Monday, June 23, 2014

Korean Food 101 Tour with Veronica

The first of many food-related activities on this trip, I found this tour via Trip Advisor a few weeks ago.  We were instructed to meet Veronica outside the Starbucks near the Anguk station.  Just as we approached the Starbucks, a friendly-looking Korean woman approached me asking, "Amanda?"  Easy to spot in a crowd - one of the advantages of being forgein.

We made introductions and our guide, Veronica, led the way.  We swung through a French bakery chain, Amandier, which she said is quite good and very popular.  Given the number of cafes and bakeries we've seen so far on this trip, I understand why Veronica would point out this place as an example of current Korean food trends.

We crossed the street and stopped by this building, UJeong ChongGuk, the oldest post office in Korea:

It houses a small museum now, and Veronica pointed out the ceiling decoration.  It's a marker of a public building, she explained.  Private homes would never have ornate ceilings like this one.

Across the street she took us to a Buddhist temple:

We peeked inside at the worshippers (which evoked a fond familiarity from my days in Thailand):

and admired the building's details:

(the roof from under the awning)

Veronica snapped a few picures of us playing tourist,

while I took a picture of the building housing a really big drum:

We walked across the street to the temple office buildings before heading over to Ssamzie-gil, a shopping mall:

After the sights, it was time for some food.  First up, the Insa-Dong Tofu Restaurant

We settled in and Veronica ordered a range of dishes.  First up:

Salad, quail eggs in some kind of sauce, leek (or maybe scallions?) pancakes, and tofu in a mustard sauce.

Korean food is always served communal style, so we reached back and forth across the table to sample each dish.  As Jason neatly served himself one of the wee quail eggs, Veronica complimented us on our chopstick skills.  "You're the best I've seen!"  This naturally caused 1) Jason to preen as he does whenever someone admires his ablities and 2) me to lose all ability to manipulate my own chopsticks.  It took me several attempts to hoist a little egg onto my dish while Jason smugly carried on being a model chopstick user next to me.

Then the main courses arrived:

They include (roughly from left-to-right skipping the three from the picture before):

Squash in a pepper sauce
"Mountain herbs"
Kimchi Ung (without the spice)
Tofu soup with chili peppers
Pichi (strained tofu)
Chopchey (glass bean noodles)
Possam (pork) with plain tofu sprinkled with seseame seeds, lettuce, and kimchi
Shrimp sauce
Pickeld onions
Cucumber (but a different breed than the ones back home) in a white sesame sauce
and the metal bowls are filled with rice.

Veronica walked us through each of the dishes and how to eat them.  We tucked in, trying everything.  I liked the tofu in a mustard sauce best, although wrapping the pork in lettuce leaves after dripping it in shrimp sauce was also pretty darn tasty.  I also marveled at the luxury of traveling in a country where we can eat lettuce and drink tap water.

We headed back outside and walked a few blocks over to Koong, a traditional dumpling shop that's been serving the GaeSeong dumplings for over 75 years.

Here we enjoyed mung bean pancakes dipped in soy sauce, three kinds of kimchi (regular, radish, and "water kimchi" - the tan broth you see),

as well as the pork dumplings the place is famous for.

The pancakes and dumplings were both delicious, and it was a shame I was getting too full to really enjoy.  There were a few dumplings left on the plate, so Veronica warned us that we were about to go for an hour without eating as we toured Bukchon village.  We'd better fortify ourselves!

Quite stuffed, we headed out.  Veronica showed us the interior of this traditional (albeit wealthy) home, now a French restaurant:

before we headed north through Jongno-Gu towards Bukchon Hanouk Village.

Set between two of the palaces, this village is built on a steep hill and is filled with traditional homes,  Many are still private residences, but some are now museums and shops demonstrating traditional crafts.  

We ducked into one building which acts as a working museum.  Veronica pointed out the traditional courtyard in the middle of the home and te screens that lift up to allow all of the rooms of the house to connect in one long continuous string.

As we admired the building and I slipped off my shoes to look more closely at the work the craftswomen were doing inside (sewing pouches and making decorative knots), the rain went full-tap.  With loud cracks of thunder, lightening flashes, and a torrent of water that turned the courtyard into a shallow pool.  

We waited out the worst of it, although it lasted much longer than the usual bursts.  Finally, when the worst of it seemed to be past, we donned our raincoats and umbrellas and headed back to the street.

We walked up the hillside through the alleyways, grateful to have Veronica leading us to alleviate any stress over getting lost.

The height of the hill gave us some marvelous views of the city and mountains:

We could also peek down into other people's courtyards:

Notice the jars of kimchi on the roof, somehow not included on your typical Mormon 2-year storage list.

Veronica was originally going to take us to a rice beer tasting, but when we told her we don't drink alcohol she asked us what we'd like to try instead.  I suggested something sweet - whatever Korean eat for dessert.  Veronica raised a finger in an "aha" gesture.  "I know exactly," she said.

She was foiled twice though, as the first two places we tried were closed for the day.  We walked through a trendy district and landed back near the shopping mall we had been at before.  Here Veronica took us to a tradtional tea shop:

And ordered this:

and this:

and these:

They were delciious!  The first is ice flakes (like my breakfast "drink," but definitely higher quality) with milk and honey, topped with red beans and sesame seeds.  Veronica cautioned us not to stir it lest the ice melt.  The flakes are so delicate that they disappeared quickly, giving an effect like tasting fine, sweet snow.  The creamy sweetness of the ice is balanced by the slightly savory beans.  It's a combination of all-familiar tastes that I would never have combined.  I really enjoyed it.

The pudding-looking dish is red bean "porridge".  It tastes like what you'd get at a Mexican restaurant but sligtly sweetened.  The crispy oblong shapes are fried rice rolled in honey, and they suited the accompanying lotus tea.

We bade Veronica farewell here, thanking her for the excellent tour.  She gave us restaurant recommendations for our remaining time (lest we starve without her), and promised to email directions and photos.  Stuffed to the gills, we headed back out to the street to explore more of Seoul.

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