Food & Drink

From Vagabondish.com: How I Fell in Love with Turtle Island in Fiji in Just Five Days

Recently I spent five days with my fiancé in Fiji at the all-inclusive Turtle Island Resort, a privately owned island in The Yasawa Island chain. My experience at Turtle Island, from its spacious Grand Bures, complete with personal attendant, known there as a “Bure Mama” to its ingratiating, multi-talented staff and fourteen private beaches can best be described as falling madly in love….

Get the full story here at Vagabondish.com.

Small island off of Turtle Island

Small island off of Turtle Island

Oaxaca, Mexico, El Silencio, and the spell of mezcal

Shortly after 8pm, in an amiable haze, I leave the first of many Mezcalerias I will visit over the next three days and step out into the dry air of colonial downtown Oaxaca, Mexico. Immediately, I am swept into a percussive, frenzied parade of colorful spinning skirts, twirling giants, and brassy horns playing traditional Mexican music through Oaxaca’s narrow cobblestone streets. Caught in the spirit of mezcal and all things Oaxaca, I join the candlelit procession of reds, yellows and greens, having faith that wherever such a kaleidoscopic parade ends, an exponentially larger fiesta shall begin….

Oaxacan parade

Oaxacan parade

From small second story balconies, families watch and wave. At every intersection, more Oaxacans join us. The Latin-infused melody of spritely horns and buoyant tubas repeats, growing louder and drums beat with greater intensity as we make our way toward the town square. There, in front of La Iglesia De Santa Domingo, we will join with other celebratory processions from other parts of town in one massive mezcal-infused celebration that can only be described as Oaxacan.

Famous not only for mezcal but for its cuisine, the state of Oaxaca itself, is an underrated cultural Mexican destination. Famed for Oaxacan cheese, complex moles and seasoned grasshoppers, Oaxaca is one of the world’s best-kept culinary secrets. Oaxaca City, located in the state of Oaxaca, is a day’s drive through agave-covered mountains to the beach.

La Mezcaloteca, Oaxaca

La Mezcaloteca, Oaxaca

crickets and worms

crickets and worms

Lining the perimeter of the square, under a full moon, vendors hawk fruit juices and balloons. Elderly women sell tamales, an exotic variety of worms and grasshoppers while the men cook arrachera (skirt steak), over an open flame, chopping the meat and filling tacos and tortas until late into the night. While it is easy to fear gastro-intestinal problems, my greater fear is missing out on some of Oaxaca’s finest street foods, so I eat and then it is time for more mezcal.

Mezcal, known for its soulful properties, is an ancient agave-based spirit, exclusive to the state of Oaxaca. Unlike its cousin Tequila, also an agave-based liquor made only by one type of agave, Mezcal is strictly artisanal. Mezcal is made from more than 30 different kinds of agave, and is always locally grown and distilled by fire, hand and horse. Mezcal’s passionate, leathery, uplifting flavor is subject to change based on how it is cooked and what agave is harvested. No matter the method of preparation, Oaxacan mezcal is as enchanting as it is ever-present throughout the Mexican state.

carne asada

carne asada

Mezcalerias, like La Mezcaloteca, are small local family owned bars that can be found throughout Oaxaca. These intimate Mezcalerias have limited seating; serve only, and I mean only, mezcal and the bartenders are extremely well versed in the roots of their particular brand. While La Mezcaloteca and the rest of the Mezcalerias are inviting, given the artisanal nature of the spirit, if I want to truly grasp the spirit, I’ve got to curb my consumption for the evening and then extend my visit outside the city limits into the high Sierra Mountains to the distilleries and the agave fields

Fausto and his team of jimadors

Fausto and his team of jimadors

where the process begins.

Forty-five minutes outside of Oaxaca City, I come to the modest village of San Baltazar Guelavila. Here, Los Angeles based entrepreneurs Fausto Zapata and Vicente Cisneros, distill El Silencio, their increasingly popular brand of mezcal that began as a simple passion project and has quickly begun to appear in some of the premiere cocktail lounges in the United States.

It is here, at a small Palenque, or mezcal distillery, where El Silencio uses more than fifty local hires and a horse to ensure that their product makes its way from the rattlesnake-infested agave fields, to the distillery, and into the bottle before being shipped to the United States. All of this is done under the watchful eye of Master Mezcalier Pedro Hernández, a ninth-generation “Maestro Mezcalero.”

Harvested agave at el palenque

Harvested agave at el palenque

If the previous night parade was an example of Oaxaca’s urban hysteria, the perilous trek into the Sierra Madres could only be described as rural pandemonium. Along with several Jimadors (the men who harvest agave), their machetes and various other impossibly sharp tools, I load up in the back of well-worn flat bed and we begin to zigzag along sinuous ridgelines and narrow, rocky mountain roads.

With little to hold on to, it is easier to stand for balance in the back of the truck, which teeters and totters along an ever-narrowing road. I keep my eyes open for tree branches crossing the road ahead. The tree branches are heavily spiked, home to spiders, and while we are moving at less five miles an hour, no amount of mezcal, no matter the quality, could fix an unanticipated tree branch to the face.

As the last bastions of tire tread give way to an irrationally rocky, unmarked, Martian-like path toward the agave fields, we still have almost an hour to go. As we make a turn, the truck nearly capsizing, I learn the real meaning of the word sideways.

The sun is merciless and the bottle of water I brought may soon simply evaporate. All I can think of is death, an impeding crash into a cactus-lined ravine followed by dehydration induced hallucinations brought mercifully to end by the bite of a poisonous rattlesnake.

Mature agave, a jimador, and the truck

Mature agave, a jimador, and the truck

I consider the mezcal I consumed the previous evening and then the Jimadors who risked their life to harvest it, and for a moment, I feel guilt. Then notice them with all the cajoling and careening, they are laughing and having the time of their life… So what’s my problem?  I guess it’s all worth it for the drink.

Any semblance of humanity has now vanished. A duo of buzzards circle and I’m scratched up. Having narrowly avoided death, I am also invigorated as we make our way from small agave plants along a hillside to the mature ones.

Agave when ready for harvest is between ten and twelve years old. With the agave’s spiny leaves, a blazing arid sun and armed militias of angry bees, removing the thick leaves is a laborious, dehydrating, often painful process. Not to be shamed, take off my sunglasses, grab a machete and, bees be damned, go to town on some agave leaves.

Under the watchful eye of the El Silencio donkey staked a few yards away, the thick agave leaves are hacked off and discarded until all that remains of the once six-foot succulent, is the giant pineapple at the core, also known as the piña. This is then extracted, rolled and loaded onto the back of the truck and taken back to the distillery.

Jimador cooking the agave

Jimador cooking the agave

The labor-intensive process repeats until the Mexican sun finds repose and the tumultuous ridgeline ride back to El Silencio headquarters begins. Before we take off, Fausto pulls out a bottle of El Silencio and we taste a drink. With my foot on an agave pineapple, as it burns its way down my throat, I look out forever into the Sierras and taste a lot more.

Back in the truck, and having survived the first trip up the mountain by simply standing and ducking branches there is now the added challenge of an eighty-pound agave pineapple rolling around as we traverse our way back to civilization, but with a little liquid courage, the ride is far less daunting.

We return to the Palenque, ax-wielding employees hack furiously dense, sticky pineapples into quarters. Once the harvest is appropriately hacked, the pieces are loaded into a hand-dug hole filled with volcanic rock and burning mesquite wood. The choice of wood dictates the mezcal’s flavor. Once the pineapple pieces have filled the smoldering hole, the pile is covered with a tarp, then three inches of soil and left to cook underground for seventy-two hours.

Upon completion, the pieces are moved into another pit to extract the cooked sugars. A scrappy horse pulls a giant

El Silencio bottling process

El Silencio bottling process

grinding stone in circles, crushing the pieces of pineapple until the charred remains of wood are merely a sticky pulp. The pulp is then mixed with spring water and fermented, turning it into an agave wine at which point, it begins making its own alcohol.

Finally it is distilled. The alcohol is vaporized and ultimately twice distilled and held to an intensive taste test done only by the Maestro Mezcalero to make sure that it meets the El Silencio standard. Once it has passed the test, it is bottled on sight by local women, boxed and put in storage where it waits to be shipped to the United States.

Under the shade of the Palenque, we join the villagers and the team from El Silencio for carne asada and a variety of several moles so complex that each is worthy of it’s own story. The village is alive, as it has been for centuries with the spirit of mezcal.

As I marvel over the spread and slow sips of mezcal, I notice that the sun is setting, and as I look out into the Sierras as Mexican sol dips away, I also realize that somewhere out there, under the watchful eye of the El Silencio donkey and the fledgling agave plants of mezcals to come, are my sunglasses.

The following night, there is no parade. The streets of Oaxaca are emptier, and though they are, now there is so much more there. We make our way to a rich mole dinner to close out the day. I’m sunburned, dehydrated and elated. As we walk, I look into the Mezcalerias and watch as mezcal is poured. That night, poolside, as we toast the successes and the journey of the day, I know that the mezcal with which we toast has had a journey of its own… But it’s not just a journey. It’s a parade… A giant, timeless, parade. And where that parade ends, the fiesta begins.

El Silencio, poolside

El Silencio, poolside

 

Matthew Kenney’s RAW Cooking Intensive: A carnivore’s journey into the world of meatless cooking

The kitchen at Matthew Kenney Culinary School, a raw cooking school in Santa Monica California is well lit and immaculate. Each workstation is a testament to sterility and function.  In front of me, in addition to an assortment of stainless steel mixing bowls, chopping devices and measuring spoons is an avocado, a grapefruit, and a bulb of fennel, some fresh mint, macadamia oil and some coriander. When assembled, this grapefruit fennel salad will be the forth dish I will learn to make on my maiden voyage into the world of the culinary arts.

Matthew Kenney's RAW Intensive

Matthew Kenney’s RAW Intensive

What makes this otherwise, overly equipped teaching kitchen capable of producing dozens of dishes most interesting is that despite having enough gadgetry to make Sur La Table green with envy, there is no stovetop or oven. There is neither a Crockpot nor a Dutch oven. In fact, unless a fellow student at this weekend intensive is a smoker or a Pyromaniac, one is as likely to find the tooth fairy in this kitchen as an open flame. Matthew Kenney’s Culinary School, associated with his acclaimed restaurant MAKE, located next door, is completely raw. Not vegetarian. Not vegan… Raw.

All his innovative dishes are made up of organic fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and in order to protect precious nutrients and enzymes from breaking down due to exposure to heat, nothing served will ever reach a temperature of more than 118 degrees.

And while this kind of culinary experience may have appeal to those already committed to an organic diet free from anything that has ever walked, swam or otherwise consumed oxygen, wrapping my meat loving brain around this idea was a struggle. Especially because I come from the school of thought that you could consume four score and seven pounds of veggies but without a piece of chicken or a pork chop, you’d just had the salad course.

Even the boldest and most well executed dishes where soy attempts to masquerade as a rib eye ultimately feel like a feeble attempt to pass off an animatronic cocker spaniel as the beloved family pet.  Many times, I’ve left vegan restaurants marginally satisfied, but never have I left proclaiming that the “not-fish” fish dish tastes better than the fresh seared tuna that I could have had at the Santa Monica Fish Market right down the street.

RAW workstation

RAW workstation

And building on my marginal disdain for such a drastic lifestyle modification, might I add that rarely have I had a conversation with an individual fully committed to any of the half dozen or so variations of a plant based diets where when the conversation ended, I didn’t feel like I’d just parted ways with the altruistic, health obsessed version of fully committed doomsayer. Not to say that all plant-based eaters want to convince you that their way is better, but many do with a Scientologist’s certainty.

So naturally, the idea of indulging on a complex multi-course meal made up of a creative arrangements of nutrient dense, fresh nuts and vegetables, served raw and never prepared at temperatures higher than 115 degrees seemed slightly off-putting. That said, back when Pearl Jam was releasing their first album if you had told me that I would eat tongue, I would have said you were insane and now, as I write this, just thinking of a lengua taco from Ruben’s Taco Truck makes my mouth water so I figured, let’s give this rabbit food a dance.

Two hours later, after eating at MAKE, my attitude toward this type of meal changed entirely. So much so in fact, two months later, having never taken a cooking class before in my life, I committed twelve hours of a weekend to learning the process….

Fennel and Grapefruit Salad

Fennel and Grapefruit Salad

Our instructor is named Sean. His focus is to teach the small class how to make as many varying types of dishes using the greatest variety of organic ingredients as possible. Within an hour, I have created chocolate brownie dough from scratch and watched almonds, after being blended, turn in to milk, then used to make a smoothie. The milk, in our case made from almonds, is then flavor balanced to taste (something else I learned!) with a pinch of salt, dates for sweetening and a hint of vanilla. Coconut oil can also be added not only for flavor but because it adds healthy fat, which in a raw diet, just like any other, is important as it helps the body absorb other essential vitamins.

As the day goes on, we are introduced to different fruits and vegetables as well as kitchen equipment and terminology. Juicers, blenders, food processors and dehydrators all play important roles in constructing our dishes. As do knives, mandolins and various chopping techniques. Rather than making raw food, if you had told me my day would involve the terms chiffonade (a chopping technique) and that I would be using a mandolin (tool for slicing), I would have envisioned a bluegrass festival. And yet, here I am making a zucchini tartare, touched up with a touch of agave and a hint of lemon juice, and enjoying myself.

Chipotle Kale salad

Chipotle Kale salad

While Sean’s dishes look like masterpieces, mine look like a toddler with a box of crayons got impatient with a coloring book but I am proud none-the-less. Having eaten each and every dish I made, I am beginning to feel like I am capable of making something beyond a steak or a ham and cheese sandwich. Not only that, and perhaps most shocking of all, despite only eating uncooked things that grew from the soil of the earth, I’m also starting to feel full.

By the intensive’s end, I have made beet ravioli, zucchini tartare, a grapefruit fennel salad, a gazpacho, multiple salads, brownies, tarts, smoothies and juices among other things. Narry a dish trying to pass itself off as a steak or seafood dish anything else but what it is.  Healthy and delicious. My body feels clean and I’m more comfortable with a kitchen knife. While I have no intention passing on the ribs next time someone invites me to a barbeque, I know that if it is a potluck, and there is already enough meat, I’ll be able to make something a lot healthier and it will blow some minds.

For more information on Matthew Kenney’s RAW weekend intensives, go to http://matthewkenneycuisine.com/education/santa-monica/weekend-intensives-enroll/

In the meantime, here is a recipe from the Intensive for Heirloom Tomato Lasagna from the Intensive….

MACADAMIA RICOTTA

1 cup soaked macadamias

¼ cup water

2 teaspoons nutritional yeast

½ teaspoons lemon juice

¼ teaspoons salt

Blend all ingredients until completely smooth.

PISTACHIO PESTO

1 cup basil leaves

¼ cup spinach leaves

¼ cup pistachios

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon lemon juice

Pinch of freshly ground pepper

Pulse ingredients, except olive oil, in a food processor until well combined but still slightly chunky. Gradually add oil last while food processor is running.

RED PEPPER MARINARA

½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, soaked 1 hour

1 medium tomato, de-seeded and roughly chopped

½ shallot, chopped

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons olive oil

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoons red chili flakes

½ red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

Squeeze out excess water from sundried tomatoes.  Combine everything in food processor except oil. Gradually add oil last while food processor is running.

ASSEMBLY

1 zucchini, ends trimmed

1 heirloom tomato

2 baby heirloom tomatoes

fresh thyme                                

fresh basil

olive oil

salt

black pepper

Cut zucchini in half and slice lengthwise 1/8 of an inch thick using a mandolin or sharp knife. Toss zucchini strips with a pinch of salt, black pepper, olive oil, and thyme. Set aside while gathering other components.

Cut 2 thick slices of heirloom tomato and set aside.

Place 3 strips of zucchini on a plate, forming a square. Spread a layer of marinara on top of the zucchini slices. Place 2-3 dollops of pesto and ricotta on top of the marinara. Cover with a tomato slice. Place 3 strips of zucchini on top of the tomato slice. Repeat the previous steps for the second layer. Garnish with halved baby heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil leaves.

“What was in those pancakes?” or “When a wall isn’t just a wall…”: The Little Swiss Cafe in Carmel, CA

I had anticipated that the secret ingredient to my pancakes at The Little Swiss House in downtown Carmel, California would be something exotic. Perhaps the vanilla extract came from a rare Tahitian orchid harvested only by Aries between the hours of 2am and 4am on clouded nights when the moon is waning.

Carmel, with its elf-like cottages and ancient cypress trees, is an enchanted beach town that conjures up images of elves and magical fairies. Perhaps the secret to these dreamy flapjacks arrived by way of hobbit from Middle Earth. There had to be something esoteric that made these airy, almost crepe-like cakes so special.

“The reason the pancakes are so good here is that we add extra water to the batter and keep the skillet really hot,” my waitress tells me.

I take another bite and consider what she has just revealed. Heat and a couple of lousy hydrogen molecules chained up to a molecule of oxygen are all that separate these ethereal cakes from the likes of bisquick? Clearly the secret to the pancakes at this quaint local breakfast joint isn’t one to be shared.

The Little Swiss Cafe, a family run restaurant since 1972, is a lunch and breakfast spot located on the corner of 6th Avenue and Dolores just off of Ocean Avenue and specializes not only in pancakes and the usual breakfast fare but also cheese blitzes, Swiss Sausage and liver and onions. No matter what you get here, it is good.

Just off of the Carmel’s main drag, The Little Swiss feels very much as though you have stepped into a tiny eatery somewhere in the Swiss Alps.  It is divided into two rooms. In the front room are a couple of small tables looking out onto the street. The back room is a small, square room with several tight, upright booths.

The walls of this snug room are painted with murals of the Swiss countryside, each wall reflecting a season. At a glance, the landscape seems benign, if not slightly cliché and in disrepair. Duct tape carelessly hangs in the sky above one of the landscapes and on another, a nail, once intended to hang a painting, protrudes from the wall. At least that is how it appears… In truth, there is much more going on.

But if one were to try to remove the duct tape, they would be quick to discover that the duct tape, stringy on the edges and muted silver, is actually painted on the wall. So is the nail. Caught off guard by this peculiar artistic ruse, my eye begins to wander across the European countryside and as it does, what was once a fairly straightforward mural becomes a joyful exercise in observation.

Duct tape… Or is it?

The wintery mural at a glance, features a frozen lake surrounded by some humble cabins and inns. One of the Inns, however has a tiny Motel 6 light on it. On one of the logs coming out of the water rests a parrot. A matador with a red cape antagonizes a bull in a field of cattle. Gollum hangs out in a tree. A seal’s head pops out of a crack in the lake. A penguin reads a sign on the water’s edge that says “No Diving.”

The wall representing spring features a river running through a field of beautiful flowers. In the river, a shirtless man, with his hat on backwards, flyfishes for trout. Puss and Boots sword fight over a log. Shriek and his girlfriend Fiona soak in the stream and the couple from the classic Grant Wood painting American Gothic hang out in one of the rows of flowers while a tennis net stretches across another row of flowers and on either side of the net, two people engaged in a match. In the distance, barely visible is the Eiffel Tower and just a hop, skip and a jump from there, the leaning tower of Pisa.

What all can you see here?

There are more than fifty images playfully hidden in the landscapes painted in 2005 by artist Andre Baylon. By reputation, a serious artist, Baylon, born and raised in The Netherlands, currently shows his more serious work down the road at Jones and Terwillinger Galleries. At The Little Swiss House, however, he let his imagination run wild, much to the delight of both locals who call this eatery their own as well as tourists from all over the world.

Under the watchful eye of the old couple from American Gothic, I finish my pancakes. As I leave, I notice on the mural a strange man in the bushes smoking a cigarette. Above him, a flock of birds heading straight to where I once thought was a nail protruding from the wall. One of the birds is upside down….

Like the pancakes, it is too good.

Full and inspired, I head into the day. I glance into the bushes outside, now half expecting to see a gargoyle stoically eyeing me. Above I notice the clouds. One seems to be shaped like a car. In another, perhaps I see the face of a lion.  A car whizzes by and for a second, I think it might the driver might just be Mickey Mouse. As I take a breath of the Carmel salty sea air, there seems to be more to the world than there was an hour ago and I can’t help but wonder… What was in those pancakes?

Look closer….

 

 

 

 

 

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.