building castles in the air

 

This year, the birthday came and went like that. Well, each year it comes and goes but for all these years I have always entertained superfluous thoughts in my mind about how I would wish for the day to pan out. Not every year but in some years. I don’t know if it was a result of books that I read or shows that I watched in my growing up years where to me, birthdays are special occasions where one will have a small group of close-knit friends, or just one or two pals who would make it truly special for the birthday person on that day. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate celebration since as the adage goes, it is the thought that counts, and it is the thought that goes into making the day extraordinary as a birthday.

Thinking such thoughts only sets me up on a course of disappointment for being unrealistic. It is ironic how some have asked about how I spent my birthday or wishes have come in the form of text messages that follow with a “Hope you have/had a great day!” depending on if the wish was belated or not. I wondered how they would have reacted, if they would, if I had replied with a “It was not great, in fact, it was worse than if it were just another day.” Text exchanges save them the awkwardness if such a response was sent from me, and it wouldn’t serve any purpose either because that appended sentence was just an afterthought to the “Happy (belated) birthday”, perhaps to make the message look more complete. I admit that I am as well guilty of sending such messages, but to different people it will probably appear differently.

So each year I just stay optimistic until the actual day swings by and go by. Each year, I seem to make myself feel more disappointed, if that was even possible. It was funny how making my birthday invisible on Facebook shows how reliant friends are on Facebook reminders and notifications. I don’t mind that some people don’t remember because I don’t expect them to and I probably don’t make it a point to remember their birthdays as well. But there are/were close friends who totally did not even make an effort to remember. I suppose because we drift apart, or we don’t meet up anymore, which is a good reason to delete any cache memory that was used to store such information?

For the record, one of my friends did invite me over to her place to spend my birthday together with her. But I was just lazy to make the trip. I chose to wallow in self-pity, which I have been told I shouldn’t and which I know it too. It does not help a single thing and it does not change a single thing. People not caring won’t start to care just because I am feeling lousy that they don’t bother. It only makes me reluctantly accept that this is just how life is. Seeing pictures posted on Facebook by friends who shared the same birthday having friends celebrate with them made it feel like having salt sprinkled on open smarting wounds, but that is the downside of social media that has to be accepted if I’m not ready to cut the use of it.

Bekseju Village Samseong, Seoul

Or I think it’s called Kooksoondang, which should be the name of the shop. Bekseju Village is one of the brands, or maybe it is the other way round. Anyway, the website shows both, so if you are interested in heading there if you happen to be in Seoul and want to go someplace for good Korean alcoholic beverages, this is supposedly a good recommendation. I went to the one located in Samseong, Gangnam, so from one side of the Han river, I took the green metro subway line (their circle line) to Samseong station. Actually, from Myeongdong where I was staying, I think it might have been faster, albeit with a transfer required, to take the orange subway line to this side of the river.

We didn’t really know what to order for food, but just looked around at what other tables were having, and tried to make an order with the English menu provided. However, I think the English version has more limited options, because apparently what we thought we ordered that was what the next table was having, wasn’t on the menu. The realisation only came when the waiter came back to try to tell us that what we wanted was not available, which puzzled us because how we it be that it wasn’t available when the next table was having it? Then the patrons on our neighbouring table tried to help but the lack of understanding due to the different languages being used caused some inconvenience. But we managed eventually, although not entirely the same as what they ordered, we did get some food.

These were the starters, which on the left is a dish that is like fish cake, and on the right, mochi-type (or rice cake) of appetisers. I would have prefered other stuff like kimchi or the big-headed sprouts but these were acceptable too. 20140721-073536-27336746.jpg

One of the mains that we ordered, a seafood kimchi pancake. I love Korean pancakes, even though they are fried and usually at least a bit oily, but being thin and infused with the taste of kimchi (since I usually would order kimchi or a mixture that includes kimchi if it is available), the taste of it is great. Looking at this picture alone already makes me feel like having it again, and this version was a good combination of two flavours, especially since it was not too oily.20140721-073536-27336882.jpgThe other item that we ordered resembled a steamboat of sorts, or Japanese oden. It’s a pot of soup, on one side a clear broth and the other a spicy broth, with each containing the same set of yong-tau-foo type of foods on sticks. Though seemingly light, these were actually pretty filling but really delicious, even those that were dipped in clear broth! By the time we were done with this, together with about 3/4 of the pancake gone, we were both stuffed to the brim.20140721-073536-27336829.jpgAnd of course the main draw of this place would have to be their beverages! We ordered a bottle of the Korean rice wine, or Makgeolli, one that had a ginseng flavour to it. It really did contain a very distinctive ginseng taste, which was rather special because it was the first time I’ve ever tried something like this, yet if you don’t like the taste or smell of ginseng, it is probably not advisable.20140721-073536-27336925.jpg

Supposedly the locals seem to be drinking some other forms of Makgeolli, that did not come in a bottled form, but in a ceramic pot, where you use a wooden ladle to scoop out the drink. My friend had wanted something like this but of course we didn’t know how to go about ordering it and at that time where we were seated, there wasn’t anyone having the same thing. We saw that at another table when we were leaving but I think that is the traditional way of having makgeolli, which perhaps may give it an even more authentic flavour?

This was a pricier dinner as compared to the other days. I don’t remember exactly how much it cost, but it still wasn’t on the extreme high end, because we paid either 20,000 or 25,000 KRW each, which is about S$25 or S$31, which I think is fairly decent because I can’t get Korean food at that kind of price, with a bottle of wine included, in Singapore.

Korean street food – egg bread (gyeran bbang – 계란빵)

One other street food that I tried this time when I visited Seoul was the egg bread, otherwise known as gyeran bbang in Korean. It was also something recommended by a colleague, and it was the very first time that I have ever come across or seen this, strange as it may sound. Well, I haven’t visited Seoul as often as I do, say Hong Kong or Tokyo, but I thought these should be something common. Yet even when I was passing by the numerous stalls in the usual tourist spots, I don’t see it as often. I found this stall as well at Ewha Women’s University area, but they are also available in some street carts in Myeongdong.

This is how they look like before being cooked, prepared and lined up to be cooked. It is bread at the bottom, with egg and cheese on top.20140716-221746-80266284.jpg

This is the finished product. The stall I bought it from had just a few pieces on display as it was not peak hours I guess. But if you walk past those in Myeongdong you will see a lot of them on this hot plate thingy that they are being put on to be kept warm. I don’t know if they are cooked/baked on this but I don’t think so because the holders have all been removed so I assumed this is just to ensure the bread stays warm and nice. And yes, they are nice indeed.20140716-221746-80266377.jpgSo when you buy this, you get the egg bread in a cup with a stick. It is just easier to use your hands because seriously, the stick can’t pick up much. The bread is very soft and it crumbles easily beyond the layer of egg and cheese on the outside. Or it could have been butter that were the yellow bits on top (see first picture). Either ways, I think it’s pretty indulgent but the soft, buttery bread with the distinctive eggy aroma is just so heavenly. For the bread-lovers, but if you are the sort who only swears by bread like sour-dough and the likes, then maybe this is not for you.20140716-221746-80266439.jpgThe inside, where you can easily imagine the softness, and yes “crumbliness” of the bread.20140716-221746-80266481.jpg

At 1,000 KRW (S$1.25) or 1,500 KRW (S$1.85) depending on where you get it from, this is also something worthy of a try if you are not the bread-sticklers mentioned above. It’s more muffin/pastry than bread in a way, although less dense and more fluffy. Besides, it is not that big to fill up too substantial a space in your stomach, so there will always be room for more snacking or eating in Seoul!

Think Coffee, Seoul

Continuing with the mini food jaunt that I had in Seoul, I was recommended by a colleague to check out Anguk, the area in the vicinity of the palace, known as Samcheong-dong, which is a cafe street of sorts. I googled the area and read some travel blogs about the interesting shops and cafes there so I decided to make a visit. However, as I am pretty much the early-riser, and these cafes don’t generally open till at least 10am or later, I needed to get my coffee fix and breakfast somewhere else. It turns out subsequently that I didn’t get the chance to go into any of the cafes there, so that leaves me with a next time to return, and perhaps then in a slightly more comfortable and forgiving weather, armed also with perhaps a little more research on which are the places to check out!

So before my trek to the area, I had already sort of resolved in my mind to head into Starbucks and try their carrot cake. Yes, I don’t know why the cake selection in Singapore’s Starbucks seem so limited, or rather they are mostly cakes that I am not that keen on, but they actually stock rather interesting-looking/sounding cakes in Seoul’s Starbucks, or it’s just the wider array of food items in the display cases that increases the general appeal to the munchy-monster in me. Either ways, that was something I wanted to have that morning (yes, again, cake for breakfast) but then this other cafe next to Starbucks caught my eye and in I went.

Think Coffee. In the morning, that’s what we usually think about, the daily morning ritual. Or for some, a necessity. I was agonising over what to order, because their cakes look absolutely tempting as well, just that their sizes seem much bigger than the usual sliced cakes and I was evaluating my capacity for them. So I went with a more manageable option, the Green Tea muffin!

20140716-073559-27359801.jpg

It looks more cupcake than muffin actually, particularly with the dollop of cream/icing on top.20140716-073559-27359665.jpgThe muffin did have a nice, matcha flavour to it and it was as sweet as I expected of a muffin. Perhaps the fact that it was green-tea flavoured watered down the sweetness. The cream on top also wasn’t icing so it added a good complement to the muffin too, and overall it goes smoothly with an Americano. 20140716-073559-27359845.jpg20140716-073559-27359762.jpg

 

Think Coffee originates from New York City, and outside of it, they only have outlets in Korea, which is a pity, because it wouldn’t hurt to have more coffee options here, even if we already see many standalone, independent cafes here these days. Unfortunately they are frequently in places that are inconvenient for those without transport, like me.

Myeongdong Kyoja (명동교자), Seoul

It was the second time I visited this eatery, or that I believe it was the same that I visited years back when I hit Seoul with a friend. They have 2 outlets in Myeongdong and in the past, I recalled snaking queues to get a seat, especially at meal-times or that was perhaps because I was there during feeding times. Haha. Anyway, Myeongdong Kyoja (I guess this is the Korean version/take of the Japanese word that we are more used to, gyoza) is more efficient now, although there were a couple of times when I walked past when I did witness a queue forming all the way out to the streets.

It is really a noodle restaurant that has been around for about 40 years, and is known for their knife-cut, handmade kalguksu noodles. Besides this popular item, others include the mandu (which is the kyoja or gyoza, which is actually more like steamed xiao long baos), bibim guksu (noodles with vegetables and red hot pepper paste) and kongguksu (noodles in cold soy milk broth). I picked these up from the Visit Korea website, which appended a Michelin logo on the page too, but I haven’t checked if it’s really a Michelin-starred eatery.

So the last time when I was there, I also ordered the steamed dumplings, which comes in 10s, and a bowl of noodle each. There were just 2 of us then, and obviously we couldn’t finish all that was on the table. I don’t even recall what noodles we ordered but they were the soupy type, so I think it could have been the kongguksu. This time, we were a trio, so it makes for better sharing of food.

The bibim guksu:

20140714-225219-82339548.jpg

The lot of items that were ordered, together with the complimentary dishes of kimchi, which boasted a very strong garlic flavour. So for anyone who isn’t that fond of garlic, please abstain from it because it is definitely overwhelming enough to make any vampires stay away from you after having it.

20140714-225219-82339654.jpg

This is their famed handmade, knife-cut noodles, which were really good! This dish also included several pieces of dumplings and contains meat and vegetables in a rich broth.20140714-225219-82339603.jpg

And finally, the steamed dumplings, or known as mandu or kyoja. In terms of appearance, they don’t look as delicate as the Chinese-style steamed dumplings such as those from Ding Tai Feng. Also, they are much bigger and contains more filling, but in terms of taste I think they fare just as well! Due to their size and also having other orders like the noodles, just having 3 was actually enough for us, but it depends very much on the individual’s appetite and how much you prefer each item.  20140714-225219-82339486.jpg

During this trip, we found out that the noodles or soup are actually refillable! Or at least that was what we noted, because there was this table behind us, comprising 2 guys and a girl, who ordered 2 bowls of noodles and 1 serving of the mandus, and they actually had 2 noodle refills, without cost. At least we thought the refills were complimentary, because how they work is that you will pay upon the serving of the food and for those 2 refills, the server did not collect any money from them. Well, that makes for a very economical meal but us being us, we couldn’t help tsk tsk-ing at the apparent “cheapskate-ness” of that table. If indeed they needed 2 refills (or maybe even more after we left) then they should probably have ordered more food or an additional bowl of noodle or 2. Anyway, if it’s the restaurant’s policy for entertaining such requests, then it has to still be viable and helps to attract customers too!

Like I mentioned, they are much more efficient now, or the crowds have thinned since the last time I went. We didn’t have trouble getting a seat even if it was a slightly earlier dinner that we picked, still around 6-ish in the evening, and the food was served up really quickly. The turnover was also really fast, so that the moment you finished your food, it is time to leave and make way for other patrons but yet we didn’t feel like we were being chased to leave. It kind of felt a little like fast-food, although it could also be that we were just there to eat and then go, not to sit, savour the food slowly and chat over it. Definitely worth checking out if you like such kinds of food, and it wasn’t too expensive. For our orders, we paid 24,000 KRW in total, which works out to be just about S$10 per head.

Korean street food – fried chicken

Something that I was recommended to try while I visited Seoul, one of their street-side snacks, the Korean fried chicken. Honestly, I have never known of this. The only street snacks that I knew were the glutinuous rice cakes (tteokbokki) and those deep-fried flour-coated sausages that had fries stuck to the batter, which I really enjoyed despite them being so unhealthy.

Anyway, when I was shopping at the Ewha Women’s University area, I passed by this stall and decided to give it a try since they offered the fried chicken in various sizes, with the cheapest being 1,000 KRW (S$1.20). This is the vendor in action, frying the (already pre-fried) chicken together with the sauce and the rice cakes! So if you want to try this and also the tteokbokki, this is a good 2-in-1 to check out.

20140711-093855-34735235.jpg

This is the small cup that I got, which is about the size of the ice-cream that you can get from the motor-bike ice cream vendors along the streets of Orchard Road in Singapore, probably a little bigger. The cup contains about two to three pieces of tteokbokki, which I think is more than enough for one person to try since it really is just glutinuous rice and nothing else but the sauce to go with it, two to three pieces of small round-shaped hash browns (great for the potato addicts) and perhaps four to give pieces of the fried chicken. 20140711-093855-34735394.jpg

It’s not too bad, although I think I enjoyed the hash browns the most. The fried chicken was ok, but I found that there was too much batter and to be honest, I am not a fan of having meat heavily-coated with flour. The sauce that they drizzled on top was really generous, though again it is not my preference, and I didn’t know this was how it’d be, and I wouldn’t know how to tell them that I wanted otherwise too. Overall, it is still worth a try, and the sauce was interesting, because as I was eating I was trying to decipher the familiarity of the taste and after a long frustrating struggle whilst munching on the snack, I thought it had this hint of coconut. I wasn’t totally sure, because even as the light bulb went off in my mind about the coconut taste, I was harbouring doubts if I’d hit the nail. This is closer look of the frying in action!20140711-093855-34735332.jpg

I miss Seoul. Or rather, I miss being on vacation. Sigh. That is life, being on vacation for a few days and then looking forward to the next vacation for the next few months.

Korean Dessert Cafe, Seoul

Very expensive ice-kacang, Korean style. This bowl of shaved ice topped with copious berries and some yogurt, perhaps with a hint of cream or milk of sorts maybe, costs 9,000 won, which translates to approximately S$11.20.

Summer time in Korea usually means the prevalence of patbingsu in almost every single cafe that you pass. The traditional form of patbingsu is red beans with ice, but I guess over the years it has evolved into many different variations. I don’t think I’ve ever tried the red beans version before but since I was craving for something fruity because I love fruits and felt that I wasn’t having sufficient intake on a daily basis, I grabbed the chance to order a serving of shaved ice with a good dose of anti-oxidants!

Here’s my order with frozen blueberries, raspberries and dried cranberries! I think there was some syrupy stuff, or compote, drizzled on top as well. You can try to imagine the size of this bowl of shaved ice; the tray is your typical serving tray that you see in most fast food restaurants, the average-sized ones, and there are 2 spoons next to it that can provide a rough gauge of comparison.

20140708-224758-82078699.jpgTo further make my point on its size, most tables, if not all, of patrons in the store have at least 2 persons sharing a bowl. But I ordered one for myself, all 9,000 won of it.

It was delicious, made even sweeter of course due to the humidity of the warm afternoon in an almost-summer time Seoul. But after this, I felt like I had immediately transitioned to winter and had to quickly step out of the air-conditioned cafe.

A lot of cafes in Seoul use this electronic beeping device to alert you to pick up your order from the counter. We are also seeing more eateries in Singapore using this, which is a good thing because then customers won’t need to crowd around one place waiting, and get annoyed in the midst of waiting. But in terms of its usage, I think consumers here in Singapore still need getting used to, and being ‘educated’ to use it.

20140708-224758-82078630.jpgA closer look at my bowl of icy shaven goodness. Just check out how fine the ice is being shaved, it just disintegrates on my tongue instantaneously! And the mixed berries topping just gives it an even more refreshing feel, even though by the time I reached the bottom of the bowl (yes, I finished everything!), I was so bloated I felt like I was going to burst. Seriously.

20140708-224758-82078835.jpgOne more picture of the shaved ice that looks like soft snow that has fallen and settled on the ground.

20140708-224758-82078785.jpgLast look.

20140708-224758-82078745.jpgI only had this once, and apparently, Korean Dessert Cafe is a really popular cafe to have your shaved ice, because many other people I know who visited Seoul (or least those on my Facebook) went there for patbingsu and raved about it. I had tried patbingsu on other visits elsewhere and they didn’t taste as great, because the ice wasn’t so finely-shaved. Some of those were literally like our ice-kacang, whereas this just felt like… powdered ice. I wanted to have it at another cafe during this trip, but was denied the chance because the cashier asked if I was just having it alone and gave me this incredulous look, then said it’s too big for one person (she totally underestimated my capacity). To avoid myself some embarrassment, I just gave her a weak smile and left the cafe. But if you are headed to Seoul this summer, do check it out! They also have the traditional version with just red beans that my friend tried and gave it a big thumbs up. I regretted not having that because I also like red beans a fair bit. I just wonder what this Korean Dessert Cafe will sell at other times of the year, because they seemed to only sell this shaved ice when I was there. It should be interesting to see and try other kinds of seasonal Korean desserts!