Shakshuka!

Tonight we decided to make shakshuka for dinner!  Okay, well maybe I convinced Brian that it was a good idea and Sara (who had Lasik surgery a few days ago) was just happy to eat.  Shakshuka is a traditional Israeli dish.  I first ate shakshuka on Birthright visiting the holyland; we stopped at Dr. Shakshuka’s in Jaffa a southern neighborhood of Tel Aviv.  But, that’s a story for another time.

Brian and I gathered a truckload of tomatoes, a can of tomato paste, 1 onion, 2 peppers, more garlic than you can imagine, some handfuls of spinach, spices and 8 eggs.  A “little” prep work and we realized our endeavor it would take two pots.  Good thing we have two kitchens!

Turns out shakshuka is pretty simple to make once everything’s chopped & the tomatoes have been crushed.   Start by sauteing the onions, a few moments later toss in the peppers, garlic & tomato paste.  After they have cooked briefly add in your tomato-mush and spices.  Stir that delicious concoction around while layering spinach on top and 15 minutes later crack the eggs into the pan.

The next part called for “basting the eggs”  What the heck is that?  Well I decided to trust Brian rather than Google it when he said that means you spoon the piping hot sauce on top each egg to help them cook.  In the end we enjoyed some delicious home cooking and I can’t wait to try it again!

Shakshuka: eggs added

Shakshuka: eggs added

Brian's Shakshuka

Brian’s Shakshuka

Shakshuka = delicious!

Shakshuka = delicious!

The only white-man at dinner… again

After a kick ass fencing tournament my club went out to get some samgyupsal (pork korean barbeque).  Last time we went out it was an amazing combination of great food, mekju (beer) and soju (rice wine) combined to make SoMek.  Tonight was an excellent recreation with a few surprises.

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We arrived at the restaurant on the rainy Sunday night and were quickly ushered into a back room with our massive group.  The banchan (sides) were already on the table and soup was boiling away in the grill.  They provided bags for our wet coats and pillows to sit on; sitting cross legged on the floor takes some getting used to but can be quite fun!  Within a few moments the meat arrived and that wonderful aroma filled our room.CAM00929

The Korean conversation overpowered my naive language skills but I was happy to find a few Koreans with some basic English.  We spoke about fencing, told a few fencing stories and I went through my abbreviated bio.  They were surprised to learn that the “gold medalist” had only been in Korea for a few months and even more impressed that I could 1) use chopsticks 2) eat spicy food and 3) read Korean at a kindergarten level (or perhaps even lower).

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Still Brothers at Bulgogi Brothers

After a long day of hiking in Bukhansan Natonal Park my brother and I opted to get bulgogi for his last night in Korea. He tried many different dishes and all sorts of barbeque and easily declared bulgogi to be his favorite Korean food.

I asked my Korean friend, Sejun, for a restaurant recommendation near my house and he suggested a high end chain, Bulgogi Brothers. We took the train right there since it was on the way home and only a 5 minute walk from Mokdong station;we were seated right away.

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Bread and a cold tea were brought out immediately. The “bread” was warm, fresh and a nice change of pace for Korea but it tasted as if it was made with rice. It was tasty but I hesitate to call it real bread like what I’m used to in the states.

The menu has pictures but unfortunately not a lot of them. They gave a general idea for what each type of meal was at the top of the page but the specific dishes below were all written. There’s an English translation but it is merely a phonetic version of the Hanguel. Luckily I have a dictionary app on my phone and we were able to pick out two bulgogi meals.  The waitress kept asking fus something but we had no idea what she was saying.  She covered her mouth, clearly embarrassed, and left.

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The banchan came almost instantly with a delicious spread that included a spicy salad, kimchi, some sort of sweet potato mash, spicy peppers, what I think was almond jelly and a seaweed dish. I really liked the salad and seaweed; the sweet potato would have been better warm but the rest wasn’t appealing to my palate.
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A truly Korean dinner

After getting 2nd place at my first fencing tournament in Seoul my club invited me out to dinner.  It was a successful tournament with 5 medalists from our club, Seoul Fencing Club, and I got invited to join everyone for dinner.  One catch; I was the only white guy and they barely spoke English.

The majority of the conversation was in Korean so I clearly understood none of it but was able to follow clubmates to a barbecue joint near the tournament; we sat on the floor filling up this restaurant with our group of 10 fencers.  It was a diverse group with a few highschoolers girls who were “too good to compete today” and were coaching.  After all they are the best team in all of Seoul!  We had a few young adults along with an older gentleman who was very animated and I’m sure hilarious but also embarrassed at his lack of English.

Most of the others could understand me if I spoke slowly and between their joint vocabulary we were able to have some basic conversations.  While I had seen most of them 2-3 times a week at practice this was the first time I’d really gotten to know anyone other than my English speaking fencing buddies.  I went through the basics about where I was from, that I was a teacher and broke the ice with a few funny fencing stories as the bacon-like pork belly, known as Samgyupsal, came out.

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More importantly was the arrival of Mekju & Soju (beer & a rice-wine) which we combined for a more potent Somek.  It was delicious and I’m glad I learned a few of the customs earlier like not pouring your own drink how to accept/give a drink while showing respect.  With a quick “ganbei!” the drinks began flowing and the meat started grilling.

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The Koreans took care of all the cooking and the banchan came out shortly after.  Conversation went back to Korean and I learned a few new words when a new banchan came out.  I didn’t know what it was but it looked spicy so I grabbed a small portion.  It was tasty and i took a little more.  This time it crunched hard.  Turns out it was fried soft shell crab and the older gentleman and bonded with me over this savory treat with another toast.

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The sizzling pork created a delicious aroma and soon was ready to eat.  We dipped each piece into a sauce of our choice (I prefer the red bean paste but there was a sweet soy sauce tonight too), added garlic, potatoes, rice, sprouts, crab or whatever else we wanted to our lettuce wrap and ate up!  As usual I loved every bite; it may have been the Korean touch but it seemed like this pork was tastier than the last time I ate Samgyupsal and followed it up with some bugs…

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Tonight, no bugs!  Although the crunchy crab resembled a larger cousin of bundaegi it was much tastier!  The evening got a little crazier when I looked over and half the table was gone.  I saw them huddling by the kitchen when my neighbor explained that one of the girls had a ring stuck on her finger.  I suggested using ice to try and reduce swelling but it was too late, they were already cutting it off!  The poor girl was in tears but a trooper about the whole thing while the older guys chuckled at her unfortunate situation.

I took it as an appropriate time to ask if she was right handed or left handed; upon finding out it wasn’t her dominant hand I told a few stories about some my old teammates punching walls in frustration and injuring their fencing hand.  Tonight may have embarrassed her but at least she wouldn’t leave disarmed while it healed up (oh fencing priorities).

We had a few more glasses and finished up the meal.  I think I successfully impressed my new clubmates with my fencing and 2 month old knowledge of Korean culture!  Can’t wait till the next tournament on the 24th!

My first Korean Palace

It was a lazy Sunday.  We had gone out the night before and I was content spending most of the day doing laundry and lazing around my apartment.  Then I got an invite to join Sara, Sejun and her visitors at the royal palace.  I rearranged my busy schedule of folding laundry and eating ramen and hopped on the subway to meet them.

We arrived at Gyeongbukgong (Gyeongbuk Palace) in the afternoon.  Sejun was running late so we opted for a free tour of the nearby museum before entering the palace grounds.  Our guide taught us all about the period of King Jeongjo; he was one of the most popular kings and befriended the Chinese Joseon Dynasty.   There was a longstanding bitter tension between Korea and Japan that he couldn’t avoid but he did manage to put Korea into a sort of Golden Age.  Although quite modest, King Jeongjo was a large proponent of academia and helped instill a hard work ethic in the Korean people; the improved education and literacy raised the standard of living for many Koreans.

IMG_20130915_151324We learned about the king’s 5 meals daily, they consisted of a multitude of dishes which his taste tester would sample to ensure they weren’t poisoned.  He sample all of them but rarely finish one; instead he was a nice guy and gave it to his servants.  Next we heard about Korean hairstyles and the elaborate decorations that held them up.  The queen’s getup often included a wooden “wig” and gold jewelry embedded with gemstones and glass.  It could weigh as much as 20 kg (45 lbs)!

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There are official records of every ceremony with the food that was served, attire worn and how many guests.  Luckily they had two copies of their logbook because the French still have the copy they took in the 1800’s when they tried to colonize Korea.  Its used to make sure procedures were the same for any given service.

After the tour we headed through the elaborately decorated walls into a massive sandy courtyard.  Much of the palace has cobblestones but Japanese ninjas are much easier to hear when walking over the noisy sand.  This was a major concern since between Japanese invasions and fires the palace was destroyed a number of times.

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Basking in the sun we took in the scene surrounding us.  The modern kings Samsung and Microsoft have tall skyscrapers just past the red walls.

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Turning to enter the palace you can see the same pattern throughout the grounds, a gorgeous mix of reds, yellows, blues and greens with the tallest of the four peaks, Bugaksan in the background.

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The palace itself is actually a number of buildings and walls lined up in perfect harmony from the King’s Confucionistic views.  The balance makes it easy to navigate and we followed the path past a few traditionally dressed Koreans before quickly finding the throne room.

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A peak inside revealed even brighter coloring and some ancient furniture.  Behind the throne itself rests the famous Korean painting, Sun Moon and Five Peaks.  The sun and moon represent positive and negative similar to Yin and Yang while the peaks represent the 5 elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.

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After the throne room we continued to explore the palace grounds.  Walking through crowds of tourists we came upon a gorgeous pool in front of a raised pavilion.  I think this was a temple of some kind; Bugaksan made  another appearance before we kept going.

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We wandered further through the palace and caught a glimpse of “the Blue House,” Korea’s version of the White House, tucked away in the woods.  Unable to get close to it we navigated the maze of buildings before deciding it was time to eat.  For dinner tonight we would have Samgyetang, a ginseng chicken soup.

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A short walk brought us to the restaurant which exclusively serves samgyetang.  It’s supposed to be the best place in Korea to get it and luckily their reputation of hour-long waits was inaccurate today.  We sat right down; it was my first time at a restaurant without chairs so we laid out pillows and sat cross-legged. Two kinds Kim Chi were brought to the table; one from cabbage the other radish, I prefer the radish but saved room for the chicken!

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With this dish we drank makali, a refreshing rice wine that you drink out of a bowl.  Its quite light and is apparently a favorite hiking drink too.  The chicken soup arrived shortly after as well; we each had our own chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, walnuts, seeds and other spices.  Before we were allowed to eat we had to have a shot of a ginseng liquor, to cleanse the pallet of course.

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Eating this soup with chop sticks proved difficult to say the least.  It helped us eat slowly and by the end I resorted to the spoon even for my chicken.  It was quite a filling meal; the broth was delicious and the chicken incredibly tender, falling right off the bone.  The delicate flavors were delicious but unlike what I expected; it complimented the refreshing makali quite well.

On the way out we spotted a case of the ginseng liquor; it ferments in the bottles for 4 years before they serve it and for only ₩10,000 (about $10) you can have your very own bottle.  Perhaps I’ll buy one next time.IMG_20130915_172729

We ended the weekend with a sunset view of the Han River.  The park was full of locals and visitors biking, boarding and enjoying the evenings.  We even got a water show from a flying chicken!

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