Friday, April 26, 2013

Chinese food and the Multicultural Food Street of Ansan

Entry to the Multicultural Food Street (다문화음식거리) in Ansan

If you happen to be sick of your typical jjajangmyeon and tangsuyuk (Korean style Chinese food) and are looking for some more authentic Chinese food, the Multicultural Food Street in Ansan, Gyeonggi-do is a safe bet. While not particularly close to Seoul, (takes 1hr and 15 mins from Dongdaemun station on line 4), it's a great day trip and definitely worth the time it takes to get there. And if you live in the area, then you have no excuse not to go down here and check it out!

While Chinese food is not the only 'multicultural food' on this street, I would say it makes up a large portion of the restaurants. However, keep your eyes open for Thai, Vietnamese, Russian, Indian, Nepali, and Middle Eastern restaurants as well. While the 'multicultural street' is a good starting point, the whole area sports countless restaurants serving up international cuisine along with stores to pick up ingredients if you prefer cooking things at home.

How can a street such as this, exist out in the middle of the 'suburbs' of Seoul, you ask? This neighborhood has developed thanks to the booming migrant worker population in the area. People come from around the world, particularly from Asia, to work in Korea's factories. Naturally, as people come from other countries, they bring their food and culture along with them. 

While prices here might be higher than actually eating in China or Southeast Asia, prices here for food are quite reasonable. Cakes and snacks are abound, tantalizing the passerby with their exotic allure. The moon cakes pictured below were just 1,000 won each as was a huge slice of the bread above. In fact, the biggest problem you may have is reading the menu as they often don't have any Korean explaination, never mind English. I think the sign of a truly authentic restaurant geared towards natives is when they don't even bother to translate the menu. However, as long as your Korean skills are passable, everyone I came across spoke fluent Korean, so you will still be able to ask what dishes and foods are.

 月饼 (yue bing) Moon cakes, 1,000 each

We came here with the intent of eating Chinese food, but while I've been studying Chinese for 8 months now, I'm still not able to read menus or ask what things are in Chinese (or at least not able to understand the answer), so we wondered around for a good while trying to settle on a restaurant based on very little information. Finally, we passed one restaurant with some people inside and peered in to check it out. There was no menu on the wall, but we saw people eating things out of pots, so we decided to wonder in and check out what it was all about.

 麻辣香锅 (ma la xiang guo) 

It turns out that there was no menu because there was only one thing on the menu:  麻辣香锅 (ma la xiang guo), a Sichuan dish. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what that was, but upon asking my Chinese conversation partner, 'ma la' means 'spicy', actually a particular kind of spice which comes from some small seed like things in the dish, 'xiang' which means 'delicious' and 'guo' means pot. So, litterally translated, this would be a 'spicy, delicious pot'. I like spicy and delicious things, so it was perfect for me. 

Choose your own meat and veggies

Ordering wasn't hard, albeit, not what I expected. Were brought up to a salad and meat bar and given two pots. We were instructed to fill one with all the veggies we wanted to eat, and one with all the meat we wanted to eat. They asked us how spicy we wanted, and I told them medium. Then we handed over our pots to the staff who weighed them to figure out the price and then cooked them up.

Upon describing this dish to other westerners, I got the immediate response, "Ah, so you had Mongolian Grill!". I didn't know what Mongolian grill was, but after some research I found that 蒙古烤肉 Měnggǔ kǎoròu, Otherwise known as 'Mongolian grill' is in fact, not Mongolian at all, but a Taiwanese invention that gained popularity and spread to the west. The idea for ma la xiang guo is similar, but you don't get to choose your sauce. And boy was I glad I went with medium and not spicy, because my mouth was on fire throughout the meal. I think even ordering this dish in its mild form would have been sufficient on the spiciness for me.

The finished product!

Not long after, a pot filled with goodness was brought to our table. We may have been a little excessive when choosing our ingredients... everything looked so good, it was hard to say control ourselves.

Needless to say, the two of us left the restaurant bursting at the seems....

In short, if you happen to be craving foreign food, or missing China, Ansan is definitely the place to be.

The Multicultural Food Street (다문화 음식거리) Is located directly in front of Ansan Station. From the main gate of Ansan Station, cross the street through the underground passage, and when you come up, take the stairs on your left. The Multicultural Food Street will be on your left. Don't just stick to the main drag, many restaurants are located on side streets or past the end of the street.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Blog Recommendation: LuiginaKorea

I don't remember where I found this, but it has to be my new favorite blog. Definitely one of the most interesting blogs I've seen in a while.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cheongdo: Bullfighting, a Wine Tunnel and a Temple

 Entrance to the Cheongdo Bullfighting Stadium

This past weekend, the city of Cheongdo (정도시) held its annual bullfighting festival (소싸음 축제). While even now I'm not sure how I feel about having bulls fight each other, it is an interesting tradition. The first thing on everyone's mind when I told them I was going to see a bull fight was, "Oh no! I would hate to see a bull killed like that!", thinking of Spanish bullfighting. However, Korean bullfighting is quite different. In fact, here in Cheongdo, it's not people that fight the bulls, but another bull.

Two bulls in the ring

Bulls square off in the ring, and, through a series of head butts, force one of the bulls to stand down. Throughout the fight, the bull owners coach their bulls by shouting commands. A fight typically lasts between two and ten minutes. Once it's over, the bulls are lead out of the ring again. No bulls are killed in the process, and I've heard that serious injury to the bulls is rare.

Two bulls, mid-fight

Finally, one bull backs down and runs away, the one who stays is the winner!

However, just like any festival in Korea, there's always a lot more to do and see than just the main event. Photo ops, traditional Korean games, performers and local products for sale were abound.

 Me with Bunga the Bull

 Trick Art!

 My friend trying Neolttwigi

 My friend trying Gulleongsoe
 Cute bull mascots

Bull art

 Acrobat performance

 Comedy performance

Once we had seen everything in the festival, we headed next door to check out the Cheongdo Bullfighting Theme Park (which was really a museum).

 'Cheongdo Bullfighting Theme Park'

The museum showed the history of bullfighting in both Korea and abroad, plus featured various games and art centered around bulls. 

 Me pulling a fake bull

This entertained us for several hours, but we wanted to see what else the Cheongdo area had to offer. So, we headed down to the 'Wine Tunnel' (와인터널).

 Wine tunnel entrance

This tunnel, originally made for trains in 1904, was converted into a winery in 2006. The year-round cool and humid conditions make it the perfect spot for wine making. However, since the local specialty of Cheongdo is not grapes, but persimmons (감), it is only fitting that this winery produce persimmon wine (감와인).

 Enjoying a glass of wine in the tunnel

While I'm not personally a big fan of persimmons, I had to give this wine a try while I was here and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's got a great flavor. Slightly sweet, and only a hint of the strong persimmon flavor. You can drink wine here (just 3,000 won/ glass of regular wine), or you can buy a bottle to bring home as a souvenir. Prices start at 18,000/ bottle and go up from there depending on the style or set you purchase. 

 Glass of 'regular' persimmon wine

Evening was approaching, but we couldn't resist the temptation of making one last stop before heading home to Seoul. Just behind the wine tunnel, we saw a sign for a small temple called Daejeoksa Geungnakjeon (대적사 극락전) located just 100m away. We went up to take a peek. 

 Entry gate of Daejeok Temple

While it's certainly one of the smaller temples I've ever visited, it is definitely worth a quick visit. Brightly painted doors welcome visitors to this temple. While it was the home of a very large temple during the Silla Dynasty, all but disappeared until the middle of the Joseon Dynasty when it became a hermitage.


To go to Cheongdo, take the train from Seoul Station. Direct trains take about 4 hours and 15 minutes, 22,300 won each way. For a faster, but pricier ride, take the KTX to DongDaegu and transfer. 

From Cheongdo Station to the Bullfighting Stadium, exit the station, cross the street and turn left. There is a local bus terminal about 100m on the left. Find a city bus going to Punggak. Get off at the Chilseong 3-way Junction (Samgeori) Bus Stop, or find a direct bus to the bullfighting ring (소싸음장). Purchase bus tickets before boarding the bus. 

From Cheongdo Station to the Wine Tunnel, take a bus from the local bus terminal, or take a taxi (about $13,000 won). Taxi from the Bullfighting stadium is about $9,000 won.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Anatomy of a Typical Korean Wedding

Korean weddings are somewhat of an enigma to the average foreigner here. On the outside, they look kind of like a western wedding, but, on the inside, there's a lot to understand. This is a guide for those who are planning on going to a typical Korean (western style) wedding to understand it a little better.

Upon entering the building, you may have to navigate your way to the particular wedding that you're attending. Most wedding halls have many weddings going on in a day, sometimes at the same time, so you'll have to keep a look out for the bride and groom's name written on a plaque indicating where they are located (Hopefully, for your sake, you can read their names in Korean).

Once you've found the correct wedding hall, it's time to greet the groom and the bride and groom's family. After walking through the line of formal greetings, it is then appropriate to approach the table where you are expected to give some money. How much you should pay depends on a lot of things like how close you are and if you have a guest, but for a co-worker or an acquaintance to I would suggest 50,000 or for a couple 100,000. Of course, if it's a close friend you'd probably want to give more, but you can decide for yourself how much to give. But, there is one rule you need to follow. Be sure to give money on a scale like this:
200,000 etc etc
Money should be given in increments of 10 and only on odd numbers (unless it's 100, 200 etc). Therefore, 75,000 is not really acceptable amount, nor is 40,000. Last thing, make sure you put it in a white envelope with your name on it so they can record how much you paid.

After you pay your money, if you're good friends with the bride, you may want to go check out the bride's viewing room where she sits before the wedding begins. You can take your photo with her or say hello and congratulations.

Then it's time to find a seat in the wedding hall. Some places have seating around tables and they may serve the meal during the ceremony which leads to lots of talking and drinking while couples take their vows. The presider of the wedding may shush the audience and the audience may hush for a moment before continuing their conversation. Other places are a little more respectful and have chairs set up for viewing the ceremony as a westerner may expect, though the presider may still need to hush people even when there is no food and spirits to distract the audience.

First, the mothers of the bride will walk up to the altar first and light some candles. You'll notice here that the mothers are wearing pink and purple. Pink is the typical color for the mothers of the bride and groom to wear for the ceremony.

Next the groom will walk down the aisle, and then it's time for the bride to make her appearance. At this particular wedding, they had a screen showing the bride as she walked from her viewing room to the hall, then she joined her father to walk her down the aisle.  

Then it's time for the presider to give a speech about love and marriage. Usually, if it's not a church wedding, the presider will be a member of the community like a college professor. However, I am only guessing that they talk about love as marriage, because as I mentioned earlier, Koreans tend to ignore this part of the ceremony entirely and chit chat with the people around them.

Here comes the actual Korean traditional part of the ceremony. The bride and groom show their respect to the parents and bow before each of them. Fortunately, since bowing is so low, the cameramen generally capture all this on film and display it on a screen so all can watch.

Then comes the part of the ceremony which I don't understand at all , the cutting of the cake. Here, our groom has a giant sword like apparatus to cut the cake and photographers zoom around to capture the important moment where the cake is cut. And then the sword knife is taken away, as is the cake, before anyone gets any ideas of eating the silly thing. It goes into a box and I'm still not sure where it goes as it's not with the bride and groom since they usually jump into their wedding car and zoom off for the airport for their honeymoon after the service, just like the olden-days. I'm sorry, but if you're going to put a cake in front of everyone I think it should be eaten. I hate that this ceremony is only about photo ops and not about tradition and meaning. Sorry, rant over.

Then the ceremony ends and the bride and groom walk down the aisle as husband and wife.

But it's not over yet, now it's photo time! First there are photos taken with the family and extended family. Then after that, it's photo time with friends. If you're a friend of the bride or groom, you can get in the photo too!

The bride throws the bouquet at the wedding too, but the tradition here is a little different. In America all the single women line up trying to catch the bouquet, because it means that you will be the next to get married. In Korea, if you catch the bouquet and you don't get married within a year, they will not get married for the next 10 years. So.. usually since no one wants to risk this bad luck they choose a friend who is already engaged to catch the bouquet.

And then there is the food. Most weddings will have a buffet. If you are served at your table by a waiter it means that they probably paid a whole lot of money for the event. The buffet is usually after the ceremony, but once you give your money you get a meal ticket to enter, so theoretically you could go straight up to eat. Fortunately they show video feeds of all the weddings going on (since all the various wedding parties going on for the day eat together in the same hall) so that you can eat your meal and watch the wedding without missing a thing. It seems as though as long as you leave your money, no one really minds if you're in a rush and can't stay for the ceremony and just grab your meal and run.

After the ceremony the couple changes, usually into couple shirts, and jumps into their wedding car and heads for the airport to leave for their honeymoon. The bride and groom usually leaves the same evening or the next morning for their trip and will often stay at an airport hotel if they do leave the next day. If you don't believe this, just take a drive to the airport on a Saturday afternoon and count how many of these decked out cars you see!

Koreans do not generally: 
Have bridal showers
Have bachelor/Bachelorette parties
Give gifts besides money
Dance at the wedding
Have bridesmaids/ groomsmen
Exchange rings during the ceremony

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

리북 손만두: LeeBuk Son Mandu, North Korean Restaurant

LeeBuk Son Mandu is not your typical mandu place for many reasons. First and foremost, it's a North Korean style restaurant, which is what initially drew me to this place. However, that's not all. It also happens to be in a hanok located in the least likely of places to find a hanok, directly behind city hall. Completely surrounded on all sides by modern and semi-modern buildings, there is no way you could accidentally stumble upon this restaurant. There is practically a tunnel of alleyways which lead you to this restaurant. It's not hard to find though, just follow the signs for '리 (이) 북 손만두!

First turn of the alleyway, 

 Second turn of the alleyway,

Aha! Finally, we found the entrance!

As I mentioned, this restaurant is located in a hanok. They've put a roof over the madang (courtyard) to make more space, but other than this, many of the beautiful hanok features remain. 

Sinc the name of this restaurant contains the name '손만두' meaning homemade mandu, ordering the mandu went without without questioning, we actually went with the 만두국. However, after previewing some blogs on the Korean blogosphere, I saw that most people were actually raving about the Kimchi mari bap (김치마리밥). It is not the sort of mari, as in a roll, but as in the meaning of 말다 which means to put cooked rice into water. So, here, kimchi mari bap means rice in a bowl of water and kimchi. There is also a kimchi mari guksu which is the same but with noodles as well. Actually, I tried ordering it but the night we went they were all out, so I had to go with the kimchi mari bap.

Here's our table

 Ok, first the manduguk. Ok, I have to say I was a little dissapointed here. The mandu were great, don't get me wrong, but the soup was like water... sorry, peppery water. It's not just here that has disappointed me like this before, I've found that for some reason it's hard to get a manduguk with a decent, flavorful (meaning not pepper flavored) broth in this country. The best I've had was in Gangwondo at Namkyeong Siktang. If I were you, I'd skip the guk and just get the mandu. Or perhaps try the 뚝배기만두

But, as the bloggers would suggest, the real star of the evening was the kimchi mari bap. I had low expectations for this one, because, well, it's a bowl of kimchi and rice in ice water. it sounds pretty awful. However, this was surprisingly refreshing and delicious, and though you can't see it there is a surprisingly large amount of rice in the bottom of the bowl. The best way to describe the flavor of this is 고소해요, a word which doesn't directly translate to English, but means having the taste of sesame oil. It's a good thing though!

My friend who came with me wrote a blog post about this restaurant as well, but with many more selections as he came back two more times later without me. Check out his post here.

리북 손만두 Leebuk Son Mandu
17-13, Mugyo-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul
서울 중구 무교로 17-13 (무교동)

Getting here is slightly tricky, but not too bad:

City Hall Station (Seoul Subway Line 1, 2), Exit 4.
Go straight 60m and turn right onto Sejong-daero 20-gil Road.
Go straight 150m and turn left at the 4-way Intersection.
Go 50m and turn left at the first corner.
Turn left onto the the small alleyway between 7-Eleven and Jeil Garden (제일가든).
Libuk Sonmandu (리북 손만두) is located at the end of the alley.

View 리북 손만두 Leebuk Son Mandu in a larger map