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Category Archives: Bizarre Foods

Odds and ends of world cuisine

Around the World In 80 Flavors

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Annyeong hasayo and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  So this past weekend was quite action packed, and I thought it was going to be a restful day on Cinco de Mayo.  Korea had other thoughts.  Instead, I found myself outside in the middle of Seoul on a beautiful day at an international food festival.  There were tents all over the streets surrounding the Seoul city hall where people from all over the globe were offering opportunities for visitors to learn something new about a different culture through music, clothes, and my favorite, food.  It was extremely crowded for some interesting  countries that I wouldn’t have expected like Kyrgyzstan with their shish kebabs or Iraq with their own version of doner kebab.  I guess people can’t get enough of roasting meat over open flames on sticks.  Perhaps it hits some sort of primal chord within us that hearkens all the way back to our prehistoric ancestors when they felled their first woolly mammoth and had history’s first barbecue.  I wasn’t swayed by the Central Asian sensation and instead went for the funkiest things I could find from countries’ cuisines that I have never sampled before.  First up, Kenya.

After breezing through Asia, Europe, and Latin America, we went to the African stalls.  Once we got to the Kenya tent, there was a delicious aroma wafting through the air, and we quickly found the source.

Now that's fresh

Now that’s fresh

It was the smell of fried mandazi.  They looked like gigantic samosas which are fried dumplings that contain vegetables and meat, but I was greatly mistaken when I was handed a freshly fried one and took a bite.

Needs more Amurcan fattening ingredients

Needs more Amurcan fattening ingredients

It was piping hot and perfectly fried to a golden-yellow similar to the sun that was shining that day, but it was a sweet, not savory, treat.  It was kind of like a freshly fried American donut but not as sweet.  My friend Ben said that it could use some powdered sugar, and I wholeheartedly agreed.  Either that or maybe some sort of dipping sauce.  Still, mandazi was a solid first choice out of many at the fair.  Next up, Iran.

I have had Persian food before, but I never saw these two types of food they were serving:  geimeh and zereshk polo.IMG_0158  I decided to only pick geimeh because the zereshk polo was pricier.  Geimeh has roots all the way back to Mesopotamia and is a stew containing lamb, tomatoes, peas, and onions while being garnished with potato fries and jalapeno peppers.  I also got some seasoned rice and a mini salad on the side.  Overall, it was a solid choice.IMG_0161  The stew was quite hearty with large pieces of lamb that were very tender and the vegetables added extra body to the stew.  It went very well with the rice that was seasoned with tomato paste, cumin, and tumeric and contained more peas and some carrots.  The salad was fresh but was not very impressive.  However, the potato fries were a unique element to the meal because they weren’t exactly like typical French fries because they were in some sort of spice that I couldn’t quite identify.  The last two snacks came from Asiatic countries:  Singapore and Malaysia.

I already knew the Singaporian cuisine is a reflection of all of the different ethnic enclaves that occupy the tiny but rich southeast Asian nation.  So when I saw small fried vegetable fritters, I could immediately see influences from both the Indian community with their love for fried treats like samosas while the cooks were using Chinese vegetables like bean sprouts, Chinese celery, carrots, bok choi, and spring onions. IMG_0162 It was about as big as my hand, but it was kind of a let down.  While it was expertly fried, the vegetables were drowned out by the greasy aftertaste of the dough.  There in lies the fine line one treads when frying food.  Harmony has to be struck between using enough batter while allowing the internal ingredients to shine.  While the Singaporean food let me down, my final choice from Malaysia ended up being the most bizarre and my favorite food out of all of them.

I saw no one was going to the Malaysia tent, so I walked up to see they were offering sago gula melaka a.k.a. “best seller” according to their sign that had the price slashed.  It was somewhat worrisome, but I asked them what it was.  They said it was, “Sweet dessert coconut”.  Those three words together sounded great to me, so I got one cup of it.  After about ten minutes of breaking into the Fort Knox of dessert cups, I opened the container to find something that looked absolutely disgusting.

A beast and a beauty in one

A beast and a beauty in one

It looked like someone puked in the cup and then threw in some pale yellow fish eggs that had congealed into a small sponge.  I was wondering to myself how could something so terrible looking actually be delicious?  I was quickly proven wrong when I took a spoonful of the brownish-white goop.  A perfect example of never judging a book by its cover.  It literally tasted like a vanilla pastry sprinkled with coconut.  Texture wise it was different too because it was semi-gummi but quickly disintegrated after a couple good chews.  This is because sago is derived from a plant similar to the tapioca root which is used in Asian cuisine to make gelatin.  The brownish white soup was palm sugar syrup which supplied the vanilla-esque sweetness.  Sago gula melaka is the prototypical ugly duckling of desserts in my experiences, but I would recommend anyone who has a sweet tooth to try it.

Overall I had a fun time at the food festival, and it just goes to show that if you try things that may seem scary, there really isn’t anything bad about them.  So follow your stomach and go explore the culinary wilderness!

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From Snoop Dogg to Soup Dog

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DISCLAIMER:  If you are squeamish at the thought of eating dog meat, then stop reading here.  Now that I’ve warned you, I hope to not hear any sort of negative comments on how I’m a monster for eating pets or that the Korean people are cruel towards animals.

Hello and welcome to another very special edition of Mastication Monologues!  What makes it special?  Well, the food I tried this evening could be considered very controversial from a Western perspective.  After playing a couple of games of volleyball with my Korean co-workers, they remained faithful to indulge one of my wishes to try an element of Korean cuisine that Koreans nowadays are reluctant to acknowledge when in the presence of foreigners:  dog meat soup or bosintang.  While I have heard many people back home in the states make jokes that the Chinese and Koreans eat dogs regularly, this is no longer the case.  In the West, we see domesticated dogs as pets, and so do the Korean people.  The dogs that are bred for bosintang in Korea are different from domesticated dogs and are viewed as livestock like cows or chickens.  Where one draws the line at “pet” and food is completely arbitrary based on societal views.  Korean society most likely took the concept of eating dog from the Chinese centuries ago as there is an ancient Chinese manual that describes three types of dogs, “Ones for working, ones for living under the table, and ones to be eaten”.  One of the main reasons why dog meat was consumed was that it was considered to have medicinal properties that promote stamina and balance one’s qi (personal energy) during the hot days of Summer.  I also learned that Korean hospitals serve it to patients recovering from surgery because it encourages robust health.  However, just like in China, younger Korean generations are firmly against the consumption of dog but still respect the wishes of those who want to consume the “fragrant meat”.  All of this brings us to my meal.

First, the place that I went to, Oban Bosintang located at Gyeyang-gu Seoun-dong, was very secluded.

If you're looking for a doggone good time...

If you’re looking for a doggone good time…

We had to go down a small alley to actually find the place, and I definitely wouldn’t have known where to look if it wasn’t for my “uncle” teacher who is like my adopted father figure at work.  Hooray for Confucian values in the workplace!  Anyway, it was a very typical Korean restaurant inside with low tables and all of the side dishes laid out.  After taking in the ambiance, I was face to face with a small bubbling cauldron of copper-colored broth that seemed to be mostly filled with mixed greens like any normal jjigae.

Exhibit A:  Bosintang

Exhibit A: Bosintang

I then began to sift through the vegetables to find the dog, and I quickly muddled my way to hefty chunks of meat.  It looked like pieces of pot roast since I could see the tender, individual strands of meat.IMG_0056  As my Korean coworkers watched me, I popped a piece in my mouth and slowly savored the taste.  The verdict:  it was delicious.

Crazy waygook

Crazy waygook

It tasted like beef with a spicy chili background from the broth with slight gamey undertones in the aftertaste.  It also came with a chili and oil sauce on the side to “reduce the fragrance” according to my vice-principal, and it seemed to do away with the gaminess which resulted in an overall better taste.  The other parts of the meal like the buchu (garlic chive salad) and the green peppers with gochujang were okay, but the bosintang was the star of the show.

So I’ve finally eaten dog meat during my time living in Korea.  Would I go out of my way to eat it again?  Probably not.  Would I eat it again if someone served it to me?  Yeah since it was quite tasty.   Thus checks off one of my major bizarre foods that I have always wanted to eat in the world.  Watch out Andrew Zimmern, I’m coming for you.

Ssam Bap A Lup Bop Wop Bam Boom

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If you’re thoroughly confused about my title, it’s a reference to “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard and one of the many foods I tried over this past weekend in Gyeongju.  It was a great time where not only did I enrich myself in terms of friendships but also in food knowledge.  Gyeongju is located in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, and we were going there by bus to see the cherry blossoms.  Ergo, we stopped at Korean rest stops along the way to stretch and get the old bones moving again.

I soon realized that Korean rest stops are a lot more intense than rest stops in the US.  First, there are so many different types of shops in these places.  Not only are there vending machines with every type of item from coffee to sunglasses, but they even sell jewelry and CDs outside in hawker stalls.  However, I was not there to buy a techno remix of Gangnam Style nor get a brand new pair of knock off Oakleys.  I was more interested in perusing the wide variety of Korean fast food each shop was offering.  Naturally, there were a lot of fish products, but I saw something that perhaps was a bit of Konglish.  It was a food labelled, “Hot Dog Pizza”.  Now, coming from Chicago where we do both of those foods right, I was curious to see what the Koreans meant when they decided to put these two delicious items together.IMG_0036  Turns out, there was nothing even remotely resembling a hotdog or a pizza involved in the snack.  It was about a six-inch long tube of crunchy, fried, bread-crumb encrusted outside. IMG_0037 Then, I bit into a gooey center that did not contain a sausage of any kind.  Instead, I was met with a slightly more viscous sauce that I could only liken to a Chinese-American sweet and sour sauce.  It went well with the fried dough (as most fried things are inherently delicious) and left me satisfied.

After we got to Gyeongju, we biked around the city for a couple of hours which led to us working up quite an appetite.  So, we piled onto the bus for a ssam bap dinner.  We weren’t sure what exactly constituted this meal, but thanks to our rudimentary Korean skills we at least knew that it contained rice because of the word “bap”.  However, almost every Korean meal comes with rice, so it didn’t help us that much.  When we arrived and sat down, we were immediately face to face with the international food of mystery.IMG_1399  The ssam bap meal consisted of galbi and chicken mixed with various types of leafy green vegetables and grilled in a big metal bowl in the middle of our table.  Once it was fully cooked, we took the meat and rolled it up in the lettuce and pepper leaves that were provided to us on the side along with other types of banchan like the omnipresent kimchi, sour bean paste, pickled radishes, a green salad with sweet sesame dressing, and seaweed soup to name a few. IMG_1398 I should have had more rice, but I was still hungry after the meal.  However, it was more of a case of quality over quantity as the semi-spicy chili sauce the chicken was marinated in really brought some intense savory flavors rushing over my palate.  It was countered with the smooth, cool texture of the lettuce leaves.  While this dinner seemed par for the course in terms of Korean dinner, what I ate the next morning was anything but normal.

We rose early to a drizzly morning, but we still decided to see the grotto to see a giant carved Buddha statue.  As we were walking back from the amazing sanctuary, I saw people in my group were getting corn dogs and hot dogs.  I, being the natural weirdo that I am, saw beondegi in a pot next to the tube steaks everyone else was buying.  You might be wondering what beondegi is, and it is not for the squeamish.IMG_1450  It ‘s boiled silkworm pupae or little worm babies in layman’s terms.  I don’t know if I’m foolish, crazy, and/or brave, but it was an interesting experience.  They were a little bigger than kidney beans and possessed an amber hue.  I popped them into my mouth, and their exoskeletons were crunchy. IMG_1448 The insides were the tough part to stomach because texture-wise they were like smooth mashed potatoes, but the taste was somewhat overwhelming.  It tasted like hay smell mixed with manure mixed with a slight nutty undertone.  I’m glad I didn’t buy a whole cup of these little buggers, but it was worth the experience like the whole weekend making unforgettable memories.

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