Seoul Food: Hitting the streets in search of Octopus and Silkworms

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At the Gwangjan market in Seoul, it’s common to find people sitting around these food shacks, munching on beef, pork, seafood, octopus, etc., all washed down with Soju or beer. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

This piece was first published on IndianExpress.com.

Three, Two, One… Kimchiiiii. After a trip to Seoul, now and forever, I am prepared to yell kimchi whenever someone wants me to smile for a photograph, because saying cheese is so passé! But kimchi, that side dish made of fermented cabbage that’s become synonymous with Korean food, is just one of the many dishes of Korea. The streets of Seoul are a crowded palate, where traditional fare coexists with cafes and chicken-and-beer joints, the latter fairly recent imports. Seoul’s streets, in fact, probably have the highest density of coffee shops and beer joints—out of thirty shops, twenty are certain to be these.

 

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(clockwise from top-left) Sweet rice cake covered in powdered sugar; a hot broth with raw meat that’s cooked on the table; tofu cooked without onion and garlic; and shrimp sauce (Source: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

 

 

A Korean plate looks much like it does in the eastern and north-eastern parts of India. There is rice at the centre (sticky rice in this case), and a host of accompaniments, ranging from vegetarian (seaweed, fried or steamed ); nabak kimchi (sweet, pungent watery kimchi that I personally liked); tongbaechu kimchi (traditional spicy kimchi that I stayed away from after the first two times); juk (a vegetarian congée that can also cure a hangover); pajeon (savoury flour pancakes with all sorts of vegetables); dotorimuk (a rather tasteless acorn jelly–stay away), various preparations with tteok (steamed rice cakes made with glutinous rice, glass noodles) to meat (a variety of raw fish; jogaetang (neck clam soup with vegetables; beef ribs; jjukkumi (stir-fried baby octopus), mollusks).

But if you don’t have time for a traditional, sit-down Korean meal, then it’s Seoul’s streets that you should be looking for. So, bring out your brass/gunmetal chopsticks (the Koreans prefer metal chopsticks to the wooden ones popular in China and Japan, though they first started off with silver because of its healing properties), the soup spoon, and tuck right in. Some markets like Gwangjang have many food stalls with a variety of meats, and makeshift seating all around like a bar. They serve Soju, beer and green tea (which is offered as a pacifier should you choke on your food like I did) as beverages.

 

A plate of ‘sattvik’ traditional Korean food available at the many temple stays. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

A plate of ‘sattvik’ traditional Korean food available at the many temple stays. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Here’s what you can chew your way through on a food crawl to the many hawkers’ markets in the city (Nandaemun, Myeongdong, Gwangjang and Insadong are where I ventured).

Tornado potato: This may not be traditionally Korean, but once you’ve had your deep-fried potato wafers spiralling up a long skewer, brushed in your choice of flavoured powder — onion, honey and cheese — it’ll be quite a while before you pick up your next packet of chips. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one with spliced sausages in between.

Sausage and rice cake skewers: Nibble on different kinds of sausages and rice cakes barbecued on skewers smothered in a traditional Korean sauce.

 

Dotorimuk, a jelly-like dish made from acorn. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

Dotorimuk, a jelly-like dish made from acorn. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Gyeranppang or egg cake: This snack is made by cracking an egg on a fat piece of cake and baking it. The sweet of the cake and the richness of egg gives it an interesting flavour and texture.

Ttoekbokki: Devilishly hot, this is a hugely popular snack. Rice and fish cakes are dipped in hot and sweet tomato-based red chilli sauce and boiled over a portable stove. It’s best washed down with a bottle of Soju.

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Oysters, butter and cheese: I’m not quite sure what this was called, but it looked delicious. Fresh oysters, roasted over the fire with cheese and chunks of butter, and a slight salty seasoning. The oyster is cooked in its shell and is served with the butter bubbling hot.

Soondae: Korean version of blood sausage, a common variety is pig’s intestine mixed with noodles/rice, barley and pork blood. This is also tossed in red chilli sauce (a favourite with Koreans, it seems) and served hot. An interesting tangy shrimp sauce is served on the side that’s full of tiny shrimps (eyes and everything), should you want to dip your pork for some fishiness.

 

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Makgeolli, a milky white rice wine that’s sweet, earthy and leaves you warm and fuzzy. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Jjukumi: Baby octopuses are quite popular and you can find them everywhere — stir-fried, battered, roasted or tossed in a red chilli gochugaru sauce before being fried. A bit tricky to eat, they taste like squids, only a bit tougher. Some stalls also offer octopus arms, which are much bigger but taste almost the same.

If food is on its way, can drinks be far behind? There are two local brews to wash down all that food: Soju and Makgeolli. Made from rice, wheat, barley or even potatoes or tapioca, Soju is the most popular drink in South Korea. It’s a clear distilled drink containing ethanol and water, with an alcohol content of up to 45 per cent. As I downed it neat in tiny shot glasses, Soju was more of a checkmark in my list and did nothing to uplift my spirits. What really stayed back with me, though, is the Makgeolli, a milky white rice wine that’s sweet, earthy and leaves you warm and fuzzy. Said to be a farmer’s liquor, it is now gaining popularity among the young city crowd as well. For those who like to experiment, add a dollop of sweet potato ice cream into a bowl of Makgeolli for a delicious float. It’s life changing.

 

A street-food vendor at Myeungdong market. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

A street-food vendor at Myeungdong market in Seoul. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

If you still have appetite for some more, you can finish off with these desserts.

Kkultarae or dragon’s beard or Korean court cake: It’s a mildly sweet bite-sized nugget of fine strands of ‘hair’ made by meticulously pulling a honey-maltose mixture. The filling can be varied, from assorted candied nuts to chocolate.

Hotteok or sweet pancake: This is best had hot. The pancake is filled with a mixture of brown sugar, honey and chopped nuts. Eating it can be quite challenging as the molten sugary centre tends to drip on to your arm and scald it. But totally worth it.

 

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(clockwise from top-left) Hotteok; sweet potato and green tea ice creams, served with red bean sauce; and Gyeranppang or egg cake. (Photo: Shruti Chakraborty)

 

Sweet tteok: This is just a sweet version of the rice cake, with or without a nutty-brown sugary/red bean paste filling, and a powdered sugar coating. Not very sweet, the gooey balls are actually quite tasty in this form. This is also a traditional Korean wedding sweet.

Sweet potato ice cream and red bean paste, though not necessarily together: The Koreans love their ice creams and have some unique flavours, and like other parts of South East Asia, they love a lot of sweet red bean paste (that’s rajma for us) in their desserts. I loved the sweet potato flavoured ice cream and a spoonful of sweet red bean paste with it. The more popular version is patbingsoo, which is a dollop of ice cream on a bed of ice shavings and red bean paste, topped with seasonal fruits.

Despite all this food, my rather tight schedule didn’t let me try the two things I really wanted to — bulgogi, spicy marinated beef strips barbecued to crispy yet succulent perfection and beondegi, steamed or boiled silkworm pupa, which is supposed to taste nutty. Well, maybe next time.

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The author was part of an Indian women journalists’ delegation to Seoul, South Korea.

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IN PURSUIT OF THE MOVING MASSAGE CHAIR

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Problems can often be seen as experiences and awesome stories… most likely in hindsight. and this story is one such instance.

It was simple really, get to the bus station in time to catch a good for Chiang Rai. I was at the hostel cafe, pumping in juice into my dead phone battery, counting the minutes when I’d absolutely need to leave. The guy at the reception said it would take me 15 mins. I wanted to take a tuk tuk all the way but he insisted that it wud be crazy expensive and I shud simply take the skytrain. At the most I could take a tuk tuk to the BTS station.

I weighed in my options, and at 7.30pm left the café for a probable 8pm bus. Hailed a tuk tuk, bargained the tariff down to 50% at 40 thb. He disapproved of my selection of destination. “Chiang Rai no good. It rain there. Why you go?” My heart sank. Got off at the BTS station only to wait for 10 minutes for the next train to Mo Chit. Cost me 37 thb.

After an agonizing standing 20 mins later (I could really really do with a foot massage right now), the train flew into the Mo Chit station and I started panicking — I could see NO sign of any central bus station.

Disembarking and quickly rushing down the stairs, I could find no reassurance — there was no bloody sign of a bus station. The only one was of the bus service to the airport.

I ask this disapproving lady at the station mart for the exit for the bus station. Eyebrows scrunched and a decided frown, she says “Exit 2, exit 2”.

A quick thanks and I dash towards Exit 2, Exit 2. As I descend the stairs a bunch of men wearing official-looking half jackets, shouting in Thai look at me, the first one keeps staring, and starts walking forward… also starting to wear a black mask. “That’s very odd”, I think and frantically looking around for the god-damned bus station! I turn a slight right towards the jackted men as I descend the last step. That first guy, I see, has gotten onto a bike. The one in front of me asks me where I want to go. “The bus station. Buses to Chiang mai, Chiang Rai. Big bus station,” desperate. The guy ushers me towards Guy 1, now masked and helmeted…”60 baht. He take you…on motorbike. 60 baht. See sign”.

What? Motorbikes as taxis? That’s ridiculous! But I didn’t have time and they were wearing jackets with IDs and there was a printed sign… so um…can i walk? 4 kms?! okay! okay! Bah… this was turning out to be grossly non-cheap.
I tumble and get indecorously on to the bike and the man zooms off… wrong side of the road! For a whole stretch. And I thought that was a Delhi characteristic!

As we’re zooming past, I saw one other lady being taken on a similar bike… *phew!

Destination reached, I make a mad dash to the ticket Women beckon me from everywhere. Highly suspicious yet desperate, I go to the first counter that says Chiang Rai. The woman tells me it’s a great bus and I need to pay PAY NOW because “the bus go now”. Not much convinced if I really got the bus I wanted, or fell for a classic tourist trap I decided to buy it and run towards the platform, hoping to god it’s a good-looking bus.

It was! Yessssssss!!!

Stewardess in a baby pink uniform ushers me in and shows me to my snug seat. Heck, it even has a neck pillow — and I’ve never used one before (and thankfully so. It’s so uncomfortable. How do you people like that thing! :-/).

Settled into my seat, I can finally breathe. Bus had been caught. It was the sleeping kind, and had an entertainment system… with this power button under the armrest. I press it to check what it does… the chair starts slightly vibrating and slowly pressure points on my back, legs and neck are being hit upon in blissful rhythm! A bloody massage chair for the rest of the journey… wooohoooo!!! As I settle into my chair and relax, the past hour’s madness seems all worth it.

Life is good! Khop khoon ka! 🙂
First tuk tuk ride 😛

Chockro goes Parasailing!

In 2014, I went backpacking for over 70 days, and among the many things I tried was this one fabulous day when I went parasailing. I don’t know how to swim and I was freaking out. But when I actually went up, the feeling was anything but tensed. Calm, serene, peaceful — those are the sentiments that come to mind. I felt like a bird, and for once, I could hear silence!

This video gives a glimpse of this ‘event’ in my life. I realize that for many this may not be a big thing, but then… this is why you all inspire me to do more! 🙂

More stories from ChockroGoes2Europe will follow soon!

The Pondicherry ADVENTURE

(Pic from the Net; Source unknown)

(Pic from the Net; Source unknown)

I walked up the creaking metal stairs. Initially painted bright red, but which have faded over time to a dirty brown with spots of rusts spattered all over. I tried holding on to the railing for support, but the rickety tubes of steel did nothing to ease my nerves in preparation for what was to come next. Oddly enough, at that moment I felt a special connection with Rose Calvert (played by Kate Winslet) in Titanic as she climbed towards the ship’s Starboard, trying to save herself from drowning. A Rabbi behind her, morbidly murmuring, “…As we walk to the valley of the shadow of death…” Those were the very thoughts going through my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my Jack Dawson saving me; instead, I had seven heartless friends who’d make me walk the plank if it gave them enough amusement. And the knowledge that a ten year old child was in charge of the controls didn’t help much.

We were in Pondicherry for the weekend, and on our way back to the bus stop. Already late for catching a bus to Chennai, it was then that Srijoy had an ‘aha moment,’ “Let’s go back to the fair…I want to go on the Mary Columbus.” Now for the uninitiated, ‘Mary Columbus’ is a huge boat that swings 35 feet into the air, from left to right to left to right and on and on and on. Bad memories. Something always went wrong when I boarded any of the ferries wheels in the fairs.

The last time I boarded a Columbus was when I was 12 years old. Appu Ghar in New Delhi is a famous children’s amusement park and a must visit for any child living in or visiting Delhi. I was not to be left behind. The prospect of boarding a huge ship that swings in air can be a very daunting thought for anyone, but for a 12 year old, it seemed as if her life was in peril. The Columbus in Delhi is painted in beautiful vibrant colours of red and blue, with a base of black, and three layers of gold coloured waves painted on both sides. On one side is a gorgeous red dragon head breathing fire…not a heart warming sight…but magnificent nevertheless. While at the other end is its tail beautifully painted in red green and yellow fiery designs.

Sitting in this behemoth with at least forty other screaming children, securely pinned down to my seat with a handlebar, life wasn’t at its best, but it wasn’t at its worst either.

Wait…

I spoke too soon…

The ride was to be for five excruciating minutes right? Why wasn’t it over?

A throb of fear stuck in my throat, I looked down for some explanation. Something had gone wrong with the machinery, and the mechanics could not be found.

We were stuck in a perpetual purgatory upon a swinging boat!!!

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I don’t know why these boats have to be called “Columbus.” No one in my group knew why. After all, Columbus didn’t fling himself 35 feet in thin air when he set out to look for India– ramblings…but that was all that I could do sitting squished in between Shutapa and Leon. It was all I could do to stop reminding myself of my last ride in Appu Ghar.

I held on tight to the handlebars, which were uncomfortably a little far from the seats. Oh! How I wished these people had the Delhi handlebars, which would pin you to your seat. The four rows of seats in front of us were empty, and I could see straight into the eyes of a middle aged gentleman, wearing a yellow shirt who was with his son.

The ride started with a slow and ominous prolonged screeching sound.

Screeeeeeeeeech….Once….we went left…10 feet in the air

Screeeeeeeeeech….Twice…we went right…15 feet in the air

Screeeeeeeeeech….Thrice…we went left again…more than 15 feet in the air

And suddenly without a moment’s notice the boat lunged upwards at angle that was as close to 90° as it could get. Gravity was taking over as I was slightly lifted from my seat. For a terrifying moment I thought I might fall, when the boat went the opposite way, but the relief was short lived, as I was once again thrown up in the air, in a precarious position of half hanging on a rickety handlebar. One…two…three…four…five…that was supposed to be it.

Stop…

Stop it…

Ohkay….this is enough…

Just Stop…

Why isn’t it stopping?

Oh My God!!!

C’mon stop already…

Looking down towards the controls, I couldn’t see the boy who was supposed to stop the swinging boat and get me down. I panicked…my knees were knocking…my voice was hoarse with all the shouting…

“Look at the light,” said Leon, and I did. It was so beautiful. The huge lights…reminiscent of the fairy lights that are supposed to beckon you when you’re dying. The thought was NOT comforting. I looked down to the seemingly flimsy strip of rubber that was responsible for the machinations of this particular Columbus, only to see the boy who was supposed to be handling the controls, climbing on the engine and tinkering with the rubber strip. Life did not seem promising as I once again looked at the incandescent light alternating it with the eyes of the gentleman with the yellow shirt sitting in front of me, seeking solace in both.

Screeeeeeeeeech…the boat slowed down…

I looked down at the controls again…the darling little boy had returned to his position.

Screeeeeeeeeech…he pulled one of the levers and the boat slowed down a bit more…

Screeeeeeeeeech…he pulled another lever and we almost stopped…

Screeeeech….he pulled the final lever and we stopped.

My legs wobbly and hands shaking, I carefully got out of the menacing boat, holding on to Shutapa for support. Walking down the creaking tin faded-red stairs and onto terra firma…I vowed never to get on a Mary Columbus again.

Time had never passed so slow, making myself aware of each passing moment as it did from 8:30 pm to 8:40 pm on January 29, 2006.

First published as Agateophilic on 7 February 2006.