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Last K-Days (Part 1)- Something’s Fishy in Ulsan

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Well, I’m finally back home in Chicagoland after a journey around the world from my teaching gig in Korea.  I’ve finally found some time to sit down and pound out some classic Mastication Monologues posts that all of you have been missing.  This post is the beginning of a small chronicle of my last weekend in Korea.  n.  It was a wonderful way to wrap up my time in the country, and I managed to try plenty of new foods and drinks along the way.  So, let me start at the beginning with my first full day in Ulsan.

Supposedly the best place to go for lunchtime would be around Daegwangam beach since they had women divers who ventured out into the water, brought their  still wriggling catch to their cooking shack, and prepared it with sushi chef like precision.IMG_3576  Unfortunately, they seemed to be closed and too busy bobbing about in the sea.  Nevertheless, I had a great time just walking around the area and taking in some breathtaking views. IMG_3572 After having a brief constitutional on the beach, we made our way to Ulsan city proper to a fish restaurant that specialized in whale.  Given that I had already tried whale in Japan, I wanted to have something else that the restaurant did well.  The waitress recommended the maeuntang and mulhwoe which I naturally agreed with since she’s the native, and I’m just the waygookin (foreigner) along for the ride.  Before the main entrees came out, they supplied us with typical side dishes, but a couple were different like a plate of peanuts.IMG_2080IMG_2082IMG_2081  I didn’t think Koreans ate peanuts since I’ve never seen them being sold in the grocery store, but these were different from what I was used to since they were boiled.  I knew other cuisines like some African recipes and even some parts of the American South eat boiled peanuts, but this was a first for me.  IMG_2083They were oddly purple and slightly soft.  I think I’ll stick to the traditional crunchy ones.  The dishes eventually came out which didn’t scare me as much as her description of the main dish as sushi mixed with bibimbap.  I’m not a huge fish fan, so I was surprised when I found I really enjoyed both choices.IMG_2084  My mulhwoe consisted of a big bowl filled with pink, tender slices of fish, sesame seeds, an avalanche of radishes or some sort of root vegetable, and a hefty helping of green onions.  Similar to bibimbap, it came with a side of gochujang or chili sauce that I slathered on my fish molehill, but this one was a bit different compared to the sauce served with warm bibimbap in the sense that it was thinner in consistency and sweeter.IMG_2087  As for the maeuntang, it lived up to its name in Korean as a spicy soup that was filled with large chunks of flaky white fish pieces with the bones still in per usual in Korean cooking and lots of onions and peppers.IMG_2085  It warmed my mouth and my stomach in the best way possible, and the broth was thankfully not too salty.

Dinner was at a small, unassuming place off the main avenue by our apartment, but I would soon find out it was a hidden gem.  They’re famous for the soju promotion where if each person in the group drinks a bottle, you only have to pay 500 Won or roughly 50 cents for the drinks.  Now, I don’t care too much for soju since it’s like a weak version of vodka with a sweet aftertaste, but I wouldn’t mind getting lots of drinks at dinner for less than a dollar.  As for the food, we ordered kamjatang (pork spine soup) and possam (sliced, boiled pork).  This was definitely more my kind of meal since I prefer all other types of meats over fish, and I was not disappointed.  The liquor was flowing, food was going fast, and we were having a great conversations.  The soup consisted of a similar spicy stock to the maeuntang, but there were different vegetables waiting to be enjoyed like spinach and hot red peppers.IMG_2094  I felt like the guest of honor when I got the biggest bone with the most pork on it.

I had a bone to pick with this meal.

I had a bone to pick with this meal.

The meat was succulent and spicy, but it was semi-difficult to get the meat off the bone sans knife.  As for the possam, it was a superb side to the soup since the pork pieces were firm and succulent with a perfect meat to fat ratio.IMG_2095  The side vegetables were steamed or slathered in chili sauce and were average in taste, but I took all of it and put it in a lettuce leaf to make a mini-package to deliver the food from the plate to my mouth.  It was a similar experience to my ssambap dinner.   Overall, I would highly recommend trying kamjatang and possam if you have the chance and want a hearty meal that is healthy as well.

My Glorious Food Revolution- Day 3 and 4 in N. Korea

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Hello to everyone out there in cyberspace!  I can tell that you have been enjoying my posts that have been offering you a brief glimpse into the mysterious land that is North Korea.  Today’s post is going to be a double feature since Day 3 really didn’t offer anything that spectacular in terms of food and drink yet my last day was filled with memorable meals.  So, I’ll begin with January 2nd (our third day).

Breakfast started off like any other even though they also had some delicious donkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) that actually had more of the texture of breaded sawdust along with the taste.  After hitting up some memorable sites like the Party Foundation Monument and took a ride on the Pyongyang metro, we ended up at another hokey foreigners-only restaurant in another anonymous building in the city.  The only highlights of lunch were plates of fried food along with a rather bland bibimbap with limp vegetables.

A lot of meh

A lot of meh

IMG_1681Weak sauce, North Korea (they didn’t even have enough gochujang or chili sauce for everyone).  However, I tried a new beer called Bonghak or 봉학멕주.  It was a little worse than the Taedonggang or perhaps on par with the common South Korean beers, i.e. an extremely watered-down lager.IMG_3049That was about it for day 3 which was kind of depressing from a culinary perspective, but day 4 more than made up for it.

Day 4 was the same old song and dance with breakfast, but it was going to be a unique day as we would head to the North Korean side of the DMZ along with visiting the city of Kaesong.  After a long bumpy ride through breathtaking mountain passes, we were introduced to the Korean soldier-guides at Panmumjeon, and we saw South Korea from the Joint Security Area.  Their armistice museums were quite eye-opening as well, but I’ll save that for my travel blog.  We rolled into Kaesong after the DMZ, and it was more like what I was expecting from North Korea in terms of a gloomy atmosphere.  However, this wouldn’t translate to the food as we were served a royal meal in a gaggle of small golden bowls with each container containing a new nugget of nom.  IMG_3137I didn’t know where to start once I un-capped all of the tiny basins.IMG_3140

However, most of the elements were not new to me since they have the same dishes in South Korean cuisine.  Go figure.  I’ll break down the picture above for those not in the know.  In the upper left hand corner, we have the dark green strips of dried and salted seaweed paper with a hint of sesame which makes the perfect encasement for making sushi rolls.  To the right in the white bowl are balls of tteok or sticky rice cake in a sweet red bean sauce.  I’m not the biggest fan of either red bean or rice cake due to the savory flavor and lack of flavor, respectively, but these two together somehow managed to pass my taste test.  Moving to the upper right hand corner is a simple piece of fried tofu.  No fuss no muss.  In the second row starting on the left, there is a bowl of random gelatinized eggs that were pedestrian in terms of taste, but the greens to the right of them were delectable and can be found in any bibimbap.  The same goes for the bean sprouts right next to them.  The last bowl in the second row is a bit different.  It’s filled with green bean cake which was kind of disgusting.  I don’t know why they feel the need to make regular and jelly versions of every food.  The last three bowls were a bit more normal with the stewed potato strands on the left and salted baby fish in the middle.  They’re very chewy and salty.  The last bowl is a meat and potato melange.  All of this was the backdrop to the star of the show:  bosingtang or dog soup.  IMG_3142I’ve had dog soup before in South Korea, so I wanted to see who could do it better.  In the end, the North won this battle because not only did they have more meat in the soup, but it was spicier which is a key element for me when it comes to savoring a great dish.  It definitely beat the cold that pervaded almost everywhere we went since effective indoor heating doesn’t really exist in either of the Koreas.  After leaving Kaesong, we ended up at the Taedonggang brewery bar which was extremely modern in decor, and could have been found in any major Western metropolis minus the wonderful Eastern European pop videos on the tvs from the 1990s. IMG_3168 They offered seven varieties of beer from 1 to 7.IMG_3169  1 being the most like an English bitter and 6 and 7 being like Guiness.  Everything between that was a terrible mix of rice and barley.  I decided to go with a 6 since they were out of 7, and I did not regret my choice.IMG_3172  For only two bucks I got a legitimate brew that would cost six times as much back in Seoul.  There were other North Koreans coming in to drink with us, and I could tell that they were higher-ups in the party based off their nicer clothes and shiny new Juche pins.  After downing our pints, we headed to our final dinner together.  They sent us off in style with duck bbq Korean style.IMG_1686  As with most other Korean barbecue, there was not much to it in terms of seasonings or anything like that.  Just throw meat on a grill and eat along with the usual pickled side dishes. IMG_1687 I did like their duck donkatsu which was a welcome change from the typical pork cutlet. IMG_1688 Their dumpling soup was pretty scrumptious as well. IMG_1689 ‘Twas a fitting meal and an excellent end to a wonderful trip to the most magical police state on earth.  Stay tuned for my Beijing eating adventures that involve me consuming some interesting animals and parts of animals.

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