The City

oaxaca, mezcal, mexico, travel, food, drink, fiesta

From 405 Magazine: The colorful spirit of Oaxaca and the magic of mezcal

From second-story balconies, families watch and wave as I step into the Oaxaca night – A frenzied parade of colorful skirts, twirling giants and brassy horns fill through narrow cobblestone streets. Wherever such a kaleidoscopic parade goes, an exponentially larger fiesta will begin. To read more from this story, click from 405 Magazine HERE.Jimedor

A non-foodie’s journey into the world of Korean street food

Pohang Fish Market

For four days, I’ve been trekking across South Korea exploring the country’s delightfully diverse array of culinary expression. And while bibimbop (veggies, rice, thinly sliced meats and chili paste) and Korean barbeque (thin slices of beef cooked table top)  are the nation’s flagship dishes, it is in the hyper-stimulating markets of Korea that the country’s cuisine truly begins to reveal itself.

bibimbop

From the exotic street food of the Kwangjang Market located in the heart of Seoul to the implausibly fresh seafood of the Jukdo Fish Market in Pohang, even those with the most educated palates will find their imaginations running wild with the varying textures, flavors and temperatures of the fare of this frenetic Asian gem.

JUKDO FISH MARKET

Even with a small cushion, at 6’2″, sitting shoeless on the floor in front of a long table in a tightly packed seafood restaurant located at the Jukdo Market in Pohang is a claustrophobic exercise. But despite my constant readjustment in effort alleviate pressure on my aching legs, I find myself squirming not from discomfort but in guileless anticipation of the fresh multi-course seafood extravaganza that is about to turn me from mild-mannered travel writer to ravenous leviathan.

Shellfish, shellfish, shellfish!

When I ask the restaurant’s name, the look from the waitress suggests it is without. The menu is written in colorfully smeared Korean characters on a dry erase board on one of the peeling pea colored walls. Next to it, a television plays Korean baseball, capturing the attention of the majority of the clientele, most of whom are male, nursing a bottle of soju deep into the evening. Three generations of women bustle over boiling pots of seafood soup and rice in an open kitchen in one corner of the one room restaurant.

Just outside of this mom-and-pop shop, which I later learn is called Seong Jin Heotjib, are more than 200 other raw fish stores and restaurants that make up this open air market. The inescapable pulse of Psy’s Gangnam-Style wheezes through various blown speakers. Scale-covered purveyors clean their catch amid giant blue, halogen-lit tanks abounding with live mollusk, mussels, oysters, squid, octopus, crustaceans and fish otherworldly enough to make even George Lucas recoil.

Crabs!

Soon, along with an ample amount of the Soju (sweet rice wine) and Kimchi, Korea’s national dish made of seasoned, fermented cabbage, radish and cucumber among other vegetables, I will try a sampling of each one of these curious sea creatures immediately after it is taken from its respective tank, cut, cleaned and served. When they say that the seafood at the Jukdo Fish Market is the freshest in Korea, they mean it.

The meal begins with a giant tray covered in conch, mussels, oysters, soft shell crab, crab legs, sea snails, sea food salad filled with crustaceans unknown, roe, abalone, octopus, freshly sliced persimmon, and a rose for color. Served with a side of freshly made soy sauce and wasabi, the meal is a joyful exercise in extraction and exaltation and is only just beginning.

Shellfish, shellfish, shellfish!

Next, the waitress brings a selection of large raw prawns. We each select the ones we would like barbequed. She takes them to the fire outside, where they will be cooked on a bed of sea salt in foil over an open flame. As soon as she is gone, an assortment of sashimi arrives to the table. I ask what kind of fish it is and the waitress shrugs her shoulders. “Fresh. Caught today.” she says. Having earned my trust with the shellfish course and fortifying myself with a generous serving of soju, I dive in. She tell me to save room. The soup, rice and the prawn are still to come.

The fish soup is a fiery, fishy red broth with chunks of seafood, vegetables and a fish head floating on top. We cleanse our palate with a bowl of sticky rice and then it is time for prawn, served in their respective beds of salt. They are the size of lobsters and better than any lobster I’ve ever eaten.

shrimp on a bed of salt

By the time we are finished, the table looks like a battlefield covered with shells, scales, tails and bones. My muscles no longer ache and the soju has been as warming as the food was filling. As I wander back through the market, I note again the men covered in blood and scales, the jettisoning squid, the languid octopus, the menacing eel, the sea slugs, the crabs, the conch, and all the other indescribable but delectable creatures, and think… despite their off-putting exterior… they look delicious.

And with a last fleeting glance, I’m off to the next stop.

 KWANGJANG MARKET

Stacks of Mayak Gimbap

The Kwangjang Market is Seoul’s is oldest and largest market, not to mention the busiest. Built in 1904, the market hosts 35,000 people daily with more than five hundred shops and eateries. The size of more than eight football fields, the market is constantly chaotic, but no place more so than the food court.

The food court, located in the market’s epicenter, has long been an after-work gathering place where tenacious suit-clad Koreans line up at dozens of family run small counters. Each offer their own culinary specialty, to sip on rice wine called Makgeolli, chomp on one of more than two hundred varieties of Kimchi, and blow off steam over an incalculable assortment of freshly prepared Korean dishes.

No matter where my over-stimulated eyes try to wander, whether to the amorous Korean couple feasting on mung bean and shrimp pancakes, or to the cook, a short, terse woman, as she hovers over a pan of tiny whole fish as the snap in boiling oil, I can’t help but stare at the pig snout that sits in front of me as I wait for my next dish. While there are many culinary conquests in this market, something about pig nose makes me shudder…. I try to focus on my first dish: soft rice, mashed up into balls and covered in chili sauce almost hot enough to serve as a distraction.

Woman cooks at the Kwangjang Market

Moments later, the terse woman sets in front of me a firm, but chewy rice cake covered in hot chili sauce and a Mayak Gimbap which is loosely translated to mean “Addictive” or “Drug.” It is warm rice, carrots, radish, and crabmeat wrapped in seaweed. While this sounds similar to the standard roll found at any corner sushi joint in any city, when prepared in fresh at this bustling nighttime market, this roll is anything but…

I bite through the brittle seaweed into the rice, soft and warm, and then into crunch of the carrot before finally getting to the fresh crabmeat.  The flavors dance with the chili paste from the rice cake I had just finished, and as the flavors continue to blend, I barely even notice the pig snout staring at me through its nostrils. I savor the roll a moment more, thank the cook, and move through the cavernous, chaotic, night market.

Small trucks and scooters share the narrow, indoor thoroughfare with pedestrians browsing the cases of each of the local vendors. Someone mentions Sundae. And while a sundae sounds delicious, I’ve been in Korea long enough to know that they are not talking about ice cream and fudge.

Sundae is steamed pig intestine stuffed with glass noodles, the market favorite. Though daunting in its appearance and earthy in fragrance, the meat is chewy and its strong flavor yields to the soft noodles (sometimes rice) and a spicy, chili-based tteobokki sauce. It is often served with pig liver and/or heart. While it could be a meal in itself, I take only a few bites and press on.

pig intestines stuffed with glass noodles

 

There are stands everywhere, each with its own specialty. There is yukhoe, a beef tartare mixed with pear slices and egg yolk, and there is Kalmandu, a brothy hot noodle soup with dumplings cooked in anchovy stock. Maeuntang is a spicy fish stew boiled with an ambiguous recipe but usually is made up of assorted veggies and fish cooked with spices hot enough to make you sweat.

There are the surprisingly tender chicken feet, of course covered in hot sauce, and everywhere you go there is Makgeolli rice wine, served chilled and usually in tin cups. Traditionally this milky elixir, similar in taste to sake, is taken in shots, and as my experience has proven, can disappear very quickly.

 

mung bean pancakes

After a broad sampling of some of Kwangjang Market’s most delicious and curious items, it is time to settle down in one of the restaurants on the market’s perimeter. The restaurant, like most places, is packed. Predictably, within minutes, Gangnam style plays and diners do bashful, diminished versions of the dance.

Men crowd around televisions playing Korean baseball, and unlike in the Korean countryside coast, here, I get a chair. After roaming the market, to sit is a relief, and while I’m getting full, this place claims to be among the best. So good, in fact, that I don’t even order. Food just begins to appear.

The waitress first arrives with the most popular item in the entire market, and besides kimchi, as far as I can tell, in the entire country. Bindaetteok is mung beans (similar to garbanzo beans) that are mashed, mixed with various combinations of vegetables, pork, or seafood, then fried. The texture is more hash brown than pancake, but either way, they are delicious and the variations are endless.

Next is a plate full of jeon, which is similar to Japanese tempura. Shrimp, crab, carrots, mushrooms, onions, and meatballs are dipped into a sweet flour-based batter then fried. You can order specific ones, but in the spirit of all things food, I try every last one and go so far as to get seconds of the crab. Each greasy, unhealthy piece is an expression of fried goodness.

By meal’s end, I am exhausted. I exit the restaurant once again into the chaos of the market, narrowly missing a scooter rushing down the corridor. I notice that the pig snout from my first booth is missing. Someone has clearly taken it home for dinner. I am thankful that no part of the pig was wasted and more grateful still that it wasn’t me who had to eat it. Something about a snout I just couldn’t stomach… even if it is just pork.But beyond that, Korean markets are among the finest.

 

A weed in a city of color

I have to be honest. Korean street fashion has always baffled me. Alright… Bothered me. Especially men’s fashion. Loud skull printed shirts with scarves. Dyed and carefully arranged hair. Eye liner. Thick framed (often glassless) fashion glasses. The males, if not in designer suits (which during the day, most are) Urban Korean fashion is a cataclysmic explosion of tight techno-bright, Jersey Shore inspired, pulsing, bejeweled fabrics and metals designed accessories to ensure that no matter what, if there is a God, no one on the planet, or even any other planet  for that matter, will look like you. Even in the fashion conscious Los Angeles, this aggressive form of Gangnam-style, hyper-peacocking stands out in the trendiest of crowds.

In contrast, I am notoriously a simple dresser. Solid colored tees and jeans is the normal and on a Friday night I may dazzle with a collar and some blue stripes. I make every effort to appear as though I don’t give a shit (though occasionally I’ve been known to drop $60 bucks on a white tee shirt because I like the cut).

While I’m certain that such simple style of dress may conjure a snarky glance at a yacht club or golf course, and probably would make it even more challenging for me to get into (god forbid I would ever have to go) a night club, it is, at the very least, non-offensive. So, per usual, when I travel, I toss in a couple of tees (black, green,  blue… purple for crazy days), a couple of long sleeve tees (also black and blue), a pair of khakis, a pair of jeans and head to Seoul.

When I arrived to Bradley International Terminal at LAX  for a midnight flight, I was sandwiched by fashion. Ahead of me, a guy in tight reddish jeans, giant black frame glasses, a shirt that sparkled, and a scarf. His bag had what I could only describe as Stegasaurian metal notches along its back. Behind me, a variation of this man, albeit different colors, jewels, cuts, etc., of the guy ahead of me, only this guy had on eye-liner and his hair was at least three different shades of red and going in several different directions. Keep in mind… This is what these guys are wearing for a thirteen-hour flight leaving at midnight and arriving on the other side of the world at 5am. The ticket line was peppered with these types of fashion savvy youth, leaving me, a weed in comparison, scratching my head.

Recently, I was in Costa Rica and was floored by the birds. Much like the colorful fish that make their homes on elaborately colored coral reefs, these birds have evolved into brilliant reds, cobalt blues, and rich greens with epic plumage suitable only for royalty, not because of a divinely appointed lineage but because they match their landscape. It wasn’t until after my plane landed and I set foot into the immaculate, neon, radiant city of Seoul did the otherwise flamboyant style of dress begin to make sense.

In a word, Seoul is ebullient. The architecture is so other-worldly that one finds it hard to believe that the valet isn’t parking flying cars. The city is mirrored and glowing, exploding with combustible color and this chromatic fervor extends beyond its buildings to the cuisine, its temples, and is ultimately and primarily expressed through its people. There isn’t a crayon box large enough to contain the hues of this exuberant expression of urbanity. And suddenly, in this techno-garden that is East Asia, I find myself walking down Meyong-Dong, the epi-center of this cacophony, and feel like dusty sparrow in a world of macaws and toucan.

The sidewalks and streets are lined with vendors selling elaborate cell phone cases, bejeweled hats, hooded sweat shirts with animal ears and bunny tails, glasses of impossible shapes and sizes and even anime-covered socks. Even on a Wednesday night, stores bustle with colorfully clad teenagers looking for that next great piece of apparel. It is a virtual sea of electric humanity and despite what I had always believed, in this environment, I love it.

The city and its people have a pulse. It is superlative. It is clean, the people are kind, and if ever were an urban hub where hyperbole infectiously reigns, this is it. It is a grand expression and while I don’t find myself reaching for a pair of Gangnam-style Psy-inspired socks or non-ironic, over-sized Harry Potter glasses, I do find myself thinking that maybe it is time to add a little color to my wardrobe. Who wants to be a weed anyway? After all… I live in Los Angeles.

South Korea and a mind-blowing toilet: The first two jet-lagged hours

By 6am on a Monday morning, traffic on the 25 mile drive from Incheon, home to South Korea’s largest airport, to Seoul is already bad. The daylight is a mere suggestion, but the city, at the dawn of a new week, has announced itself. It is the usual chaotic crossings of centerlines, indifferent honks, and blank faces one might find in any city anywhere in the world. Despite the fact that I’ve spent the last thirteen and a half hours, restlessly twisting and nodding off onto the shoulder of a stranger; a stranger by the way, who had an alarming three passports… (I THINK SHE WAS A SPY), I’m at full attention. I’ve been waiting for this for months.

Blurry Seoul Skyline

My travel companions are travel agents from Veitnam. They don’t speak a word of English. Nor do they speak their native tongue to each other. They just kind of sit silently in the back seat. My cab driver doesn’t speak English or Vietnamese so he plays the quiet game as well.

It is a challenging carload of companions when you are driving into a new city and have a million questions and are absurdly jet lagged. Are the ashy colored ten to twelve story buildings that line the highway for mile after mile all housing? Why does everyone go to work so early? If everyone gets up so early, why are all thousand of the coffee shops still closed? What do these people that are in traffic at 6am doing for a living? What is that thing over there? Is every single person in this t-jam jamming to Gangnam style? Why aren’t we listening to Gangham style? Can you dance gangnam style? Is that gangnam style guy gay? Where are all the KFCs and Starbucks? And seriously…. How much extra do I have to pay you to take me to the DMZ and if you’d take me, what would it take to get a round of golf in with Junior?

Toilet time machine

As the line up of questions never-to-be -asked reaches and exhausted, jetlagged level of absurdity, I’m taken back by the Seoul skyline as it comes into view. It is radiant.

Behind it, the sun rises turning the sky an unworldly pink and blue and the city itself seems to float in a body of water that rests before it (I couldn’t tell you the name of the body of water.. I wanted to ask… alas… language barriers…) The skyline is dignified and less dense than I had imagined. The buildings themselves, feel like they are waking up and appreciating the sunrise. It’s spectacular.

After an hour, I get to my hotel. It is called “Hotel the Designers.” That isn’t a typo. That is the name of the hotel, and despite the strange verbiage, the hotel is exceedingly contemporary and unique. If the hotel in any way represents the superstitious collective conscience of the country, then according to the elevator, they are not into the number four, as the floors skip from three to five. My room should be on the fourth floor… However, not the case. I’m on five.

unlucky number four?

The room is an fantastic enigma. Especially the bathroom. The bathroom, when it comes to the toilet, sink, etc., has more choices than a cheesecake factory menu. The toilet flusher alone has so many flushing and “rinsing” buttons that I’m afraid to use it for fear that by pushing the wrong button, I’ll go back into time. The shower with its levers, heads, and faucets guarantees cleanliness, if you are smart enough to make it work without causing a Noahic flood.

The beds are about half the distance to the floor as my own and despite being a little hard, are incredibly comfortable and there is no window. Well. There is a mirror that you can open one inch. And it looks at a wall. Not really sure what you’d call it. Anyway, despite being nine in the morning, right now, in my room, it feels like night. Kind of like a Vegas Casino. Only I’m alone with me and my fancy bathroom.

As if the standard American remote control hasn’t come to be too much, trying to understand one in Korean is a lesson in resignation. To watch tv, all I can do is turn it on. Beyond that, much like the toilet… I got nothing. I’ve settled, as I write this for first, a Korean game show (they seem to have so much fun!!!) and now a soap opera. So far as I can tell, it involves love, lust, and attractive people who tend to emote more than necessary. Sounds as American as KFC… man KFC sounds good. As long as they also serve kimchi.

I also have a little LCD screen that flashes the views of all of the various (and there are at least fifty) security cameras around the hotel. I don’t know if it is for safety or to satisfy voyeuristic impulses. For me, it functions for both. A lady I watch is confused right now. Ha. And based on the direction she’s going, she doesn’t appear to want to come to my room and kill me. Good… Voyeurism/security. Dig it.

Jungle breakfast!

And as for meals, I’ve had one. Standard Western breakfast in a small also windowless room and the decor is decidedly animal. For its centerpiece, a four foot tall stuffed giraffe munches on the leaves of a fake tree with a equally large stuffed giraffe.  As I chewed on my honeydew, like my stuffed friends chewed on their fake leaves, I thought…. Not the Korea I expected… but I kinda like it.

The rest of my group arrives and we are gathering at 1pm for lunch. Maybe one of them will speak english and be smart enough to explain the many luxurious functions of my toilet. There’s five days and a country to see and if it is 1/100th as curious as the room in which I type this, I’m sure it will be a blast.

Stay tuned for more!

 

 

LA Food and Wine Show Night One: It Begins….

 

Giada De Laurentis signs a bottle of wine for a fan.

Under the frenetic lights of the Nokia Plaza, located in the epicenter of the hip and ever-expanding downtown Los Angeles, affectionately known as DTLA, is the opening of the LA Food and Wine Show. The decadent four-day event spans from downtown across the city to the shore of the Pacific in Santa Monica and features countless chefs from restaurants across California. Chef superstar Giada De Laurentis hosts Thursday’s event, called Giada’s Festa Italiana and it features Italian chefs from restaurants as far north as Big Sur and more than 200 wines from wineries across the world.

While the process is simple, the event itself, is at first, daunting. It is hard to wrap my brain around the availability of 200 wines and food from twenty-eight of California’s finest restaurants. Not to try each and every one would be a colossal slap in the face to foodies across the globe, and while the term “foodie” makes me cringe, tonight, that is just what I am.

By night’s end, culinary delights from such chefs as Matt Molina from Osteria Mozza, Gino Angelini from Angelini Osteria, John Cox from Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn, Danny Elmaleh of Cleo, Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani from Café Frienze, Michael Fiorelli of Mar’sel will be fighting for space in my stomach in a sea chardonnays, merlots, pinot noirs, pinot grigios, syrahs, and tempernios to name a few and while that thought makes me fear for the future, never in my life have I been so eager to live in the present.

The line for a tasting of Giada De Laurentis’ featured dish of the night, Penne with Short Ribs Ragu and Summer Watermelon and Coucous, is long but moves fast. As it does, I sip a Pinot Grigio from an Italian vineyard called Barrymore, owned none other than Drew Barrymore. There are whispers that she might even turn up to pour a couple of glasses herself. To my right, Giada herself poses for pictures with adoring fans and upon trying her Short Rib Ragu, I understand exactly why. Forget that she’s famous. Her food is perfect.

Morro Bay Oysters from the chef of Post Ranch Inn

Some of the dishes are familiar ones.  Others, like Post Ranch Inn’s John Cox get creative, serving oysters with lemon verbena, cucumber, basil seeds and balsamic.  Cleo’s Elmaleh personally hands me a squash blossom with tallegio, honey and truffle. While I don’t have the slightest idea what tallegio is (sorry foodies), my taste buds are pulled into a thousand blissful directions.

As the hot Los Angeles evening turns dark, the event is as packed as my stomach. I bring the night to a close with a olive oil and sea salt truffle from Los Angeles Chocolatier Jonathan Grahm, owner of Compartes Chocolatier and a alcohol infused push up pop (like the ones we had when we were kids, only with booze), courtesy of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, called a Pour Some Sugar on Me. It is made up of Maker’s Mark, Peach Rooibos Tea, pureed peaches, and lemon juice. As I finish this modified version of a childhood favorite, Saturday’s featured chef saunters past me.  It is none other than Wolfgang Puck and if I’m going to eat some of his food, I best stop for now so there will be room.