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…

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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”.’

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.

번데기 – Silkworm pupae

번데기

Continuing my Korean culinary bucket list, today I tried 번데기 (beondegi), also known as steamed silkworm pupae. I have to be honest and admit that I don’t know what possessed me to try them, there wasn’t even alcohol involved. The stench alone, usually detectable from half a mile away, has made me retch in the past. All I can say is, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We tried them in Insadong, from a street vendor. I’d heard that they taste like peanuts, but if that’s true then I’ve clearly been eating the wrong peanuts. There is one word, and one word alone to describe 번데기, and that is ‘nasty’. They tasted like they smelled; musty, fleshy and like burned nail clippings. Quite possibly how you’d imagine bugs boiled in their own juices to smell.

Having bit down on it it popped with a squelchy crunch, which can only have been the softened shell. The out-pour of insect guts was enough to have me reaching for the bottle of water that I’d bought from Starbucks in anticipation.

Another thing off the list, but I can safely say never again.

The Park Ji-Sung Burger

Park Ji-Sung is something of a national hero in South Korea. He played for, and captained, Korea’s national football team until he retired from international football and is now playing for Manchester United.

Whenever kids, taxi drivers, or waiters hear that you are from England ‘Ahh Park Ji-Sung! Manchester! Soccer!‘ is invariably their first response.

One of the most unusual dedications to Park Ji-Sung I’ve seen so far is at Kraze Burger. The Park Ji-Sung ‘Power Energy’ burger. It has a long list of ingredients including swiss cheese, paprika, mixed vegetables, green tea popping candy, a black rice oatmeal bun and a choice of sauces; power amino or multi vitamin.

None of us were brave enough to order it, we were put off by the idea of meat and popping candy in the same mouthful, sorry Ji-Sung!

You know you live in Korea when…

1. Kimchi comes as standard with every meal, even fried chicken or pizza.

2. It’s not unusual to see an 80 year old man playing with his iPad (or more likely his Samsung Galaxy tab) on the subway.

3. Likewise, seeing your 7 year old students with iPhones is not unusual either.

4. You forget how to use a knife and fork.

5. Going out for coffee costs more than going out for dinner.

6. You bow to everyone when you meet them, even fellow waygookin.

7. You use scissors to cut your food.

8. It’s perfectly normal to carry toilet roll around in your handbag.

9. Traffic lights don’t apply to drivers turning right. Even if there’s a pedestrian crossing.

10. The concept of personal space no longer exists.

11. You can’t remember the last time you saw a red car, a yellow car, or a blue car, in fact any car that isn’t black, white or silver.

12. You’ve realised that there’s no point trying to get the kids to stop saying ‘so-so’ in answer to everything.

13. You start to speak Konglish (usually just adding -uh to an English word, like bus-uh, or Homeplus-uh)

14. Being asked what your blood type is, and then being given an assessment of your personality, is not uncommon.

15. You find yourself absentmindedly humming the subway song.

16. You regularly get soaked when brushing your teeth, having forgotten to change the tap from the shower setting.

17. Seeing teenage boys sitting on each other’s knees on the subway no longer seems strange.

18. You can use a unisex bathroom and think nothing of it. Even if there’s a urinal.

19. You no longer feel concerned about the group of 9-year olds eating instant noodles in your local mini-mart at 10pm on a Sunday night.

20. You can use a squatter.

21. You know not to use a red marker pen when writing a kid’s name on the board.

22. You’re no longer confused in the elevator when the fourth floor button is replaced with an ‘F’.

23. You automatically cover your mouth when you laugh.

24. It’s near impossible to find a birthday card.

25. Seat belt? What seat belt?

How to make japchae

Japchae (stir fried noodles and vegetables) is one of my absolute favorite Korean dishes. The halmoni who cooks our lunches at school had set the japchae bar pretty high, but last night I decided to have a go at cooking it myself.

Of all the things I thought I’d blog about during my time in Korea, I never imagined that cooking would be one of them! My friends and family will tell you that my strengths do not lie in the kitchen, but I wanted to write this post partly as a memo for me to come back to because there’s no point in me writing it down on paper, I will lose it, but also because I think Korean cuisine is largely overlooked at the moment and I’d love more people to try it.

Japchae is a very versatile dish and can be eaten hot or cold, as a main or a side dish. Seasonal vegetables can be added, as can beef, pork or chicken.

Ingredients

(serves 2)

  • Starch noodles (dangmyun)
  • 1 bunch of spinach
  • 1 medium size carrot
  • A small pack of mushrooms
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Sesame seeds
  • Pepper
  1. Slice the mushrooms, cut the carrot into strips, tear the spinach and mince the garlic.
  2. Boil 1 bunch of dangmyun noodles in a saucepan of boiling water for about 3 minutes until soft then drain. Put them in a bowl and add 1 tbsp of soy sauce and 1 tbsp sesame oil and place to one side.
  3. Keep the boiling water to blanche the shredded spinach in while the carrots and mushrooms are cooking.
  4. Heat a couple of drops of oil in a frying pan and add the carrots and the mushrooms. Stir fry over a medium heat for a couple of minutes or so until the mushrooms and carrots are about half cooked (not exactly a technical term sorry!) and then add the minced garlic, blanched spinach and ½  tbsp of soy sauce. Stir fry for another 30 seconds.
  5. Lower the heat and add the cooked noodles, 2 tbsp of soy sauce, 2 tbsp of sesame oil and ½  tsp of black pepper to the pan just to warm through.
  6. Serve with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.

Japchae was first served during the Joseon Dynasty, in the early 17th century, at one of King Gwanghaegun’s dinner parties. The king was so pleased with this creation that he promoted the cook to the position of hojo panseo 호조판서 (Secretary of the Treasury). That’s the sign of a good dish. Enjoy!

Sisterfood, Bupyeong

Sisterfood, a play on the words ‘sisterhood’ and ‘Asian food’, is a brand new restaurant that has just opened in the back streets of Bupyeong.

It was set up by Incheon Women’s Hotline, an organisation that helps immigrant women, often wives of Korean men, adjust to life here. It is run by a group of volunteers and offers advice, support and free English lessons to women.

We tucked into Vietnamese seafood noodles, Filipino rice cake and fried bananas, Chinese dumplings, Korean sweet potatoes, and of course, the omnipresent dish of kimchi. Everything was authentic and homemade, even the makgeolli!

Our boss’ wife is one of the volunteers, and all of the women there made us feel so welcome. I can’t wait to go back for some more feel-good food!

My guide to Korean cuisine

Korea has such a wide and varied cuisine, and it would be impossible to cover all the different types of bulgogi, galbi, and jigae in this post, but these are just some of our favorite Korean dishes!

Japchae

What makes japchae so much better than other noodle dishes is the type of noodles used. They are called ‘glass noodles’ or dang myeon and are made from sweet potato starch. The noodles are stir fried with sliced vegetables, like carrots, mushrooms, and spinach, in sesame oil and soy sauce and topped off with a few sesame seeds. Japchae is probably my favorite Korean food so far!

Galbi

Galbi literally means ‘ribs’ in Korean, and is usually beef or pork, although dakgalbi (chicken meat) is also popular. The meat is marinated in soy, garlic, and sugar and is brought to the table raw for you to cook it yourself. In the middle of the table is a grill over hot coals and you cook it barbecue style. Galbi comes with an array of banchan (side dishes) which vary at different restaurants, but they usually include lettuce leaves, garlic, shredded onions, pickled radish, kimchi, and a couple of soups and dipping sauces.

Shabu shabu

The perfect winter warmer, shabu shabu is Korea’s answer to a Lancashire hot pot. A big, bubbling pot of spicy vegetable soup is placed in the middle of the table over a burner. First round; the meat. Again DIY style, pieces of thinly sliced, semi-frozen beef are thrown into the pot to cook for a few seconds then dipped in a sesame sauce, yum yum! After the meat comes the noodles, which are also put in the soup to cook and soak up the spiciness. Lastly, the soup is poured off into a bowl and fried rice is cooked in the pot, in the remnants of the soup. It is a pretty big meal anjd you have to be really hungry to properly appreciate shabu shabu, but it’s another personal favorite!

Gimbap

Gimbap seems to be one of those foods that can be eaten anytime. My co-teachers often have it for breakfast, a snack at lunchtime, or at picnics. It is made from rice (bap), and various fillings like cucmber, pickled radish, squid, spam or cheese, rolled in gim (sheets of dried laver seaweed).

Mandu

Another street food, and one of Nath’s absolute favorites, mandu are steamed Korean dumplings. They usually have a pork or kimchi filling, and are normally about the size of a tennis ball. They are served with a soy sauce and vinegar dipping sauce. Even if you can’t read Korean, mandu street stalls are instantly recognisable by the huge, steaming vats outside.

Tteokbokki

An eternal favourite with Korean schoolchildren, tteokbokki is sold on almost every street corner. In its simplest form it is just bitesize pieces of white rice cake in a red, spicy sauce, although tteokbokki with seafood, noodles, sausage or cheese are also very common.

Samgyeopsal

Samgyeopsal is fatty pork belly meat, like thick bacon, and is cooked in a similar way to galbi. It is one of the most popular meals in Korea, with apparently 70% of Koreans eating it at least once a week. The name literally means three (sam) layered (gyeop) flesh (sal) and unlike galbi is not seasoned or marinated. Samgyeopsal also comes with a range of banchan including lettuce leaves, perilla leaves, green chilli peppers, garlic, onions and kimchi.

Chicken and beer

Hardly a traditional dish but fried chicken and beer is hugely popular in Korea, with a chicken ‘hof’ (bar) every few yards. Fried chicken is rarely a meal in itself but is served as a drinking snack (anju) and for this reason is often referred to as chi-maek (chicken and maekju – beer). KFC (Korean fried chicken) can be either with sauce or without, but I prefer it without. Chicken fried in rice instead of wheat flour is also becoming very popular here.