My South Korean Bucket List

With my time in Korea rapidly coming to an end I need to get checking things off this list!

  • Eat sannakji (live octopus) 

I’ve yet to get my head (and stomach) around this one but it will be done!

A vile experience that I plan on never repeating.

Again, a one time only occurrence!

  • Eat bosintang (dog soup)Korean chicken feet

Controversial I know, but it is one of Korea’s most well-known delicacies.

  • Learn Korean

While I am nowhere near being fluent I can at least hold a decent conversation in Korean so I’m going to count this one!

  • Visit EverlandKorean baseball game

We’ve visited South Korea’s largest theme park, albeit on the wettest day of the year.

  • Watch a Korean baseball game

Woo SK Wyverns!

  • Leave a padlock at the top of Namsan MountainNamsan Tower Padlocks

In true K-drama style I have left one padlock with my boyfriend and one with my Mum.

  • Sing in a norebang

I never thought I would enjoy singing in any place other than the shower but there is something about norebangs that makes it okay to grab a microphone and a tambourine and bust out your best rendition of Sweet Caroline!

And what an unforgettable experience that was…

  • Haeundae Beach, Busan

Way down on the south east coast, Haeundae is probably Korea’s most famous beach and I am determined to get there.Pajeon

Just one of Korea’s latest beauty fads, but I am now a convert!

  • Drink makgeolli and eat pajeon on a rainy day

Had plenty of opportunity to do this recently during Korea’s rainy season.
Makgeolli

  • Wear a hanbok

Korea’s traditional dress.

  • Do a Temple Stay

Still trying to find time to get in touch with my spiritual side and do a temple stay in Seoul.

  • Appear on Korean TVBoryeong Mudfest

I think I might have walked behind someone being interviewed at Mudfest last year but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count.

  • Get a photo taken with a Korean celebrity

Still working on this one, too.

  • Swim in the East Sea and the West Sea

Paddling counts right?Eurwangni Beach

  • Haggle at Namdaemun

Still need to work on my bargaining skills with the ajummas in this huge traditional night market in Seoul.

  • Watch a K-Pop concert

We saw Psy perform in Seoul last summer just as Gangnam Style was at its peak and it was epic!PSY concert Seoul Plaza 4/10/2012

  • Peer over into North Korean from the DMZ

Described as the most dangerous place on Earth, no trip to Korea is complete without going here.

As with most things, weddings in Korea are totally different to weddings at home, and we’ve been lucky enough to go toKorean wedding four of them.

  • Visit Jeju Island

South Korea’s answer to Hawaii and a favourite with Korean honeymooners, Jeju was recently declared one of the New7Wonders of Nature, and an absolute must-see.

  • Visit all 5 of the great palaces in Seoul

One down…four to go…

  • Visit Seoraksan National ParkSeoraksan National Park 

We went nearly two years ago in autumn and it was just so beautiful.

  • See the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul

This festival is held every May around Jogye-sa Temple in Seoul in honour of  Buddha’s birthday and is hands down one of my favourite memories of Korea.

  • See the Cherry Blossom Festival

Every spring Korean parks become awash with beautiful pink and white cherry blossom, and Yeouido Park in Seoul is one of the best places to see it.

  • Do the Gangnam Style dance in Gangnam

Many a time!Korean cherry blossom

  • Try kimchi soda

Yes, this actually exists. Along with kimchi cookies, kimchi ice-cream and kimchi cake.

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How to survive a Korean night out

To survive a Korean night out you will need to come equipped with three things; a liver of steel, an expandable stomach and a good set of lungs. Drinking with Koreans requires endurance.

Koreans bar-hop in a way that would put most university pub-crawls to shame. A typical night out will involve stopping off at several different bars, and each bar is called a ‘cha’. The stops are counted off as il-cha (round 1), i-cha (round 2), sam-cha (round 3), sa-cha (round four) and so on until, no matter how much you protest, you end up swaying and slurring along to Hey Jude in a norebang (karaoke).

The night will usually start with dinner, and the first few bottles of soju. Round two will most likely involve more soju or beer at a hof or a Western-style bar. Round three will be more of the same but maybe with some drinking games thrown in. Most hofs require you to order anju, food like fried chicken, fruit or dried squid. Many Koreans believe that eating salty or spicy food helps the body digest alcohol quicker. I’m yet to see proof of this.

Round four or five is invariably a trip to a norebang for a sing-along and yes, you guessed it, more booze and food. Then for those still drinking, or standing, a nightclub is usually the last destination for some dancing until the wee hours.

Make sure that you observe the rules of Korean drinking etiquette and remember, what happens on a Korean night out stays on a Korean night out!

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Sea squirts 멍게

So last week my best friend, the very same one who took me to eat intestines, rectum and raw liver (you’d think I’d have learned by now…), invited me to her house for dinner. As well as cooking the most amazing 목살 (pork neck meat) I’ve ever eaten, she also served up the not quite so amazing dish of sea squirts.

Sea squirts

Sea squirts

They look like something you shouldn’t eat, they smell like something you shouldn’t eat, and they taste like something you shouldn’t eat. Whoever first thought to eat a sea squirt was most likely insane. Apparently they’re very high in nutrients and are great for a hangover, but then Koreans say that about pretty much anything that you otherwise wouldn’t even consider eating. Personally I can’t imagine anything worse to try and eat when you’ve got a hangover, it’s certainly no bacon sandwich.

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The ‘trick’ to eating sea squirts, she told me, is to pop the whole thing in your mouth, and chew it a few times until you feel the soft part burst and then spit the shell out again. It tastes like a revolting concoction of rubber, ammonia, brine and the seabed. The yellowy orange stuff in the photo is the flesh of the sea squirts, and it looks and feels like eating a massive, salty bogey. Sorry, but there’s literally nothing else I can think to compare it to.

There are some things that even soju can't improve...

There are some things that even soju can’t improve…

So, put down the chopsticks and back away from the sea squirts.

A bovine body part buffet…

Apologies for the delay, I think it’s taken my stomach a week to get over it, but last Friday I added to the ever-growing list of bovine organs that I have now eaten. My best friend (at least she was up until then!)  took me to her favourite restaurant for what she described as ‘an authentic Korean experience’. That probably should have set alarm bells ringing, but as we’d already polished off a few bottles of soju, we set off, with me proudly announcing that she didn’t need to worry and that I would try anything. In hindsight it might not have been the best choice of words.

Gopchang (곱창) on the left and makchang (막창) on the right…yum

Unable to decide whether we should have cow rectum (막창 – makchang) or intestines (곱창 – gopchang), she ordered a plate of each. And two more bottles of soju. The banchan (side dishes) at this restaurant didn’t just consist of the usual kimchi, bean sprouts and seaweed soup. Oh no, this place served chunks of raw liver with sesame seeds, and something called 천엽 that Google translated as ‘superficial lobe’, but further research has shown me that it’s proper name is the ‘omasum’ and it’s just another part of the stomach (also served raw). The liver was absolutely horrific, and both of us really struggled to eat it, but the 천엽 actually wasn’t so bad. The soju probably helped though.

천엽 (cheonyeop) and raw liver

Mmm…yum yum

Then came the main course; a large plate of 소막창 (cow rectum) and an equally large plate of 소곱창 (cow intestines). Having already eaten 돼지막창 (pig rectum) I kind of knew what to expect, it was just…bigger. Although 소막창 (beef makchang) is meant to be much better than 돼지막창 (pig makchang), I can’t honestly say I’m a fan of either. It’s not because of the taste, it just tastes meaty, but it is simply too chewy for me, although that is part of the appeal for Koreans. I quite liked the gopchang, it tasted a little bit like bacon if I thought really hard about it, and it was a lot less chewy than the makchang. The only slightly off-putting thing was the thick white paste oozing out of either end, which I later learned was mucus.

As the owner was so surprised to see a foreigner in his restaurant (now I know why), he gave us a dish of 염통 (sliced cow heart) as service. I thought it was the nicest part of the meal really, it was a little bit like steak, only it tasted a lot bloodier than that. It was actually quite hard to get the metallic-y taste out of my mouth, but again, the soju helped.

Gopchang and makchang

When I was beginning to struggle both my friend and the restaurant owner kept reassuring me of the supposed health benefits of eating intestines. They also said eating it guaranteed I wouldn’t have a hangover the next day. Lies. Barefaced lies.

Still best friends really!

My real best friend during this meal!

염통 – Barbecued chicken hearts

Continuing my Korean culinary adventure, last night’s delicacy was grilled chicken hearts (염통). They were cooked in a sweet, sticky BBQ marinade and served on skewers. For a bargain price of 5,000 KRW (£2.75) we got five skewers, each with four hearts. We also had mushrooms wrapped in samgyeopsal (thick cut bacon), boneless chicken feet, deok (Korean rice cake) and dalkgalbi with melted cheese (stir fried chicken in a mouth-scorchingly spicy sauce).

Nom nom nom

Once I managed to get the image of Chicken Licken out of my head they were surprisingly quite good, a bit like really dark chicken meat. However, as with most of these things they did need quite a lot of chewing, washed down with a mouthful of Cass.

As my friend told me, eating the heart of your enemy makes you grow stronger. In that case, bring it on chickens…

Not looking too convinced at this point…

Korean drinking etiquette

Well, it’s Sunday afternoon and I am unfortunately suffering from a soju-induced 숙취 (hangover). After going out with some of our Korean friends last night now seems like the right time to climb out from under the duvet, stop watching K-dramas, let go of the water bottle, and write about Korean drinking etiquette.

Everyone knows that Koreans are fond of a drink or two at the end of a long, hard day at work. What is easy to forget however, is that the same social hierarchy rules still apply even when you’re all pie-eyed, holding each other up, and swaying unsteadily to Hey Jude in a norebang at 5am. As a foreigner you will of course be forgiven for not knowing all the rules, but if you do try and follow them you will earn major brownie points!

  • Never pour your own drink. Likewise, never let anyone else pour their own drink. Let them pour for you and then when their glass is empty (and not before!) you can return the favour. According to an old wives tale, if you leave someone with an empty glass for too long you curse them with an unhappy marriage…no pressure then.
  • There are three (yes, really) ways to hold the bottle when you pour. Firstly, if you’re pouring for your boss or an elder, you should hold it with both hands. For someone who is of a similar status as you, you can hold the bottle with your right hand and support your forearm with your left hand. Lastly, you can hold the bottle just with your right hand if it’s someone younger than you or a very close friend. The same rules apply for holding your glass when someone is pouring for you, and pretty much whenever you give or receive something in Korea.
  • Never decline a drink from the first round, you’ll ruin the atmosphere for everyone else. Drinking is a very important way of socialising here, so if you turn down a drink you might be seen as unsociable.
  • If you are drinking with your boss or someone of a higher social rank than you, it is polite to either turn your back or put your hand up to cover your glass while taking a drink. This stems from the idea that young people shouldn’t drink, but even when you’re ‘allowed’ you should still be discreet.
  • You can drink anytime, any place. Seriously. There are no laws against public drinking like we have in England. Similarly, drinking yourself into a stupor is not a weekend activity here, it happens every night of the week.
  • And the golden rule; the events of that night are never to be discussed the next morning. In fact, the only evidence of the evening’s frivolities are the delightfully named ‘kimchi flowers’, left splattered all over the pavement.

Holding the bottle and glass with two hands

돼지 막창 – Crispy pig rectum

So, here’s something I didn’t expect from my Wednesday evening; I just ate pig rectum. Well, several pigs’ probably.

Whilst it didn’t feature on my Korean culinary bucket list, I think it definitely would have qualified had I known about it at the time. It’s worth pointing out that we actually ordered it by accident. We tried ‘somewhere new’ tonight and in addition to our old, trusted favourite 갈매기살 (rib meat), Nathan, in his infinite wisdom, looked at the first thing on the menu and asked for that. ‘That’ turned out to be sliced, grilled pig rectum. But in the true Korean spirit of not letting anything go to waste, we tucked in.

Having been chemically cleaned (seriously), it was served up with the usual array of kimchis, lettuce leaves, and soy dipping sauce. It did take a lot, and I mean a lot, of chewing, but the flavour was surprisingly nice, although my imagination began to get the better of me after the first few pieces.

I then heard myself uttering a sentence I never in a million years thought I’d say. “I think I’ve got bum stuck in my teeth”.’

Soju is the most consumed spirit in the world…no, really!

We all know that Koreans have a certain fondness for their national liquor, but according to a recent survey by Drinks International soju is the most consumed spirit in the world, with a whopping 767,520,000 litres of the stuff sold last year.

The survey, called the Millionaires’ Club, showed that not only was Jinro-branded soju at number one (for the twelfth year in a row!), but Lotte-branded soju was also sitting at number three.

Considering soju beat dozens of more famous, global brands to the top spot, I’d never even heard of it before I moved to South Korea. It’s a pretty potent rice-based spirit that is often compared to vodka, Japanese sake, or paint stripper and is consumed en masse in Korea. Most of the time it is drank neat with food but can also be mixed with beer, whiskey, aloe juice, pretty much anything really. Classed as a ‘local’ spirit, 94% of it is sold in Korea, to a population smaller than England’s, with the remainder sold in America, Japan and south-east Asia.

Koreans are known for their livers of steel and their heavy drinking. According to a WHO survey from 2005 Korea ranked 1st in the amount of spirits consumed. In fact, a 60 year old business man could drink an entire university rugby team under the table, kip on a bench, and still make his 7am conference call.

Yummy yummy chicken feet

So last night, after a fair few glasses of Cass, I crossed another thing off my Korean culinary bucket list; chicken feet 닭 발.

Mmm…chicken feet…

Chicken feet is a delicacy often associated with East Asia, in particular with China and Korea. Dalkbal can be boiled, fried, steamed, or as we had them last night, grilled on a Korean barbecue.

Giving the middle finger; the chickens last defence

We put them on the grill and watched the claws curl up in the heat, appearing to give us the finger in one last stab at defiance. After a few minutes they were obviously cooked but we left them for a while longer (how do you know when a chickens foot is fully cooked??). No one wanted to be the first to try one, and no one wanted to be the last, so, we all gingerly picked one up with our chopsticks, but how do you go about eating them? Where do you start? Toe? Ankle? Somewhere in the middle?

Delicious…

I tore a chunk off the ankle, it was gristle, so I nibbled on a toe, that was gristle too. Like the pig trotters, they were mouth-scorchingly spicy, and I lost all feeling in my mouth for several minutes! Other than the tongue-melting spiciness they didn’t have much taste. Just gristle.

Next on the list, live baby octopus…

My Korean culinary bucket list

I have always been an extremely fussy eater and have given my parents years of tears, tantrums and point blank refusals to eat what was lovingly prepared and put in front of me (sorry about that Mum and Dad!).

One of the main reasons for my move to Korea was to embrace new experiences and broaden my horizons, so here is my list of typically Korean specialities I must (and will!) try before I return to the homeland of fish and chips, roast beef and crumpets.

Some I have tried already but it is a work in progress.

1. 번데기 – Silkworm pupae (tried and tasted)

I was left thoroughly unimpressed after my experience of 번데기 but it definitely qualifies as one of Korea’s most unusual foods. Available ‘fresh’ from street vendors or tinned in your local mini-mart, it is a mind-bogglingly popular Korean snack. The smell is enough to make you retch but it is nothing compared to the taste. Someone had told me they tasted just like peanuts, but that must have been a cruel joke. They did not taste like peanuts. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure what they did taste of, and I’m certainly not going back for more. The worst bit was the pop; the moment that the exo-skeleton burst and the soft guts came spilling out. They are supposedly low in calories and packed full of vitamins, however I am quite happy to miss this out of my diet.

2. 닭 발 – Chicken feet (tried and tasted)

Chicken feet are commonly thought of as a Chinese delicacy but they are also very popular in Korea.  Dalkbal can be served either on or off the bone, steamed, grilled, boiled, or fried and usually smothered in a scorchingly spicy sauce. They are served in most Korean barbecue restaurants but also in bars as a drinking snack. I’m yet to try this one…

3. 족발 – Pig’s trotters (tried and tasted)

Another one that I won’t be rushing out to try again, this was served up on a work night out. Not only do you have the rather ‘unique’ texture to contend with but also the extreme spiciness. Imagine tucking into a big knuckle of warm rubbery lard, and then your mouth being set on fire and you’re probably about there. We were even given plastic gloves to wear because they are so greasy. Eating jokbal is said to be good for your skin and prevents wrinkles. It is also supposed to be a pretty good hangover cure, but I’m not sure my gag reflex would agree.

4.  낙지 – Live octopus

This is not one for the faint-hearted. Sannakji is a live baby octopus cut up into bite size pieces and served immediately. So immediately in fact that it is often still squirming when it reaches the table. It is served in most seafood restaurants but also in bars as a drinking snack (noticing a trend here?). There have been cases of people choking on sannakji, especially after a bottle or four of soju, as the suction caps on the octopus’ arms can latch onto the mouth or throat on the way down.

5. 보신탕 – Dog meat soup

No list of unusual Korean foods would be complete without dog meat making an appearance. Controversial I know, but dog meat is falling out of favour with young Koreans. Most have tried it at some point but very few have anything good to say about it. 보신탕, dog meat soup, literally means ‘body nourishing soup’, and is said to increase virility. It is usually eaten in the summer as the spiciness apparently balances out the body temperature. Technically illegal since 1986, it can still easily be found in many Korean restaurants.

6. 도토리묵 – Acorn jelly (tried and tasted)

Dotorimuk is a brown jelly made from acorn starch. It originated in the mountains, but became very widely eaten during the Korean war during food shortages, and it is now considered to be a health food. Acorn jelly is usually served mixed with chilli, garlic, soy and sesame as a side dish. Of all the things on this list, dotorimuk is probably the only one I’d have seconds of. No nasty surprises, and all the taste comes from the marinade.

7.  껍데기 – Pig skin (tried and tasted)

A firm favourite with middle aged men after a few bottles of soju, ggupdaegi is thick pig skin grilled over a Korean bbq; a bit like crackling but without the crack. Not crunchy, not chewy, not greasy, it is quite soft and not wholly unpleasant once you get over the piggy-ness of it. Found in almost all Korean barbecue restaurants it is definitely worth a try.

8. 순대 – Sundae

Not to be confused with ice-cream and sprinkles, sundae is a kind of Korean blood sausage. It is usually made from boiled pig’s intestines, stuffed with dangmyeon (glass noodles), barley and pig’s blood, although there are many other varieties. Perhaps not hugely dissimilar to black pudding but even my love of an English breakfast never convinced me to try that…

9. 해파리 냉채 – Jellyfish (tried and tasted)

After a slightly traumatic incident on a family holiday in Spain, jellyfish was something I didn’t have much of a problem trying; after all they do say revenge is a dish best served cold. Haepari nengche is thinly shredded jellyfish salad in a sweet mustard sauce. Unsurprisingly it takes a fair amount of chewing but it actually wasn’t too bad!

10. 감자탕 – Pig spine soup

Gamjatang, an Incheon speciality, is a spicy red soup made from separated pig vertebrae, vegetables, onions, peppers, and sesame seeds. It originated in Jeolla province in south-west Korea, and when Incheon port opened up many people migrated north and brought the dish with them. It became popular with labourers as it’s cheap, nutritious and it has a high fat content.