Thursday, August 28, 2014

Soybeans of Sokcho

Soybean, and in particular sundubu (soft tofu), is a specialty for towns surrounding Mount Seorak (Seoraksan). It is said that tofu around these parts are more flavourful due to the pure mountain spring water used in their production.

It was the second day of our whirlwind tour of South Korea, we have stopped over for lunch in Sokcho, 20 km North of the mountain. Today’s menu is sundubu jjigae, a stew of soft tofu with spicy broth packed with plump prawns, crabs and other sea creatures. The eatery sources their soybeans solely from the immediate area of Ganghyeon townships and makes their dubu in-house. As a result, visitors are treated to food made from and of the area. Dubu that was soft, melting and comforting to the stomach. The broth rendered sweet by the seafood. To accompany the meal were the Korean signature complimentary side dishes (banchan) of kimchi, spicy and sweet dried anchovies, japchae 잡채, humbly blanched chinese cabbage, seaweed and mushrooms.

But the unexpected surprise for me was the godeungeo gui 고등어구이. A mackerel split in half, salted, simply grilled and served as is on a platter. My tired body and palate craved the distinct mackerel taste and fattiness the oily fish gave. It’s called the omega-3 power baby!

Chodang Dubu 초당두부
1678-2 Domun-dong
강원도 속초시 도문동 1678-2
location on google maps

It had been another jam-packed day of offering prayers to the Tongil Daebul Buddha 통일대불 at the Sinheungsa temple 신흥사, a glimpse of the Sinheungsa monastery and riding the gondola up Seoraksan 설악산, all in the space of about 4 hours. Knowing that another energy-drenching activity was planned for that night, I ate a few more of those mackerels -- stealing them from other tables (with permission, some of the other tour-goers didn’t like fish!).

During the day’s activities before we can have the sundubu jjigae lunch at Sokcho, we kept ourselves going with snacking, like on these delightful gamja tteok 감자떡. We bought them from one of the small shops lining the road on our way back to the bus from Seoraksan. The gamja tteok’s chewy exterior is made of potato flour, not dissimilar to that of the Japanese mochi made of rice flour. Inside the chewy cake is a filling of powdery soybean flour, another nod to the Seoraksan regional specialty. There was not really a distinct sweet or salty taste to the gamja tteok, it was actually rather bland, but quite a few of Asian snacks and desserts are like so. In this particular case, the snack was more that of a textural experience than that of taste explosion.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ribless Chicken Ribs in Korea

Last winter, I was given a chance to go to South Korea for free, all I had to do was pack enough warm clothes for a week and get there. Being a huge K-drama and K-pop fan, it should be a no-brainer. Not to mention my long torrid affair with Korean food, my fondness was to the point where I jokingly told my husband if ever we got fired from our current jobs, we should think about starting fresh in Korea.

The only trepidation I had was we had to go with an Indonesian tour group. If my past experience with such tour groups is anything to go by, the holiday will be more of a boot camp of late nights and early mornings, with an endless litany of sights and shops. Not exactly my idea of relaxation. After deliberating for the better part of a month, we decided that as our first introductory trip to Korea, being chauffeured around everywhere accompanied by a local tour guide might not be so bad.

Though the trip did turn out to be as expected -- early mornings, late nights, sights, photo-op, shops, more sights, more photo-op -- what saved it for me was the food. Every morning I was secretively looking forward to lunch and dinner, expectant of what deliciousness I would encounter on the day.

Our korean tour guide, who goes by the name Lara, spoke English fluently and had a no non-sense attitude. Being a hired local guide, there was little she could alter by way of itinerary and places to visit. But there was one thing the tour company allowed her complete freedom, that was the choice of eateries to eat. And for that I am thankful. Sure there was a day or two when we ate Thai food or Chinese food, but mostly it’s good ol’ Korean food, with a visit to a matjib 맛집 (famous restaurant) or two thrown in.

Our first proper Korean meal was at a lively Korean barbecue place. Set by the riverside steps away from the wharf where ferries depart hourly to Namiseom 남이섬, the eatery stands shoulder to shoulder with dozens other barbecue places. The protein served in all these barbecue places is not the standard beef (galbi anyone?), nor is it pork (samgyeopsal omnomnom…).

I made a point in asking Lara the name of all the dishes I thought was delicious. She explained that Chuncheon 춘천 is known in Korea for its numerous poultry farms, hence chicken is the protein of choice for barbecue here. Over time this namesake dish called Chuncheon Dak Galbi 춘천 닭갈비 earned the status as the city’s specialty dish.

Dak galbi is literally translated as chicken ribs, which is a misnomer because the protein in this dish are boneless chicken thighs, no ribs are involved. Thick, juicy chicken thighs marinated with Korea’s representative condiment of fermented chilli pepper paste (gochujang 고추장) for at least a day before hitting the grill set in front of us. Grilled alongside are shiitake mushrooms, king oyster mushrooms and tteok 떡 (cylindrical shaped rice cake).

When the chicken was no longer pink, when clear juices were about to drip to meet the flames underneath, when the meat had taken the charred flavour from the grill, I readied a fresh lettuce leaf on my left hand palm. On it landed a piece of chicken, then a slice of king oyster mushroom, a few slices of raw garlic, maybe a slice of green chilli, definitely a spoonful of gijangbap 기장밥 (rice with flecked yellow with millet). All wrapped up, the abundant lettuce package struggled to fit into my mouth. It felt supremely satisfying. I went in for another one, this time the chicken was smeared with ssamjang 쌈장 (fermented chilli soybean paste), topped with a piece of tteok, kimchi and rice. Endless variations can be had, depending on what I felt like eating after devouring the last parcel.

To escort these bundles of food on its way down the stomach was a bowl of soup with dried radish leaves in a doenjang 된장 based broth, which took on the commendable job of taking the edge off of the chilly air.

Waiting for everyone else to finish eating -- I am somewhat of a fast eater -- I went for a walk around the restaurant to settle my stomach. Along the outside wall were hanging rows upon rows of radish greens in various states of drying, these were the leaves decorating the doenjang soup we just had. At the entrance of the eatery, patrons were greeted and enticed by the view of a man burning charcoals with supercharged lighters, to render them ashen ready for the grill. I stayed to watch for a while, the glowing charcoals fascinated me like a moth to a flame, and the warmth thawed my frozen limbs.

Body warmed up, stomach's full, all that's left to do was to sightsee Namiseom (for only a full hour! We didn't get to see much.... Sigh....).

Dak Galbi
Namiseom ferry terminal in Gapyeong
경기도 가평군 가평읍 북한강변로 
location on google maps

PS: The rows of dak galbi restaurants lining the ferry wharf are in truth located in Gyeonggi-do 경기도, not in Chuncheon-si where the dish is most famous. I suspect they auspiciously rode the coattails of their nearby Gangwon-do neighbours across the Han River to borrow this dish in hopes that it’ll take off, and it did. The number of tourists passing through the area certainly didn’t hurt either.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Complimentary Breakfast: Vice & Virtue

I am somewhat picky with my choice of holiday accommodation. It has to have a clean bathroom. Cleanliness is next to godliness, as is with quietness. I avoid “party” hotels and hotels near them, of which there are a few in Bali. Quality of sleep is very precious to me. What don't factor in my decision are the complimentary breakfasts.

Although it is convenient not having to worry about where to to eat first thing in the morning, more often than not, hotels I’ve picked have been ones without the frills, for the simple fact they’re cheaper than ones that do offer the free meal. In saying that, during my stay in Makassar and Bali last year, all the hotels I stayed in coincidentally served complimentary breakfasts.

I’m most fond of the breakfast served in the villa we stayed in Ubud. The ritual started with submitting our choices for breakfast the preceding night to the reception, in the morning the meals that have been personally prepared for us were delivered to our villa, whereupon they would be unloaded from the bamboo trays and set beautifully on the small table by our private pool. Typically our choice would be local, mie goreng, or the most beloved Indonesian fast food of choice nasi goreng. For the western touch, croissants and pain aux raisins. A pot of unsweetened green tea or black tea helped neutralise the butteriness of the pastries. Slices of tropical fruits papaya, pineapple and watermelon satisfied my craving for sweets after the finish of a meal.

Not everything was always as agreeable. Our last accommodation before leaving Bali was in a four-star hotel in Nusa Dua. Knowing that Nusa Dua is the posher resort end of Bali, meals should’ve been exceptional. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Buffets of overcooked, over-fried and under-seasoned food are not my idea of a good breakfast.

You might interject that meals served in a hotel buffet can never be as good as specially prepared meals in a private villa. Au contraire, my friend. The other stellar breakfasts we had was at the hotel we stayed early in our trip, in Makassar. Every morning we’ll be excited to see what deliciousness awaited us in the dining room. The variety of food, as well as the daily menu change, kept me from descending into boredom. From the requisite nasi goreng to the stomach-calming soto ayam, from the stir-fried vegetables of carrots and chinese cabbage, the pastries and the fruits to the cute petit four-like traditional Indonesian desserts, each and every meal were prepared carefully, putting its dry and tasteless counterparts in Nusa Dua to shame.

With breakfasts like these almost every day of our 2-week holiday, it was no suprise we gained the plump on our cheeks (and on other body parts which will remain concealed) I like to call our "holiday glow". Not surprisingly complimentary hotel food can be good, but they are a mixed bag. I admit the certain convenience of it, but when given the choice, I would always select the cheaper hotel without the complimentary breakfasts and spend the money saved at a nearby eatery of our liking.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Porcine Head-to-Tail Eating in Nusa Dua

From left to right:
Babi guling ala bakas - Rp 50,000
Babi guling campur - Rp 50,000
Sate babi - Rp 40,000
The practice of using every bit of the animal is not some fancy new-fangled phenomenon in Indonesia. And eating these lesser than prime cuts is also not something that’s extraordinary. It’s a normal everyday occurrence, examples of which can be found all over the country. Like sop kikil (broth with soft cartilage from cow’s feet); or babat hitam (beef tripe cooked in spices); or the ubiquitous soto daging (beef and intestines in tumeric broth).

In Nusa Dua, Warung Bakas specialises in pork, spit-roasted pork to be exact. This place leaves the infamous Babi Guling Ibu Oka in the dust.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Seminyak "Eat Street"

When I’m in Bali, I avoid having western-style food. The variety of Balinese cuisine and the general Indonesian food in Bali is immense, it’s almost a shame to eat food I can readily access back in Australia.

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