Delicacies and the Return of Helen from Canada

I took a “Hong Kong Delicacy” food tour, also offered by Alla, though this was a paid tour, not a free one. We sampled a large amount of various foods that Alla said locals eat regularly.

Every culture back in the day basically had their way to “use the whole buffalo” so to speak. Offal, tripe, blood, bone marrow, tongue, eyes, brains, etc… a lot of it used to be the cheap leftover portions from the butcher or fishmonger and the poor would buy up the unwanted cuts and innards, figure out how to best prepare it, and incorporate it into their diet for some necessary protein and nutrients. As certain places become more affluent, the cheap meat falls out of common use in favor of the better cuts, but then in many places chefs bring it back as a “delicacy,” painstakingly prepared, and inflated in price.

This was a mix of all that, in addition to a bit of Chinese medicine. Which, on another note, I think there’s a good chunk of Chinese medicine that was created as a bullshit way to sell odd leftover bits or typically worthless animal parts to suckers, and when people buy into it, the results can be catastrophic for certain species and food webs. But we won’t get into that here.

Here’s the night’s menu:

  • Spicy pig flesh -cooked down to basically collagen, it looks almost like beehive sans honey
  • Congealed pig’s blood – little brackish cubes with a gelatin texture
  • Cow lung – spongy, a pleasant texture and flavor not unlike liver, but subtler
  • Cow stomach – Surprisingly tasty and tender. Little fibrils coming off it almost make it look like a type of seaweed
  • Cow liver – Not uncommon in the U.S. and tastes like liver does
  • Cow intestine – Better than the pig intestine I had in Korea
  • Deep fried stinky tofu – Its cooking is now regulated by the government because the process is so stinky. Spongier than normal tofu, I’ve had it before, but not prepared this way. Some people hate it, but I found the crispy outside, spongy inside, and overall flavor enjoyable. Dip in mustard and hot sauce.
  • Duck tongue – Duck tongue has a bone in it! Otherwise, tastes like duck in a tasty sauce
  • Pig’s ear – Tender boiled flesh slides off a tougher cartilage in the center. Not my favorite
  • Goose – Delicious. Cooked in very old, concentrated broth
  • Fish air bladder – Had one that was kind of tough, but another that was quite good. Typically
  • Century egg – Aged for weeks or months in alkali liquid that cooks the egg without heat. It also turns it black
  • Deep fried frog – Sort of like bonier chicken nuggets
  • Fake shark fin soup – Slimy and dark colored, comprised mostly of mushroom shreddings and glass noodles
  • Doggie soup – No dogs were harmed in the making of this soup. A light colored seafood broth with udon noodles
  • Snake soup – Very similar to fake shark fin soup, only with five types of snake meat added, venomous snakes
  • Snake penis wine – The dried penises of some unlucky male snakes are added during the aging process. Distilled or fortified, it tastes closer to whiskey than wine, and is about 25-30% abv. Supposedly will give men extra nice orgasms
  • Herbal tea – A black herbal tea, I forget the main ingredients. It was a “cool” food to balance the “hot” we had earlier. According to Chinese medicine you need a balance of cool and hot characteristic foods else you’ll be afflicted from some sort of ailment from acne to ulcers
  • Herbal tea & turtle shell gelatin & coconut milk – I felt kind of bad, but the turtles were farmed. Really tasty! The coconut milk was very sweet. The gelatin part was basically the herbal tea from before, but boiled with a turtle shell in it
  • Bird spit – Yes, really bird spit. It comes from a specific type of swallow with a crazy amount of collagen in its spit, which it uses to make nests. The nests are harvested and served as an expensive delicacy, usually for desert. It breaks down into a slippery liquid that feels like it has jello bits in it
  • Frog vagina with pickled plum – Similar texture to bird spit, but larger. The plums weren’t that great, but the rest was. This and the bird spit are supposed to be great for women’s skin

I actually liked it all! The pig ears were perhaps my least favorite, a tender meat, surrounds a tough, cartilage, the combination of which is a little underwhelming. But the rest was all enjoyable to try, and some I’d definitely order more.

But Helen, oh Helen. She had been on my two walking tours, and talked incessantly when I was trying to listen, which got on my nerves. Her comments during the Kowloon tour seemed very ethnocentric and closed-minded, but the annoying thing on this tour is that she commented how happy she was to be trying everything, but these delicacies were just too delicate for her. The joke got old about the 5th time. I think she only enjoyed the goose and one or two other things. She looked pretty miserable. I had also caught a subway with her during a particularly busy time on it. She barged in before others could get off. Inside she told me about how she knew how to ride a subway when it was busy. I held my tongue, because In absolutely loathe people in New York who don’t step aside to let others off. Anyways, good riddance Helen. I shouldn’t be so hard on you because you seem like a perfectly polite Canadian, but man, you got on my nerves.

After the food tour I checked out the Temple Street Night Market. Not a whole lot of interest to see, but if you need some cheap purses, usb cords, other odds and ends or kitchy things, it would be a good place to haggle for it.

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Meh-cao

I spent about a day in Macao. I’ll keep it brief: it wasn’t worth it.

Macao is an odd place. Originally a Portuguese colony about an hour ferry ride from Kowloon, it never reached the renown (or economic success) of Hong Kong. These days, and I guess historically, it mostly consists of huge casinos, an old town area, a few beaches, and some more generic districts that look similar to smaller neighborhoods in Hong Kong.

The interesting part of Macao is that the Portuguese influence is strong. Walking down some streets in the old town especially you could swear your were in Lisbon or Porto from the classic looking pastel, Portuguese architecture. Portuguese food is popular, and the population is still likely to speak it (most signs are in Chinese, English, and Portuguese too).

But then, there’s not much else to see. Perhaps it would be a fun vacation if you planned to hit up the beaches, take a leisurely stroll through the lovely old town, and party at some of the opulent casino resorts, but for me, it felt like a wasted day. Oh well, one wasted day in the whole trip isn’t much, but I wish I had spent it in or around Hong Kong instead.

An Ode to Onigiri

Onigiri is a marvelous, on-the-go food. It’s a thick triangle of rice, filled with fish or meat, and/or pickled vegetables, and wrapped in seaweed. Healthy, filling, it’s the perfect food to stash in your bag when you’re trying to see and do to much in Japan and don’t have time for breakfast or lunch. It’ll give you some good calories while hiking. It’s delicious. And it’s cheap. What more could you ask for? It’s been a staple of mine this trip and nearly everyday I’ve found myself grabbing at least one from a convenience store as a snack. I’m going to miss them when I’m back in the states.

However, not quite as much as I’ll miss the matcha flavored everything.

On Hangul

The Japanese might use Chinese characters to write, but the Koreans use Hangul. It’s actually an extremely clever system. Shapes create characters that may look like a Chinese character, but if you study hard for three hours you could probably learn the alphabet. Each shape corresponds to a sound and you use those to build the Hangul characters. It’s extremely clever and efficient.

It was created in the mid 1400s by one of the most fondly remembered kings in all Korean history. He created it to allow common people to achieve literacy. A powerful, learned elite however, banned its usage eventually. They feared the power that knowledge might give the masses. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later around the end of the late 1800s that it was re-instituted country-wide. Of course the Japanese occupation began in 1910 and lasted until 1945, so it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that the language again, finally, became widespread and learned by the masses.

Despite being an easy enough alphabet, the pronunciations are killing me. Whereas Japanese pronunciations came fairly easy to me, there are more sounds and combinations in Korean. I’d probably be able to read it sooner than speak it, and speak Japanese far sooner than I could read it.

The K-Rock Show

K-Pop took the world by storm with Psy’s Gangnam Style 5 years ago, and it remains the ubiquitous sound around the nightlife scene of Seoul (that and American top 40 pop). Gangnam Style has given way to other k-pop hits (4 out of 5 stores agree, Knock Knock is the tune to play while you shop), and as fun as it might be to go out and find a massive, bass thumping, k-pop performance or club, I was a lot more interested in hunting down what percolated in the alternative music corners of Seoul.

It ended up being a multi-day search. I had read about a nearby rock club, Club Funky Fresh or Club FF for short, home to some of Seoul’s only weekly rock, punk, indie, metal, and everything in between, performances – or at least from what I could track down. Not every night night, however, so two other nights I checked out a jazz club and an sleepy indie cafe.

Despite playing jazz for years during school, I haven’t sat back and enjoyed a show in a long time. There was no vocal, just pure instrumental music. I’ve never liked jam bands, but Jazz bands are something else, they play with a skill and a controlled chaos that keeps things moving, energetic, exciting, and emotional in a way that runs opposite to jam bands. It was a simple trio onstage: a bassist, guitarist, and drummer, though one song they brought out an accordion. The styles switched now and then (flamenco guitar was featured once, which was impressive, but I don’t know enough about jazz to pinpoint the others).

Cafe Bang! was the name of the indie joint. Quick aside – “Bangs” are a big thing in Korea. Bang means room, and you can go out and enjoy with a friend or group: Noraebang (karaoke), PC Bang (room full of computers), board game bang, DVDbang, and more. So technically speaking, I guess this would be Cafe Room!

I caught a couple low key bands playing to a seated crowd. It’s funny that even in South Korea the indie music felt the same, and the bands looked exactly like you’d imagine: thrift shop or normcore clothes, shaggy hair and/or scruffy look, a mild-mannered voice when addressing the crowd lacking stage presence. Their singing voices were great though. The below ground cafe looked very much like a DIY venue as well. The walls were covered with overlapping art, murals, tapestries, and other odd bits of art, and the drink options were mostly limited to what was in the fridge.

And finally, come Saturday, Club Funky Fresh was open. It was a fantastic show. I caught three bands. There may have been one before, as I arrived late after gorging on a massive Korean BBQ dinner.

The club itself was small. The crowd numbered maybe 40-50, probably ranging in age from 24-40. A couple tables of men in suits with loosened ties, a group of what looked like expat westerners, a few packs of Korean guys and girls out for the night, and a smattering of couples. In America you often get people who look like they’re dressed for a rock show, some scenesters/hipsters, some punks, some torn jeans and old band tee shirts, but I suppose Korean fashions and tastes being what they are, and the rock scene being small, you didn’t get that here. The basement bar however, looked like it’d be right at home in Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, or even Maine for that matter.  

The first band rocked hard. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, but they had great energy. The lead singer wore torn, old jeans, a plain white tee, and sported a short mustache and goatee. He sang like AC/DC and the band played like Two Door Cinema Club. Great sound. I didn’t get their name, but they really got the crowd going.

The second band to come on was led by an acoustic guitarist/vocalist. Lower key, they sounded more like a bluesy, western rock. Still fun, though I preferred the first band,

The final band of the night was called Qu. Awesome energy and stage presence, they’re a talented and powerful group of musicians. Their sound morphed song to song, some slower, some break neck speed. I always appreciate variety from a band. It gives live shows, not to mention albums, an arc of their own. A couple songs almost sounded like Lincoln Park, but other like no one else I’ve listened to before. Even some phrases of English mixed in! The speakers were cranked up and you could feel the noise move right through you. Fantastic night.

After the show a DJ went on and continued the rock music. What was cool is that Qu hung out after the show and partied with the crowd. I professed my love, bought a t-shirt, had a beer, danced around with them, and hopefully one day our paths will cross again. I also met a Korean American in the crowd. A Californian, born in Daegu, she was working for the next two years in Korea. We both agreed it was nice meeting a fellow American with similar tastes for a change. It had actually been a while at that point since I had a conversation with another American, and to be honest, it was definitely more effort to meet and talk to locals in an open social setting than in Japan, so it was a refreshing night that way. Maybe it has something to do with Koreans being very couple and group oriented, but most likely it was simply my narrow experience in the country.

In any case, if you’re ever in Seoul, and not feeling like pop, hunt down the k-rock scene. It’s worth checking out. My ears still hummed the next morning.

Everyone knows k-pop, but what about k-rock?

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Say Kimchiiii

Koreans love photos. They love taking photos and videos of themselves, of their friends, of everything, more than anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s something I noticed right away my first few days in Korea – the social media stream is practically a way of life for the younger generation. The phone is always pointing at something. The Japanese like their photos too, but their activity pales in comparison to the constant activity of Koreans.

Korea and Japan are close geographically, but the societies felt much further apart – There is a huge difference between the older and younger generations in Korea. The ajumma or older Korean women, are tough broads who all have chopped their hair off and gotten the exact same perm. They wear a lot of bright colors, mostly active-wear, like they might go hiking. Older Korean men dress like leisure hikers or fishermen, sporting color-blocked, synthetic pants, and a jacket or vest with a large amount of pockets. A cap, dark sunglasses, and grim expression are standard issue – they never come off either.

Everyone seems to be very into fashion, the old have their standard outfits, and the young dress mostly in black, white, and denim, and with some of the girls a vintage style dress, usually in a muted gold, is popular. Unisex clothes are in vogue as well. Korean girls for the most part are thin and incredibly pale. This is because they’ve been using skin-whitening creams, and avoiding sunlight. They also layer on makeup that whitens their complexion, some to nearly a geisha level (not exaggerating), and others look like they have an odd metallic sheen to them. The exact same pink lipstick is used by everyone, and complimented by a little optional rouge on the cheek, and usually some pink eye shadow and dark eye-liner. They’re vigilant about keeping everything put together as well – a mirror is never far, and a hair out of place, or eyebrow that needs darkening will soon be attended.

Plastic surgery has also become very mainstream for both men and women seeking some form of vogue beauty. Shrinking noses, thinning chins, adjusting eyelids are all very popular.

Korea is also the biggest market in the world for men’s makeup. As opposed to America, thin, pale, clean-shaven, and a boyish or more androgynous look is in. They have no qualms putting on a little makeup, or sometimes as much as the women. Most young guys seem to have the exact same haircut too.

Koreans don’t appear to possess the same personal space boundaries either. Greetings might involve physical contact. Couples here wrap arms or hold hands everywhere. It’s extremely popular to dress in the same outfits as well. Whether as a couple, or as a group of friends, they’ll often buy silly trinkets on the street, like flower crowns, or sparkly chickens on a long spring that you pin to your hat or hair, and take photos being goofy on a day out. Lady friends will lock arms down the street, and the men don’t seem to feel as awkward about physical contact that can exist in Japan.

I was talking to a Korean guy at my Seoul hostel, and another girl, and they don’t think the younger generations will ever be like the old – that the young women now will ever be those tough, wrinkled ajumma I saw hocking fish in the market, or pushing past me on the train. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine the men turning into the tan, grim-faced elders that saw so much hardship in their lives. Korea now is very different than it was then.

This is all to say, Korea makes for some excellent people watching, especially as an outsider. It’s great that people put effort into their appearance. Maybe it’s related to how much they love taking photos and video. You never see a sloven person going about their day in sweatpants ten years too old, and two sizes off. However, at times it feels too homogeneous in its taste, to the point of superficiality.

Hanbok selfie time.

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On Hanboks & Kimonos

I noticed throughout Japan, but much more so in Korea, people love to don traditional garb and take photos at the historical sites. Nearby there are usually places to rent a kimono if you’re in Japan, or hanbok if you’re in Korea.

It might be mostly a tourist thing, or maybe not, but I think it’s a smart and fun way to invite people to take part in your culture, and you’ll probably end up with some free social media advertising to boot.

Hanbok selfie time.

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