I was at the Gukje Market in Busan, a huge street market that sells, among many other things, a variety of street food. Nothing was particularly catching my eye until I saw a restaurant on the outskirts of the market serving up some seriously delicious-looking fried chicken. Korean fried chicken (or, confusingly, KFC for short. I was on a food forum once, and someone was asking where the best KFC could be found in Toronto, and I was thinking “uh… at… KFC…?” until I realized he was talking about Korean fried chicken) is kind of a big deal. So I figured I’d check it out.
By the time I realized that this place only served enormous plates of fried chicken meant to be shared among multiple people, I was already sitting at a table and felt like I was committed, so I just went for it and got the original/spicy combo plate. I ordered a beer, too, because if you’re going to eat a sharing plate of fried chicken by yourself, you may as well be drinking a beer.
And yeah, as I suspected, it was a ridiculous amount of fried chicken for one person. I did my best — I ate most of the spicy chicken, and made a small dent in the original. The rest I brought back to the hotel to eat later.
Sadly, though, it wasn’t the fried chicken perfection I was hoping for. It was fine — it particular, the sauce on the spicy chicken was sweet, spicy, garlicky, and delicious — but it was all white meat with a few wings thrown in, and it was overcooked and dry.
It’s also cut in that typically Asian style of chopping up chicken into small, ostensibly bite-sized pieces of meat that aren’t actually bite-sized, because if you try to eat them in one bite there’s a very good chance you’re going to end up crunching down on some configuration of bones and/or cartilage. But it’s almost impossible to tell what’s what when it’s battered and fried like this, so you just have to take tentative little bites until you figure out what’s going on inside of each piece, and then try to navigate around tiny little bone shards and cartilage fragments.
Sorry, everyone in Asia, but the way you cut up chicken is absurd. Either give me deboned bite-sized chunks, or give me full pieces that I know what to do with. There is no third option.
It’s an eerie place to wander around (the fact that I only saw about three or four other people while I was there added to this feeling). I’ve been to other graveyards, but there was something about this one that was particularly grim, and oddly moving. There are over 2300 graves here, mostly for young men who were barely old enough to buy a drink.
On my way to the cemetery, an old man in a park stopped me and asked me where I was from. When I told him Canada, he thanked me for Canada’s contributions to the war, and it’s like, jeez, don’t thank me. If I had been alive in the ’50s, there’s no way I would have fought in that war. There was no draft for that one in Canada, but if there were, I can pretty much guarantee you I would have dodged it. No thanks.
But Canada is one of the bigger presences in this cemetery, with hundreds of graves and even a statue to commemorate its soldiers.
And there was someone else at the cemetery who, I’m sure, would have joined me in my hypothetical draft-dodging. This guy:
Me and cats — lookin’ out for number one.
A bowl of cold noodles that are so chewy you have to cut through them with scissors before you can eat them probably doesn’t sound all that compelling to you. You’re just going to have to trust me: they’re super delicious.
What about dumplings? Yeah, everyone likes dumplings.
Well, you can get both — and that’s about it — at Choryang Milmyeon, a popular restaurant in Busan.
It’s traditional-style seating here, which means you’ll have to take off your shoes and sit cross-legged at a low table.
Ordering was accomplished via the usual arrangement of pointing and nodding; easy enough since they only serve noodles and dumplings, and I got both.
As soon as the dumplings came I knew that I had over-ordered. An order comes with six tennis-ball-sized dumplings that were filled with pork (I think), and that were seriously delicious (I’m much more confident about that).
Then came the noodles. This is a Korean dish called jjolmyeon that’s made with a special type of noodle that’s about a hundred times chewier than the norm.
It comes looking like this:
Then you take the scissors to them and mix them up, and they wind up like this:
It’s so good. The intense chewiness of the noodles is fun to eat, and the flavour of the spicy, slightly sweet sauce is only amplified by the temperature.
It was all really, really good, though sharing the dumplings is advised; I finished everything and I was profoundly, uncomfortably full. Totally worth it, though.
The store in question is the Centum City location of Shinsegae, a Korean department store. And it is impressively large. I’m not sure how much of a sense of scale you get from those pictures, but it is an imposingly monolithic structure that was even bigger than I assumed it was going to be.
Cavernous, multi-level department stores are a dime a dozen in this part of the world, so on the inside it doesn’t look all that much bigger than the norm. But then there’s the certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records which confirms that, at an area of 3.16 million square feet, this is indeed the largest department store in the world.
But of course, what really interests me here is the food hall in the lower level (try to act surprised).
Most of the menus at the various vendors here were entirely in Korean with no pictures, so I basically just wandered around until I saw a dish on one of the counters (waiting to be picked up) that looked good, then I pointed to it.
Ah, pointing; my old friend. Here’s a hot tip for you: when you’re traveling and you don’t know the language, pointing is as good as gold. Just look around for something that looks good, then point. Of course, if you’re a picky eater or you have food restrictions this could end badly, since you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to eat, but otherwise it works great.
I wound up with bibimbap in a hot stone bowl, which is a Korean rice dish that comes like this:
Then you mix it up, and it winds up like this:
It’s so great. There’s a really inviting mix of flavours and textures here, and the piping hot stone bowl crisps up the rice around the edges. If you’ve never had bibimbap, you need to fix that immediately. It’s pretty much the opposite of an acquired taste; I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.
I’ve eaten some pretty awful stuff at McDonald’s over the last few months; McDonald’s in South Korea has single-handedly made up for all of it. It was actually kind of bizarre how good everything was.
First up: the Bulgogi Burger (bulgogi is a Korean dish featuring grilled, thinly-sliced beef or pork that’s been marinated in a special sauce). The first thing that stands out here is the burger itself; it’s made of pork instead of beef, and had a pleasantly tender texture that’s kind of like a McRib patty, but better. The patty is completely covered in the sweet, tangy bulgogi sauce, and topped with lettuce and mayo. It was actually quite good.
The next thing I tried was the Supreme Shrimp Burger. The patty here is kind of odd — it has whole pieces of shrimp, bound together by… more shrimp? I think? Ground shrimp? The whole thing is breaded and fried, and it was way better than I was expecting it to be. The shrimp itself had a really great texture; I was expecting it to be dry and rubbery, but it was actually quite well cooked. The exterior is nice and crispy, and it’s topped with lettuce, tomato, and a slightly sweet sauce with a bit of a kick. This wasn’t just good for McDonald’s — it was legitimately delicious.
The last thing I tried was the Double Chocolate Waffle Fries. This one is straight-up bizarre, and I was fully expecting it to be gross. Basically, you get a plate of plain chips (they call these waffle fries, but they’re thin and crispy throughout — they’re chips), along with a packet containing white and milk chocolate sauces that you pour all over the chips.
I’d like to note that the design of this packet is kind of ingenious — you just fold it in half, snapping it open, and then you dispense the sauce by squeezing the two halves together.
This was so much better than I thought it was going to be. The chips were fresh, crispy, and barely salty at all, so they were a surprisingly good vehicle for the chocolate. And the chocolate sauce was actually pretty tasty — it reminded me a lot of Nutella, only without the hazelnut flavour. If you’ve ever had chips dipped in chocolate, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect here. It’s weirdly delicious.
The whole neighbourhood is on a pretty serious incline (I’ll admit that I got so winded walking up a particularly long and steep hill on my way there that I legitimately wondered if I was going to have a minor heart attack), and all of the houses have been painted in various vibrant colours.
Most of it is just a regular neighbourhood that people live in, but there is a road going all around the area that has coffee shops, food vendors, and random quirky stores and murals.
The main appeal is just looking at it from afar, but it’s a neat area to walk around in, too.
One of the specialties in Busan is a soup called dwaeji gukbap — pork and rice soup. There’s a whole stretch of road in the Seomyeon area of town that features nothing but one restaurant after another that specializes in the dish, so yeah, it’s a big deal here.
I picked one pretty much at random (I did have a recommendation, but the signs were all in Korean, so I had no idea which was which), and went in to get my soup on.
They love including pictures in their menus here, which is a boon for clueless travelers like me, because I can just point to what I want to eat.
The soup is an elaborate affair, coming with several bowls of condiments (and the requisite kimchi, of course). It’s a bit bland at first, but once you start adding the various pastes, vinegars, and add-ons, the soup really comes alive.
It’s incredibly hearty, too, with a ridiculous amount of very tender, thinly-sliced pork, and a heaping amount of rice. It’s a really satisfying lunch.
Many of the toilets in this part of the world, particularly in China — even the ones in touristy places like museums or the airport — are of the squat variety. If you’ve never encountered one of these things, it’s basically a porcelain hole in the ground.
Proponents will tell you that squatting is actually a more natural position than sitting to do your business, and maybe that’s right, but I just can’t do it. There are so many ways it could go wrong.
I actually came close to being desperate enough to use one at one point– but then I had a grim, Dead Zone-esque premonition in which I lost my balance mid-squat and fell over, and that was that.
After visiting the Jagalchi Market, I was walking along the nearby vendor-festooned alley looking for something seafoody to eat. When you visit a country’s largest fish market, you’ve pretty much gotta eat some seafood. It would be weird if you didn’t.
I eventually found a stand with a few benches set up that had three big vats of stew they were serving up. There were a couple of ladies eating something that looked quite hearty with noodles, so I sat down, pointed at their bowls, and I was off to the races.
The owner of the stand got a bowl, filled it with some noodles, topped it up with stew from one of the bubbling pots, then finished off the bowl with a heaping spoonful of some kind of chili paste, and another spoonful of minced garlic. She added a bit more broth on top, and then handed me the bowl.
Given the proximity to the Jagalchi Market, I had assumed this was going to be a seafood stew of some sort. It was not. My disappointment quickly faded away, however, when I realized how delicious it was.
The stew was filled with huge chunks of ultra-tender beef brisket, blood cake, leeks, and the aforementioned noodles, all in an intensely flavourful, sweat-inducingly spicy broth. It was so good. And for only 4000 won (less than five bucks Canadian), it was a pretty amazing deal.