The Kimchi-ite: An Introduction To Kimchi

The national food of Korea is undoubtedly kimchi. To many, sliced, spicy, fermented cabbage sounds far from a food with mass appeal – and the photo above isn’t exactly inviting. Yet, Koreans eat kimchi with almost every meal, and a typical Korean will eat 60 pounds of it each year. It is in many ways intertwined with everyday Korean life and culture, so much so that when it’s time to take photos, many say “kimchi!” instead of “cheese!”Kimchi is not for everyone, but I absolutely love, love, love it. For being such a simple food, there can be so much variety – different levels of spiciness, crunchiness (dependent on how fresh it is), richness of flavors from other vegetables and seafood used during fermentation, and how well it goes with certain foods. Different regions of the country also have their own variations on the side dish. Additionally, other foods beside cabbage can be kimchi’d, such as radish, scallions and garlic stems (my personal favorite). Like cheese in America, kimchi seems to find its way into almost any food. There’s kimchi fried rice, kimchi soup, kimchi jeon (kind of the Korean version of a pancake), on pizza and in burgers.

This is not some sort of concoction that people buy at a convenience store on their way home from work; two-thirds of all the kimchi consumed in Korea is homemade. The average person devotes a lot of time and energy into making it, with secret recipes handed down from generation to generation. There is even a specific kimchi-making season, called kimjang, in November. Family members get together, typically the women, and make enough kimchi for the entire year to come. You can see the large brown ceramic pots that kimchi ferments in all over the country.

So much of it is made that almost all Korean households will have a specially designed refrigerator to house the stuff. In the perfect collision of Korean culture, Psy (you know, the recent global sensation behind “Gangnam Style”) is even selling kimchi fridges in advertisements using his ridiculous song (you can check that out here).

Interestingly enough, even though kimchi is such a staple of the Korean diet, most of the cabbage sourced for its production comes from China. Which caused a bit of a crisis on the peninsula in 2010 when unfavorable weather where the cabbage is grown near Beijing caused the supply to drastically drop, resulting in prices more than tripling. The government stepped in, reducing tariffs on imported cabbage in hopes to bring prices to a reasonable level.

Kimchi is also insanely healthy, with Health Magazine listing it as one of the world’s healthiest foods. It has tons of vitamins and “healthy bacteria” and it prevents yeast infections and possibly cancer, so there’s no guilt in going on a kimchi binge. The best thing is that at restaurants in Korea, kimchi, along with all other side dishes, are unlimited; so you can eat kimchi as an appetizer, side dish, dessert or even as a main course.

Be sure to check out more about Korean culture from other Kimchi-ite posts here.

[Photo credits: Heungsub Lee and Drab Makyo]

Gastro-diplomacy and the politics of food

Food has been a trending topic in travel circles for some time now. But though a good meal can tell a traveler much about the local culture, it’s not often that food is thought of as a force for political change at home. Yet, in a recent article for the Jakarta Globe, writer Paul Rockower makes just such a claim, part of a growing school of thought called Gastro-diplomacy.

Increasingly Asian nations, including South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, are turning to their national cuisines as a way to promote their country’s brands abroad, gaining increased attention and burnishing their image among the international community.

As the argument goes, people are more likely to relate to other cultures in terms of its cuisine, resulting in economic and political gains. In many ways, the effort seems to be working – the Thai government’s “Global Thai” campaign, which successfully helped open thousands of new Thai food restaurants in the U.S. alone, is seen as a model for other nations now following similar strategies.

So does a bowl of noodles create new paths to cultural understanding? At first-glance, Gastro-diplomacy does make a simplistic linkage between food and genuine cultural understanding. After all, food can just as easily become a stereotype (rice in Asia, tacos in Latin America) as it can be used to deepen cultural knowledge. But there are some signs that gastro-diplomacy has had success – Sushi, anyone? In the years ahead, look for politicians to not just try to win hearts and minds, but also stomachs.

[Via @EatingAsia]

[Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt]

Kimchi shortage leads to bizarre Korean behavior

Charging for kimchi is like charging for ketchup, according to The Atlantic Wire. That’s a pretty bold statement. But, higher costs for cabbage and the ensuing “kimchi crisis” have led many restaurants to throw a price tag on the side dish, because it’s become so expensive to prepare. According to The Atlantic Wire:

The New York Times’ Mark McDonald reports that “kimchi has become so expensive that some restaurants in the capital no longer offer it free as a banchan, or side dish, a situation akin to having an American burger joint charge for ketchup, although decidedly more calamitous here.”

And, it gets worse. The price of cabbage is going to prevent some families from making kimchi at all this autumn.

[photo by Nagyman via Flickr]

South by Southeast: Welcome to Seoul

Seoul is not in Southeast Asia. But for a budget traveler like myself headed on to Southeast Asia, this South Korean capital has provided a perfect introduction to my trip. First-time Asian visitors “headed Southeast” often start in Tokyo, the neon Asian mega-capital of food, shopping and nightlife. Yet Seoul matches the urban amenities of Japan’s uber-city pound-for-pound, all at a fraction of the price. When you add in Seoul’s welcoming and friendly locals, surprising natural beauty and top-notch culinary scene, you’ve got the makings of a emerging traveler’s hotspot.

So if you’re planning a visit to Southeast Asia, skip that Tokyo layover and arrange a stopover in Seoul. Not only does South Korean carrier Korean Air offer convenient Asia connections from Chicago, New York, Dallas, Washington DC and Atlanta, it’s also a great place to get over your jetlag and pickup last-minute travel supplies before heading onwards. Whether you’re just passing through or end up hanging out stay a few days, you’ll find yourself surprised and delighted with just how much Seoul has to offer.

Over the past few days here in Seoul, I’ve found plenty of reasons to justify sticking around. Ready to investigate this tourist-friendly, bustling Korean capital? Let’s take a closer look at Seoul and review the basics of your visit? Click below for more.

Getting Around

Most travelers arrive in Seoul through Incheon International Airport, located an hour west of the city. Getting downtown is easy enough. Budget-minded travelers should grab an “Aiport Limousine” bus ($10) or the Airport Railroad Express (also about $10), both of which connect to Seoul’s excellent metro system. In a little over an hour you’ll arive in Seoul.

To get around, you’re going to want to use Seoul’s fantastic metro system. As one of the largest in the world it will take you just about anywhere in the city and prices are reasonable, costing around $1-2 per ride. Signage is in both Korean and English to aid with navigation.

City Layout

Seoul itself is divided into two distinct sections, located north and south of the Han River. On the north is Seoul’s historic Jongno-gu neighborhood, home to many royal palaces, along with nearby Insadong, ground zero for the Seoul art galleries and antiques. To the west of Jongno-Gu is Hongdae, Seoul’s happening student district, bursting with cafes, bars and eateries. Nearby Itaewon is known as the home of Seoul’s expats, including large numbers of U.S. Military personnel and loads of restaurants and bars. On the south side of the Han River is ritzy Gangnam-gu, a more upscale area full of high-end hotels and plenty of shopping.

Where to Sleep

Seoul has numerous lodging options, ranging from the luxurious to the thrifty. If you’re looking to make your dollar stretch the furthest, check out some of Seoul’s many clean, modern guesthouses. In addition to NAMU Guesthouse is well-located near Seoul’s trendy Hongdae student area. Other good options include anHouse and Bebop Guesthouse, both located not far from Hongdae in Mapo-Gu. Expect to pay between $10-$30/night for a guesthouse and much more than that for a nice high-end hotel.

What to Do

Seoul has a surprising amount to offer for budget travelers. With exchange rate currently trading at 1150 Won to the Dollar, you’ll find attractions, food, drinks and souvenirs are amazingly cheap compared to wallet-hungry Asian cities like Tokyo. Some top attractions include:

  • Gyeongbokgung – one of Seoul’s biggest royal palaces, Gyeongbokgung was first contstructed in 1394. Though the original was heavily damaged during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, it’s been immaculately restored. For about $3, visitors can spend their time strolling the beautiful grounds and investigating the palace’s lavish living quarters. The National Folk Museum of Korea is also nearby.
  • Bukhansan National Park – the greater Seoul metropolitan area boasts surprising natural beauty. About an hour north on the metro is Bukhansan National Park, a popular hiking spot and home to a number of serene Buddhist temples. During autumn Korean hikers flock to Bukhansan to experience beautiful fall colors, have a picnic and toast their ascent of the park’s three peaks with Soju, a Korean rice liquor. Entrance is free.
  • Seoul Markets – though frequently overshadowed by Japanese and Chinese cuisine, the spicy flavors of Korean food will have any traveler’s mouth watering. Perhaps the best way to experience Seoul’s food scene is through its many food markets. Spots like the Noryangin Fish Market, Gwangjang Market and Gyeongdong Herbal Market offer a good sampling of all that Korean cuisine has to offer.
  • Korean DMZ – many visitors to Seoul take a daytrip to the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, the buffer zone that runs between North and South Korea. Visitors can stop at the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom, where North Korean border guards stand sentry, as well as several incursion tunnels where North Korean forces tried to sneak into South Korea. Cost varies from $50-$100 depending on what sights are included.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Undiscovered New York – Exploring Koreatown

Like many other large cities, you might already know that New York has a large and continuously growing Chinatown. Yet in a city that is home to more than 100 distinct immigrant groups, it’s also home to a surprisingly diverse assortment of residents from homes across the Asian continent. One strip of authentic Asian culture that tends to get overshadowed by Chinatown is Koreatown, its lesser-known neighbor on 32nd Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue.

Also known by its nickname “K-Town,” this densely-populated block packs in a huge range of entertainment and culinary options, enough in fact to make a full evening out of it. Sandwiched inside the upper floors of surprisingly drab commercial office buildings are hidden Korean Barbecue joints, raucous BYOB Karaoke dens, swanky lounges and rooftop bars with stunning views of the Empire State Building. It’s a city in and of itself, and a strip that’s particularly ripe for exploration.

Want to learn more about where to go and what to see to make the most of your trip? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to Koreatown.
Bon Chon Chicken
Think you’ve had some great fried chicken before? You haven’t lived until you try the spicy and soy-garlic style Korean fried chicken at Bon Chon. This swanky spot offers a range of Korean bar-food favorites including the aforementioned chicken, Latin American-style sweet corn, sushi and rosemary french fries. It’s a Korean smorgasbord in the best possible sense – trust me, the combination of food sounds odd, but it works. And when you take that first bite of chicken you’ll be making plans for your next trip back.

Karaoke Dens
Koreatown is not just about eating – it’s just as much a street that’s made for entertainment. And when we’re talking about evening plans in Koreatown, that typically means Karaoke. As you walk down 32nd street you’ll find any number of signboards advertising karaoke bars on the floors within. Just find any place that looks interesting and walk on in. Those with a severe case of stage fright shouldn’t despair – almost all karaoke spots in Koreatown let you rent private rooms so you can belt out that off-key rendition of Barry Manilow without fear of embarassment. A karaoke session typically includes a private room, a variety of bar snacks and server to bring you drinks. One of the better known spots on 32nd Street is iBop, well known for its “bring your own alcohol” policies.

Korean Barbecue
As you might expect on a street specializing in the food and culture of Korea, there’s a plentiful assortment of Korean Barbecue restaurants. A meal typically consists of an assortment of plentiful grilled meats, prepared on an in-table grill as well as an array of small dishes like the ubiquitous kimchi and other pickled vegetables. Though there’s a number good Korean Barbecue spots on 32nd Street, our favorite is actually Kum Gang Sang, if for no other reason than the insane fake-rock grotto complete with grand piano wedged in the corner of the restaurant. Another good choice is Seoul Garden, a restaurant located in an unassuming corner of the second floor of an office building.

Million Dollar Views
One of the more interesting characteristics of Koreatown is its proximity to one of New York City’s most iconic buildings, the Empire State Building. Want to get a bird’s-eye of this amazing structure? Shhhh….you’ve got to keep it a secret though. Koreatown visitors in the know head to the rooftop patio at the La Quinta Inn, called Mé Bar, where they can drink in million dollar views along with a beverage of choice. Its perhaps the perfect way to end an evening in one of New York’s lesser known but fantastic neighborhoods.