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Seoul Food Safari: Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Japan

New year’s resolution: revive food blog.

I published 14 posts in 2015, a little bit more than one per month, which is actually not that bad but I think I can do a lot better. I blame the strange and uncharacteristic fitness kick that took over my life in the summer… spent all my spare time run-walking and didn’t eat out that much. I don’t know what came over me. But thankfully, I have now entered winter hibernation which means a lot less moving and a lot more eating.

The smart thing to do would be to trash everything in my backlog and just start from my most recently eaten meal… but the very very small OCD part of me can’t bear to just let all these photos and experiences disappear into oblivion. So I’m gonna do a few quick photo-dump bulk-blogging posts to clear my library and actually get things up-to-date here. Because these places are still worth posting about, provided that they still exist.

I noticed that most of my backlog consisted of international food spots, so I’ve dubbed this series “Seoul Food Safari” and today our tastebuds travel to Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Japan. Click on the name of each restaurant for address and Naver map!

1. Samarkand Restaurant, Ansan (technically not Seoul but . . . eh.)


On our second visit to Ansan, we had dinner at Samarkand which is an Uzbek restaurant that comes highly recommended by everyone on the internet who has written anything about good food in the Ansan area.

The waiter greeted us at the door and didn’t seem to want to let us sit inside. “Inside? Smoking only outside.” Because we clearly look like pack-a-day kind of people. I blame Matt’s long hair and facial scar (actually from chicken pox).


It’s a small cafe-style restaurant, with an Uzbek mini-mart in the back. Walls decked with traditional Uzbek clothing (still in their plastic cover? maybe it’s just the owner’s drycleaning…)

I always get really confused about how to order at these kinds of restaurants. It feels most natural to speak in English because obviously I can’t speak Uzbekistani but it feels so weird to speak Korean (my second language) to another non-Korean person. But EVERY SINGLE TIME my English gets blank looks and I end up just awkwardly pointing at menu items. And then I overhear the waiter speaking fluent Korean to another table and feel like an idiot.


Prices have gone up in recent years, but they’re still pretty reasonable. We ordered the Plov on the recommendation of an Uzbek friend who always talks about how much he misses it.


Plov (also known as pilaf in other cultures) is a very simple dish of seasoned rice, carrots and lamb. The rice is incredibly flavourful because it’s actually cooked on top of the lamb and carrots in a dutch oven, infusing it with all the stock and spices.

The servingware here is beautiful too.


We also got Samsa which is huge triangle-shaped pastry packed with a meat and onion filling.


I LOVE meat-filled pastries, but they sadly do not form part of Korean cuisine (the closest thing would probably be fried dumplings). But these really hit the spot after being long-deprived of my Aussie meat pies and sausage rolls. I really liked the mix of spices that were present in each dish – relatively mild compared to Asian or Middle-Eastern cooking, but still gave every mouthful a very distinct and interesting flavour.


We ended our meal with some barbecued lamb skewers which were charred and juicy and amazing. Lamb is the rarest of the meats here (most Koreans hate the smell) so its always a special treat and whenever I eat it I always exclaim something like “LAMB! I almost forgot how delicious you were!”

I knew absolutely zero about Uzbek food before this meal but I really enjoyed it. It was somewhat similar to the Middle-Eastern food that I know and love, but was also a new experience in itself. If you’re not keen enough to travel to Ansan, the goods news is that there’s a Samarkand Cafe in Dongdaemun that is also pretty well known (very close to Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station). I’m not sure if it has the same owner, but from the photos I’ve seen the food looks almost identical. Totally worth a visit if you’re sick of Korean food and want to try something completely different.

2. Lie Lie Lie, Yeonnam-Dong 


In my quest to find the best Vietnamese pork roll in Seoul, Lie Lie Lie is the current frontrunner. It’s a tiny shop hidden in the alleyways of up-and-coming “hot place” Yeonnam-dong – an area next to Hongdae that is brimming with cool little shops, cafes, and eateries.

This place is great for a number of reasons. Firstly, all the bread is freshly baked daily on premises.


Here is the oven to prove it.


This is the closest thing I’ve found to the Vietnamese rolls from the “hot bread” bakeries in Sydney. While I do love banh mi served in a classic french baguette, this is the kind of bread that defines “pork roll” for me.


Second, they stock cans and cans of the essential ingredient: LIVER SPREAD. Pork roll is not pork roll without the dodgy pâté, but this is the first banh mi place I’ve found in Seoul that actually has it. Pâté has a flavour and texture that Koreans wouldn’t typically enjoy, so I understand why places don’t bother with it but without the spread, whatever you’re selling isn’t banh mi; it’s a banh mi-inspired sandwich.


They have four different types at the very good price of 5,500 won and of course I happily paid the 500 won extra for the chicken liver pate. I was only really interested in the cold cut version, but I was with a friend who had never tried banh mi before so we ordered three different ones for the sake of variety.



The grilled chicken and spicy pork banh mi were both really good (the spicy pork one tasted a bit like Korean-Vietnamese fusion) and all the essential vegetable components were present:


Cucumber, carrot, pickled radish, fresh chopped chilli, spring onion, and coriander. They could be a bit more generous with the fillings, but hey, at least everything was there and nothing weird was added (I’ve had some banh mi here with iceberg lettuce. That’s no-no.)


The best BY FAR was the cold cut w/ pâté. The only thing missing was the maggi sauce, so it wasn’t quite the lovely, messy, sauce-soaked experience of a Sydney pork roll but it was more than good enough to satisfy my cravings.

A word of warning: the rolls are quite small. One roll per person is not enough for lunch – we were quite happy with three rolls between the two of us but I could easily polish off two myself if hungry enough.

There are a couple of other banh mi joints on my radar, and if any other place manages to beat Lie Lie Lie on flavour and authenticity, it will for sure make an appearance on this blog, don’t worry.

3. Fukuoka Hamburg, Hongdae

I have learned to embrace the hamburg “steak” – the minced beef steak substitute enjoyed in cattle-poor nations, otherwise known as a “patty” or “rissole” in places where red meat is more of a staple than a luxury. It is sad excuse for steak, but it does the job when my belly craves beef but my wallet can’t afford it.

I first had hot-stone self-cook hamburg in Tokyo and I loved it. Every bite of fatty hamburg is perfectly cooked to your liking, still sizzling from the magic stone. It’s also just a fun eating experience, and having individual cooking stones feels much more refined than grilling meat in a barbecue grill built into your table.

I found this place after watching two characters go on a date here in a Korean drama. The drama sucked, but at least it led me to Fukuoka Hamburg – a trendy chain restaurant that has a few locations around Seoul These photos are from about six months ago but I actually went back the other day and it was just as good as I remembered.


This is the “egg garlic” hamburg that comes on a bed of scrambled egg and garlic chips. You can also just get egg hamburg, egg cheese hamburg, or the PREMIUM egg cheese AND garlic hamburg. You can get the hamburg steak without the egg too, but why would you?

The steak comes in XS, S, M and L sizes and even as a pretty big eater, S was enough hamburg for me (even without any rice!) The self-cooking forces you to eat quite slowly, so I was quite satisfied by the end of it.


You not only get your own personal cooking stone, each person also gets their own smoke ventilation pipe. And if your hot stone starts to cool down, they give just replace it with a new one.

Safety tips: DO NOT TOUCH THE HOT STONE. Not even when its cooled down. And wear the disposable aprons they give you if you want to protect your clothes from sputtering beef fat.

It’s on the pricey side for casual dining in Seoul (starts at around 10,000 won for S size) but it’s 100% hanwoo from cattle bred and raised in Korea – so the quality of the meat and the self-cooking makes it taste so much better than your everyday hamburg. And none of that gross ketchup/Worcestershire sauce nonsense that hamburg steaks usually come swimming in.

The first time I had Fukuoka Hamburg, I ended up at a Japanese dessert cafe by complete coincidence. We were just wandering around looking for something sweet and came upon Be Sweet On, a really adorable cafe that does house-made Japanese style desserts.

Seoul is generally very good at desserts, but most cafes just have a variety of pre-made cakes and/or bingsoo. This place is unique because it serves these beautifully made-to-order desserts that look like what you’d get as the final course at a fancy restaurant.


This is the Mont Blanc -puréed chestnuts with a quenelle of dark chocolate ice cream.


And this is the tarte tartin – puff pastry with vanilla cream, caramelized apples, vanilla ice cream, and a thin apple chip on top.

This place ain’t cheap but they’re the prettiest desserts I’ve had in Seoul.

So that’s it for this instalment of Seoul Food Safari. In the next episode, we take our bellies to China, Britain, and Hong Kong. See you then!

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Eating Like Fat Pandas in Gwangju and Damyang

Visiting different cities throughout Korea is kind of like time-travel. You always start in Seoul, which represents present day (or even the future, if you’re from a small town like Sydney, Australia) and then depending on which city you choose, you can travel 5, 10, 20, 30 years back in time simply by catching a train.

Korea has a unique story in that it went from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest within the span of 50 years. Seoul is the city that leads the charge in terms of wealth, innovation, development and westernisation, while the other cities play catch up, some faster than others. I hear that Busan is not far behind Seoul, but other cities seem to be in much less of a hurry to build a Starbucks at every corner and replace clear sky with high-rise apartments. They are happy to live a simpler life drinking instant coffee, residing in humble brick villas that are only a few floors off the ground.

Gwangju is one of those cities. I went there to visit a friend, and as soon as my bus drove into the bus terminal, I was surprised to feel something a lot like culture shock. It seems ridiculous to experience culture shock simply by traveling from one city to another in such a small country, but I don’t know how else to describe it. It looked and felt like Seoul 20 years ago, the one I visited when I was a kid in the 90s. And it dawned on me that even after only living there for a few months now:

I had become an elitist Seoulite.

I was now in a city where people actually stared at me with wonder because I spoke English, and I felt a little bit uncomfortable. But you know the best way to break the ice with an unfamiliar city? With food. Yes. It only takes one meal to change your attitude from “I don’t know how I feel about this place” to “I could live here forever”.

My friend saw the discomfort in my face and, because she knows me well, quickly took me to her favorite restaurant (even though it was late in the evening and we’d both already eaten dinner).


When working in a Korean company, it is the norm to go out to dinner and drinks after work with colleagues almost every day. You get very familiar with “late night food” like fried chicken and jokbal (족발 = pig’s trotter). Jokbal is usually served seasoned and steamed with some dipping sauces, but this place marinates their jokbal in a really rich spicy sauce. It is her late-night guilty pleasure.

We ordered the mild “one chilli” version (see menu below).
I’m pretty good with spicy food, but people from Gwangju must have tongues and stomachs made of steel because this was actually painful to eat. Really tasty but SO spicy that we were sweating and almost almost had tears coming out of our eyes. Even all the pickle they gave us and my bottle of cider didn’t soothe my burning mouth.
We doubled checked that they had given us the right degree of spiciness, and the waitress was adamant that she had. Man, if that was the “one chilli” version I wouldn’t event want to be within a 10m radius of the four chilli version!!! That stuff will burn a hole right through you!!

The next day, we took a thirty minute bus ride to Damyang (담양), a country town that is famous for its bamboo forest. This was like travelling another 10 years into the past. Was walked down a long, dusty road of shops and restaurants, which all looked like tiny family-owned businesses – no sign of the urbanisation and Samsung-isation that is everywhere in Seoul. I’m ashamed to admit that I started to think, “What good could come from this godforsaken town?”

We turned a corner and then all of a sudden we met this long, leafy stretch of pure picnic.


It is the famous “Damyang Noodle Street” (담양국수거리) – one side is lined with restaurants and the other side is lined with trees and bamboo mats for sitting, eating and chillaxing.




I was so excited about eating noodles on a bamboo mat under the sunshine that we ordered WAY too much food.



The noodles were simple – the first one served cold, in a refreshing, spicy sauce, and the second served hot in a dried-anchovy based broth. They also sold eggs boiled in chinese medicial herbs (한방약계란 – I love that I live in a country where you can buy boiled eggs at a restaurant) and a really yummy pajeon (favourite of all non-korean korean food lovers).




And so cheap! Only 4,000won ($4) for the noodles, 1,000won ($1) for three eggs and 5,000won ($5) for the pajeon. That’s the great thing about the sticks – food that is twice as good as the food in Seoul, but half the price.

Sigh, is there anything better than eating noodles and boiled eggs outdoors with your bestie? No, I don’t think there is.



My friend works at the Biennale Association, so she is totally “in” with the Gwanju arts scene. She took me to a beautiful gallery cafe called Dae Dam (대담), which was on the other side of a little creek flowing parallel to the Noodle Street.




This stylish, contemporary cafe and arts center seemed a bit out of place in such a sleepy country town, but I think a lot of artists find their refuge in places like this. Seoul is great, but it’s the kind of place that suffocates creativity.


We had a beautiful traditional bingsoo (빙수) which is shaved ice, some condensed milk topped with misugaru (미숫가루, mixed grain powder)  and a glossy heap of red-bean. It also came with a view toppings on the side: mochi, shaved almonds and cereal.


I have learnt that you can judge the quality of red bean by its shininess. This is the good stuff.


The cafe is a blend of modern and rustic, and overlooks a very pretty garden and outdoor garden area. They have a woodfire oven for pizza, but we were too stuffed on noodles to give that try.


The best thing about this place is that next to the cafe, there is a room where you can have PLASTER FUN TIME! It’s meant to be for kiddies, but you can’t deny adults the pleasure of plaster fun! We chose small ceramic plates and painted them very seriously. I took inspiration from the Noodle Street and painted a masterpiece that looks like it should be displayed in a bus-station souvenir shop.


My much more elegant friend painted some juicy Korean grapes.


Afterwards, we visited the famous bamboo forest. This is Damyang’s ONE AND ONLY claim to fame so, naturally, the city takes a lot of pride in it. Everything in Damyang is bamboo-themed, the restaurants, the cafes, the shops and gift stores. You’ll even find giant panda sculptures  – though there aren’t any actual panda’s in Damyang. Their image is just used for its association with bamboo.

I was more concerned with the heat (Korean summer is the worst) and what we’d be eating next, so I sadly don’t have any photos of the bamboo. If you’re interested in the bamboo forest, you can just Google “Damyang” and an entire gallery of tall green stalks will come up.

My friend took me to a restaurant just outside the forest that does Han Jung Sik (한정식) which is a traditional Korean banquet table. In other words, a table filled with simple side-dishes (banchan) , a main course, a soup and rice.


Of course, in Damyang, the rice is steamed in bamboo stem.


With the huge variety of side dishes, the table looks really impressive. Out of the fifteen or so side dishes, however, around 10 were made from bamboo shoots. What does bamboo taste like? It tastes like a twig that has been soaked and softened. Woody, stringy, earthy, bland and tough… none of these are enjoyable flavours or textures.There’s a good reason why bamboo is the food of choice for pandas, NOT humans.

They’re alright when they’re thinly sliced, canned and then soaked in a Thai curry… but as a kimchi, battered and deep fried, boiled and covered in chilli sauce. . . no thank you. It’s admirable that the restaurant takes so much pride in the town’s main attraction that it tried to turn it into a cuisine . . .  but I don’t think bamboo’s destiny is on the dining table. It belongs in garden chairs, in picnic mats and in the hands of hungry pandas. The Ddeokgalbi (떡갈비) main course was nice, but we left most of the other side dishes untouched.

The next day we were back in Gwangju and my friend took me to her workplace, the Biennale Museum. But we weren’t there to see art, we were there to eat.


There’s a popular cafe on the museum grounds called “Dadam” (“다담”, not to be confused with “Daedam”)


The interior is really lovely blend of new and old. Its wooden tables, lattice artwork and paper lantern light fixtures are a really sophisticated throwback to traditional Korean art and design.


In the spirit of pigging out like there’s no tomorrow, we ordered one “to share” dessert each.


This deluxe bingsoo came with black sesame ice cream, mochi and crushed nuts, with a side of handmade ddeok (떡, glutinous rice cake).


We also got a giant swirl of delicious cranberry soft serve. The presentation here is beautiful – that is a real leaf under the rice cake and a real single flower in that tiny little ceramic vase.

We ate a lot this weekend. We actually ate a lot more than is shown above… including DIY wine and cheese platter, late night ramyun  and buffet lunch on the day I went back to Seoul…. but I have too much shame to post those up in detail.

Gwangju and Damyang are not the most glamorous travel destinations in Korea, but if you’re here for a while and have a weekend to spare, I definitely recommend a visit – especially the Damyang Noodle Street! That was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in Korea so far – the setting is so unique and actually quite romantic. It’s only a 3.5 hour time machine ride away from Seoul 🙂

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Berry Reading (and Eating) Retreat: Part 1

Writing this post is going to make me terribly homesick, but here goes.

In October, I planned a “Reading Retreat” for me and my husband. I was feeling the strain of having not taken any leave from work since Christmas and I just wanted to escape. A typical holiday with me is a tight schedule packed with every possible thing that can be done in that destination – leaving nothing unvisited – but that’s not what I was looking for this time. I just wanted a retreat where rather than do things, we could just absorb things – all the unread books on my much-neglected Kindle, the clear sky, the clean air, even each other. I wanted to press the pause button on living.

I initially booked a cottage on a remote property in Blackheath, but had to cancel at the last minute due to the fires. So with only a couple of days left before my booked leave, I had to make a quick decision about where to go – somewhere not too far away, somewhere simple, somewhere boring but beautiful.

I chose Berry – a place I’d only ever driven through before. I had no idea how good a decision this was until we actually got there. We arrived late at night, carefully navigating ourselves up a narrow, private road. We went straight to bed to the sound of frogs croaking and woke up to this:


It was exactly what I wanted. Stunning but completely unglamorous, nothing but trees, grassy hills and quiet.


This is Frangipani Cottage where we stayed – a beautiful little cottage with a very small TV and a very big bed so perfect for anyone looking for rest from the distractions of everyday life.


Okay so I hear your cries of “Am I on the wrong blog? Get to the food already!

This is all part of the story – I had all these romantic plans to just read and read and read but tragedy struck when I pulled my Kindle out of its case and saw that the screen had cracked badly. I almost cried. What else was left to do in a place like this? What is something else that I love to do but rarely get the time for at home?

Hmm… what about cooking? Yes, okay, I’ll cook!

So I cooked. A lot. I cooked three meals in one day which I don’t think has ever happened before. I cooked simple things like spaghetti bolognese and poached eggs on toast. Looking at the photos now, each of them is like a letter to all the food I took for granted in Australia and miss terribly now.


(Dear parmesan cheese, spanish onion, rocket and red wine – I miss you!)


(Dear crusty bread and soft poached eggs… come back to me!)


(Dear crispy lavosh and grape tomatoes – will I ever see you again?)


(Dear EVERYTHING IN THIS PHOTO – I wish you were with me tonight…)

As fun as it was to feast on my own creation, cooking only takes up so many hours of the day. So the second day we went out to the main street to explore, and I was so happily surprised with what we discovered. I knew Berry had some cute cafes and stores, but I didn’t expect pies and providores that would rival those found in Sydney’s best foodie hotspots.


Milkwood Bakery was our first stop – it’s a spin off of the famous Berry Sourdough Cafe and stocks tea cakes, quiches, pastries, fresh bread and pies of all kinds.


The kind of place where you just want to say “One of everything on display please!”


I loved this retro aqua-blue espresso machine – coffee’s gotta taste good when it’s coming out of a gorgeous machine like this right?


And the pie…


Flaky, golden pastry that was impossibly crispy all-round (no soggy bottom!!)


Huge chunks of real beef, whole mushrooms and luscious gravy. This was, dare I say, the best ‘classic’ meat pie I’ve ever eaten. I’m surprised they’re not more famous, given all the “Best Meat Pie” rivalry that happens across the country.

A few small steps down the street from Milkwood Bakery is The Emporium Food Co.


If you know me at all you’d know that nothing excites me more than a chiller full of small goods and cheeses and shelves stacked with oils, sauces and salts. So heaven for me will look something like this:

be08 be09


The Emporium has a really impressive section of gourmet-everything sourced locally and internationally. I had already bought more than enough groceries for the weekend but I couldn’t resist buying a few slices of serrano ham, brie and lavosh sheets.


It’s also a cafe where you can sit down, drink some coffee and just enjoy the company of all the lovely food products.

And so the Reading Retreat turned into an Eating Retreat … to be continued in Part 2!

Milkwood Bakery 
109 Queen Street
Berry, NSW 2535

The Emporium Food Co 
127B Queen Street
Berry NSW 2535

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