spend some times in a sports bar without spending too much cash. I would return again for their wing night in the future. I invited some other friends who came later at night (past 9PM) but found the wings sold out so make sure you head early if you’re planning to eat dinner there.

Restaurant Name: Beer O’ Clock

Cuisine: Pub grub

Neighborhood: Sinchon, Itaewon

Address: Seodaemoon Gu, Changchun Dong 52-53 2nd floor

Phone Number: (02) 3339733

Website: http://www.beeroclock.ca/

Carlos Eats Seoul: Visiting Taco Bell (타코벨) in Sinchon (신촌동) during their grand opening

It was hard to miss Taco Bell on their Grand Opening Day in Sinchon (신촌동) last Friday. Employees walked around with signs pointing towards the restaurant and a man dressed as a taco greeted and waved at people walking through the city. Music played outside the store and employees outside gave away free tacos or soft drinks to visitors just for stopping by (this reminded me of the Panda Express grand opening at USF earlier this year). Some girls were in love with the taco bell man and the amount of buzz seemed to be marketing working its magic.

I was one of the lucky ones who won a taco and I literally jumped up and down when I won. The employees at the booth were very friendly certainly did their part to make visitors feel more welcomed.

This scene looked familiar. The menu items were a little different, but mostly just the same items you will find in the U.S.A. with different combinations of items.  I decided to order Combo #3 (called sets in Korea) for around 5,000 won, which consists of a Crunchwrap Supreme and nachos with a soda. There was an electronic television to the side showing Americans eating tacos and burritos. The turn-around time was quite short and before I knew it I was heading to the drink machine to pick my beverage. The good thing about Taco Bell in Korea is the prices are actually similar to the prices in the United States and not marked up (Burger King being my prime example).

This is a sight you will rarely see in South Korea. Most fast food places (even McDonald’s and Burger King) remove the self-serve beverage machines when they enter foreign markets. Essentially it means you get less for your buck, though it is probably healthier to have less soda. Regardless, I was excited to use this machine I had not seen since my arrival (with the exception of Shake N’ Burger in SK Global House at Yonsei – meh) and quickly poured myself some Mountain Dew. Oddly, there is no Mountain Dew Baja Blast in Korea (my favorite flavor and one of the main reasons to go to Taco Bell in the U.S.A.!). I hope Taco Bell Korea will consider bringing this flavor to Seoul if their new stores succeed.

Like most fast food chains and coffee shops in Seoul, Taco Bell is 3 stories high and has plenty of seating arrangements on the second floor that overlooks Sinchon. It makes fast food seem so much fancier when you compare it to the Taco Bell locations in the United States that are so uncomfortable that you are almost always inclined to make an order to-go. There are even comfortable booths you can relax in at fast food chains in Korea.

The taco itself tasted remarkably similar to the ones in the United States. The shell was slightly less crunchy, but the cheese tasted better. The meat and other ingredients were the same. The Crunchwrap Supreme was as tasty as in the U.S.A. and was oozing out cheese.  They supplied you with 2 sauces of your choice (I normally go with mild) and the taste was slightly different, but similar. The nachos were average and the cheese dip was satisfactory. Overall, a cheap and enjoyable fast food meal and cheaper than most competitors in Korea.

Restaurant Name: Taco Bell (타코벨)

Location: Sinchon (신촌동)

Cuisine: Mexican

Website: http://www.tacobellkorea.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Taco-Bell-Korea/194679020581660

Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/theboldchoice