Korean Things On The Other Cinco De Mayo

This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, May 04, 2010 was originally posted on May 07, 2010.

DAY 15:  In the United States, Cinco De Mayo, which translates to “fifth of May” (or alternatively, “five of mayonnaise”), is a day in which happy hour-going yuppies and college kids imbibe buckets of Coronas during a long drinking binge, while Mexican busboys wonder what the big deal is; it’s not even a real national Mexican holiday.  In South Korea, the fifth of May has nothing to do with Mexico (or mayonnaise for that matter) for it is the national holiday of Children’s Day — the opposite day of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day — where Korean parents take time off to spend with their kids.

MY STAY IN SOUTH KOREA would be short — only a two-and-a-half-day “Asian appetizer” to get a taste of its city life (and its live octopus) — but I had sure mustered enough guidance for it.  For one, Steph’s friend Allison (whom I’ve never physically met yet, but hope to one day) had lived in Seoul for years teaching English, and schooled me over the phone the things I could do and the little Korean nuances I would notice.  My cousin JayPee worked for a Korean publisher and had his boss write me up some tips a couple of weeks prior, including how to say some bad words (gae ssipal nom = son of a fucking bitch; jot kka = fuck you).  Of course I had my Lonely Planet Seoul city guide, but above all I had a real Seoul city guide: my friend Hong, who luckily had the day off for the national holiday (even though most of his friends working in the fashion industry still had to show up for work).  By day’s end, Hong would see new things in his hometown as well. 

“[Here’s a little food to hold you over,]” Hong greeted me in the morning, handing me a box of gimbap (Korean sushi roll).  It did curb my hunger for the meanwhile, although an alternative was right across the street from my love motel just in case: the “other KFC” — Korean Fried Chicken — with another “K,” KyoChon.

We walked to the train amongst commuters, charged me up a new RF-chip-enabled T-Money card (for the train, but also for taxis and many other vendable things), and head on the Metro towards the lively Insadong neighborhood.  As the train crossed the Han River, which divides Seoul until two halves of thought (a business/trendy half and a funkier/hip half; sort of like a New York Manhattan/Brooklyn analogy said Hong), I immediately noticed one Korean thing that Allison had told me about: that groups of people often like dressing up alike, from women in yellow and black, to stripe-wearing teens.  “My dad does that too,” Hong told me; many Koreans love the group mentality — it’s most evident outside the country when you see a matching group of Korean tourists somewhere.

We arrived at Insadong, Seoul’s crafty neighborhood, where sleek contemporary art galleries are juxtaposed to old traditional houses.  More than a promenade of cafes and restaurants, it is also a retail district, selling tchotchkes, dry goods, and traditional craft souvenirs and foods to foreign and Korean tourists alike.  For the artsy crowd, many side streets boast galleries — including one show of artists’ “robot art” — although the cakes at the O’Sulloc teahouse are a work of art all their own.

Yet not all is contemporary in Insadong; with the presence of impressionable tourists come showcases of people in alternative garb: the grey robes of monks, the bright costumes of a nearby traditional ceremony, the peach attire of provocative Hare Krishnas handing out pamphlets to passersby.  The influx of tourists have also spawned preparation demonstrations of kkulrarae (they sound like Korean versions of the Muppet Swedish Chef, don’t they?), a Korean treat where sweetened nuts are wrapped in a cocoon of hand-spun honey and flour fibers.  Nearby, women made ppopgi, cookies made almost entirely of pure carmelized sugar; Hong told me that if a kid can lift the heart-shaped cutout in its center, it’s free.  “[When I was a kid] I used to practice with a needle,” he told me.  There were also other games kids could play for sweets.

Korean street food isn’t all sweet, for there are the chicken skewers, the nuts, the hotdogs wrapped in fried hashbrowns (OMLG), plus one really peculiar thing: “Eat bondaegi. Don’t ask what it is. Just trust me,” Allison had wrote me.  Bondaegi are the larvae of silk worms, like the mopani worms I once had in Zambia, although I never had them served straight up as a snack in a cup.  A first for Hong too: “I’ve never tried them,” he told me.  I was happy that I could introduce him to new things on this eating tour as well.  “Just tastes like calamari.”  I popped a couple in my mouth too.  As said before, “slimy, yet satisfying.”

CHILDREN’S DAY CONTINUED on the grounds of the National Folk Museum, where just as Allison had predicted, kids were out and about in full force, playing and picniking with their moms and dads.  “I’ve never been here before,” Hong admitted with his camera pointed out for pictures like me, a tourist in his hometown.  The folk museum set up many things and activities for the children: arrows to throw, musical instruments to bang away on, lines for cotton candy, and my favorite, hoops to roll (pictured above, something familiar to me, thanks to Steph).  It was the perfect day to be a kid at heart; Hong even threw an arrow or two, while I posed for pictures with the tribal statues of the surrounding islands. 

Down the road — where Korean girls strolled ahead of Korean police officers — was the National Palace Museum, home of Gyeongbokgung, a shining architectural example of Korea’s ancient past during the Joseon Dynasty.  Making the royal grounds even more royal were the stoic guards, decked out in old school royal uniforms.  “You think his moustache is fake?” Hong wondered.

“Looks fake to me.”

“I’m going to ask him.”  He asked the guard in Korean, but got no reply, not even a blink.  “They don’t even move,” he said, prompting me to take a photo with them

“[DON’T TAKE A PICTURE YET,]” the waiter said in Korean at an underground restaurant off a side street from the main pedestrian drag back in Insadong.  “[There’s more food coming!]”  Soon, our table of two platters kept growing and growing and growing and growing (just as my stomach has on this entire food tour of Asia).

At Hong’s suggestion, we had a mid-day feast of traditional Korean food with a hanjeongsik, a banquet-sized sampling of all the regional dishes including: beef with straw mushrooms, sesame rice noodles, braised beef, pork belly with kimchi, bean sprouts with sea squirts, spicy tofu soup, broiled fish, and rice with beans served in a bamboo cup.  As you’ve just clicked and seen, we both took photos of these dishes with our respective cameras, which apparently wasn’t uncommon.

“Girls all carry around big SLRs,” Hong told me.  And as if on cue, a Korean girl across the way pulled out a big Single-Lens Reflex camera to take a picture of her food.  “Take a picture of thatThat’s Korea.”  I laughed at the girl’s impeccable timing, plus the fact that I remembered that Tia, a friend back in New York, also toted around a camera for food photos. (At dinner once, she whipped out her big ass SLR out of her purse, like a rabbit out of a magic hat.)

A KOREAN TAXI TOOK US across town to the Namdaemun Market, Seoul’s biggest and busiest day and night market, with countless stalls selling everything from clothes, electronics and luggage to vegetables and meats like pork knuckles.  Underground were even more market stalls, including an area for the Market of Imported Goods, where ex-pats could get their fix on some standards like Parkay and Jagermeister.  (It was here I got Shanghai Scott some solid stick deodorant, something very uncommon in Asia as Asian men don’t really sweat that much.)  Also on sale in the market were shoe inserts to make one appear taller without wearing heels.

“All the Korean actors wear them,” Hong said, schooling me of another Korean thing.

There were more adults than children out in full force at the market during this national day off from work.  A clothing salesman crooned for business; a Korean comedian made an appearance; a man demonstrated the Slap Chop; and a Korean clown made balloon animals for passing children.  Uninterested people hung back and watched TV on their antenna-equipped cell phones while others sat down to a game of Othello.

At Allison’s suggestion, I went out to find a nice pair of glasses since they are pretty inexpensive in the market.  They were easy to come by because there are several eyeglass stores selling prescription glasses for about $20 and up (ready in about an hour).  I bought a rimless pair to replace the one I used to have (which sadly fell out of my pocket and got trampoled on a dance floor at my friend Roz’s wedding).  Hong the eternal photographer went out to find a lens adapter. 

“Can you shoot a video of me taking my glasses off all dramatically?” I asked Hong, who did me the favor.  It didn’t turn out as dramatic as it could have been; I blame the lighting.

“MYEONG-DONG IS ALL LIKE THIS,” my city guide told me.  “Shops, eating places, cafes…”  Like New York’s Soho, Myeong-dong used to be the hip, artsy neighborhood of our parents’ generation in the 60s and 70s that, like NYC’s Soho, has now been transformed into a busy outdoor commercial shopping mall, a place where Korean Olympic figure skater Kim Yu-na’s mug promotes everything from clothes to smoothies (such a great idea).  Not only a draw for fashionable Korean youth, Myeong-dong also attracted Japanese tourists, which is why many signs are also in Japanese. 

“What should we do?” Hong asked.

“Let’s get a drink,” I suggested.  “Let’s go somewhere we can sit.”  Both of us needed a break from all the walking and the increasing crowds of shopaholics.  We found a place for said drink — and more food — at another place Hong had never been to.  We passed through a starwell and walked up; just like in New York’s K-town, all the decent restaurants are almost always on the second floor up a flight of non-descript stairs.

A server put a hot pot in the center of the table to serve us their variation on tteokbokki, tubular rice cakes, which are more commonly seen out on the streets.  This establishment’s take on it mixed in egg, vegetables, bamboo, ramen noodles and — is that what I think it is?

Yes.  Yes, it is.  Cheese is



We got our fill of carbs and cheese and toasted our cups of Korean rice wine at the restaurant — all before succumbing to the sights of strawberry/mango soft serve outside at the end of a long queue of people (including one that reminded me of mutual Korean New Yorker friend James).  Not surprisingly, at another table inside the restaurant, another Korean girl pulled out a camera to take a picture of her food.

MORE PHOTOS OF FOOD PORN were taken, not at the Korean Domino’s, but at Anbonghuakyoguli (sp?), a trendy Korean BBQ restaurant back in trendy Apgujeong (the neighborhood akin to to NYC’s trendy Meatpacking District if you want to keep with the NYC analogies).  Hong and I took our chunks of fresh beef rib meat and mushrooms and grilled them over scorching coals.  “It tastes better with the coals,” Hong commented as the meat sizzled in front of us by an overbearing heat.  Our meat was wrapped in leaves and seasoned before mouth-insertion (inneundo not intended).  Afterwards, it was the Korean thing to eat a bowl of naengmyeon, cold noodles served in savory sweet or a slightly spicy broth.  The noodles often come super long, hence the reason why there were scissors on the table — although Hong told me that some believed cutting the noodles took away its essense.  Whatever; it all went in and out the same place.  Same went for all the Sansachun fruit-infused rice wine

“Alright, let me take you to another trendy place,” said Hong the trendsetter.  There were plenty of trendy places in Apgujeong, some places even reinvented to be fashionable — particularly the Seoul location of Hop Kee, a popular albeit dingy Chinese restaurant in New York’s Chinatown, remodeled to be upscale in Seoul.  (There’s even valet parking!)  Many places were closing by the time we were wandering — it was back to being a work night after all — but we ended up at Mui-mui, a stylish dessert place with a decor of trees and fishbowls, for patbingsu — shaved ice with sweet milk topped with fruits (similar to Malaysian chendol or Filipino halo-halo).  It was with this dish that we ended my whirlwind culinary tour of some (but not all) Korean cuisine.  And not surprisingly, yet another Korean girl at a nearby table snapped a picture of her food.

At the end of a jam-packed day full of Korean things, I thanked Hong for showing me around his hometown on his day off, although he wouldn’t be a Seoul man forever.  After fulfilling his military service deficiency (because he was living in the States), he had plans to move back to New York.  I would see him again one day, with his camera in hand, pointed at the next plate of food. 



At Korean restaurants, you mostly eat with metal chopsticks instead of wooden ones.  According to Lonely Planet, this is because during the Joseon dynasty, silver was believed to remove toxins in food.  While this is a falsity, the trend stuck all the way to today, when stainless steel has replaced the precious metal.

Next entry: Not Forgotten

Previous entry: Seoul Man

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Comments for “Korean Things On The Other Cinco De Mayo”

  • Two more entries left! Stay tuned…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/07  at  06:57 PM

  • Taking photos of food in the States is more fun cuz you can embarrass your dining companions more.  wink

    Posted by bionicgrrrl  on  05/07  at  07:24 PM

  • hot dogs wrapped in hashbrowns on a stick is pure genius…  samsung needs to box that up and sell it at walmart

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/07  at  07:28 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Chinese Leftovers And Other Asian Appetizers," which chronicled a trip to Shanghai and Huang Shan in China, as well as brief excursions to Manila, Taipei, and Seoul.

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