Seoul's Noryangjin Fish Market

Two months later and I'm still fantasizing about this maeun-tang, or spicy fish soup.

Cod and a few clams in a Korean chili paste-laced broth and topped with shiso leaves: this is a poor woman's seafood heaven. I ate a version of this soup practically every day in Seoul, the best one from a restaurant on the second floor of Seoul's Noryangjin Fish Market. For spice fiends, it's hard to resist a bubbling hot, fiery red soup that comes with its own burner.

While Noryangjin is lesser known than Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market, it rivals Tsukiji in sheer size. You can bet most of Seoul's restaurants source their fish from this wholesale arena. My photos can't do justice to the sprawling market, the rows and rows of exotica in my landlubber's eyes.

(So although these photos are a couple months old, now that I finally retrieved them from the USB card reader screw-up I couldn't resist sharing them. Due to painfully slow internet, I only uploaded a few here; the rest can be viewed in my Flickr set.)

We went in the mid-afternoon and were spared the crowds. These crabs were mere minutes of steaming away from being supper.

I am thinking this dried fish photo would be great to tack up on your door on Halloween.

These phallic-looking things I cannot figure out.

Octopus, deconstructed.

More than a handful of vendors were slicing up fresh sashimi for customers to snack on or bring home. You can also take the freshly sliced fish to one of the market's many restaurants to dunk in a hotpot or hand over for the chef to cook at his discretion.

Our meal at one of the restaurants upstairs, which included sashimi, the aforementioned unforgettable fish stew, and about 10 kinds of banchan, came out to around 16 USD for two people. One of the best banchan dishes, and by best I mean delicious in its simplicity, was this plate of hard-boiled squail eggs sprinkled with sea salt.

Is it too much to ask that every port city have a fish market where you can dine on the day's catch, on the spot?

Eating Chinese Food in Korea

"This is the first time I have traveled to another country and communicated with something other than the local language or English," mused Jacob. Finally we could order food in Korea, without pointing to a picture or fumbling through our phrasebook. Knowing Mandarin sure does help if you're overseas, even if it's just at the local Chinese restaurant.

The instance reminded me of visiting Montreal's Chinatown in college, and ordering dinner for a large group in Cantonese because the waitor didn't know much English or French. Or when my family lived in Puerto Rico and frequented the dim sum restaurants of San Juan; once inside, you would never have guessed that we were in a Spanish-speaking territory of an English-speaking country.

The owner of this tiny restaurant near the Korean War memorial was a very jolly third-generation Korean-Chinese whose family was originally from Shandong province. She spoke Mandarin in sing-songy Korean accent, which contributed to her jovial demeanor. She blushed when we asked to take a photo.

"You don't need a menu. I'll just tell you what we have. There's only five things," she said brightly. Which was a relief, and odd, since most Chinese restaurants have edited menus of no fewer than 100 items.

Everything here was about $4.50 US, except an enormous $15 platter of tangsuyuk (the Korean version of sweet and sour pork) that could have fed eight. Since we were only two people, we ordered fried dumplings, xiaolongbao, and jajangmyeon.

What Koreans call jajangmyeon is what the Chinese call zhajiangmian (spelled differently only because of Korean vs. Mandarin Romanization.) Everyone I had met in Korea goes crazy for it, which is unsettling because every bowl I ate there was pretty bad. I'm sure there is good jajiangmyeon to be found, but the Chinese restaurants in Korea I visited cooked the black bean sauce to a bland gelatinous mass, then pour it on top of wheat noodles. The noodles lacks the texture and flavor variety of the Chinese version, but for some reason it's the most ubiquitous Chinese dish in Korea.

I also wouldn't give any props to the xiaolongbao, which did not have a soupy filling as the name would imply. The thick skin and pork filling reminded me of a small steamed baozi (bun). What I found most interesting were the very large jianjiao, which were not at all like the Chinese fried dumplings I'm used to eating. The skin was thick and, like many many Korean snacks, deep-fried. Throughout our meal I watched the kitchen fried up enormous batch after enormous batch of sweet and sour pork. It seems that Americans and Koreans share the same taste in Chinese food.

At least the pickled radish appetizer was strictly Korean.

Seoul Food, Part 2

It's fitting that a country so obsessed with kimchi would have a museum devoted to it. On one of our last days in Seoul Jacob and I took the subway to the COEX Mall, which housed the Kimchi Field Museum in the basement.

The place was rather small, but included a small tasting room and the standard "history of" and "how to make" displays. Over a hundred plastic models of various kinds of kimchi took up a third of the museum. I would probably have expected the shrimp, cod gills, and ginseng kimchi. But pickled pumpkin? Persimmon? Pheasant? The museum was indeed an eye-opener.

Mall food in Asia tends to be of higher quality than its counterpart in the west, so it wasn't surprising we found Korean restaurant inside COEX that served a nice bubbling beansprout rice stew...

...along with the requisite 5 or 6 side dishes.

One of the most memorable things I ate last week was in Hongdae, the funky district around Hongik University. We found a pod-like little glass box of a restaurant amidst higher concrete buildings. You are free to draw all over the tables, and are given pens to do so.

The memorable dish in question was a noodle soup with clams and shrimp in an subtly aromatic garlic and seafood broth that I couldn't stop slurping. I forget the Korean name of the dish, but now I am on a personal mission to find a suitable recipe.

I had mentioned in my last Seoul post how Koreans have become obsessed with and adapted their own versions of American foods. Imagine my surprise upon seeing a huge sign for the Doughnut Plant on my first day, a slice of my beloved Lower East Side in Seoul. The placard fonts and enormous doughnuts were both reminiscent of the original New York hole-in-the-wall, and one wall was decorated with a blown-up Times article about Mark Israel, the founder.

I didn't know if it was a legitimate franchise or just a well-done homage until I did some quick Googling later on. The Doughnut Plant actually has four locations in Seoul and ten in Tokyo. Gone is the grubbiness and sunrise call for fresh hot doughnuts. This location has regular hours, leather banquettes, and the muted brown color scheme of an upscale sandwich shop. (Of course, Asian franchises of Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut, and other fast food joints are also gussied up versions of the stateside locations.)

As for taste, my glazed pistachio was nowhere near as delicious as the LES original. But for being in Asia, and thousands of miles from New York, it was pretty decent, and a nice reminder of home.

Seoul Food, Part 1

(Bibim naengmyun)

My week-long trip to Seoul turned me from a recreational dabbler of Korean food to a full-on addict. Now that I'm home and about 10 pounds heavier, I can't stop thinking about bibimbap, dakgalbi (pan-fried chicken), bibim naengmyun (cold noodles with Korean chilli paste), among others.

The first thing I ate after landing in Seoul was dolsot bibimbap, presented in a hot stone pot so the rice on the sides become crispy and the raw egg on top cooks as you mix everything. This was at a traditional Korean restaurant in Insadong where the seats are cushions on an ondol wooden floor. A nice experience, but certainly not the most comfortable.

I instantly fell in love with the spicy seafood bean paste stew, which I apparently forgot to photograph in my state of rapture.

(Dolsot bibimbap)

(Side rant: As my luck would have it, when I started uploading photos after returning home, my card reader started acting funky and ejected in the middle of the upload. Unfortunately, the mishap caused about 100 photos, including everything from my last day at Noryangjin Fish Market, to disappear. This is what I get for buying cheap card readers in China.)

I ended up returned to Insadong twice more during the trip. The pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with art galleries, restaurants, traditional paper and crafts shops, street food vendors, plus a stall selling Turkish-style ice cream. There was also a man pounding tteok (pronounced "dok"), a bland rice cake whose best attribute is the theatrics in its making.

(Pounding tteok)

Many Korean restaurants, at least compared to Chinese restaurants, will either have an English menu or picture menu. However, this was not the case one night as Jacob and I ended up in a restaurant near Guii station, tired and starving. The owner was all too happy to seat us, but then left us with a menu entirely in hangeul (Korean alphabet), without photos or Romanization. Fine, we thought. Just break out the Lonely Planet.

After 30 minutes of comparing the script in the book with that on the menu, we could deduce one thing: that there was beer available. (FYI: Lonely Planet Seoul is one of the worst guidebooks I have ever used, for more reasons than just having a bad language section). Fortunately, a waitress finally noticed our stumped expressions, pointed to some hanguel, and said "bulgogi." Yes, we nodded, please! We ended up with a sizzling and delicious pan of beef, squid, shrimp, peppers, and onions, all doused in Korean chilli sauce. It was quite worth the half hour of utter confusion.

(Sizzling bulgogi with seafood)

Dakgalbi, which I mentioned earlier, is another favorite that is cooked on a sizzling grill pan. This one pictured below is from a restaurant near Konkuk University that specializes in spicy grilled chicken. The onions, leeks, sesame leaves, and cabbage are mixed and cooked in front of you. Mushrooms and ramen are optional. At the end, rice is added and pan-fried. There may be no fried rice dish better than one that isΒ  smothered with chilli sauce and almost-charred bits of grilled chicken and onion.

(Dakgalbi)

Walking around the streets, you'll notice that Koreans have taken to Western fast food in a big way. Corn dogs, bratwurst, and waffles are ubiquitous. One especially interesting snack is a hot dog rolled in french fries before being fried itself; a heart attack waiting to happen.Β  Korean-style street foods are either fried with tempura or doused in chilli sauce.

You also have to love a city that has sidewalk bars, where you can pull up a plastic stool and get beer, wine, soju, the works.

(Sidewalk bar in Hongdae)

More photos to come. I am crossing my fingers that the fish market photos are not completely lost, but chances seem small.