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Lunar New Year’s must have given us good luck because Incheon was just the escape from Seoul and city-life that we were yearning. The first thing that you notice upon arriving at the beach is the swarms of ajummas crowding the street (there is one main drag by the beach) yelling, waving their arms, knocking on passing cars all in an effort to get anyone and everyone into their restaurant. It may sound annoying but it’s really quite friendly. One ajumma even suggested another restaurant when she realized her restaurant didn’t have what we were looking for.

Ajumma ushering in hopeful customers

A hopeful ajumma inviting some passerbys to her restaurant.

At the first restaurant we ate, we picked out a plump red fish about the size of a football. We tried to tell our servers we wanted it cooked, but the roar of the language barrier was just too loud. We were shown our caught fish flopping around in a bucket before they brought it to the kitchen, sliced it up, and brought it back on a heaping mound of glass noodles. As most Korean raw fish seems to be, it was stringy but this one was full of flavor and as fresh as one can get.

Our banchan were, well, almost dead. Half of the banchan were either cooked, like the shrimp, or didn’t need to be, like the mayonnaise with apples and nuts. The other half were barely dead (if dead at all) sliding around and pulsating on the plates, filling our table. We had squirming, skinny red tubes that were chopped up into 1/4 inch pieces. There were bright red and orange sea squirts with a gelatinous film covering them. Sea cucumbers moved almost imperceptibly, but a chopstick shove proved they were, in fact, still kicking. And of course to top it all off, we had octopus tentacles soaked in sesame oil flopping around on the plate like a rave dancer in molasses. They moved around, suctioning onto anything they could. We were wary to try it but the restaurant owner gave them to us as “service”, which is what Koreans say when they are giving you something special for free (it’s a great perk to being a foreigner). Plus, our servers were constantly walking by telling us to eat it. So, peer pressure at work, we bit in.

Live octopus soaking in sesame oil

The boys dipped the tentacles in hot sauce, which seemed to make them very angry. When I took the leap, my little octo-friend decided to latch onto my tongue. It’s a very odd sensation having your food rebel inside your mouth. But after about a minute of chewing and being sure that it would not cling to my throat on the way down, I swallowed. The taste was fine, mostly overpowered by the taste of the oil, but nothing I have craved since. The experience of it was all I needed.

Clam kalguksu

The next day we treked over to a neighboring snow-covered beach. We wandered into a small restaurant directly on the beach with a central fire and most patrons still wearing their jackets for warmth. We ordered a soup that I can only describe as crave-inducing. It was a simple soup: a bowl half the size of the table filled with broth, noodles, clams, and a sprinkling of zucchini and green onions. The clams gave just the right amount of saltiness to the simple broth. The zucchini and green onions amplified the flavor of the soup and it was all satisfyingly weighed down by the thick, slippery noodles.

Clams grilling over an open fire

That night, Lunar New Year’s night, we decided to treat ourselves to something special: a big, juicy, meaty, fresh king crab. I do think we have never made a decision quite as good as that one in our whole lives. The first course was what we lovingly called a “clam bake” although it was actually more of a clam barbeque. Heaps of fresh clams still hiding in their shells were thrown on the grill in the middle of our table. The real gem of this course is the miniature, disposable aluminum foil pie tin filled with an unidentified, non-spicy red sauce, rice cakes, and, get this, mozzarella cheese. Yes, you heard that right, cheese. This was placed on the grill and, as the clams were bubbling over and being cracked open, the juices were poured into the cheese bake. The result was a straight-forward tin of melted cheesy-goodness. My mouth is watering just from typing about it. Mmmm….

Cheesy, cheesy goodness

Heaven in a little aluminum pan.

Alright, now that I have taken a moment to reminisce with my taste buds, I can continue. The next course was our beautiful king crab. The glorious creature practically covered our whole table. Each leg housed thick, lengthy chunks of crab meat. Each time someone pulled out a slab of meat I was shocked at the size. Greg, who worked at Red Lobster for a few years, could not stop commenting on the enormous amount of meat and the low price of it all. It was truly a glorious occasion.

The King Crab

The head of the crab was hollowed and filled with a cloudy liquid. I later found out from my 6th grade student that we were supposed to mix this with our rice. Apparently, it’s delicious. We missed out on that part because we were unaware of the appropriate way to eat it at the time, but this only gives us one more reason to go back again.

Later that night, we befriended a Korean family. On a snow-covered beach. By a bonfire. With sparklers. And tried roasted octopus.

All in all, I’d say, it was one delicious adventure that I will never forget.

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Our friend Emmy (@emmysp) has sent us another great catch from the New York Times’ coverage of Korean food in the city of world cuisine. The review is of Manhatten’s Madangsui, which the article calls one of the finest places to eat Korean in the city.

I immeditaly trusted the reviewer and the restaurant because the article starts with a long list of the dizzying array of dishes that flow onto your table when you sit down at any proper Korean restaurant. I feel like some readers might be confused by a review that is so much about just listing the side dishes and appetizers available, but it really helps to capture the volume and diversity of Korean dishes.

Some other quick thoughts:

1. I like that they don’t recommend even trying to order wine. It is just as bad as it is here in Korea. Stick with soju or beer.
2. Seems the service is the same – everything comes at once, don’t expect defined courses like in American restaurants. If it’s done it’s coming to your table. There are endless side dishes big and small that would be appetizers in America. Some your order and some you don’t, but they all go with your main meal.
3. I’m sad they didn’t recommend ordering the mandu (Korean dumplings) which are one of our favorite foods here. At least the pajang (Korean pancakes filled with veggies or seafood) are good.
4. No makkoli? The traditional unfiltered rice wine is a great drink, and I’d be mighty disappointed if I went to an authentic Korean restaurant in the states that didn’t have it.

The big thing in the review that I had a problem with was the assertion that “Traditionally, waiters are responsible for the grilling in Korean restaurants.” Ahhh, not so much. At nearly every grill at your table and shabbu shabbu (Korean hot pot) restaurant the customers do most of the cooking. The “sharp scissors” the waitresses come by with in the review are usually left at the table so you can do your own cutting. In Korea, waitresses do come intervene if you do something wrong or look confused, but that is mostly with foreigners, not Koreans. I guess it would make sense that at a Korean restaurant in America the waitresses would cook for you like they do for many Americans in Korea, but it is certainly not the norm.

Despite those small quibbles, it sounds like a great restuarant. If you are in the area and want to try an authentic version of all the delicious foods we’ve been talking about on this blog go check out Madangsui. And do read the full NYT review, it’s a good one.

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The pinks just starting to come out
Photo by Anna Waigand.

Coming from the Midwest, I didn’t always get the freshest of seafood (except for whitefish livers in Bayfield, Wisc.). But the ring of restaurants around the towering Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan offered many opportunities to get fresh seafood whether you wanted it caught that morning, raw or still alive. After being heckled by women with only the most necessary English skills, we settled on a place with English labeled pictures above the doorway. We think the restaurant is named Sharjeong Sharkkomjangeo (살청 살껌정어), but the sign isn’t totally clear.

We decided we weren’t ready to try stir-fried hagfish, but “a shrimp roasted” sounded pretty good. Our waitress placed a heavy pan with a sheet of tinfoil covered in a think layer of coarse salt on our counter-top burner. She let it heat up as she brought us some appetizers including raw conch shell.

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Photo by Anna Waigand.

Neither Anna or I had eaten conch before, but Greg recommended it and our server was insistent. She dug the grey and black animals out of their shells with a tooth pick, dipped them in hot sauce and then, arm outstretched, forced them on us. See Anna’s on-the-spot video review.

Busan: Eating Raw Conch from Seoulful Adventures on Vimeo.

Click for more of the review and another video

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Photo by Anna Waigand

We were feeling good until we noticed that our meat had come in tubes. There are plenty of meats that come in cylinders, like the common sausage sizzlers in Korea, that are undaunting to eat. But if you just hollow out that cylinder, they become much more unusual.

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Photo by Anna Waigand

Turns out our main course was beef intestine. We figured out the intestine part by showing a picture of a cow with its parts labeled to the guy sitting next to us. He then snaked his hand in a back and forth motion across his belly ending in a downward spout at the bottom that I won’t mention again. We weren’t sure it was beef until we showed a picture of a cow and a boar to the host and he pointed to the cow. All thanks to the Point It book from my mom.

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Photo by Anna Waigand

The reason we ventured into this place is because it is The Popular Place. We don’t know the names of any of the restaurants in our neighborhood. There is The Cheap Place, The Soup Place, The Porridge Place and The Popular Place. The final one is so named because the L-shaped restaurant is packed every day of the week. On a street with cook-meat-at-your-table places shoulder to shoulder, it’s impressive that one of the larger ones is consistently filled to the bring with a boisterous, happy crowd. There isn’t a lick of English in the place, but we thought we’d give it a go.
Read the rest of the review

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Nothing says classy like a drink in a bag, but at Vinyl in Hongdae it’s the hot item on the menu. We first read about Vinyl on SeoulEats.com and decided to give it a go.

Drinks in a bag
Photo by Andre Francisco

We stood in a long line of mostly foreigners all looking at the menu: a half Korean, half English list of drinks in a raggedy flip photo album. After ordering, we watched the bartender mix up our cocktail in a sturdy Ziploc baggy. There are no measurements and each drink has a drastically different amount of alcohol in it. When it was all in, the baggy was zipped shut, shaken (never stirred), opened slightly to squeeze a straw through, then passed over to us for a mere 4-5,000 won.

After that it’s up to you for what your night will entail. Perhaps this is a drink to tide you over until you find the next bar. Or maybe it’s to sip on in the park while watching the house band, Soundbox, rock out. Or maybe it’s just a simple start for an enjoyable walk around Hongdae.

A few complaints were the lack of lime in a Cuba Libre and the lack of gin in any of the drinks.

Either way here are a few tips:
1. Expect a line. There’s expats. There’s booze. You do the math.
2. There is a seated area inside, but it is miniscule.
3. Check what alcohols are in the drink and the variety. The larger the number of different alcohols, the stronger the drink.
4. The Long Island Iced Tea is a true Long Island. It’s strong. Beware and enjoy.

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Magic Soju Enhancer Vending Machine
Photo by Anna Waigand

Most foreigners don’t particularly like soju. Koreans drink it for any and all occasions and often when even people from Wisconsin would question whether it’s time for a drink. The national liquor just tastes like watered down vodka, but not watered down enough to not burn. So when we heard from our travel companions that Busan had their own special type of soju we were excited to try it.

At both our lunch restaurant and our night out with the whole group, near our table was a coin-operated vending machine. For a 500 won coin you got a tiny white packet shaped like the little buckets of sealed cream that lounge in bowls at coffee shops. The tiny packet had a thick brown liquid with little if any smell that was supposed to be dumped into a 360ml bottle of soju. Apparently this is all that makes Busan Soju from Busan, because when our friend who spoke some Korean asked for Busan Soju she was pointed to the machine.

As the brown liquid swirled into the soju, we were all curious how much a tiny packet could flavor a bottle of alcohol. We poured maybe half a shot into our cups for a trial run and threw them down the hatch.

And for the first time drinking soju, I came up with a smile on my face. It really was amazingly different. The packet hadn’t added a distinct flavor, but it mellowed out the soju to a smooth drink without the wave of burning that accompanied most soju shots. It was a great addition to soju and should definitely be tried if you are in Busan, but I don’t know if it is worth a trip across the peninsula.

We stocked up on a couple of the packets, and we will have to see how they mix with soju back in Seoul.

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Welcome to the first in a new series of alcohol reviews here on Seoulful Adventures. This series will be called Drink, Drank, K-Drunk and it will feature reviews of traditional Korean alcohols, Seoul bars, and imported alcohol that we haven’t seen outside of Korea. This review falls into that first category.

Drinking alcohol out of a bowl isn’t totally new for Anna and I. While hiking on the Appalachian Trail for a month last summer we had to improvise when faced with rum, fruit punch powder and no cups, but that is another story.

For Chuseok, we went hiking in beautiful Bukhasan National Park with our new friends Greg and Danielle from Twitter(@gboone42). After a day spent going up and down the 837m Baekundae mountain we were hungry. We found a galbi place (grill at your table) and decided to take a seat. We were the only ones there so we got a couple free dishes and lots of attention from the owner. The food was delicious, but this post is about booze.

The weekend before, Greg and Danielle worked on a traditional Korean farm where they were introduced to makkoli, a milky Korean rice wine. We were jealous of their farm trip and they were excited about drinking Makkoli on the farm so we decided to order a bottle. And because in Korea you never get how many you order the owner showed up with two bottles instead of one. He also brought us four small white bowls. The only other things we had to drink out of were metal cups that we already filled with water, so after a minute of confused looks around the table we decided the bowels must be for the makkoli.

Photo by Taekwonweirdo.

Makkoli is an unfiltered rice wine with a milky color and because some of the sediment gathers at the bottom when stored, it needs to be shaken before being poured. Greg did the honors and the 750ml bottle just filled the four bowls. The wine had a smooth and light taste with a gentle hint of sweetness. It was easy to drink and was great for washing down our galbi. I also felt like I tasted the faintest sizzle of carbonation on my tongue, which was confirmed when Greg went to pour the second bottle. He shook it as he had the first, but this time when he opened it, makkoli frothed over the top and bubbled onto the ground next to us. I guess it had a mild carbonation after all.

Greg and Danielle had been served homemade makkoli out of a five-gallon drum, which is clearly a cooler experience and apparently the homemade variety is better than what’s available in stores. But since grape wine is so expensive here, I think we’ll be buying more makkoli and maybe some small bowls to go with it.

Greg and Danielle blog over at Schoolhouse: ROK.

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