Cheesetastic – Acting out for a Korean TV show

For any of you that read this blog regularly you’ll know that there is never a dull moment in my life in Korea. This week, yet again, has so far proved to be eventful…and it’s only Tuesday!! So yesterday evening my boss came bursting into the staff room and asked me and my colleagues if we would like to have a free traditional Korean meal in return for starring in a Korean TV programme. Of course we agreed immediately, without knowing any further details! Who are we to turn down a free meal.

An hour later we were informed it would be filmed the following evening in a 5 star restaurant in Incheon and that ideally they wanted 7 other foreigners to join us. Within an hour I had rounded up 7 friends who also work as English teachers in Paju, and we were all excited about our mini adventure the following evening.

Now, having just returned from Incheon minutes ago, I shall fill you in on what it’s like to be a “real life” actor! We all gathered outside my school at 8pm, and after some last-minute panic about not having a Korean translator with us, my boss managed to persuade 3 of my higher level students to join us. The fact that they would not have to attend their maths class that evening, would have an excuse not to do their homework, and would potentially get home after midnight was enough incentive for them to be our translators for the night!

The restaurant where our night of acting took place!

The restaurant where our night of acting took place!

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Top marks for presentation!

After a 40 minute ride to Incheon we arrived at the restaurant and I must say we were all VERY impressed at the sight of it. It looked more like a traditional Korean temple than a restaurant and we were all very excited to go inside. We were greeted by lots of traditionally dressed servers and from the MINUTE we entered the restaurant, the cameras were pointed at us, the fake smiles were put on standby and nervous laughter filled the air. This was a first for everyone and we really had no idea what was going on!!

We were led upstairs into a really beautiful traditional Honuk building where we were seated on the floor around beautifully laid tables of 4. Within minutes plate after plate  of carefully prepared  dishes arrived ranging from salads, spicy vegetable appetizers to whole fried fish, steak, grilled galbi meat, raw fish salad, seafood soup, noodles, flavoured rice, sweet rice cakes, and everything in between. It was a meal fit for royalty and as we were all starving we tucked in without delay. As we picked at and tried out all the various delicious spread out before us, a staff member approached us and put beautiful wooden necklaces around our necks as a “welcome gift”.

There wasn’t much time for relaxing though because soon we had an oversized camera shoved in our face, as the producer asked us to perform various tasks in front of the camera including; eat large chunks of meat and telling him how delicious it was; picking up over-sized portions of noodles with our chopsticks and making various sounds conveying pleasure; laughing and smiling at each other like we were having the time of our lives and repeatedly saying how delicious the food was and beautiful the restaurant was!

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The lovely man who gave us all a welcome gift!

Delicious Korean Food.

Delicious Korean Food.

He interviewed each of us individually asking what we thought of the restaurant, what we thought of the staff, if we liked the food, what was our favourite dish and much MUCH more…all of which had to be translated by our poor students as the producer didn’t speak a word of English!

The food really was some of the tastiest traditional Korean food I have ever tasted and I was proud of myself for trying everything even though I would not normally go near fish or seafood soup. We even tried dishes that were totally new to us and were oblivious to what on earth was inside them.

korean food

Fighting over the mouth watering fish!

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Being interviewed while eating!

Once the meal was over we were ushered downstairs where the group was dressed up in traditional Korean Hanbok, asked to parade around in a mini fashion show, while the producer recorded us taking pictures of each other, laughing hysterically, jumping and prancing around like idiots and again saying how wonderful the experience was and how we LOVED Korea so much. Don’t get me wrong…it was an amazing experience but it was SO tiring having to keep repeating things for the camera and to keep a smile on our faces for over 2 hours!

It really was one of the most bizarre Tuesday nights I have had in quite some time. The TV programme will be aired on KBS at 6pm this Friday, and I personally am going to be mortified to see my face on camera. Oh well, no regrets eh?! 

hanbok korea clothes

hanbok fashion show

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Dak Galbi – Step by Step Guide

Step 1: Place cabbage, rice cakes and spicy chicken mix onto hot plate.

Step 1: Place cabbage, rice cakes and spicy chicken mix onto hot plate.

Step 2: Cut up the spicy chicken

Step 2: Cut up the spicy chicken

Step 3: Let the magical goodness cook for 10-15 minutes

Step 3: Let the magical goodness cook for 10-15 minutes

Dig into some of the more unusual side dishes such as shredded cabbage, mayo and cornflakes!

Dig into some of the more unusual side dishes such as shredded cabbage, mayo and cornflakes!

More of the delicious side dishes to accompany the meal

More of the delicious side dishes to accompany the meal

A shot of soju is a great way to start the meal!

A shot of soju is a great way to start the meal!

Food is ready, DIG IN!

Food is ready, DIG IN!

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The Seoul-Mazing Race

Shouts of “I”ve got a bottle of VODKA..whoop whoop!!”, despite having just signed a race waiver that forbade the possession or consumption of alcohol, was a pretty good indication of how the day ahead was about to pan out; full of rule breaking, alcohol consumption and endless high spirits!

Usually, spending my saturday dashing on and off trains, buses and cars and running all over Seoul as fast as my little legs can take me would be a SATURDAY FROM HELL.

However last Saturday was an exception. It was the date of the Seoul-Mazing Race, similar to “The Amazing Race” which I’m sure most of you are familiar with, but organized by NEH magazine in Seoul.

Our Geumchon crew

We started off in Yeoido park, bottle of vodka for one team, bottle of whiskey for the other…Rehydration is VERY important when running a 10 hour race around a jam-packed city on a scorching hot, summer’s day!

My team; Cindy, Jennifer and Myself lined up next to the other 34 teams, pumped and ready for a day packed full of challenges and surprises. CJ, the race organizer had given us our first clue (he told us, “your first clue is over there. You will find a bag of rice cakes which you MUST finish before we finding the next clue…)

BAM, suddenly he had lowered his arm and the teams were off. A stampede of Elephants racing across the park in search of a bag of dry, tasteless rice cakes. I too would have been with them if I hadn’t tripped over within the stampede and lost my shoes…! Great start, I know.

As one of the last teams to reach the rice cakes, it appeared there were no rice cakes to be found. What was first confusion and frustration quickly turned to delight when we were simply whispered the next clue and didn’t even have to eat any stinky rice cakes. Ka-Boom…we jumped in a taxi and were off to Noryangjin Fish Market for what which we knew would be a nasty eating challenge.

Me, Jennifer and Cindy "Geumchon Crew"

Eating fermented Skate fish..Bones and all GO JEN!

En route we landed ourselves with the coolest taxi driver ever, who proceded to sing a korean rendition of “Oh Danny Boy” once he heard I was from Ireland! Was such a hilarious journey I was sad to leave him as we leapt out of the taxi to be greeted with the smell of putrid seafood, raw fish and other awful smells one associates with an enormous fish market.

The challenge was to eat a full plate of Sambap; which is supposedly a “Korean Delicacy”, consisted of raw, fermented skate fish, fatty pork belly and spicy, fermented cabbage. As I don’t eat seafood and Cindy pulled her Vegetarian card, this challenge was left to Jen. As we saw her struggling and were anxious to get out of the rotten smelling market as soon as possible, we picked at the plate, flicking bits of foul smelling sambap over our shoulders whenever nobody was looking, until we eventually had an empty plate and were handed the next clue. SUCCESS! 

Next we had to jump on the nearest bus (after quickly deciphering the Korean hanguel and deciding it was going in the right direction!) to challenge number 3! We ended being guided (in reality in was more like chasing after!) by a beautifully dressed Korean Lady, who we ran after for 10 minutes straight through a high class department store and down into a place called “I heart Dalki”, a sort of creche/bakery inside the shopping centre. Here we had to pick a random child and get them to play charades with us guessing the words we were acting out…random was the name of the game here..seriously random.

On the subway..again!

One of our clues

1 subway ride and one crazy bus ride later and we reached our next challenge spot…the Kimbap challenge! (think of a large sushi roll or rice and veggies wrapped in seaweed)..where each team had to make two kimbap rolls and sell them to randomers on the street. This was pretty hilarious watching waygookins running around trying to push badly made Kimbap on innocent passers-by. Bit of a disaster for most teams who ended up just giving money from their own pocket to pay the Kimbap restaurant owner as nobody would pay for their crappy rolls!!

Fast forward through the “impossible to find” pit stop, a REAL pit stop in Burger King which could have cost us the race (no other teams stopped for lunch..! whoops!), a photo challenge in Gangnam, a tour of the Kimchi Museum and getting pelted by water balloons by my lovely team mate as part of a challenge in Jamsil Park, another quick rest stop and we were on the home straight!

Cindy rolling Kimbap for us to sell!

Back on the Bus!

Next up was a mad dash in yet another mental taxi to a TapHouse near Itaewon where we got some nice cold, home brewed beers to make the last stretch more bearable! There were 6 challenges left and 6 challenges that would very nearly make us crack. Very nearly make us quit, drop out, go home, scream, vomit, who knows what it nearly did to us!!

First off was “The writing is on the wall” challenge in Insadong were we spent close to an hour waking around a spiral, 4 storey, outdoor market, in which the walls were plastered in grafitti and we had no ide what exactly we were looking for. Definitely the hardest challenge of all.

Eventually, after calling some buddies for help, we found the blue scrawlings and were on root to challenge number 11...the story of King Sejong! Here we had to enter the underground Museum and write out names in Korean using a traditional method then we had to pay our respects to the long deceased King.

Next up was one of the worst challenges of the day. As a team we had to consume a full tin of SILK WORM LARVAE. Usually even the smell of these creepy crawlies makes me want to vomit, but this time it was even soaked in their juices which was no help to my gag reflexes. Jen to the rescue again, helped by me and Cindy periodically filling our pockets with the grotesque smelling and foul tasting bugs, in a lame attempt to empty the can without really having to eat any!! Another SUCCESS!

Yuck Yuck Yuck

And onwards to the last challenge of the day…the beer tasting challenge! “I’ll take this one girls!”, I told my team mates! 5 beers later and I easily identified the mystery beer I was given. We even opted to sit in the restaurant drinking more free beer instead of rushing off to the finish line…at this stage we weren’t bothered in what position we finished aslong as we made it to the finish line! The finish line, ended up being in AN IRISH BAR(!!!) way south of the river which meant another half hour trip on the subway and another mad taxi ride, only to arrive in 18th place out of 35 teams! Not bad, not bad for a team of dossers, eh? 

We may not have won, we may not have completed all the challenges perfectely but one thing we did do is have a FANTASTIC day! It was one of the most fun, crazy, random things I have ever done and I will jump at the chance to do similar AMAZING RACES in the future!

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Top 5 Korean Foods You Have To Try

galbi korea korean food

This is the first in a new series of posts entitled “The best of Korea” which I plan on posting weekly. Thanks to the great response to my post “The Food, The Bad and The Ugly“, which was about the “not-so-good” dishes they serve up in this fine nation. This first post will be all about what I LOVE about Korean food, “Top 5 Korean Foods You Have To Try!”

No 5 – Samgyeopsal

Samgyeopsal is a traditional Korean dish mainly consisting of very fatty cuts of pork, which diners cook themselves on a grill in the centre of the table. It is accompanied by Kimchi, yellow radish, garlic, lettuce leaves, peppers, spicy soup ,salt n pepper sauce and rice too if you request it. This stuff is seriously tasty, but try find a place that does the least fatty cuts as sometimes it can be a bit much.

No 4 – Ddukbokki

When I first arrived in Korea I detested these squishy, stodgy rice cakes, believing them to be the spawn of satan. (Mainly due to the fact the ones I had were drowning in spicy pepper paste!) However as time goes on I am loving these little rice cakes more and more. If you are lucky, and they are cooked with some Tak Galbi for just the right amount of time, they are melt in your mouth sensational!

No 3 – Shabu Shabu

A boiling broth of vegetables brewing at the centre of the table, the perfect meal to warm you up on a cold winter night. Add a plate of delicious, thinly sliced beef to the hot-pot along with chinese cabbage, mushrooms and onions and you have yourself a feast. But WAIT..there’s more…along comes the bowl of delicious noodles which are added to the mix and it is topped off, last but not least, with some hot and steaming rice. When all is said and done you can drain the remaining soup from your bowl and be happy at having just consumed a 3 course meal, all in one. Mmmm shabu shabu.

No 2 – Dak Galbi (Chicken)

I had this for my birthday dinner and simply cannot get enough of the stuff. Dak Galbi is a mixture of chunky, marinated chicken pieces, chinese cabbage, rice cakes and hot pepper sauce, as always, cooked on a big hot plate in the centre of the table. Looking at all the delicious ingredients slowly cook is maddening as you just want to dive in and gobble it all up. A great dish for sharing with big groups and can be topped off with fried rice mixed into the leftovers and rolled up in snack size rice rolls. Deliciousssss.

No 1 – Galbi

Undoubtedly THE most popular dish in Korea. Galbi (Korean for ribs) can be either beef or pork and is cooked on a charcoal grate in the centre of the table. Getting to cut up big slabs of prime cut, raw meat with a scissors is a cultural experience in itself! Add to that up to 20 tiny side dishes( which will always appear, whether you ordered them or not) in which you can spend and age trying to figure out whats what! From tofu to radish, up to 5 different types of Gimchi, different sauces, a variety of vegetables, lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, sizzling soups, garlic, jalapeno peppers…you name it, they have it! The best type of galbi restaurant is one where you pay a set amount (10,000 won which is only 6 euro!!) and it is all you can eat! I meat lovers dream!

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Kimchi is to Korea what Potatoes are to Ireland

Kimchi is to Korea what Potatoes are to Ireland. It is an absolute neccesity. It is a part of their culture, a part of their lives and they would be lost without it. Now, thanks to bad weather and sky-rocketing prices Korea is on the brink of a Kimchi Crsisis. Napa cabbages and Radish, the two main ingredients to make Kimchi, are in high demand. 
 
The price of the precious vegetable has climbed over  fourfold over the last few weeks, from about 2,000 won up to 15,0oo won or more for a single head of cabbage. Queues of up to an hour long can be seen at the local farmers markets in central Seoul, as women wait patiently in line to buy the imported Chinese cabbage at a reduced price. 262.6 tons of Napa cabbage, the first batch of a 1,500-ton deal, has been imported from China to ease the shortage of the staple vegetable dish. The shortage has pushed the price too high for some customers to justify buying it while other people are buying it in bulk because they simply can’t live without it.

Woman queuing for hours to buy the coveted cabbage

 When I asked my boss’s wife what she would do without Kimchi she replied, “I can’t imagine eating a meal without Kimchi.” “It’s a part of my life, I think I would die without it”, she laughed. I can see where she is coming from. In Korea,Kimchi is served with every meal, similar to our love for Potatoes in Ireland.

Restaurants usually give it away as a side dish for free, although in recent weeks some places feel the need to think twice about this, and charge a nominal fee. Last week, when a friend and I went out for dinner in Munsan, the chef came to check if we wanted Kimchi or not with our meal, so that it would not be wasted. We did the right thing  and said no, saving the pungent cabbage for people who actually like the taste!

According to some newspapers, there have have been reports of cabbage rustling in rural areas, which is pretty crazy if you think about it and I also heard a man got arrested for stealing a few heads of the much coveted vegetable!

Would you pay 15,000 won for this cabbage?!

My boss says the governement and a huge river reclaimation project they have been working on is also to blame. The project, which involves reclaiming much of the land around Koreas major rivers and setting up a canal system, greatly supported by korea’s rich businesses, has meant the land where vegetables used to be grown is no longer available.

Korea’s population is ever increasing but the land mass is remaining the same, thus there simply isn’t enough space for Koreans to grow enough food to feed their 40 million odd population.

An assortment of Kimchi dishes

The Kimchi shortage, in my opinion, could actually be a blessing in disguise. The huge levels of consumption of the spicy side dish had lead to mass cases of stomach cancer amoung the Korean elderly. The cabbage, which is fermented in hot red chillies, is eaten by kids from a very young age who contibue to eat it up to 3 times a day for the rest of their lives.

The acidity in the food is extremely bad for them and should really only be eaten in small doses, not daily with every meal. Although realistically, cabbage or no cabbage, the Koreans will no doubt find substitute such as radish or cucumber to mix with their spicy chillies which they continue to eat religously.

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