A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
I came to Korea feeling like a big hot shot when it came to food because I’d eaten in Korean restaurants in Australia. I know what this Korean BBQ is all about! I know to mix my bibimbap! I know to use the ding-dong button! I can handle spicy food!
But there are many interesting foods in Korea that I hadn’t even heard of until I came to Korea. So I decided to eat them.
Beondegi is silkworm larvae. Koreans supposedly started eating it during times of famine following the war. It’s plentiful and full of protein. Many Koreans still like it today. You can buy it from most street stalls and even in tins from the grocery store. The smell is quite distinctive – sickly sweet with a side of burning.
My first and only time eating beondegi was when I went to a traditional makkeoli bar with a friend. Makkeoli bars usually serve a few snacks with makkeoli, like meat skewers or hot kimchi or stew. This particular place served a bunch of unidentifiable brown stuff. Including beondegi. I stared and stared at it, swimming in murky brown water.
“Everything in this meal looks like poo!” I declared in disgust.
“You should try it,” said my friend.
He popped the creature into his mouth and chewed. “Mmm hmmm, it’s really good,” he said unconvincingly.
I stared and stared and drank makkeoli and stared and drank more makkeoli and stared and put myself in a zen meditative state and thumped the table and said “I’M DOING IT!”
Someone told me that beondegi has a similar texture to red beans. They were right – I bit into it and a smooth, pasty texture came out. But then an unexpected fishy taste entered my mouth and I remembered I was eating a bug and I felt a few claws lodge in between my teeth.
Don’t vomit, don’t vomit, I thought, and washed it all down with makkeoli.
So there you have it. I have eaten a silkworm. And I never want to do it again. But don’t let my account put you off. You might like it!
I first heard of hongeo from Korean-based YouTubers Yongguk Namja and Eat Your Kimchi.
As they coughed, groaned and tried not to vomit (but failed) through eating raw stingray, I thought I gotta try this. I stupidly mentioned this to a teacher at school who took me out to dinner one night to try this literally vomit-inducing dish.
The first thing you notice about hongeo is the smell. It smells like a dirty bathroom that someone tried to clean with bleach but gave up halfway. That smell is ammonia, which stingrays release through their skin.
I ate the hongeo by trying not to breathe through my nose. The texture was like sashimi but not as smooth. Then an expected tingling, minty sensation shot through my nose and cleared out my sinuses.
“Koreans don’t really like it either,” confessed the teacher.
낙지 Nakji / 산낙지 Sannakji
Nakji is octopus, usually served stir fried in a spicy sauce. Sannakji is the still-wiggling, just-been-killed version and served with sesame oil. Once you put yourself in that zen meditative state where you don’t think about the beast you’re eating, Korean octopus is fresh and juicy, like a chewy sashimi. Octopus is a bit bland, but the sauces it comes with really make the dish.
Just remember to chew well or it’ll suction itself to your throat…
I first tried sannakji when I was in Korea last year. Read all about it here
닭갈비 Dakgalbi and 치즈 떡볶이 cheesy dokbokki
Similar to Korean BBQ, a dedicated ddakgalbi restaurant features a huge frying pan sort of thing in the middle of your table. The wait staff will chuck the entire feast for you and your hungry friends onto the hot plate and cook. The chicken comes with whatever you want – vegetables, rice, dokbokki (rice cakes) or ramen.
But my favourite thing to eat with dakgalbi is dokbokki filled with mozzarella cheese. Something about the melty, salty cheese, the chewy dokbokki and the spicy dakgalbi sauce just goes together perfectly.
회 Hoe (pronounced “hweh”)
Hoe is raw fish and draws comparisons with sashimi, but it’s not served in the same way. Koreans generally eat it with sesame oil and gochujang paste. I’ve also eaten it mixed with vegetables, bibimbap style. Good hoe is served ice cold – sometimes on actual ice – and has a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
육회 Yukhoe (yukhweh)
Most of us in the West believe that eating raw beef = DEATH. But Korean raw beef won’t kill you, and it’s actually quite delicious. Yukhoe is meticulously prepared by only a few specialty restaurants, and served in a rich Korean marinade. I ate it, enjoyed it, and didn’t die.
밤빵 Bam bbang
When I’m at a rest stop or walking past street stalls, I smell this heavenly bakery smell like fresh muffins. It’s usually bam bbang, or chestnut bread – crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. In the middle is mashed chestnut paste, sort of like smooth mild coconut. It also has a fantastic name that makes me gggle whenever I order it.
팥빵 Pat bbang
Pat bbang is another heavenly baked treat. The variety I’ve eaten is like your average Western cinnamon donut on the outside with sweet red bean paste on the inside. You can get them almost everywhere, but the best one I’ve eaten so far was made by “Tongyeong Mama” on Tongyeong Island.
계란빵 Gyeran Bbang
Gyeran is Korean for “egg”. Inside this tasty bread is an egg. Like poached eggs on toast but in one convenient format.
I’m sure you can buy pat bbang, gyeran bbang bam bbang in Australia, but it’s just so much cooler when an ajumma makes it fresh from a tent.
Samgyetang is chicken soup using a whole small chicken with ginseng, jujubes, onions, garlic and other spices. It’s popular in summer. Koreans believe that eating hot food combats the heat and that the spices in samgyetang help your body deal with the heat. Sometimes you get a little side dish of salt to dip the chicken pieces. It’s oddly refreshing and makes you feel super healthy afterwards.
Galbijjim is stewed beef ribs with vegetables and gingko nuts. My Umma and my aunties cook the best. The rich, marinated, tender beef just falls off the bone and melts in your mouth. Sorry, everyone else.
Something that took me a while to figure out is that sometimes there’s a few different stages of a Korean dinner. The first stage will be the main part with all the meat and side dishes. After that is a smaller meal to have afterwards. One of these smaller meals is naengmyeon – cold buckwheat noodles in a spicy, tangy vinegary broth. It’s a nice palate cleanser after a big meaty BBQ.
Kimchi Chilli Cheese Fries
And now for something completely non-traditional…
This glorious creation comes to us courtesy of Coreanos, a Korean-Mexican joint in Seoul that originated in the US. It is one of the best things I have ever eaten. You really can’t go wrong with spice, garlic, gochujang, cheese and potato.
This is by means not an exhaustive list, so I’ll turn it over to you – have you found any interesting foods that you have only eaten in Korea? What are some things I should try? Leave a comment below!