Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad!

Mom and Dad on the plane.
As an expat living in a country as different and far from my home as Korea is, nothing is more comforting than having visitors.  Especially when those visitors are your one and only parents!  My adventurous side doesn’t come from nowhere, so I couldn’t wait to introduce my mom and dad to Korean life.  Taking after my organized mother, I did a ton of research and composed a very detailed itinerary for their 11 days with me in February.  I had planned a lot of sightseeing in the most popular destinations around Seoul and Busan, but what I was most excited to share with my parents was traditional Korean food.
During their visit there was no risk of us going hungry.  I made sure to hit everything I already knew and then explore some new cuisine I’d never tried before.  We ate a lot.  Rather than make this post a complete diary of the trip, I’ve narrowed my parents’ visit down to my favorite food and culture escapades.

 “Ice Fish” Tempura

Scenic hike to the remote temple.

Chuncheon (pronounced choon-chun) is a small city about two hours north of Seoul by train.  We took a day trip here in order to visit one of Korea’s more remote temples, Cheongpyeong Temple. Along the way, we were told to try the wintertime specialty of “ice fish” tempura.  Even though we’d had our fair share of Japanese tempura, this wasn’t exactly what we were expecting.

When we entered the simple restaurant, we saw many large tanks of “ice fish” which we soon realized were tiny smelt.  Immediately after sitting down, we learned of the locals’ favorite smelt preparation: raw.  Not sushi raw.  Raw as in: “Here’s your bowl of live, swimming fish and some chopsticks.  Good luck.”  We watched in shock as Koreans struggled to contain their active fish bowls (picture a lot of splashing and escaping fish).  While some diners seemed a little amused with their lively meals, most were unperturbed and hungrily speared (mad chopstick skills), dipped in spicy sauce, and swallowed.

Not wanting to disrespect our hosts who were anxiously awaiting our order, I did some frantic translating of the menu to figure out which of the items was the battered and deep-fried tempura fish we were looking for.  With about 80% certainty, we placed our order and were more than relieved when our dead, golden fishies arrived.  The fish were small enough to just pop in your mouth.  The texture of their tiny bones and fins is a little surprising, but I found them quite enjoyable.  The bigger, the better!

Ice fish “french fries”.  

One of the few times Mom asked me to play with my food. 

Chuncheon “Dalk Galbi”

Before heading back to Seoul, we took our time within the city of Chuncheon to try the city’s specialty: “dalk galbi”, which loosely translates to marinated chicken.  Since the city is full of restaurants serving this dish, we were just planning on wandering into the first place we saw.  However, thanks to our friendly cab driver, we were escorted to a local favorite.  I can’t compare it to what we would have found on our own, but I owe that cab driver more than taxi fare for giving me the best meal I’ve ever had in Korea.  Allow me to make your mouth water:
Dad looking skeptical at being served raw food.

A heaping pile of spicy tender chicken accompanied by fresh cabbage, spring onions, and rice cakes are loaded into our personal iron pot.  We snack on Korean side dishes as our server occasionally comes by to mix our pot.  Here’s a video:

When our server tells us it’s ready, we dig in.  The chicken is so perfect!  It’s on the verge of my spice threshold, but too tasty to notice.  It’s reminiscent of a sweet BBQ sauce swirled with Sriracha.  The rice cakes are crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside.  The cabbage still crunches.  Incredible!  When we’ve almost finished the contents in the pot, we choose to add rice noodles to stir fry with the leftovers.  I’m so full, but the crispy rice noodles and spicy remnants are too good to ignore.  It’s the happiest I’ve ever been with a runny nose and prickling tongue. 

The before and after of our spicy meal.  We killed it.  

Jagalchi Fish Market

The market is split into two sections: indoor (left) and outdoor (right).

Jagalchi Fish Market is one of Busan’s most famous landmarks.  It’s the largest fish market in Korea.  Join us on a partial video tour of the outdoor section: 

A popular destination for Korean businessmen during lunch, we decided to settle in for some of the freshest fish in our lives.  Based on what we saw on other tables, we ordered some sushi, boiled prawns, and baked flounder. 

Left to right: Dad and I with the baked flounder;
Mom wrapping sushi in lettuce leaves to dip in sauce. 

Leftover fish stew.  

Nothing is wasted at Jagalchi, so the head, tail, and other sushi-unworthy bits of our raw fish were simmered in a tasty stew and served as our final course.  The texture of the raw fish was a bit more than we could handle, so we dipped our leftover sushi in the boiling soup fondue style.  And now we are forever ruined in the department of fresh fish.  It will be hard to beat.  

Left to right: My family enjoying our fresh fish; the hard-working chefs in their tiny kitchen.

Gamcheon Happy Village

After looking at the pictures, you’ll realize why Gamcheon Village in Busan is also known as “Lego Village” or “Korea’s Santorini.” 

One of many narrow alleyways of Gamcheon.

We wandered up and down the steep and narrow alleys of the Gamcheon until stumbling upon the “Happy Village.”  Unbeknownst to us, the modern-looking building acted as a cultural welcoming center for immigrants to Korea from around Asia.  We were the first Americans to enter the place and we were treated like royalty.  We were quickly ushered in and invited to sit down by a more-than-thrilled Korean woman.  She frantically started preparing coffee while yelling to someone upstairs.  When a young Filipino woman clad in sweats and rubber gloves entered the room, she was as surprised as we were that the five of us were all in the same place at that moment.  

They wanted to know everything about us as we politely sipped our espressos.  The Filipino woman acted as translator.  They giddily asked us for photos and comfortably squeezed in next to us.  They even offered us a ride to our next destination.  I think I got a tiny dose of life as a celebrity.  Our interaction was hurried and a little awkward, but the three of us left there with giant smiles on our faces, surprised at the unexpected camaraderie of complete strangers.

The two women took turns snapping photos of us together.  The woman on the lef twas the Korean owner and our thrilled host of “Happy Village and the woman donning the pink hat on the right was our English translator. 

Korean BBQ

I took my parents to the now infamous neighborhood of Gangnam (thanks, Psy) one night for some authentic Korean BBQ.  As with most of the popular neighborhoods in Seoul, Gangnam is nowhere short of Korean BBQ restaurants.  They’re all pretty similar; my rule of thumb requires a vent above the table to draw in the smoke from the grill. 

The BBQ grill (and vent) is surrounded by side dishes.

Korean BBQ in Korea is fantastic.  You get so much food at a price that makes you think you’re cheating the system.  In typical Korean restaurant form, we ordered everything right away: a few portions of raw beef and pork, rice, beer, and soju (Korean liquor).  Everything else on the table (side dishes, salad, dipping sauce) is included.  If you’re competent at the grill, the servers leave you alone for the rest of the meal.  If you’re slacking, they wordlessly help you out from time to time. 

A familiar sign around Seoul: norebang.

Korean BBQ restaurants always embody a fun atmosphere, the guests’ intents being to share a delicious meal and drink to the heart’s content.  Soju and beer flows freely here, especially in an area high in nightlife like Gangnam, where the night is bound to continue a few rounds after dinner.  In order to give my parents a dose of said nightlife, I took them to a norebang (pronounce “no-ray-bong”), a private singing room.  It’s like karaoke, but you share a room with only a small number of friends you’re willing to embarrass yourself in front of.  So.  Much.  FUN!!!! 

Mom rocking out to Billy Joel on the left; Mom secretly recording me singing Hanson’s “Mmmbop” on the right.  Watch it here.  


A table filled with glorious side dishes called panchan.

A traditional Korean restaurant where
guests are seated on the floor.

At a traditional Korean meal, the table is adorned in numerous side dishes for all guests at the table to share.  These side dishes are known as a whole are called panchan.  Sometimes panchan accompanies a main dish and sometimes it is served alone, tapas style.  Typically, at traditional Korean restaurants, you’re seated on the floor at a low table.  Comfortable for about five minutes, but the food is usually worth losing feeling in your toes.  My parents and I were fortunate to sample several traditional Korean meals when we met up with Korean friends and co-workers of mine. 

My parents’ first time trying panchan was on the way to the lighting festival at the Garden of Morning Calm with my tour guide and friend, Harry.  We sampled marinated pork among the side dishes and then embodied Christmas in February.

Left: seven panchan that will accompany our main dish of marinated pork.
Right: the beautiful lights decorating the Garden of Morning Calm in wintertime made us feel like it was Christmas.

My landlord and “Korean mother” took us to a very upscale panchan restaurant.  The dishes were less traditional, and more fancy and impressive.  We even received parting gifts from the restaurant owner: pretty cooking spoons.

We were sitting on the floor, but this place was very upscale.

Our aching legs welcomed a modernized panchan restaurant where we were seated in chairs at a table with my English co-teachers and program coordinator.  The number of side dishes at our table would have taken a server ages to unload, but this place had an ingenious delivering method: a tabletop full of panchan
 was wheeled in by a car and placed on top of our empty table.  

This tabletop of food was rolled in by a cart over our existing table.

Street Food

A street cart filled with traditional Korean snacks.

I lived in New York City for two years and never once ate anything from a street cart.  I can’t say that street food is high on anyone’s list when traveling (unless it’s a food truck; God bless food trucks), but in Seoul, you’d be a fool to miss the variety of delicious snacks sold cheaply at tiny carts around the city.  In the touristy area of Insadong, my parents and I had our fill. 

This man bakes sweet potatoes to order at his street-made setup.

Filling fish-shaped pancakes with  red bean paste.

It’s exactly what it looks like: “dung bread.”  Don’t worry, only the shape gives the treat its name.  Sweet red beans are wrapped in the fried dough.

My favorite wintertime specialty: hoddeok.  It’s a crispy and chewy doughnut on the outside, with a gooey syrup made from brown sugar and nuts on the inside.  Served hot off the fryer!

Japanese Sushi

After a long day of wandering around downtown Seoul, my parents and I ended up in Myeongdong, a popular shopping area of Seoul among young people.  We stumbled upon a Japanese sushi restaurant–the kind where the plates rotate on conveyor belts for you to choose from your table.  While the sushi itself is nothing to rave about, our surprise fish sacrifice was unforgettable. 

The unsuspecting guests (notice the conveyor belts surrounding the open kitchen in the background).

The tables of the restaurant were positioned around the open kitchen so we could watch as the chefs prepare the ingredients and present them beautifully before placing on the conveyor belt.  Behind the chefs were tanks of giant fish we assumed they kept for our viewing pleasure, just a small reminder of where our food came from.  We were about to get an augmented reality check. 

Midway through our meal, one chef started yelling something until all the other chefs joined in.  Then, this small Korean man reached into the tank and grabbed a three-foot tuna fish.  He either lost his grip, or purposefully threw the thing to the ground where it loudly flopped around for a good 30 seconds while the other chefs prepared the cutting board.  The chef then cradled  the tuna in his arms and paraded the struggling fish around the restaurant while the whole kitchen chanted what I can only guess was a sacrificial prayer.  I couldn’t help but look away as I heard the giant fish slapped on the cutting board and a quick chop of the knife followed by applause.  It didn’t end there.  The fish’s head was then situated on a platter, a lemon slice was placed in his still-gasping-for-air mouth, and then the head was displayed at the front of the restaurant for all to see.  The whole episode was probably less than five minutes, but we were so stunned, possibly a little traumatized.  We were speechless until we did the only thing we could do: laugh.

A severed fish head is always better with a lemon on top.


Nanta Performance

Cheesy photo opportunity at the show.

When I heard there was a Korean performance that combined music and cooking, I wanted to be first on the list.  It was an entertaining production set in a small theater.  The show was non-verbal using only music, gestures, and some Korean gibberish, so language barriers weren’t an issue.  Even though there were very few words, they still told a story through song, martial arts, and cooking – on stage!

The show’s actors are on a rotating schedule.

Here’s the gist of the play: The boss of a very classy restaurant offers his adorable, but unqualified, nephew a job in the kitchen with highly skilled chefs.  That very evening, at 5:00 exactly, is an important dinner that the kitchen must prepare for.  As you can imagine, having a complete novice among professionals on such a stressful day causes some hilarious mishaps and fun entertainment.  The chefs use their cooking utensils as musical instruments and the choreography is meant to mimic the teamwork of a successful kitchen.  The unique blend of rhythm and cooking aromas kept me engaged throughout.  We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  

One Comment on “Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad!

  1. Pingback: Happy Holidays: Best of 2014 | Who Eats Better?

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