Heaven in Korea

I took another little break from cooking again, this time to go to Jeju-Do, Korea’s prized vacation destination. It was S’ idea, a little surprise to celebrate our 2-year anniversary, and I couldn’t have been more delighted.

So for a few days, we basked in Jeju’s fresh-air and savoured the delicacies that were unique to this volcanic island, famous for its rare craters, the snowy-capped Hala Mountain, lush foliage and sandy beaches. And, as I later learned, it is also home to a distinct culture with many local myths and unique traditions, and was the stage for a bloody uprising in 1948 (you can read more about that here.)

Even though our un-serependitous timing confronted us with wind and rain, it was easy to see why this place is so popular. We spent the first two days visiting a botanical garden, a tea plantation, some novelty museums, and eating. It was not the outstanding seafood nor the Jeju black pork, but rather the clementines and halabongs (a special type of local oranges) that stole my palate.

Then the sun finally came out and we drove around looking for craters, waterfalls, orange groves and seaside roads.

It was a lovely weekend, and I would highly recommend a visit to anyone who needs a break from the hustle and bustle of Seoul. I came back feeling rested and inspired, and in need for some homemade goodness after too many heavy meals out. Lucky for me, I found 4 little black bananas sitting on my counter, begging to be turned into bread. I happily obliged, and made some with yogurt and walnuts. They were obviously a hit, because I didn’t even have the time to snap a picture before they devoured in just a few bites.

But alas, it’s time to get serious about school. I sometimes forget that I’m a student with readings that are increasingly being ignored.

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Spicy Dreams and Mouldy Peppers

Lately I’ve been having the most disturbing dreams. Nightmares really… often so vivid that I dread falling asleep. They usually relate to things that occur to me during the day, like a thought, a conversation or someone I encountered. The night after I went to the pool, I dreamt about being a janitor-in-trainer forced to scrub the filthy toilets in the woman’s changing room.

Theses unwelcome dreams visit my sleep so often that I decided to try googling potential causes for them. In 1992, there was in fact a study which found that spicy foods can disturb one’s sleep. I know it sounds like an old wives’ tale, but given that Korean food looks like a symphony of red, I thought I would try putting the finding to the test. And sure enough, after a two day break from sundubu and kimchi jjigae, I had my first restful night in several days. Curious indeed, and probably a much needed break for my stomach anyways.

Another problem I find about food in Korea is that things spoil incredibly quickly, even with the fridge set at the lowest temperature. Potatoes will sprout, while chilli peppers  grow mould at a pace faster than Pyeongyang breaks promises. Last week, I was horrified when I found the box of strawberries I had been saving blanketed with white fuzz, and subsequently fed to the compost. I think I will turn this problem over for google to solve, and see if there aren’t any old wives tales to remedy this as well.

Chocolate and Spring

I know in my last post I suggested that I would be more conscious about what I make and eat, but it doesn’t seem to be translating into any action quite yet. I’ve never been good at following diets, or any kind of food restrictions for that matter.

Besides, last week in Asia was White Day (March 14), a holiday created for boys to reciprocate February 14 by giving chocolate to girls. Also known as Valentine’s Day’s Evil Twin, it’s not something we deliberately celebrate, but I did use it as an excuse to make brownies with Swiss chocolate and my heart-shaped cookie cutter.

I slightly underbaked them, which made for neither cakey nor fudgey brownies, but ones that were somewhere perfectly in-between. So even though I’m not a professed brownie lover, I couldn’t resist these intensely chocolately bites. As usual, the batch yielded too many for two, and after a few days of non-stop nibbling, I decided that we had to give some of them away for the sake of our waistline, and tearfully packed away a tupperware for S’ co-workers.

They seemed to enjoy them, as the container came back empty. One even joked about commissioning $100 worth! (Little do they know how remarks like that make my heart flutter.)

Then on Saturday, I was compelled to celebrate the good weather with Nutella, strawberry and banana crepes.

Well, to work off the damage and enjoy the first warm weekend this year, we went to hike Bukhansan, one of Seoul’s sacred mountains. We inadvertently chose the most difficult peak, which made for exercise that felt more like hanging on to dear life as opposed to a leisurely stroll. For the last hour, we were using cables, and on our hands and feet to get to the top.

But the view was stunning and well worth the struggle.

The only thing was that getting down was even trickier than going up. And after three days, my calves and thighs are still a bit sore. I suppose this is rather telling of how unfit I am, but still I see no correlation between that and my brownie consumption.

A case of the “Tung-Tung”

I haven’t been writing much lately, but I have been cooking. Last weekend was freakishly cold for almost mid-March, so I stayed home Saturday to make french toast for breakfast, seafood pasta with leftover white wine sauce for dinner, apple bread for the weekday morning rush hour, and even two loaves of white bread (the kind with nice crusts and a chewy interior).

On Sunday we met S’ mom, whom I haven’t seen since she came back from Thailand, for lunch over braised beef ribs. She beamed as I struggled to use the little Korean that I had learned and I thought she was quite pleased with my progress. But then she pointed to S and said “tung-tung”, as if it were my fault.

Tung-tung, kind of like an onomatopoeia, is Korean for plump, and it seems that she thinks he has become victim to my culinary exploits. I admit that even I find my jeans tighter than usual, but I attribute this to lack of exercise rather than what is being made in my kitchen. In any case, something had to be done and with the university gym closed for renovation, we spent the rest of the weekend looking for a place to sign up. It turned out to be the most frustrating thing I have endeavoured to do in since I arrived in Korea, and the greatest culture shock I have experienced thus far. I exaggerate not.

After visiting a few, it became clear that gyms are overpriced luxuries with all sorts of restrictions. The monthly memberships run between at 60,000 to 90,000 won ($60-$90), and unless you pay more, only allows access at certain time-slots. Even at that price, they pale in comparison in terms of size, cleanliness and variety of machines, to the ones I’m used to at home. Rather than housing ellipticals, they have weight-loss belts, and both men and women shamelessly line up to jiggle their chub.

We decided to go to one that was running a special deal for a 4 months membership, but we went one day too late and the manager refused leniency even in exchange for 2 new members. We then opted for a community fitness centre, which was quite modern and nice, though a bus-ride away. But once we arrived, we were told that registration is limited to but a few days a month, and that we would have to wait until the end of March to sign up for April. Finally, we just decided to just pay for a one-time entry to the swimming pool. Even then, we had to wait 45 minutes for the next free swimming time slot.

I liked the fact that the water was salted rather than chlorinated, and also slightly warm to the touch. Also, every hour on the hour, there is an amusing 5-minute mandatory stretching period led by a tubby speedo-clad man. But crowded with ajumas (middle-aged women), ajushis (middle-aged men), and couples doting on each other, it made for a cumbersome swim that involved all sort of tactics to avoid being hit and hitting others. And once swimming was over, I had to endure to changing room, which, like a jjimjilpang, did not have any private shower stalls.  I also did not know that I was supposed to leave my towels on a nearby shelf. So after dripping water all the back to my locker, I was handed a rag by the cleaning lady and found myself wiping the floor. The last straw was having to pay for the hairdryer.

Well, the shock from yesterday has subsided, but unless I cut down on the butter, this is what I will have to continue to brave.

Back to School

I feel like I’ve been suffering chronic fatigue and have thus been feeling very lazy about all things domestic. There are many reasons for this, I think. First, I had to catch up on sleep after a wild 5 days in Hong Kong. But since I came back just in time for the first day of school, I spent this past week walking madly around my mammoth-size campus trying to register in interesting classes. (I can’t tell you how tempting it is sometimes to just jump into a taxi somewhere along the way, as there isn’t such thing as being fashionably late for class here.) Of course, I had to attend 9 different classes, before settling on ones I thought I would be able to endure/enjoy.  After lectures, I have Korean language class from 4pm-6pm everyday. Then I have to embark on another 30 minutes walk home while winter here persists. Once I get back, I really don’t have the courage to muster up anything more exciting than fried rice.

But then I met a girl in my Northeast Politics class from UdM, who lived almost an hour away from school. She told me that she and her roommate (also from Montreal) cook dinner together every single day. AND they make food that they buy at the local market near their apartment. Damn.

So yesterday, I finally cleaned out all the things that were getting mouldy in my fridge, and went to the grocery store. (I swear I will start going to the markets once the weather gets warmer). I also bought a cork-screw and a pound of mussels.

I thought this was going to be a quick and easy dinner. The recipe said 20 minutes from start to finish. But it turns out that handling mussels is actually messy business involving soaking, scrubbing and beard removing, all while trying to not accidentally kill one of them before cooking. Once that was done though, it was smooth sailing. Olive oil, butter, onions, garlic, white wine and some salt and pepper were all it took to make this mouth-watering dinner.

We ate it with crusty white bread, and then saved the rest of the juice for a pasta sauce later. YUM! If it weren’t loaded with cholesterol, I would make this all the time.

The itis in Hong Kong

I took a little break from cooking this past week while we went to Hong Kong for a short trip. We only planned on staying for 2 days, but our trip was unexpectedly extended. Having lived there before, there wasn’t anything touristy that I was particularly keen on doing. But there was one place I was adamant about visiting: The City Super.

It’s the most fabulous international supermarket I’ve ever visited, the kind that every city should have. It just about dwarfs Hyundai and even Carrefour with variety. You can find anything from anywhere, and I couldn’t resist stocking up on flaxseeds, vanilla extract from Madagascar, cocoa powder, hoisin sauce and a few other goodies. I even picked up a little bottle of maple syrup, so I can enjoy my pancakes in all their glory. We’ve been using honey as an acceptable alternative, but it just doesn’t quite do it for me.

The rest of the trip was a mad scramble to basically eat as much as we can possibly consume. Being in a city like Hong Kong makes you realize just how homogeneous the cuisine in Korea is. We had dim sum, sushi, Vietnamese pho, Shanghainese food and French patisseries. Even the salads and sandwiches exuded Western authenticity. And fruit tastes so much better when it doesn’t cost several hours worth of wages.

On our last stop before heading to the airport, we found ourself in a South-Asian community and we just couldn’t pass up the curry and kebab wraps. We took everything to go, and hurried to catch our flight. There the security officers told me we had to pour our neatly packed dishes over the basmati rice if we wanted to take our lunch with us. I suppose the logic was that if the sauce was absorbed by the rice, then it would no longer be considered a liquid and thus a threat. By the time I boarded, my fingers were turmeric stained, while the fury of Indian spices was conspicuously escaping from our bags. But undeterred from the mess and smell, we enjoyed our wraps, which were oozing only of goodness.

And after carrying the curry some 2000km to enjoy at home, our only regret was having not ordered more.