Some of South Korea’s best loved dishes are sold from giant iron woks at open-air stalls or the front of carts, with people standing about and huddling around to order and eat. Today, I’ll be sharing with you about a few of these, and what to look out for in your hunt for great street food, so let’s begin! #1 Odeng 오뎅 Also known to many of us as fish cake, these are the cheapest street food and stalls dishing out sticks from a rolling boil are a dime a dozen. In general, there’s no need to be too picky about odeng since it is a fuss-free type of food and does not vary spectacularly in quality, but join in and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals for a truly authentic experience (and also because they know where the broth is better). #2 Tteokbokki 떡볶이 Probably the number 1 export to Korean restaurants around the world, Tteokbokki is famed as one of the “must-tries” when in Korea. Tteokbokki is a springy, chewy and dense rice cake that comes drenched in a spicy red pepper paste sauce that you will find so “Korean” (they love this sauce and use it on many things). And yes, it can look rather messy, but don’t let that deter you! Again, it’s all in the sauce so go where the locals go. #3 Hotteok 호떡 I could eat 10 of these in one sitting. Hotteok is a sweet Korean Pancake that is fried then cut open and filled with a mixture of sunflower seeds and brown sugar, and often folded and then squeezed into a paper cup for easier handling. Always go to those where they’re frying them fresh (i.e. avoid those that have been pre-fried and left to sit), because that way the batter is tasty and with the slightest bit of crust, and the brown sugar caramelises between. You will smile, and so will the kids. A lot of the places pre-fry but there’s a great one just across the road from the Haeundae market along Jungdong 1-ro; a small shop about in a row of shophouses. #4 Mandu 만두 Freshly fried and off the grill, these are basically a sort of dumpling and can be either filled with meat or vegetables or both. This one at Nampodong near the Jagalchi Market in Busan came with a side of finely sliced and crisp cabbage in a tasty spicy (note the expression of the guy in green) sauce. On a cold day, this is just heavenly heat in the tummy, and is definitely something you have to try. The key to mandu as well as a lot of the other street food, is to make sure they have a busy business and are making it fresh – otherwise they’ll just be doughy and chewy. So now I know what I need to try, but where do I go to get them? They’re all over Korea, but if you want to try multiple of these in a single place, Nampodong and Gwangbokdong in Busan are great. In Seoul, head to Namdaemun which opens till the wee hours. Namdaemun is also a great place to do souvenir shopping because prices are easily 1/5 or less of the price you’d pay at the airport duty free! 😮
We took a 3.5hr ride on the KTX to Busan, a busy port city on the Southern coast of South Korea, where we were to spend the next 4 nights. If you were to look at the map, Busan has 3 parts of its coast that juts out a little into the ocean – that’s also where most of the attractions are concentrated. The Busan museum (부산시립박물관) in Namgu, on the middle jutter-outer, has 3 levels of sprawling exhibitions from displays of artefacts – anything from bowls to tools to rust-eaten swords to life-sized mock-ups of blacksmith shops and fishmonger stalls.
I personally am not really a history buff, so these didn’t interest me at all (unless we’re talking about European palaces, which is a different story). Rather, we were there because the museum has a Cultural Experience hall at which you could try on traditional outfits like hanbok, Gonryongpo, Ikseongwan, Wosam, etc. And also had a Tea ceremony where we could try our hand at making tea – which, might I add, is a very intentional, delicate and lengthy process full of repetition and small hand gestures and placements, but constituted a whole lot of fun learning.
What most people might not know is that in the right season, Busan Museum has a gorgeous outdoor garden which you can slip into from the path on the right. We chanced upon it because we were killing some time before the tea ceremony at 4.30pm. I remember the scene unfolding before my eyes – cherry blossom trees in full bloom, lined up along the broad stone pathway all the way to the top of the hill, a heavy sprinkling of pale pink ‘snow’ strewn underfoot – to which I found that I could not resist staring at the ground.
948-1 Daeyeon 4(sa)-dong, Nam-gu, Busan, South Korea
Opens from 9am to 8pm daily (Closed on Mondays); Tea Ceremony Timings 10.30am, 1.30pm, 3pm and 4.30pm (Please note that you have to be there in person to book the slot).
There we stood- in quiet anticipation, watching as the waves lapped against and over the smoothened boulders leaving trails of white foam, while Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak) rose up with its formidable rock face, basking in the sun. The water was a rich shade of teal, washing over the rocks tauntingly, challenging us to come closer. It looked cold. Really cold. For a moment I imagined falling into the strangely blue water, and shuddered at the thought of sinking into the sea and the things that might greet me beneath. To my right, a rugged-looking american photographer rubbed his hands together and stuffed them into the pockets of his grey windbreaker.
A moment ago, Jeju’s Haenyeo (also known as “women divers”) having suited up in black wet suits, singing with fishing nets slung over their shoulders, vanished into the embrace of the sea. I shifted around on my feet, feeling around the rock with the toe of my boot, careful to stay away from the water spray, and wondered how in the world these women could be so strong, so brave, and why they would choose such a challenging occupation or if it was even a choice at all.
A sharp whistle pierced the air, jolting me from my thoughts. Everyone’s gaze was transfixed upon the waters now. Sure enough, the Haenyeo were resurfacing. They were making some sort of whistling exhalation; a sound of victory as they resurfaced, bringing harvest from the sea. Even before they came close, I could see that they were smiling. It was something about the way they moved, the way they approached the shore, or maybe it was the deep pink flush of their cheeks that showed a surprising youthfulness.
What originally started out due to a need to survive, was no longer just that- and it occurred to me that perhaps these seemingly simple women had a wisdom after all. A wisdom that a large number of people in the world didn’t have – people who I knew were at this moment sitting in office cubicles, staring blankly at computer screens and dying to get out, when they could be doing something else. Something better.
A Haenyeo came by the spot where I stood and she looked up from her basket, at me. She smiled, as if knowing that I now understood that the message was as simple as this. Don’t let fear stop you like it’s stopping others from doing what they love, and you will be the early bird which finds its rewards.
Seongsan Ilchulbong or “Sunrise Peak”, Jeju Island, South Korea, April 2015
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Early Bird.”
Category: Korean – Desserts – Bingsu (Ice shavings)
So apparently the Koreans are crazy about their bingsu, a dessert made from ice shavings, and topped with fruits or red bean, etc. (there being many renditions). Meal Top (밀탑) is one of the more famous ones and comes very highly rated at 4.5/5 on Tripadvisor, and is particularly famous for the ones with red bean topping.
165, Apgujeong-ro, Hyundai Department Store 5F, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강남구 압구정로 165 (압구정동)
The Hyundai Department Store is right at Apgujeong metro station, and taking the escalators up to the fifth floor, you’ll be delivered right to the doorstep of Meal Top. You’ll hear it before you even see it – the clatter of cutlery and dishes and a busy chatter comes as a bit of a surprise as you navigate the escalators up past floors 3 and 4 which are full of luxury label shops and also extremely quiet.
Each bingsu is about 8,000 KRW (~$10), which I find mighty expensive for something that comprises largely of shaved ice. Bingsu in Korea is pretty much one of the best ways to blow your money in a wink because they’re all about $10 (the cheapest one I came across was about $9). I had bingsu at 4 places around Seoul and Busan while I was there, and not once ever really left the shop feeling like it was worth the money. Nonetheless, it is a very Korean dessert, so you should probably try it at least once.
To Go: Maybe once (whether here or elsewhere, it doesn’t really matter)
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the profit margin on the bingsu is probably somewhere close to 90%, before the utilities and wages of course. The red bean, whilst wholesome and generous, could not divorce from the fact that it was still just a red bean paste, simply dolloped on top of shaved ice drizzled over with some condensed milk. The dessert was simple, good and tasty, especially if you’re having it on a warm day, but the thing that I found most spectacular, was oddly nothing to do with the dessert at all.
The service was impeccable from start to finish. Meal Top is an open-concept cafe, and the moment I stepped in from the ‘wrong’ side, the manager immediately spotted me, graciously ushered me to the seating area on the other side and pulled a waiting number from the machine for me. It was running at full house and there were several people ahead of us in the queue, but the wait wasn’t long. I watched, fascinated, as waiters transported trays of dessert barely 2 minutes after it was ordered, and as they swooped in on tables the moment guests departed, readying it within seconds for the next guests to be seated.
I’ve just returned from Spring in South Korea – a great time to go, with gorgeous and breathtaking scenes of Cherry blossom trees. On my first day in Seoul, I set up basecamp at a hotel in Gangnam-gu. Gangnam is a beautiful trendy district (made famous by Psy’s “Gangnam style” song) with lots of cafes and indie label shops, and lies to the south of the Han river, which winds horizonatally across the city. It is an area obviously loved by the teens to 20 somethings, but probably not so much the elderly because I hardly saw them hanging about.
Bongeunsa Temple lies in the eastern part of Gangnam-gu, just north of the sprawling COEX mall, and is an unexpected sight amidst tall buildings decked in glass. Near the entrance to Bongeunsa, street beggars sat or walked up to visitors waiting to cross the road at the traffic lights, holding their hands together with dark crinkles of toil etched into their tanned skin. Inside, there was a sense of quiet calm – especially in the gardens. I drifted from one building to another, drawn by the beautiful green and red-brown coloured paints incorporated into a simple but seemingly complex design and the neatly tiled roofs of slategray. Rows of brightly coloured paper lanterns folded into lotus flowers were strung across the ceiling of the main prayer building, and I watched silently as a lady unclasped her hands and lifted a flame to light a candle at the altar.
531, Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강남구 봉은사로 531 (삼성동)
Open all year round; There is also a 2-day temple stay activity should you wish to participate. Alternatively, there is also a 3hr programme where you can experience participating in different temple activities.
Japan, 〒063-0052 北海道札幌市西区宮の沢２条２丁目１１−３６; Tel +81 11-666-1481
We followed the smiles and waves of the park guides in neatly ironed white uniforms and rounded the bend into the basement carpark before disembarking for Shiroi Koibito Park in Sapporo, Hokkaido. It was funny how I’d known about the Shiroi Koibito biscuit before I knew anything else about Hokkaido – it seemed to be the ultimate souvenir that friends would bring back from Hokkaido, and with good reason, considering that ever since I’d tasted it, I couldn’t stop craving the light thin biscuit with a skinny block of white chocolate wedged between.
The lift opened into the main store, and straight away I felt like I’d stepped into a fantasyland of sorts, with (what I now recognised to be a distinctly Japanese touch) tinkling music and chocolate and candies in colourful wrappers everywhere, including giant standing lollipop decorations. A grand-ish staircase descended from the second floor on the right, and straight ahead, stood a ferris wheel around which children had gathered, slotting coins and taking turns to hit a button which would spin the wheel and drop a piece of candy from the lowest bucket when it stopped.
Once outside, the Shiroi Koibito Park reminded me of disneyland with its castle-like exteriors and gardens full of the most colourful flowers and little water features, including cherubic sculptures peering out from random places.
We stepped into the shade of the building to commence our tour of the Shiroi Koibito Park, and were each handed the awesome biscuit at the entrance. I’m not a huge facts junkie, so the details of the making of the biscuit wasn’t all that fascinating to me, except when the trail opened up and ran by the actual production line. I stood for a good while watching the Shiroi Koibito biscuit get pushed out from the machine, sandwiched together, sorted, and packaged, all within a few meters. I couldn’t help but focus on the workers picking out imperfect Shiroi Koibito biscuits near the end of the line, wondering what they did with the rejected biscuits- and daydreamed about them giving it all to me.
The Shiroi Koibito Cafe stood at the end of the tour – it’s the only place where you can have the Shiroi Koibito White Hot Chocolate Drink and the Shiroi Koibito White Chocolate Ice-cream. I sat down excitedly and immediately decided that the dilemma was non-existent and that I was going to have both 😛
Oh god. It was so good – the ice-cream was so creamy, milky, soft, and just melted away in the mouth. The White Hot Chocolate was good too, and was something my cousin had been raving on and on about in anticipation throughout the trip. I thought it was really delicious, but the good news is, when I tasted it, I immediately pinpointed a “dupe” in my favourite Luxury White Hot Chocolate from Whittard’s in London, which means that for everyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to visit Shiroi Koibito Park, you essentially get a taste of Japan if you can get yourself some Whittard‘s.
I remember waking up to this scene in the morning- watching as yachts slowly sailed out of the marina to sea, V-shaped ripples trailing in their wake. Once I escaped the veil of slumber, I excitedly sat up and pulled out my now-crumpled sheet of itinerary to see which stops I’d planned out for the day.
Otaru, about half an hour’s drive northwest from Sapporo, has a small town kind of feel – we would walk along its wide, clean pavements, and make stops every few steps or so along the rows of shops, full of the most tantalising displays of chirashi don and fresh sashimi one moment, to dried seafood shops and souvenir shops the next. I guess part of the charm of Otaru was derived from not really knowing what might be stumbled upon. Full of historical buildings and some of the most incredible dessert shops, the town was bound to be full of pleasant surprises.
A day isn’t long enough for Otaru, especially if you have an affinity with food like I do. We would walk into glorious clouds of mouthwatering smells and be seduced by stalls selling a dazzling array of- very good, might I add- food with samples generously being offered to you as you stroll down the street; there’s no way anyone could go hungry in Otaru.
And through the centre of it all, lay the beautiful Otaru Canal (小樽運河, known locally as Otaru Unga; featured picture)- a quiet, gentle body of water, mirroring the façades of the low rise buildings standing alongside it, delicately covered in a vibrant green, and also the clear blue sky. In the late afternoon, after hours of walking about, I’d sat by the canal on a cold stone bench, fleeing the sun for a moment of rest, and thought about how perfect this town seemed to be.