Unshrouding The Mystery Of Korean Cuisine

Last year, I trekked out to Koreatown in Flushing, Queens, with a group of friends. Sitting in Korean restaurants with a dozen non-Korean eaters, we spent an evening eating everything our stomachs would allow. At one point a 20-something of Korean descent wandered over to us. “I don’t mean this in a rude way,” he said. “But what are you doing here?”

Non-Koreans, apparently, don’t go to the Flushing Koreatown. And from the looks of it, they don’t go to the one in Manhattan much either.

It’s 11:07 p.m. on a Thursday night in Manhattan’s Koreatown and every table is full at Pocha 32 – but with young Korean hipsters. I’m with my food-writing friend Matt Rodbard, 32, editor-at-large at FoodRepublic.com and an all-around swell guy.

This would be our third meal of the night, as part of a K-Town crawl we were doing. The reason? Matt’s the author of a just-released book on the Korean restaurants of New York City (called, appropriately enough, “Korean Restaurant Guide New York”). I have a strong yen to learn more about Korean cuisine, which has always seemed nebulous to me. So when you have a friend who writes a book on the subject, you take him out.We began at Arang, a dark, second-floor restaurant, for drinks and snacks. We sipped beer and makguli, a cloudy unfiltered rice wine, out of tin pots. We snacked on threadsail filefish, which were cured (imagine fishy beef jerky. Now imagine it tasting really delicious). I’d never heard of filefish and I’d never even think to order them. Then again, I would have never wandered up to this restaurant, either.

Korean cuisine has been garnering more interest over the years. Chefs like David Chang and Roy Choi, while not serving straight up Korean but rather Korean-influenced fare at their restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, respectively, have brought a lot more attention to a cuisine many American-born eaters have largely ignored.

But could this heightened interest in Korean deliciousness be boiled down to two chefs? “Not really,” said Rodbard, who also thinks New York chef Hooni Kim should be acknowledged. “Korean food has a long way to go. It’s still relatively under the radar,” Rodbard said, claiming interest in Korean fare is really just part of the global Asian food phenomenon where eaters around the world are becoming more interested in various Asian cuisines, in general.

Next we ended up at Han Bat eating soondae, an unctuous and utterly addictive blood sausage, a dish that’s common in night markets in Korea but not very common here. The sausage was stuffed with pork, liver and noodles and I couldn’t stop eating it.

“Why have I never heard of this?” I asked Matt. “It’s amazing.”

“Koreans,” he said, “have a hard time at marketing their cuisine and culture. This book, though, is an attempt to change that.”

The book is free – you can find it in New York at Korea Society, Asia Society, the Korean consulate, NYC Information Center and various hotels around the city. Funded by the Korean government to help promote Korean cuisine, it was written by Rodbard but he had a team of four other eaters to help him (food writers Jenny Miller and Jamie Feldmar and two Korean chefs).

By the time we got to Pocha 32, our last stop for the night, I was full but wanted more. Pocha 32 is on the second floor and doesn’t have a particularly inviting entrance. But once we got to the top of the stairs it was like we’d crashed a party just hitting its crescendo. K-pop blasted from the speakers and the young Koreans packing the place drank booze ladled from a scooped out watermelon.

Another restaurant I wouldn’t have known existed; another score for me.

[Photo of Matt Rodbard courtesy of Matt Rodbard]

Prague: A City With Claws

I was at a laundromat in Santa Cruz, California, reading the New York Times travel section. It was the spring semester of my senior year of college, a period of complete uncertainty for me. I was about to graduate. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I only knew what I didn’t want: to stay in Santa Cruz or move to San Francisco and get an office job of some sort. I needed a purpose. I needed a direction.

And that’s when a life-changing thing happened to me at the laundromat. When the guy next to me, who was reading the main news section of the Times heard the buzzer to his dryer go off, he dismissively tossed the paper over his shoulder. It hit me in the face. Well, okay, it skimmed my face. Alright, it almost hit me in the face.The point is … I picked up the newspaper and the first article I saw was about how bird poop and pollution (poop-lution?) were combining to rot the statues on Prague’s Charles Bridge.

I’d been to Prague three years earlier. I was only there for three days but I was almost paralyzed by its beauty. It had a down-on-its-heels feel to it, having just come up for air from 41 years of Soviet negligence. I met a young American couple that told me there were thousands more like them there. Young yanks just hanging out. They had planned to open a pizza-by-the-slice placed and call it Brooklyn Pizza. I moved on to Berlin a few days later but I couldn’t stop thinking about Prague.

And then here I was reading the article about the city and its eroding statues. What was in the article was unimportant to me. I was having an epiphany, a realization that was so simple I never thought it was possible. I thought my life needed direction and I was going to take that literally. I needed change and it almost hit me right in the face. I would move to the capital of poop-lution: Prague.

So that’s what I did. I spent my days teaching English and my nights drinking beer with drunk old men in smoky pubs. I wandered the city’s narrow streets, gawking at the Baroque palaces. I took classes on the art history of the city. I stood around Charles Bridge – yes that same bridge that was supposed to be dying from asphalt cancer, and one of the most beautiful bridges in the world – staring up at the Prague Castle with the gothic St. Vitus cathedral plopped in the middle.

OK, so I still didn’t have a purpose. In fact, in Prague I had less of a purpose in life than I had in Santa Cruz. At least there I was getting a college degree.

But, while sitting in a café in Prague on a random Tuesday afternoon, I realized, that was sort of the point. Prague let me exist there; it let me hang out and do nothing except for live a rather debauched life, and it didn’t care. It didn’t judge me.

To be fair, though, I didn’t exactly move to Prague to live like a bohemian (and I mean that with a capital “B” and a lowercase “b.” I actually wanted to go somewhere slightly out of my comfort zone. I wanted to struggle a little – to learn something about myself. Yes, I could have chosen a more challenging place (Afghanistan, anyone?). But the beer and sausages are so much better in the Czech Republic. Anyone ever had an Afghan sausage? They’re TERRIBLE.

And so for three years I lived in Prague. I traveled around the country. I made friends. I even learned Czech. How I didn’t come away from there with a gorgeous Czech wife is a miracle. It doesn’t sound very challenging but three years later, I was a profoundly different (and, I hope, a better, stronger, wiser) person. And then one day I woke up and realized my life was so great in Prague there was nothing left to do but to leave it, to find another challenge.

And so I waved goodbye to the City of a Hundred Spires and did something else. But now over a decade since then, I still go back again and again and again.

Why? Because Prague is me. I am Prague. Prague is the reason I’m a traveler and a writer and a travel writer. I go back to get that reminder of the lesson that Prague first taught me: it’s OK to not live a normal life. It’s OK if you don’t have an office job and live in the suburbs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s OK that I’m not making a six-figure salary. It’s OK to go out in the world and let yourself drift. You’re not a loser for doing that! Unlike my mom and dad, Prague never said: What?! You want to be a travel writer?! But they make no money and, really, they’re just losers who can’t do real journalism.

Kafka likened his home city to a mother with claws that won’t let you go. Perhaps. But to me, Prague is more like your friend’s cool mom who lets you party at her house. And after you drunkenly jump off her roof into the pool, she’s standing there waiting with a towel to wrap you in.

So, who else is ready to jump in the pool?

[Photo Credit: David Farley]

Travel And The Azerbaijani Unibrow

The unibrow is the face of travel.

Let me explain. I recently took a trip to Azerbaijan. I strolled the streets of Baku, which are flanked by plus-sized Beaux Arts palaces, the ground floors of which usually house a designer shop. I ate enough grilled meat to keep a slaughterhouse in business. And I sat in smoky bars nursing Turkish beer. It was all very nice. But what struck me the most about the country was the unibrow. I first saw it on Rashid, a 30-year-old computer programmer I met through a friend. It was like a black cat had rested its tale across his forehead. Furry and thick and stretching from temple to temple, his unibrow was the most prominent aspect of his round face.

The unibrow (or monobrow), which scientifically is called a synophrys, is an embarrassment in modern, Western society and culture. People get made fun of, laughed and pointed at. It’s even worse for women, who have to landscape their brows on a regular basis. People will go through great labor to ensure they have not one but two eye brows.

But in other parts of the world, things are different.I cleared my throat and broached the subject with Rashid.

It turned out, Rashid was proud of his unibrow. “It’s a symbol of bravery and strength,” he said. Rashid explained that in Azeri culture, the unibrow is a traditional look, one that unfortunately is fading away.

“And for women, it is a symbol of virginity and purity,” he told me. “Women will have this unibrow, as you call it, until they are married. When she comes out for the wedding ceremony, it will be the first time she is without it.”

I spent the next few days unibrow spotting. I noticed it on people walking down the street. I noticed it on waiters. I even saw a mannequin that had a unibrow drawn into its forehead with a black marker, an attempt to give it some local flavor, I guess.

And so what does this have to do with travel? Everything. That central, oft-pondered question – why do we travel? What inspires us to get off the couch, put one foot in front of the other, lock our front doors, and go? – can be answered thanks to the unibrow.

Finding the “exotic,” a subjective and problematic term, is becoming harder and harder these days. The world is coalescing into one giant miasma of sameness – at least in some ways. I went to Belarus on a magazine assignment. The goal? To drench myself in an anachronistic post-communist culture that I thought had faded away in other places decades ago. Minsk, the capital, seemed frozen somewhere in 1959. You can stand on the corner of Marx and Engels Streets. You can sit in the shadow of a gargantuan Lenin statue. You can convince yourself that the KGB is following you (because they probably are) and you can try to spot the mustached dictator running the place. But the people I met in Minsk were as clued into things as anywhere else in the world. I heard M.I.A. and Radiohead songs in bars. I talked about American foreign policy with people in cafes. And I noticed a lack of bad teeth and mullets. Belarus, it turns out, is not just babushkas and bread lines.

But they had their own cultural signifiers and that’s what I dove into while I was there – just as I did in Azerbaijan. The unibrow is a proud local tradition and one that physically separates us. It shows the gulf between me and Rashid. And that’s a good thing. It reminds me of why I travel: to see those differences and to relish in them. And while the unibrow stands out, there are other variations on the theme of hair that intrigue me. When I’m traveling I always brake for a mullet (and especially the holy grail: the mullet/mustache combo).

What the unibrow (or the mullet, for that matter) becomes is not just a symbol of otherness or travel or a resistance to the homogenization of that steamroller known as 21st-century globalization; it is a symbol of happiness.

[Unibrow photos by David Farley]

Baku To The Future: The Empty Capital Of Azerbaijan Really Wants You To Visit

In September 2010, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, a plus-sized Azerbaijani flag was raised on a very tall flagpole. With an international audience looking on, Azerbaijani officials proudly made a proclamation: that in Baku, the capital of the country, the world’s largest flagpole at 531 feet now stood, thus besting South Korea and Turkmenistan. Sadly, the odd global flagpole war was not over: a year later, in Tajikistan a 541-foot pole went up and Azerbaijan had to move on to other things.

And that they did. There’s a lot more rising in Baku these days than flagpoles. The city is going through its second oil boom in a century and a half and is suddenly flush with cash. And lots of it. I spent a few days here recently rendezvousing with a friend and traversing a country that few people seem to know exists.

Friends and family members, people I meet at cocktail parties, always ask the same question: where are you going next? Azerbaijan, I’d say in the run-up to my trip here. I received a lot of blank stares in return or sometimes an “Azerbai what?” When I called my cell phone company to get on an international roaming plan, the woman with the southern accent on the other end of the line asked me where I was headed. Her response to hearing Azerbaijan was this: “Now is that in the Paris, France area?”Azerbaijan is in an odd geographical position, wedged between Iran to the south and Russia to the north, it’s a bridge between east and west, Europe and the Middle East. It’s a predominantly Muslim culture but one where its citizens are prone to pounding vodka from time to time. I didn’t bother to tell the woman at my phone company this info. But I could have told her about the rapid changes that are going on here: that in the last year and a half six luxury hotels have opened up. I’m staying at one of them: the Four Seasons. And the only reason I can afford to is because it’s, well, affordable. In fact, the most affordable in the hotel company’s portfolio.

The reason: Baku looks like a place one would want to go. There’s a walled medieval town in the center and block-long Parisian-like buildings outside the walls where the streets are flanked by palm trees and designer shops. There’s a long handsomely designed and landscaped beachside promenade called Bulvar. Yet, no one is really coming to Baku yet. They poured in for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest but that was it. Getting a visa is difficult. And the price of things, save for the hotels where there is a lot of supply but no demand, is high, on par with Western Europe.

Baku is no stranger to sudden surges of wealth. In the second half o the 19th century, black gold was discovered. People rushed in from all over the place, including the London-based Rothschild family as well as the Nobel brothers from Sweden, who made so much money on oil here that said money is still partly funding the annual prizes that are given out under the Nobel name. The oil barons (both foreign and Azeri) built huge palaces just outside the old city walls. In 1920, the Soviets took over the country and the oil barons fled. The oil industry then fell into disrepair.

And then, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was back. After a short skirmish with its neighbor and sworn enemy, Armenia, the country began selling the rights to suck up its oil. In 2006 it opened up a pipeline that goes through neighboring Georgia to Turkey. As a result, according to a New York Times article, from 2006 to 2008, Azerbaijan had the fastest growing economy in the world, at an astounding 28 percent (For comparison’s sake, the United States’ economy during that time grew about 2.2 percent).

If Paris and Dubai had a lovechild it would certainly be Baku. In addition to the Beaux Arts buildings that were a product of the last oil boom, the Baku skyline is now rife with color and avant-garde design: The Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center looks like a spaceship covered with a humungous billowy blanket and is the first building to really wow me in a very long time; then there are the Flame Towers (pictured), a reference to the country’s fire-loving Zoroastrian past: these three tongue-shaped towers dominate the skyline at night by broadcasting through 10,000 L.E.D.s images of flames (starting in June, one of the towers will be a Fairmont hotel). There’s also a Trump building that looks like it was plucked from the Abu Dhabi skyline and a 1,000-foot TV tower, the tallest structure in the country.

But not for long. An Azeri gazillionaire is building a few manmade islands in the Caspian that will apparently be home to the world’s tallest building. That is, until a country like Tajikistan builds one tall a year later.

The leader of this nation is Ilyam Aliyev, who may be president for some time. Voters in a 2009 referendum decided by an apparent 92 percent of the vote to scrap presidential term limits. Photos of President Aliyev’s father, Heydar, who was president before him, are ubiquitous: his face graces large billboards in and around Baku and well as throughout the countryside, giving the impression that “dear leader,” alive or dead, is always on the watch.

During the time I was here I was often asked what I thought of Azerbaijan, in general, and Baku, in particular. I didn’t really know what to think of it, at first. It seemed Baku had changed so much and so rapidly that there were societal and cultural aspects that haven’t caught up. The nightlife, for example, was forgettable, even though Lonely Planet recently proclaimed it to be one of the best spots on the planet to party (note to LP: did any of you actually come here?).

If they let me back in to Azerbaijan (don’t forget that getting a visa is a pain), I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the country has developed in a few years. By that time, the famous flagpole might have dropped to fifth or sixth tallest in the world. And maybe I’ll see a few tourists here. Enough, anyway, that the only place I’ll be able to stay is a hostel.

[Photo by David Farley]

Odd Travel Jobs: The Taxidermied Wolf Revealer Of Azerbaijan

I first encountered Juma outside the castle in the Azerbaijani town of Sheki, a town of 60,000 people about a four-hour drive from the capital, Baku. Juma had planted himself just outside the castle gates. I didn’t realize it at the time but he was waiting for me. He was sitting on the ground, his hands resting on a 3-foot-high object that was covered by a Persian rug.

Few tourists seem to make the trek to Sheki. But for those who do come, there are a few highlights: to escape the bright lights of Baku, to sample the unique halva they make here, or to just get a bucolic feel for what this country can offer. And, as I officially did about 15 minutes later, they might also meet Juma a local septuagenarian. I emerged back into the sunlight from a drab, stodgy museum that had been displaying historic Azerbaijani costumes on fashion mannequins and there he was waiting for me again, the carpeted object in front of him. I was, it seemed, the only tourist in town and he was intent on showing me what he was hiding underneath the rug.

And then, like some kind of magician, he pulled off the carpet to reveal … a crudely taxidermied wolf. As Juma then told me, this was his job – his very odd job.

I pulled a few crumpled Azerbaijani notes out of my pocket, handed them to Juma, and commenced asking questions.David Farley: What’s your friend’s name?
Juma: Ramo. He is a male.

DF: What kind of beast is this?
Juma: It’s a wolf. Just the type of wolf one finds in these hills around Sheki.

DF: Did you do the taxidermy yourself?
Juma: I did. It’s good, right?

DF: [Pause]
Juma: Watch this! [Underneath Ramo’s chest, Juma grabs two wires, touches them together and the wolf’s eyes flicker with light.]

DF: Impressive. Is that your equivalent of the money shot?
Juma: [Pause] I do not understand this question.

DF: Never mind. So what do you feed him?
Juma: I had him on a steady diet of meat. This is what wolves like. Even neighbors would come by and give him meat.

DF: No, what do you feed him now?
Juma: Now? [Pauses, looks upward.] Mostly coins [laughs wildly].

DF: Weren’t you ever afraid he was going to attack you?
Juma: No, because I kept him in a cage the whole time.

DF: How long have you been doing this?
Juma: Several decades. I’ve had Ramo since I was 12 years old. Look at this. [Juma pulls out a creased and folded up piece of paper and shows it to me]. It is a letter from the Soviet minister of business. Back during the Soviet occupation it was illegal to start your own business. But I did anyway, by going around with Ramo like I am now. And, instead of getting in trouble, I got this letter thanking me for doing this.

DF: Is that fur hat you’re wearing made from Ramo’s stomach?
Juma: No, it’s from a fox.

DF: Did you like Ramo better in life or in death?
Juma: You haven’t given me enough money for me to answer a question like that.

[Photo by David Farley]