We Went to Places, We Did Things, We Met the Best Humans

In hindsight, this trip was never actually about “going to places”. Since day one, it had been about people. It was simply meant to be a reunion among a group of close friends that are currently dispersed in different parts of the globe.

The seed was planted in the fall of 2014, when our best friend Luke started planning his trip to Paris with his wife Hyerim. They were to attend the September 2015 opening of the first retrospective exhibit devoted to the works of 18th-century French artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun at the Grand Palais, curated by his uncle, who is a world-eminent specialist of the official portraitist of Queen Marie-Antoinette.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Self Portrait

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Self Portrait

Joe and I had been planning to visit his family in Paris around the same time, as did Fabien and Eujin, while Jiwon and Laurent had just made their big move to Paris. Supporting Luke’s beloved elderly uncle by attending the grand opening of the exhibit would be the perfect excuse for us, living in three different continents, to plan the reunion we’d always talked about.  Timing-wise, things really couldn’t be more perfect.

Our First Night in Barcelona

Our First Night in Barcelona

Over the course of 11 days, we covered a distance that totalled 2,500km. We read menus and road signs in four different languages, three just in Spain. There were two reunions within our own reunion; they stand out as the highlights of the trip.

Lunch with Santiago's Family in Santander

Lunch with Santiago’s Family in Santander

One of the reunions had been completely unplanned. It was so good I cried when it was time to say goodbye.

Patricia's Family Showing Us the Best of Pamplona

The Gang with Patricia’s Family in Pamplona’s Old Town

Oh, and there was food, so much glorious food, from food stalls at local markets to Michelin-starred fine dining. And, even more wine and beer.

Pintxos at Bar Zeruko, San Sebastian

Pintxos at Bar Zeruko, San Sebastian

The flora and the terrain outside our van windows as we made our way from the east to north coast of Spain changed dramatically from semi-arid grassy plains to densely-covered evergreen mountains of the Pyrenees. The weather conditions did their best to keep us on our toes as well; over the span of lunch one day in Santander, the day went from impossibly sunny with not a cloud in the sky to grey and ominous to rain to sunny again. Torrential rain in Barcelona one morning made us leap into the nearest taxi with our bags of hams and cheeses and fruit we had purchased from the market place.

Pissing Down...

Pissing Down…

And, of course, there were minor conflicts of interest along the way as well. Nothing that wasn’t expected.

Fabien with Our Trusted Van

Fabien with Our Trusted Van

When you are constantly on the road, for days, you can almost feel the physical passage of time and it can really distort your perception of it. When we reached Paris–our starting point and final destination–by the end of our 11 days, it seemed to me like we had been traveling for months, not days.

A Morning Stroll in the French Countryside

Fab & Eujin Taking a Morning Stroll in the French Countryside

Now that it is all over, I am grateful that all of us cared enough to have made it happen. I am excited by the new friendships that were formed along the way and warmed by the rekindled old friendships. Both have further confirmed my faith in the pure goodness of human bonds that never really go away no matter the time and distance. If we are the sum of our experiences, I’m sure each and every one of us returned home with an added year, at least, to our lives by all that we saw, heard, tasted, felt and said. And, I am grateful for it all.

Our Final Night Together in France

Our Final Night Together in France

I am slowly recovering from the trip and the long Chuseok holiday that ensued but I will be updating the blog in the coming days as I write my way into those two weeks of September. I hope you are enjoying the beautiful skies and the glorious sunshine that make this season the most beautiful Korea has to offer! (But of course it has to pour down right when I am about to post this.)

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We Are Leaving In Five Days

WE ARE LEAVING IN FIVE DAYS!!! I may have just peed a little writing that.

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We are flying out of Seoul on the 7th, landing in Paris on the same evening and spending a couple of days there, catching up with as many friends and family members as we can. Joe and I will then fly to Barcelona with three friends, one a Paris resident and two who will have flown in from Colorado. In Barcelona, we’ll be met by two other friends who will pick us up at the airport. Over the course of 11 days, the seven of us will drive from Barcelona to the Spanish Basque Country and back to Paris via southern France (where we will be joined by one more friend) through Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. So, I thought I’d do a quick mention of our partners in crime because they deserve it.

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People often ask me how I met Joe. My answer is through these two. Well, more accurately Luke, the big guy in the blue shirt standing on our old porch with his beautiful wife Hyerim.

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Luke and I met at KBS World Radio a few years back. He was working for the English news section and I was a radio presenter in the English section; we became good friends. In 2010, Luke left KBS and transferred to the Seoul studio of Gameloft, a global video game company headquartered in Paris. Joe would also be joining the company later that year in December. Over time, the two became best buds, bonding over three seasons of fantasy basketball and countless beers and dart games. Two years ago, in the spring of 2013, Luke and Hyerim made the big decision to move to Colorado. They are happily settled there, with their newly-adopted pooch Mandoo.

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This photo was taken in the fall of 2012 at Luke and Hyerim’s wedding. I was there and Joe was there. In fact, many of the then-strangers whom I would eventually meet and become good friends with were there. Joe and I still hadn’t met at that point. I would NEVER in a million years have  imagined that my life partner would be sitting right behind me on that day. It still boggles my mind to look at this photo and realize that my Joe had been completely unknown to me at this moment in time. We would meet face to face exactly six months later on a beautiful spring day–a Sunday–at a Mexican restaurant in Itaewon where the members of the upcoming Euro road trip (minus two) got together for a long-overdue brunch. I’d been badly hungover that morning and had almost taken a rain check. When I showed up, late, everyone was there including Joe, a colleague of Luke’s I’d never met.

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This is a photo taken from that day. Round 2 of what ended up being 4: beers on the rooftop. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Jiwon and Laurent are also part of the crew! Here they are at yet another Halloween party Luke invited me to but didn’t go. These two, accomplices to Luke’s master plan to  hook Joe up with me, moved back to Paris last fall. Laurent is also my former work friend from KBS. Jiwon is a badass foodie and wine connoisseur.

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And last but not least, Eujin and Fabien, who have joined me and Joe on numerous weekend trips out of the city. Eujin is an adaptive physical education teacher who is moving to Montreal in late September. Fabien is a video game producer, geekus maximus who gets mad excited over mangas and toys and cars and video games.

Traveling with a group of friends is no easy task. I’ve realized this and not for the first time either. When the members of the party are dispersed in different corners of the globe, coordinating a two-week-long trip together is especially trying. Try planning everything as democratically as possible? It would require dozens of e-mail correspondence just to decide on which car model to rent. However, we’re almost there. Accommodations and restaurants meticulously researched and booked. A couple already on the road with a head start. The rest of us just counting down the hours. 

IMG_20150609_070143Oh, and an unexpected bonus! Last week, Joe and I had the pleasure of being introduced to Lucia and Santiago, a Spanish couple from Madrid traveling through Korea. Over some insanely tasty gamjatang and a few beers on the rooftop, Santiago mentioned that he was from Santander (the capital of Cantabria on the north coast of Spain). When he found out that  we’ll be staying the night in his hometown, he offered to host all of us at his mother’s beautiful centuries-old estate.

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This is a photo of his mother’s place he sent me. How does one say no to that?

We’ll be spending the tail end of summer together, possibly getting on each other’s nerves at times, but just envisioning us eight grown-up kids, traveling halfway across the world, squeezing into some bar in Barcelona on our first night in Spain and getting happily buzzed together is already an incredible feeling.

Still Hungry

I have zero excuses for why I have not written a single entry since December. As in 2014.  Much has changed, but not so much in the day-to-day scheme of things.

Earlier this year, I left a job that was making my life increasingly more miserable. And, since that glorious day in February, my happiness index has gone up exponentially and has thankfully stayed that way. I guess the experience was positive in a way that I now really and truly know that I’d really and truly better do what I love to do, or else. A wake-up call of sorts.

Immediately after I quit, Joe was made redundant by his company HQ in Paris as part of their overseas restructuring. From his office, Joe sent me a long text explaining the situation. First of all, when a man of few words sends you a long ass text, it’s rarely good news. I speak from experience. Then, he made the mistake of ending his message with the words, “Please don’t freak out.” Cue panic mode. I remember looking out the window with a heavy heart and even the sky was an ominous grey that afternoon.

We tried to handle the situation as best as we could by immediately booking a two-week holiday to the Philippines. 😀

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Why mope here when tropical paradise awaits a mere three hours away by plane? It is one of the smartest decisions we have made together. A combination of the blazing tropical sun and the salty ocean water has healing powers like no other. We swear by it. All we did was dive three times daily, look out at the vast Pacific from the boat in between dives, nap, eat good food, read and sleep like babies every night. We returned to Seoul, tanned and healed, ready to battle any shitstorm that blew our way.

I am happy to say that things have been smooth sailing since. Joe proposed in late March! We’ll be having a small intimate garden wedding in Seoul in May, followed by one in Joe’s hometown in Portugal in August, also attended by our closest family and friends. Oh, and Joe got a new job that he loves and he’s never been happier!

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Aside from my regular gigs here and there, I am working on freelance projects. We are leaving for Paris in 12 days for our belated summer vacation that will also take us to Barcelona, Zaragoza, Santander, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Tarbes, Loire and Le Mans. After we return, we’ll be moving to our new home located in my absolute favorite area in Seoul. I am also starting cooking classes this fall with a friend.

Life has never been better, and I am still hungry.

Stinky Cheese Therapy is the Best Therapy

As much as I dread Korean winters, I look forward to it for one reason and one reason only. Cheese. Specifically, raclette cheese! (Well, skiing comes a close second but hitting the slopes during high season entails dealing with half the population of Korea up there on the slopes with me so that’s no fun. I’m old. What can I say?)

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2.5 kilos of raclette cheese (three different kinds including one smoked), an assortment of charcuterie and some cured magret de canard made by my friend’s mom carefully wrapped in cheese cloth. All smuggled back to Korea from France. This photo makes me salivate with joy every time I gaze at it. I’m an animal.

Raclette originated in the Swiss canton of Valais, but is also produced in the French regions of Savoie and Franche-Comté. The word raclette derives from the French verb “racler,” which means “to scrape”; the raclette cheese round is traditionally heated in front of a fire and scraped onto plates.

Traditionally, Swiss cow herders used to take cheese with them to work and in the evenings, around the campfire, they would place the cheese next to the fire and, when it reached the perfect softness, scrape it onto some bread. These days, ready-cut cheese slices are brought to the table and each slice is melted/browned in small individual pans by diners over an electric table-top grill, then poured over the food on the plates.

Raclette cheese is commonly accompanied by platters of boiled or steamed potatoes and charcuterie. Raclette dining is a relaxed, casual and social affair and can often last several hours.

This was me and Joe just the other day in front of the TV, catching up on the latest episode of Black-ish while watching (and listening to) the cheese bubble away. Our first raclette party of the season and it certainly will not be the last.

Joe and I purchased our raclette grill last year and have hosted a number of raclette parties since. Pre-sliced raclette cheese is available in Seoul at foreign food marts around Hannamdong and Itaewon as well as department store food sections.

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This is the most common brand of sliced raclette cheese I’ve seen here. But, you can also order some very decent raclette cheese from France Gourmet–made with locally-produced milk–as well as select high-end delis that handle imported charcuterie and cheese. The grill itself I ordered on G-Market.

A word of caution, though. Unless you want to go to bed with cheese funk, make sure to shut your bedroom doors before you fire up your grill as your entire house will reek of cheese after a raclette meal.

Crack open a Pinot Gris or a Riesling and you’re good to go! Happy (cheese) days!

Winter Cravings: Got Soup?

I’m going to refrain from using the word “lazy” and instead go for “busy” to describe the whirlwind that was the full month and ten days since I last wrote. We had close friends visiting from Colorado and New York, two important weddings (and related before and after celebrations) as well as our best friend’s birthday party in November. We were out most weekdays and weekends, eating (a lot), drinking (a lot), getting full, getting drunk, and bed-ridden from exhaustion and hangover on those rare times when we were actually home. On top of that, Joe was hit by a car about a week ago while picking up a friend from the airport, fractured his leg and is on crutches for the next seven weeks. Boo. 😦

I’m looking out the window as I write and hearing the wind howling and seeing the first snowfall of the season flying in all directions. It’s hardly beautiful. Not in the sprawling grey concrete mess of high-rises that is Seoul, anyway. However, I am willing myself to feel motivated, not because of the snow, but because it’s the last month of the year and I’ve been consistent with updating this blog I started back in May and I have so many overdue posts I need to publish I don’t even know where to begin.

I was on the beach just yesterday with my toes in the sand, my trusted Kindle and my chilled beer by my side and then BOOM. December cometh.

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For me, when it comes to cravings, there are those perennial ones like a bowl of pho or sushi or a good pizza or kimchi jjigae or even something as humble as a toasted Vegemite and chips sandwich. Then, I get those seasonal cravings as well: a steaming bowl of manduguk in a flavorful beef broth, chilli con carne, raclette (it’s stinky raclette season! oh, JOY!!), rich pastas. Fish cakes on sticks in hot broth, say, is a winter favorite.

I took this photo in Haeundae back in October during the Busan International Film Festival. 상국이네 김밥 is one of the many snack restaurants along the Haeundae traditional market alley that offers typical non-expensive bunsik fare such as tteokbokki, kimbab, sundae, deep-fried seafood (deep-fried everything) and fish cakes, but they do everything right.

Made with mostly the meat of white fish, these fish cakes have less of the dense starchy texture and more of a springy texture when you bite into them. If you ever go to Busan during the warmer months, get a take-out box with an assortment of deep-fried calamari and shrimp, buy some ice-cold beers and head to the beach. Perch yourself on the sand, take off your shoes and snack on the impossibly light crispy battered morsels of seafood while listening to the waves and sipping your beer. Good times.

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If fish cakes in hot broth isn’t your thing, how about a bowl of szechuan-style dandan noodles in a rich lamb broth that will blow your mind with its flavor explosion this winter season? Head over to the Chinese enclave located outside of Daerim Station on subway lines 2 and 7. Walk out of exit 12. You will see signboard after signboard written in Chinese; if you’re illiterate, like myself, ask for 봉자마라탕.

FYI, the restaurant only offers a Chinese menu. I’d read in blogs that the restaurant offers a translated version of the menu in Korean, but it’s a way simplified version of their original extensive Chinese menu on the wall. They have rice dishes, stir fries, dumplings and noodles, meat and seafood dishes but their signature dishes are malatang and dandan myeon featured in the photo above. Here is the address.

봉자마라탕 – 서울시 영등포구 대림동 1057-68

Bongja Malatang – Yeongdeungpo-gu Daerim-dong 1057-68

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Or if the mere thought of venturing outdoors becomes terrifying this winter, try making this at home: my mom’s kimchi jjigae with pork spareribs. Have I mentioned that my mom is a phenomenal cook? Living abroad, my sister and I grew up watching, from as far back as we can remember, my parents host dinner parties left and right. She was a legend, her creations hailed by VIP guests visiting from Korea, neighbors, fellow expats, our teachers as well as our friends alike, as some of the best things they’ve ever eaten. My sister and I used to be the envy of our friends whenever they came over for birthday parties mom used to throw for us–sushi rolls, egg rolls, her Chinese-style savory and sweet steamed buns (made from scratch), crispy soy chicken wings, shrimp toasts, mini corn dogs, home-made chocolate-glazed doughnuts.

Last weekend, I went to my folks’ house for lunch and this was bubbling away on the stove. I’ve already shared this photo on Facebook and friends have been asking me for the recipe. I haven’t had a chance to make this myself, yet, but the trick to making this is to marinate the pork spare ribs in a gochujang-based sauce with:

– gochujang

– garlic

– mirin

– chopped scallions

– sesame oil

So, this is pretty much your standard gochujang bulgogi marinade minus the soy sauce and sugar. You need just enough marinade to coat the ribs. Let the ribs season, preferably overnight. Remember that too much marinade will make the jjigae too salty. For 4 servings of jjigae, mom used about 12 pieces of ribs.

Chop the kimchi into bite-sized pieces. Place it in a bowl and drizzle the cabbages with perilla seed oil. Massage the whole thing with a gloved hand so that the oil and kimchi are completely incorporated.

Make a quick stock with some dried anchovies (the large kind used to make stock, not those teeny tiny ones used to make banchan with) and a palm-sized piece of dried kelp (dashima in Korean or konbu in Japanese).

In a large pot, place the kimchi at the bottom with the ribs and stir-fry over medium heat. Make sure the kimchi doesn’t burn or caramelize. Pour the stock, just enough to cover the ingredients in the pot and boil until the cabbage is soft. Steer away from pouring in too much stock at once as you can gradually add more; bland watery kimchi jjigae is so bleh. To test whether the ribs are nicely cooked, use a pair of tongs to pull away the meat from the bone. If it shows signs of detaching itself from the bone, it’s ready.

With a hot bowl of rice, this is the ultimate Korean-style soul food you’ll eat this winter.

Beach Day Pig Day

This is my final post on our trip to Portugal last month but, hopefully, it will not be long before our next Portuguese adventures.

When we’d booked our flights to Portugal back in August, we’d intentionally selected the dates so that our stay specifically coincided with the annual Festa do Leitão held in the city of Águeda which entails, among other activities, five days of eating roast suckling by day and enjoying live music entertainment by night. The region known as the Bairrada, which encompasses many of the local civil parishes, is famed for its vineyards and wine industry as well as its suckling pig.

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The morning after our arrival in Bolfiar, we woke up to overcast skies, but a day at the beach had been planned the previous night, so we decided to risk the weather, packed everything into Patrick’s car after breakfast and headed to Costa Nova. By the time we reached Aveiro, the skies had cleared and this endless blue was what greeted us upon our arrival at the beach.

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Oh, joy! The Aveiro Light, also known as Barra Light, is an active lighthouse that opened in 1893 and the tallest in Portugal. On a side note, Una is one of those people who radiates positive energy. Her spirit is infectious and I’m so happy her work schedule got cancelled at the last minute so she could join us on our trip.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOH YEAHHHH. Two happy kids ready for a bathe in the Atlantic. The thought of home is far and away.

SAMSUNG CSCOh look, a bar.

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And, look who’s at the bar. That right there is Joe’s happy face. From a scale of one to ten, that’s a ten right there. Also, that standard 300ml local draught (fino) costs one euro.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeach time. Everyone brings their own parasols here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter some sun and a deliciously cool dip in the ocean, it’s finally time for pork. We headed over to a restaurant that specializes in suckling pig owned by one of Joe’s distant relatives. So exciting.

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Local pastry shaped like suckling pigs filled with the meat of roast pig. YUM. These we found at a bakery in Águeda.

SAMSUNG CSCWe decided to take out half a pig and eat it at home. We paid  50 euros for the pig which the five of us feasted on that evening and still had enough leftovers for two more meals.

SAMSUNG CSCLisette cutting up the pig with a pair of shears. I can still hear the skin go crackle crackle crackle.

SAMSUNG CSCAs was expected, the pork was tender, juicy and seasoned to utter perfection.

SAMSUNG CSCIn Portugal, it is tradition to serve roast pig with freshly sliced oranges. Here, oranges are to roast pork what kimchi is to samgyeopsal and bossam  in Korea. They both help cut the richness of the meat in a way that works so well.

SAMSUNG CSCAnd some cheese for dessert because there is always room for cheese. This is fresh local cow milk cheese that is similar to the Italian mozzarella. It’s really good with a sprinkling of salt and fresh pepper.

SAMSUNG CSCOn our last day, we walked to the river, the heart of Bolfiar, just down the road from Joe’s place where he spent many a childhood summer days swimming with his cousins and friends.

SAMSUNG CSC Having moved around so much growing up, I can’t help but envy this–a place where he can return to time and again and everything is still the same.

SAMSUNG CSCThe village church, whose bell goes off every half hour, no matter what time of day. Like Joe said, one gets used to it. By the time I did, it was already time to leave.

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But, not before a visit to the village cemetery to say hi to Joe’s grandparents.

SAMSUNG CSCJoe and Lisette.

SAMSUNG CSC Joe and Patrick.

SAMSUNG CSCThe family.

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See ya later, Portugal. We’ll be back.

Eat Your (Canned) Fish

It’s been a month since we got back to Seoul and I’m still blogging about Portugal. Too busy, too lazy, both. I’ve already talked in detail about the plentiful and cheap fresh fish and seafood readily available in Portugal. I’ve also talked about bacalhau, dry salted cod which constitutes an important part of the Portuguese meal.

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What you’re looking at are beautifully packaged cans of local fish. So what? Canned fish = hardly appetizing, right? Also, why eat canned fish in Portugal, of all places, when you can find fresh catch everywhere? Weird. Or, so I thought.

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Turns out canned fish has gone gourmet in Portugal in recent years. In Lisbon and Porto, the two largest cities in the country, gourmet canned fish shops have popped up all over the city. I’m talking about restaurants where you can sit down and order canned fish as a meal as well as walk-in groceries where you can buy all manner of canned fish and seafood from a wide range of brands.

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Like Loja da Conservas, a newly-opened delicatessen we happened to walk into in Lison. I was amazed to find that every major manufacturer in the country were represented here, each one profiled on a series of information panels displayed between the shelves.

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Written in both English and Portuguese, the text offers a summary of the companies responsible for canning the fish, when they were founded, their location and their brands. As a purveyor of premium seafood, this store also sells eel, trout, anchovy, squid and octopus, mostly preserved in olive oil. Some are seasoned with lemon, tomato sauce, curry, cloves and various pickled vegetables.

Ramirez, the first commercial cannery in Portugal (and the oldest in Europe), opened in 1853 in  Setúbal, which eventually became the center for sardine canneries. By the mid 1980s, there were around 150 canning factories in Portugal, producing around 34,000 tons a year, making the country one of thge largest exporters of canned fish in the world. However, there was a huge decline in the canning industry in the the 90s and the number of factories plunged from 152 to just 20. That changed following the recent economic recession in Portugal, as canned fish were cheap and, hence, more people started eating it again.

SAMSUNG CSCCanned fish is now in fashion in Portugal and producers offer boutique brands of the highest quality fish, adopting traditional methods and packaging, recreating the colorful and enticing kitch retro labels that were once popular back in the iconic period of canned fish.

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This particular shop is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. Check out their adorable totes and other giftable items, if canned fish just doesn’t appeal to you.

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Sol e Pesca is a canned food themed hole-in-the-wall bar that was featured on the Lisbon episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” which also happened to be just around the corner from Loja da Conservas from where we’d just shopped. I’d marked this place down a few days earlier while browsing through different websites and it seemed, at the time, like something fun we could check out. We were intrigued but more skeptical and mostly hungry from exploring the city that morning. So, we got a table outside and asked for the menu.

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The interior. You get the idea. We ordered five to start with: smoked mackerel, smoked trout, octopus, stuffed squid in chili oil and sardines in a spicy tomato sauce.

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Smoked mackerel and a basket of bread.

SAMSUNG CSCSo, how they serve the fish is they remove the contents of the can, dress the fish with good olive oil or chili oil and garnish it with fresh herbs like cilantro and green onions and serve it with a wedge of lemon.

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House-made chili oil with dried piri piri. So good.

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Smoked trout. And, stuffed baby squid in chili oil.

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The verdict? We really enjoyed the meal. So much so that we walked away with a bunch of canned fish as souvenirs to bring back home.

The fish were surprisingly fresh and flavorful. A side of salad, a basket of good bread, some canned fish and cool beers turned out to be a memorable lunch and it definitely helped change our perception of canned food.

Would we go back? Definitely.