Saturday, November 24, 2012

평가옥: North Korean Restaurant in Seoul

After reading a blog post on "Bobby's Awesome Life", I was inspired to check out a North Korean restaurant recommended by him: 평가옥 (Pyeonggaok). This restaurant serves food in the style of 평안도 Pyeongan province of North Korea. For a geography reference, South Pyongan province is located just north of Pyeongyang (the capitol of the DPRK) and North Pyongan province is just north of that, reaching the border with North Korea (see the map below).

Since I've never had North Korean food, and since I'm always excited by the prospect of trying new foods, I sent out a facebook message asking if anyone would try it with me. I actually got two different responses, one from my coworker John, and one from Jo and Steve Miller (aka the Qi Ranger), and so, last week, I made two trips to Pyong Ga Ok and, over the two visits, got to try a fairly wide selection of what they have to offer.

When you enter the restaurant, there is nothing that looks particularly North Korean, the interior looks like any other restaurant you'd enter. The menu too looks basically familiar at the first glance, but upon further inspection you'll see a few new things. A stew cooked in a 뚝배기 (stone pot bowl) called 온반 (Onban), naengmyon called "평양냉면" (Pyongyang naengmyon), and some large dishes cooked in the center of the table filled with a variety of things I've never seen mixed together in South Korea such as mandu, noodles, and sea food. I was really curious about the big dishes for sharing, but they were quite expencive so we just stuck with the normal 식사 menu.

First were to come out was the banchan. Kimchi, radish kimchi, white kimchi and pickles. All were quite nice, though we couldn't find a big difference between the kimchi here and the kimchi we're used to eating.

On the first visit we ordered these mungbean pancakes. They were quite nice. Similar to bindaedeok, but a bit less greasy.

We also got one 닭고기 온반 and shared it between the two of us. Between this and the pancakes, it was quite enough for two people. The soup bowl is a bit bigger than your average kimchi jjigae bowl. The soup was quite nice, but the best part was the giant mandu (hiding under bubbles in the photo above) in the soup. We just wished there had been two, we had to split the mandu two ways. Fortunately, it was easily the size of two small mandu.

On the second trip, later in the week with Steve and Jo, I brought along the boyfriend as well to help us understand the menu a little better. The boyfriend ordered the same 온반 that John and I ordered earlier in the week and agreed it was quite worth it. Jo tried the 소고기 온반 and she really seemed to enjoy it. The meat was apparently pre-fried in batter and they even put some of that mungbean pancake into the soup, too! Certainly nothing I've seen before.

Steve went with the manduguk which I had steered away from thinking "I've had manduguk before", but when it came out, boy was I wrong. Typically manduguk in Seoul is served in a normal bowl, but this came out in 뚝배기 and was filled with chunks of meat and, again, huge mandu! I was a little jealous looking over at all his mandu...

I decided to order the 평양낸면 (Pyongyang naengmyon). Actually, naengmyon isn't my favorite food. It's one of those foods I will eat once every six months and not crave it again for another six months. But I decided to try it since it is basically the most famous North Korean dish in South Korea. If you ask a South Korean what they know about North Korean food, the first (and possibly only dish) they will name is this one. So, I figured I had to try it.

The noodles to me tasted softer. Usually when I eat typical naengmyon, I find myself struggling to cut the noodles with my teeth. These noodles seemed much softer, but perhaps it was just my imagination. I also really liked the 애호박 slices and beef thrown in. There was also half a boiled egg, but you can't see it in this photo.

As I was leaving I caught the mandu making table and snapped a photo. I'm still amazed by the size of these mandu! And they're all handmade too!

Pyong Ga Ok has six locations in and around Seoul, Samseong Station, Gangnam Station, Sincheon station, Yangjae-2-dong, Bundang Station and Gwanghwamun Station, where I ate. The Gwanghwamun location is just a short walk from exit 1 of Gwanghwamun Station. From Exit 1, cross the street and take the first left (across from exit 1). Walk down the street about 1-2 minutes and you will see the restaurant on the first floor of a building to your left. When I went, the building was under construction, but you could just make out the sign, written in the Chinese characters which are pronounced Pyong Ga Ok.

To read more about Pyongan cuisine, check out this fairly good wikipedia article:

Below, you can see Steve's video about our meal: 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

'Tis the Season for Kimjang

Kimjang (김장): The Korean tradition of gathering together to make large quantities of kim chi just before the winter months.

This year, since we are living in a hanok with a big madang (courtyard), I figured it would be only appropriate to have our own kimjang, or kim chi making party. Traditionally, Korean families get together around this time of year and make huge quantities of kim chi. 20-30 heads of cabbage would be considered normal, but a large, extended family may come together and prepare 100-500 heads of kim chi to last throughout the winter.

I didn't plan to make nearly as much myself. We originally planned to buy 20 kilos of pre-preserved cabbage to make kim chi (about 10 heads of kim chi), but then a friend offered to bring some fresh cabbage from her parent's organic farm outside of Seoul. While this was a little more difficult, we decided it was the better option, and so Saturday night our friend showed up with a car full of 30 big heads of cabbage and about 10 radishes.

A lot of cabbages. And the white bag is full of radishes

We set straight away to preserving the cabbage for the next day's kimjang. My house became a fury of cabbages, leaves were flying everywhere as the cabbages were quartered, washed and placed in my bathtub which was full of salt water.

Expert cabbage chopper

My bathtub full of cabbages. Not sure what we would have done if we hadn't had a bathtub...

That was just the beginning, though. Next we preserved each individual cabbage by rubbing salt all over and between each leaf. We added them all to a bag and then added more salty water for them to soak overnight. In the end, though, we only wound up preserving 20 heads of cabbage. 30 would have been just, plain, too much.

Cabbage with lots of salt

First thing the next morning we headed out to Gyeongdong Market to buy our supplies for the event. We had no idea how much we were going to pay but we had our first shock at the price of garlic: 10,000 won for one kilo. The sticker shock continued, 30,000 won for 2.5 kilos of (Chinese) red pepper powder (if we had bought the Korean red pepper powder it would have been 20,000/ 500g), 10,000 won for a kilo of fermented shrimp, 6,000 for 500 g of oysters. It suddenly gave me an appreciation for how much Korean families spend to make/buy kim chi every year. And we didn't even have to buy the cabbage and radishes.

Buying lots of red pepper powder at the market

Most, but not all of the ingredients for the sauce

We brought all the supplies home and the friends started rolling through the door to help. It was time to prepare the ingredients for the kim chi sauce. We started with the green onions and moved our way through radishes, onions, garlic, ginger, and even some regional additions like sweet potato, carrot and sea weed. All these were added together along with red pepper powder in a big bowl and mixed to created a huge bowl of chunky, red, spicy sauce.

preparing spring onions

Shredding radishes and carrots

Chopping sweet potatoes

Chopping more radish

Having some fun while mixing the sauce

Close up of the sauce

As some of us prepared the sauce, others were out in the courtyard washing the salt off the cabbages to prepare them to be made into kim chi. 

Washing the salt off the cabbages

Finally, after nearly 3 hours of preparation, it was time to do the part everyone was waiting for. Turning the cabbage into kim chi. While it would have been better to do it outside, it was so chilly today that we kept working in the kitchen, despite the lack of space and the mess.  You must be very careful when adding the sauce to the kim chi, you need to make sure that each leaf has got enough sauce, and you need to make sure that there is enough sauce, even at the base of the cabbage.

Turning the cabbage into kim chi... 

And having a little fun too...

Despite having 20 heads of cabbage to add sauce to, this part of the afternoon seemed to fly by. Before we knew it, we had all 20 cabbages done. 

(Some of) the finished product

We added the finished product into various containers for folks to bring home and we put all of ours into a 항아리 (hangari) which most foreigners know as "kim chi pots". Actually we've had these pots for months and have used them for everything but kim chi,  but finally we were able to put them to use for their most well known use.

Hangari filled with kim chi

At long last, we were able to sit back and relax, and of course, what better way than with some bossam? Boiled pork wrapped in cabbage leaves (both fresh and preserved), spicy sauce, oysters and fermented shrimp. 

Bossam for dinner

While not everyone has the time/ energy/ budget/ space to do their own kimjang, everyone should try making their own kimchi, at least once. There's many recipes online both in English and Korean, but when it comes down to it, you need to follow your own taste buds. Each region and even each family has their own recipe, so there's no right or wrong. I will not use measurements here because it all depends on how much you make and your own taste.

The following ingredients are the most basic: 
  • Red pepper powder 고추가루
  • radish 무
  • rice porridge for thickening 찹쌀죽
  • garlic 마늘
  • ginger 생강
  • fermented shrimp* 새우젓
  • Anchovy sauce* 멸치액젓
*can be omitted for vegetarian kim chi

however we got creative and combined several family recipes by adding:
  • apple 사과
  • carrot 당근
  • sweet potato 고구마
  • sea weed  청각
  • green onion 쪽파
  • 'gat' (a green leafy vegetable) 갓

Have you ever made kim chi? What special ingredients did you add?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Magpie Brewery

I feel this post is long overdue because Magpie Brewery has kind of become "our bar" these days. We're there at least once a week, sometimes two or three times a week. It's not because it's super cozy (honestly, it's not), and it's not because it's convenient to work or home (we do have to pass about 1 trillion bars to get here). It's really just because the beer is just that good.

For those of you who have been in Korea a while, you know what beer is typically available around town. Cass, Hite, OB, Max. Those are the most famous Korean beers. And, quite frankly, they're terrible. Worse than any Budweiser or Coors Lite you can find at home. But, we drink them because... well, it's cheap and available. 

Fortunately (or unfortunately... however you prefer to look at it), we have now become absolutely spoiled. Magpie has given us a new appreciation for good beer (or at least reminded us of what we had forgotten) and now the thought of drinking anything else makes us a little sad inside. We decided to visit another new taphouse in Itaewon, conveniently named Reily's Taphouse, to sample some more 'good' beers. Sadly, though we still couldn't find one there quite as nice as Magpie's, and by the end of the night we had switched over to Magpie's Pale Ale despite the huge selection of beers from around the world to choose from.

While they only make two brews, a pale ale and a porter, it's enough. They make those two brews perfectly and I think sometimes it's better to have two perfect beers than six or seven beers that are just OK. Another great thing about the beer here is the price. It's not too cheap, it's not too expencive. Craftworks is around the corner and while, admittedly, their beer is quite nice, too, the price is just slightly higher than I want to pay on a regular basis. A pale ale for 5,000 won ($4.60 USD) and the porter for 6,000 ($5.50 USD) is just right, the same price you'd pay in the states for something similar, plus in Korea we don't have to tip.

The location is far from pretentious, it kind of has the feeling like you're drinking in someone's garage, which is I think half of the appeal. It's great in summer because they can just open up the glass doors and the alley way becomes part of the bar with folks spreading out in every direction. It's a little unfortunate in winter that the bar feels like half the size when they close up the windows to keep out the cold air. A better seating arrangement could improve the bar a little, but otherwise, they've got the perfect recipe for success.

The staff here are great. The owners, Eric and Tiffany are really knowledgeable about beer and home brewing and we always go to them with all our home brewing questions.  The rest of the staff on hand are always friendly and kind. Yet another reason to love this place.
You can see the bar and the staff featured in an Arirang production called "Semipermanent":

Location: South Korea, Seoul, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon-dong, 691. From Noksapyeong station, take exit 2 and walk straight to the underpass. Cross under the road to the other side and continue walking in the same direction, north towards Namsan. After about 200 meters you will see The Baker's Table on your right. Turn down that alley and Magpie will be on the first alley on the left. You can probably identify it by the large amount of people milling in the alleyway with glasses of beer, especially on a Friday or Saturday night.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Peggy Pie: Meat Pies and Pie Pies

 Grand Opening day at Peggy Pie, Jongno, Seoul

I wouldn't normally write a review for a chain restaurant, but Peggy Pie just opened up a new branch around the corner from my work place in Jongno and my co-workers and I were so impressed that I just had to write something.

For weeks my co-workers and I have been seeing signs for this Peggy Pie place and the photos and descriptions just looked lovely. Finally, it opened on Tuesday and every one of my co-workers went over there throughout the day to test it out.

Frankly, I'd never had a meat pie and I wasn't so interested in a meat pie, but one co-worker picked up about six different pies (of both meat and sweet varieties) and when I came into the office for the day I got to sample a little of everything. I instantly fell in love with something called a curry chicken pie and decided that that would be my dinner for that evening.

 Chicken Curry Pie, before being devoured

So, I headed over there around dinner time and found the place to be quite busy despite being the first day they had opened.  I ordered my curry chicken pie and found myself a chair.

Chicken Curry Pie, mid-devouring process

Unfortunately, while the pie was delicious, it was also too small. So, without wanting to seem odd for going in alone, ordering one thing and then getting up and ordering another thing (maybe I'm just paranoid), I ordered myself a corned beef sandwich to go. 

 Corned Beef Sandwich: Diet Size

The sandwich was definitely a little Korean style, filled with lots of cabbage, but actually I have come to like cabbage as a sandwich filler, and I didn't mind it. This one was a little expensive for the size (4,900 won), but there are cheaper options... like a chicken curry sandwich.... mmm chicken curry... 

It's also really nice for me that their sandwiches come in two sizes: Regular and Diet. While I wouldn't say that I'm on a 'diet', it's nice to see a restaurant offering smaller sizes rather than bigger sizes... we need some more of that in my home country. 

We also all agreed that we really liked the decor inside. It's got a very hometown America kind of feel to it. And folks who don't speak Korean will he happy to see that their menu is completely in English. I do feel sorry for those folks who don't speak English, though.... 

They have meat pies... 

As with any good bakery, all the goods are displayed in the window so you can be tantalized and tempted to enter the store.

 And roll pies....

 And sweet pies galore!

Peggie pie is expanding and they now have locations all around town. This one is located in Jongno. From exit 15 of Jongno-3-ga station, walk straight to the 4 way intersection (at Burger King). Take a left and walk about 2 minutes and you can't miss the bright blue awning on your left.

Visit their website at: (Korean only)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Seoul Lantern Festival 2012

 A very popular fruit lantern from Singapore

Back in 2009 I made a very cold visit to Seoul's first Lantern Festival along the Cheonggyechon. It was memorable partially because of the spectacular lanterns on display, but mostly because I remember being bundled in a hat, scarf, mittens, winter jacket and still feeling like parts of my body were going to become frostbitten.

This year, since my office is right around the corner in Jongno, I decided I had no excuse to miss this year's festival. Friday night after work the boyfriend and I took a little stroll down to check out this year's display.

Scenes from traditional Korean culture

The most notable difference between this year and 2009 was the amount of people. We actually had to form a line to get down to the Cheonggyechon and it was rather hard to stop and take photos because there were so many people. It could be the warmer weather, I was fine with just my fall jacket and a scarf, or it could just be that the event has grown that much in popularity since it's first year. Whatever the case we only walked one portion of the stream to escape from the hoards of people... but if you don't mind the crowds or if you've never seen a lantern festival before, it's certainly worth going.

 Girls playing on a traditional Korean see-saw, 놀 뛰기

This year's theme, or at least the theme for the portion of the stream that I was on was traditional Korean culture. Here you can see scenes from the past lit up along the stream in lantern form. 

Flying traditional Korea kites (연)

Another fun event at this year's lantern festival was writing a message on a lantern, lighting it and letting it float down the stream. It kind of felt like a scene out of a movie or something.

 Launching lanterns into the stream

 Of course, all those lanterns had to go somewhere...

 This year's lantern festival runs from 11/2-11/17 along Cheonggyechon stream for 1.5 km from Cheonggye Plaza (between City Hall Station and Gwanghwamun Station) and Seungyo Bridge. For more event information, visit:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Movie Review of 광해 (Masquerade) and Updates on Subtitled Movie Screenings in Seoul

Korea's hit movie this fall is 광해 (Gwanghae), or in English, Masquerade. It's a movie based on Gwanghae, a king in the Joseon dynasty who was never given a proper king's name in history because the Confucian scholars of the time rejected his leadership, and eventually overthrew him in a coup. However, that's not the premise of the movie. The movie begins with Gwanghae suffering from the plots of government officials surrounding him. He finds himself a double (played by the same actor, Lee Byung-Hun, a name and face hallyu fans will certainly recognize), a court actor who turns out to be able to act quite kingly... at times. Of course, allowing a commoner to take the place of the king will lead to plenty of awkward mistakes and trouble making. All this is made worse when the actual king is drugged and the double needs to take Gwanghae's place for real. This is a great historical comedy/drama for anyone as it has elements anyone can enjoy from several great comedic moments, to intense drama, to somewhat of a love story. See below for the English trailer: 

 It's becoming much easier these days for English speakers to watch subtitled movie screenings. I recently stumbled across, which has all sorts of Korean movie information, but most useful to me is their page which is updated weekly with subtitled Korean films in Seoul: I will definitely be linking to this site on the sidebar of the blog for future reference!