Monday, May 25, 2009

Itaewon and Seoul Food

Korea is an interesting contrast of socially conservative yet technologically liberal viewpoints. On the one hand you'll have a rigid social hierarchy and the encouragement of submission to elders, and on the other hand you have Aegis-equipped destroyers and 90% of the population owning a mobile phone. But I guess a land of contrasts is always going to be more interesting than a land where everything makes perfect sense.

This is exit 6 in Gangnam, a focal point for post-midday meet-ups. Across the road you can see some dazzling vertical light poles. These are a new addition to the city and are interactive 'meeting aids'. You can tell someone to meet you at one (they're numbered), and they have all sorts of information about restaurants and things to do in the nearby area. Each one has its own phone number, so if you're going to be late, you can text message the pole and the message will appear on a screen so that your friend can see it. You can even get it to take your photo and it will email you the image.

This is the artificial CheongGyeCheon stream that runs through central Seoul. It was the brainchild of current president Lee Myung-Bak back when he was the mayor. Although there was a lot of opposition to its construction, after it was completed it became hugely popular with families on the weekends.

In this photo, all of the people in pink are doing synchronised aerobics to promote fitness. Koreans have an affinity for synchronised things in general, and dance-aerobics are performed together by supermarket workers at special times during the day. A few years ago, some guy called Sun Myung-Moon got thousands of couples all married together at exactly the same ceremony.

Recently World Vision held a community donation event near City Hall. People came and threw their coins into this pit throughout the day. When I was young, I always had dreams of swimming in money, but now I think it probably wouldn't be so enjoyable.

A couple of weeks ago, Seoul National University put on an international food event. International students were allowed to set up stalls and sell traditional foodstuffs to the university community. We had a browse for a while but only the Uyghur and Pakistani students seemed to have previous cooking experience. The French students made French toast, the New Zealanders made sausages and the Chinese made ramyeon.

I had a class at 1pm that day and the ticketing system was too complicated so we went to the Korean outpost, patrolled by a cadre of ajummas.

Here are the ajummas busy at work. An ajumma is a broad term that refers to any middle-aged married woman. In Korea I've heard them described as being as fierce as a lion, and having the femininity of a cement truck.
But from the ones I've met, I'd describe them more as hard-working, blunt and rough, but also caring and compassionate.

These are some staple Korean dishes that you can find everywhere. At the top left is sundae, which is an intestine sausage made from mung-bean noodles soaked in pork blood. It tastes a lot better than it sounds. The colour is a dark brown due to the oxidation of the iron in hemoglobin. It's a little similar to how a rusted nail will turn from red to brown. Below the sundae are mandu, ubiquitous Korean dumplings that are usually stuffed with meat and chives. On the right is a pajeon, a wheat pancake that is characteristically eaten undercooked, when compared to the texture of a western pancake. It was all fairly good.

Anthony came up for a visit a little while ago and we hung out in Itaewon. This suburb in central Seoul is fast becoming my favourite place to visit. It has a high concentration of foreign residents, with all of the benefits that multicultural communities enjoy.

And in my books, the number one benefit of multiculturalism is the variety of food choice. Anthony and I found a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican taco place on one of the side streets and decided to stop for a snack. I had a single soft shell beef tobacco, that you can see in the photo. It came with home-made Tabasco sauce and was fantastic. I gave it a 9 out of 10.

And yes, if you look closely, you can see that there's a real lime floating in the Corona.

One thing you quickly notice in Korea is that what Koreans consider an appetising picture is often entertaining. The home shopping advertisements on late night tv here will sometimes show a family intensely enjoying a meal cooked by some nifty device. My favourite ad was one that had a crab-cooking machine, and there were close-ups of the crab being slowly eviscerated and pulled to pieces to show the succulence of the meat.

Oh and there was this other funny ad that featured a water purifier. After a lengthy 'scientific' discussion on how good the filter was, the presenter poured himself a drink and tasted it. You should have seen the look on his face. You'd never think that filtered water could make someone so ecstatic.

One place that had caught my attention a lot was this burger joint called Smokey Saloon. Every time I walked passed it, there was always a line up of people, which is a sure sign that they're doing something right. After a bit of dilly-dallying around (Anthony and I are both slow deciders), we agreed to eat lunch here.

There are only a few tables inside, but if you order take-away (or 'take-out' as the Americans say), you get express service and they even ring you when your order is ready.

This burger is called an Ambulance. I think it's named that way because you're likely to get a heart attack after you eat one. We sat down on some steps to investigate. On the bottom is a large hash brown, and there's also crispy red bacon, cheddar cheese and an egg. The meat patty was very large and the flavour was spot-on for what a hamburger patty should taste like, meaty, juicy and smokey. The buns were soft and slightly crunchy from being lightly fried in butter. I think the dressings were a mixture of a light barbecue sauce, tangy mayonnaise and tomato sauce. My verdict was that it was quite possibly the best burger I have ever eaten, although it loses marks for composition due to its unwieldy design.
Anthony was less impressed. But Anthony is what I like to call a 'burger-minimalist', one who only likes bread and meat with no condiments. No mayonnaise, no egg, no vegetables. Cheese or sesame seeds on the bun are likely to get a raised eyebrow or even two raised eyebrows. Hopefully he'll learn to appreciate the burger-renaissance that occurred after the 1920s and one day be using condiments like tangerine honey mustard or rosemary balsamic vinegar.

Our professor took us out to a restaurant at the Grand Intercontinental Hotel on a Friday. In the first level basement of the building is a buffet restaurant with everything from roast duck to tuna belly.

On the left is a cream fountain and on the right is a chocolate one. You dip your fruit on a stick in them, kind of like a fondue. The chocolate one reminds me of a topping you can get in Australia called Ice Magic. It's a runny chocolate that goes on your ice cream and in a few seconds you can remove it as a crunchy shell. It never failed to amaze me.

You know you're somewhere fancy when they have scampi on the menu. These miniature crawfish taste like a cross between lobster and shrimp. Half the fun is getting the meat out of them.

Here's Hu-Mei from Sejong University who came to join us. She developed an instant affinity for the scampi and ate around 15 of the little critters in under an hour. Although it was her first time to try them, she quickly worked out how to use her teeth to crack the shells in all the right places. She'll probably turn up in fairytales that scampi parents tell to their scampi children if they don't do their homework.

After that we went to a second round of drinking beer. Sitting around and getting tipsy with a camera can be pretty fun. Here's our first photo that was fairly modest. On the left is Chen-Jing, then Yong-Sung (one of the nice seniors in the lab) and then me. These photos are all from Chen-Jing's camera.

As we drank progressively more, our photos became increasingly creative. There's nothing like a 3 litre pitcher of beer to bring out the hidden artist in all of us.

This is us with seaweed in our teeth. I believe we were aiming to represent 'country-folk'.

And here's us with parsley in our hair. At this point we were experimenting with more abstract representations of the universe. All in all, it was an enjoyable night out.

I actually have enough photos for another blog post right now, but I'll chop the post here so its more digestible. Hopefully I'll have time to post them up in the coming week.

See you soon!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Toastmasters in Korea

Although I like to think of myself as a rather tough and emotionally hardy man of sorts, a few months of living alone in Seoul seems to have drained me of something. Is it the lonesome daily treks back to the dormitories at midnight? Is it the lack of contact with an older and more familiar social network? Is it my crazy laboratory senior, Hoon Cheong, who ignores me everyday? I know not.
But what I do know is that when you're feeling in the blues, there's always something you can do about it. That is, apart from whinging on your blog.

So I decided to pull in the reins a bit, slow down the pace of lab work, and explore some different avenues. Toastmasters is the name of an international social group, kind of like Rotary. It's a non-profit organisation aimed at improving your public speaking. I found out about it a long time ago on the internet, but recently decided to go along and see what it was all about.

So every Wednesday now, I leave the lab at 6pm and head down to Gangnam. Getting off at 6pm on a weekday is unheard of if you know about the work ethic of doctoral students in Korea. But variety is the spice of life.

I like the architecture in the Gangnam area, which is a refreshing change from the sentinel-like apartment blocks that litter the suburban landscape. It's pretty easy to make a building more exciting, all you need to do is take out a chunk and raise it up a bit, like they did with this one.

There are quite a few Toastmasters clubs in Seoul, but the closest one to me is the South River Toastmasters, which is located in the building above. It's directly behind the large Pagoda building at subway exit 6. If you want to come along, meetings are at 7:30pm on Wednesdays.

So basically what happens is everyone sits down and listens to some prepared speeches. To give a speech, you have to become a member, and to become a member, you have to be eligible. I went by myself on the first day and found the speeches to be of a surprisingly good quality. Each presentation has specific guidelines, a time limit and is evaluated by an experienced member. The audience all vote on which speeches are the best, and the winners get ribbons. The meetings run smoothly and the large majority of speeches are quite entertaining.

Intrigued by my first experience at South River Toastmasters, I decided to further my knowledge. The following weekend, I went up to Hongik University, to drop in on Sincheon Toastmasters. The clubs are all run independently, but have loose links with each other. The Hongik University area is colloquially referred to as Hongdae. The photo above is of the campus basketball court.

The atmosphere at this one was a little different. It was more cozy and had less people, which is good if you want to talk for the first time. I talked for one of the 'Table Topics', which are impromptu speeches that non-members are allowed to give. My topic was supposed to be about free trade agreements, but it evolved into something about mad cow disease. Oh well.
Hopefully I'll be in the running for the 'most improved' award.

According to some poll somewhere, fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is ranked right next to fear of death. There's probably an explanation for the fight-or-flight response, but I've always wanted to be a better speaker. Especially seeing as I plan on being a lecturer someday, and I don't want to put my students to sleep.

A short while after that, I went along to another club, called Neowiz Toastmasters. It's in the building above (near Samseong station) and meetings are on Thursday nights.
Am I becoming infatuated with this whole Toastmasters business? I don't think so.

Moderately intrigued would be a better way to put it.

Neowiz is a computer game publishing company. I'm not familiar with their games, but they operate FIFA online, which is pretty popular at the PC rooms. Neowiz Toastmasters is held in the company building and a lot of employees attend the meetings.

This is Chris. I like Chris because he reminds me of my brother Chris (in Australia). Incidentally, his full name is Chris Lee.
Chris goes to both South River and Neowiz. In the photo above, he's busy organising the meeting agenda.

Neowiz is a new club, and has only been around for 4 weeks. Still, the presentations were entertaining and in general all of the clubs have a very supportive atmosphere. If there's a Toastmasters in your area, I advise you to check it out one day. There are over 12,000 clubs worldwide.

But the best thing about Toastmasters is that after every meeting, you go out for 'Round 2' which involves alcohol and food.
It's a good place to meet nice people. My theory is that everyone likes to drink and meet new people, all we need is an excuse.
I'll probably keep going to Toastmasters for my remaining years in Seoul.

In the last blog post, I showed you a restaurant named Pomato. This week's entry for the funny name award is the one above. The name translates to 'Squid Brothers'.

Now we're back in the lab again. Lab work moves in short bursts punctuated by longer periods of waiting. In the photo above is some E.coli on a selective plate. The colonies are blue because they're holding a gene that causes a reaction with the gel that they're sitting on. There are all sorts of tricks you can use to identify the bacteria that you're looking for.

I walk past the library everyday and each week there is a new exhibit. Last week was a collection of photography. The little Post-Its that you can see are notes that students have left behind, commenting on the photos. It's kind of like an internet bulletin board, but in real life.

Here's one of the photos. The blue Post-It below says gwi-yopda, which means 'cute'.

I went back to that small Chinese restaurant in Suwon with the eccentric owners. This time I went with Chen-Jing, who can understand the menu. In the photo above are some pork ribs and snow peas.

These are my 'knock-out' plants, which have been engineered to lack a particular gene. Because of the mutation, they grow a lot slower than normal plants.

I have to head down to the greenhouse every week or so to water the plants. Next to the greenhouse area is the old campus that our university used to use as the main agricultural department. In 2002, this department merged with the main campus in Gwanak-gu.

Last Saturday I walked around the old campus to take some photos. These photos are actually for Dr Jung-Gun Kim, a senior member of our lab who left before I arrived. He's working at Stanford University now and reads this blog occasionally. Dr Kim spent a lot of time at this campus, so I'm posting these photos to bring some memories back for him.

A couple of buildings are still being used for administration purposes, but most of the campus is becoming overgrown.

Parts are starting to fall off some of the buildings, making it unsafe to walk inside. But the atmosphere here is nice and peaceful.

I think our professor said that the old lab was on level 3, four rooms across from the entrance door. So I guess it's the one with the pipe coming down in front of it.

I heard once that if all humans suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth, it would only take around 50 years for plant life to reclaim the cities. Another thing I heard was that if all insects suddenly disappeared, the food chain would completely collapse after a few years. But if humans disappeared, the ecosystems would flourish.

I was always a keen environmentalist when I was young, and it's still something that often crosses my mind. I was actually donating $10 per month to Greenpeace for the past 5 years, but recently stopped. Half of the reason was because I'm low on money these days, and the other half is due to their unwavering opposition to biotechnology. Probably the first reason more than the latter though.
My personal thoughts are that advances in biotechnology overall are better for the environment, creating less need for fertilizers and pesticides. Genetically engineered crops also make more efficient use of the available land, which means better usage of water and less need for labour. We need to be careful with what we invent, because there are risks. But the same arguments apply to nuclear energy (which has had its fair share of opposition). Many people say that GM food is all 'artificial', but what isn't artificial these days? Commercial varieties of wheat and rice that you buy in the supermarket are very different from their wild cousins. All of the breeds of dog that you see in the world today, from chihuahuas to dalmations, all came from only 3 species of wolf. Humans have in-bred them, selecting for desired traits. This has always been genetic engineering, but without laboratory finesse. There's also nothing natural about earth's human overpopulation problem. Genetic engineering is about applying science to genetics, which encounters opposition from those who believe life is special. My argument is not that life isn't special, it's that we've been tampering with it for hundreds of years already.

Anyway, time for me to get off my soapbox.

I found these band-aids in the supermarket but didn't have my camera with me at the time. Luckily they were only 70 cents, so I bought them. Presumably they are for chaffed nipples.

That's all from me. See you next time!

Oh, and remember to check out Toastmasters someday.