Teaching English and Eating Weird, Fatty Meats
I've been teaching English abroad for a while now. It has its fair share of ups and downs, but one of the constant benefits of living in a foreign country is the sheer amount of new, unique experiences to be had.
And... I hate to be yet another white guy making a list of oooh, check out this weird food that I tried in "Insert random exotic country", but I just can't resist myself. I love teaching English conversation and I love eating weird new food. In Korea, that means dining on some weird, fatty, grease-oozing meats. And it's awesome.
Forgive me for being trite, but I thought I'd make a list of some of the most intersting grub I've had recently.
Now, I live in a fairly small town North of Seoul.
Dongducheon is its name, and while you may have heard in mentioned in an off-handed comment regarding American soldiers (and their proclivity for mischief), don't let those negative associations taint your view. My city's pretty awesome. It's got a ton of great old-timey culture. Since we're situated towards the northern most limit of the subway lines, we don't get TOO much of Seoul's modernist influence. Sure, we've got some thriving Korean franchises. Soulless, over-priced cafes and samgyapsal franchises dot the landscape as familiar, neon eyesores.
But, you'll also find a higher density traditional Korean fare... for those of you people-watching enthusiasts. On any given day, you'll find street-side Ajummas hocking steamed corn, freshly thawed silk-work larva, or any other litany of old-school local grub. You can spot lifelong Ajushi friends, walking hand in hand, drunk off their ass... yelling about some long forgotten high school glory or how this-or-that restaurant is the bee's knees. You might actually find me out there, one of those days, trying my best to sell Dongducheon's finest meat specials at my buddy Cho's butcher shop... Two servings of pork, 10 bucks! (I'm not SO bad at Korean)
I think it's a bit selfish, of course, to visit other countries and hold disdain for their modern antics. Other people should be allowed to be fascinated with trendy franchises and all that entails. But I hate them. Not for any noble reason or anti-capitalist leanings. Nope, I'm just bored of them. I'm yet another white dude wanting to try some weird stuff from a some other guys' culture. Insert all of your sharply barbed criticism here, if you want.
But, with that humbling admission in mind, I'd like to tell you about the awesomely weird, curiously delicious, and down-right bewildering grub I've had the opportunity to eat while down here.
1) Makchang (막창)
If you're familiar with Korea's weird foods, this might seem a bit tame. But, for the west of you doe-eyed Westerners, Makchang might be a bit weird. It's intestine. Large or small, I'm not sure. But it's a delicious, fatty hunk of innards that usually cut into squares, grilled over red hot coals, and served with a horde of various side dishes (Pancheon, is what the Korean folks call these). In either its pork or beef iteration, Makchang is down right delicious. It's just chewy, fatty goodness. If I was forced to compare it to some type of American food, I'd say Makchang is most similar to grilled chicken chicken thighs. But just the skin. Yeah, that sounds about right... Imagine a super thick version of grilled chicken thigh skin, and that's just about what Makchang taste like. But in a good way.
You can find a few other varieties of this, besides the aforementioned grilled. I've had deep fried, boiled, and stir-fried. But grilled still takes the cake for me.
2) Gopchang (곱창)
This is Makchang's little brother. I guess it's safe to assume this is small intestines? Or something like that... I'm sure there's a smart person reading this right now who'll correct me in the comments (please do! I honestly don't know how to explain the difference between Makchang and Gopchang to people).
Gopchang is a bit more versatile. You can get it in pure, grilled form (I think it's called so gophcang goi?), but more often than not it's stir-fried ontop of a flat pan at your table. Cabbage, onions, carrots, green onions, and rice noodles are usually tossed in for good measure. There are a few options for this type of stir-fried variety: traditional, super spicy, cheesy, soon-dae (the korean noodly sausage thing), and some others that I'm just not confident enough to spell in anglicized form.
3) Pig Nose
Now we're getting weird. These previous dishes might sound like good ol' country boy eating in the backwoods of the United States, but not even my Korean friends have eaten Pig Nose before. And in all fairness, I might be cheating when I deem this "Korean food". I ordered it from a local, hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint that's pretty damn authentic. So... technically not Korean, but still weird, so I'll allow it on my list!
It tastes pretty good in my opinion. It's sliced thin and stir-fried with the usual "soy sauce and friends" mixture that's so common. As for the weird parts, you're eating a nose, which is a thoroughly unusual experience (at least for me). If you've ever eaten grilled pig skin, then you know exactly what Pig nose tastes like. It's chewy. Fatty. Super porky-funky. I highly recommend it.
4) Deep Fried Chicken Feet
Traditionally, spicy chicken feet are the usual "ewww, look at that" food for Western tourists in Asia. I'll admit, the first few times I ate it, I didn't understand the appeal. It's fat. Chewy fat. Chewy fat glossed over in a strange, spicy sauce that will set your tuchus afflaim for nights to come. That being said, now I totally dig it. It happened over night a few years ago. I don't know why, but now I love that chewy, cardiovascular disease causing, concoction.
And guess what? I found a new version! At least, when it comes to Korean chicken feet (I know this isn't news to you folks in South-East Asia). Typically, chicken feet is grilled or stir-fried. Either boneless or bone-in. Seasoned in a sticky, sweet, red pepper marinade. But I found a deep fried variety. While walking through the wild depths of our local street market, I stumbled upon an old dude with a deep fryer. Sporting a sweet 3-day old 'stache and the classic toothy green of a gregarious Ajushi, he invited Hal and I into his dive. It was your typical rural Korean restaurant, except this dude prided himself on crafting crazy new recipes.
Which is pretty unique. The best Korean restaurants aren't deemed so for breaking boundaries. They're actually pretty comparable, in terms of taste. If your town has 10 amazing samgyapsal (pork belly) restaurants, it's not because each one is sporting a tongue-tingling variation of the traditional grilled flesh. No, they just happen to have great quality, albeit conventional, fare. Which isn't altogether a bad thing. But it can get pretty tiresome when you're trying to find a surprising new restaurant for your lady and every restaurant tastes the same.
Well, this dude was different. And it was awesome. Here are some pictures, although they certainly don't do it justice! Imagine deep fried chicken wings, battered and tossed, but without any meat. It's the tops!
5) Tree Root Duck Stew
Now this one is TRULY weird. This Tree Root Duck Stew continues the trend of fatty, skin-filled dishes, but it's truly unique. This grub is almost unheard of for regular Korean folks. It's a psuedo-medicinal food, which in olden-times was meant to fortify your spirit (and give men an extra virile boost in the bedroom).
I have no idea what was in it. I'm not so shabby at Korean, and neither are my native Korean friends, but we had no idea what locally harvested and foraged plants had been tossed into this steaming pot. Take a look for yourself, though. There's definitely a duck in there some where. Along with a few freshly lobbed plant stems and dried roots.
As far as taste... It was alright. It tasted like traditional Korean medicine or Bardock tea. It's more noteworthy for the sheer fact that no one knows about it. It's a dying breed, as far as recipes go, and I got to try it. In my dainty hipster mind, that's pretty damn cool.