The Hangover

It may not come as a surprise that so-called “hangover cures” are big business in Korea. My friends and I have often marvelled at the businessmen who go out and drink into the early hours of the morning as part of their job (it’s the only way to get to know colleagues and potential business partners well enough to trust them with plans and deals, apparently), and then get on the train at 5am to go back into the office. How do they do it? When I have a hangover, it’s as much as I can do to crawl to the fridge for another bottle of water, and that activity alone has been known to take me up to 6 hours of lying semi-awake with a raging thirst, willing myself to stand up.

Enter the Korean hangover cure market.

Every single convenience store carries a selection of small (usually around 100ml) glass bottles or cans, each promising to make you feel like you’ve never touched a drop of soju in your life. One of them, 모닝 케어 (that name is actually English, and is pronounced ‘Morning Care’!) has commercials that make it look as if you will in fact feel even better after a night’s drinking than you would if you’d stayed in and read a book. None of them have ever worked particularly well for me, but that’s apparently because I’ve been doing it wrong, as I was informed only last weekend. I assumed you were supposed to drink the ‘cures’ the morning after drinking, but I’ve now been informed that you’re supposed to take them either before drinking alcohol, or immediately after, before going to sleep. Gah. Perhaps “hangover prevention” would be a more accurate label.

I must admit, having discovered in a most unpleasant way last weekend that gin is not my friend, I was grateful for the bottle of 컨디션 파워 (‘Condition Power’!) given to me by a bartender friend as I sat there dolefully wishing the world would just end already. I drank it, and felt almost back to my normal self the next morning. (Rest assured, I will never drink gin again) Perhaps there’s something in these things after all.

However, the ultimate Korean hangover cure is not a drink, but a soup. 해장국, pronounced ‘hay-jang-gook’, really does literally mean ‘hangover soup‘. That just sums up Korean life better than I ever could.

The first time I had this miracle soup was shortly after I arrived here back in 2009, when I’d just experienced the first of many compulsory eating and drinking nights with my boss and colleagues.

I’m not kidding about this cultural work-bonding-through-alcohol thing, by the way – you really would cause offence if you refused to go, or refused to drink. If you really can’t take any more, you’re advised to accept the soju and then secretly get rid of it when no one’s looking, like by pouring it into your water cup under the table, or subtly passing it to a less sensible friend. Anyway, thrown into this confusing world of shots and elbow-touching and never-ending food and cries of “one shot!”, I meekly drank when I was told to and poured when I was asked to, and the next morning I woke up with my very first soju hangover. That’s not a lot of fun, let me tell you.

Nor is it fun when your new boss arrives at your door, also hungover, announcing that you are going to go and eat hangover soup together now.

All I can say is this: that stuff works. It is delicious, spicy, tasty, hot, and full of goodness that does something to settle your dodgy stomach and even dispels the nasty headache. There are several different varieties, but the broth is generally prepared by simmering ox bones in water for a long time. Then the other ingredients are added. Look, it tastes so good and works so well that I almost don’t want to tell you what’s in it, OK?

Lots of spices and herbs, of course. Nice beefy broth. Plenty of vegetables, primarily the Nappa cabbage that’s used for everything here. And congealed ox blood, natch. All served bubbling away in an earthenware bowl, whereupon the server cracks a raw egg into it, just for fun.

In Korea, I’ve learned to unhear things like “coagulated ox blood” and focus on the flavour. What’s in this soup?, a friend asked me recently as we slurped it down.

Beef and cabbage, I replied firmly.

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Duck!

I’ve written before about shabu shabu, the Japanese hotpot that’s very popular here in Korea.

Of course, the Korean version has its own twists. Traditionally, Japanese shabu shabu is cooked by swishing thin slices of beef in a pot of boiling water, but that would be a little too bland for people used to the Korean diet of fire and spice. Here, the pot in the centre of the table is filled with soup rather than water, and there are lots of other extras that vary from one restaurant to the next.

My absolute favourite shabu shabu place is a little sit-on-the-floor restaurant in downtown Daejeon. I thought it might be interesting (you decide!) to talk you through the meal, as it’s so different from anything I’d ever experienced before I came here – and it’s a great illustration of the way the food just keeps coming at Korean restaurants. Seriously, I still don’t understand how my petite colleagues remain so svelte.

So, the specialty of this fabulous little restaurant is duck. Duck! One of my favourites, and not all that common around here. When you sit down, your table is almost instantly covered with the usual banchan (side dishes), like kimchi and corn and leafy things. Each person is also presented with a plate divided into compartments for various tasty sauces, and a cute little serving spoon.

Then come the huge plates laden with raw veggies such as bean sprouts, mushrooms, onions, carrots, and cucumber.

Last but not least, two separate platefuls of raw meat. One is the thinly sliced beef to go in the shabu shabu pot; the other is the delicious duck for the grill.

Yes, grill! You chuck your meat into the central pot of broth, and then while it’s bubbling away there you arrange your duck slices on the grill that runs around it.

Soon they’re sizzling away, and there’s an ajumma pouring hot red water into the circular pans sticking out of the grill. This was mildly confusing to me the first time I experienced it, as were the odd plastic discs sitting in their little holders on the table.

As it turned out, the discs were in fact rice paper pancakes. Oh, it’s about to get so frickin’ good! As the shabu shabu boils and the duck cooks (there’s a little rack on the side of the grill to pile up the cooked pieces so they stay warm but don’t burn), you start preparing your first pancake. The pancakes really do feel like plastic, but that’s where the red water comes in. You dip the hard, flat disc into it, and when you bring it back out… ta-daa!

It has miraculously transformed into a wafer-thin, transparent pancake, which you spread out on your plate and proceed to heap high with your favourite vegetables and sauces. The finishing touch: a slice or two of the sizzling duck.

Then you just wrap it all up, and eat with a series of mmmmmm noises (and sauce all over your fingers, if you’re like me). It is one of my all-time favourite meals, possibly even better than my original favourite, the Chinese-style crispy shredded duck with hoisin sauce version. And that’s saying a lot.

So anyway, eventually all the duck has been devoured and it’s time to get bate intae the soup, as they’d say back home. A ladle and bowls are provided, and they will regularly come round with a broth-filled kettle to check that your shabu shabu pot doesn’t need a top-up.

But that’s not all! When most of the meat and vegetables have been transferred from pot to tummies, that’s when an ajumma will appear with a huge plateful of noodles, which she will cheerfully (or not… you know ajummas) throw into the remaining broth. A few minutes later, you’re sitting with a big bowl of brothy noodles, despite having basically had two dinners by this stage.

They’re delicious, though, so you slurp them down and then sit back to rest.

But wait! What’s this?! The ajumma is returning with more food?!! You can only watch in amazement, clutching your swollen belly, as she proceeds to make a sort of savoury porridge with the tiny remainder of the broth. Nothing must be wasted! In go some finely-chopped vegetables mixed with rice, and I think I saw an egg being cracked in there for good measure last time, too, and it all gets briskly stirred and pounded into a gloopy yellow mixture that looks decidedly unappealing, but tastes great.

Meanwhile, of course, throughout this dinner that seems to have been going on for a week and a half, your soju glass has been constantly refilled and your legs have cramped from sitting on the floor. By the time you stagger to your feet you’ve got pins and needles and a boozy glow on your cheeks, and you weigh about 10 pounds more than you did when you sat down.

And that, my dears, is my kind of meal.

A sweaty beached whale.

Approximately once every two years, I start seeing photos of myself that make me want to sob uncontrollably.

It’s not that, in between times, I’m perfectly happy with all the photos I see of myself. It’s more a case of blocking out the awful truth because I’m far too lazy to get off my arse and do something about it. Then, perhaps due to a combination of factors, I start to feel worse and worse about the size of my arms and the extra belly and the twenty chins, and the fact that I’m too lazy to walk down to the corner shop for a bottle of water. When this happens, it just takes one photo to make me freeze in horror, go into mourning, then dry the self-pitiful tears and become determined to do something about it.

Originally, I had included the photo that did it this time, but honestly, I am far too horrified by it to post it here. Let it fade away, hastily untagged in a hopefully-soon-to-be-forgotten Facebook album, never to depress me again. I have cut out all the unnecessary crap from my diet, cut my ridiculous portion sizes in half, and started exercising like a madwoman. It has now been two weeks and my body does not have a clue what’s hit it – mwahahahaha!

My problem with exercise has always been my short attention span and low boredom threshold. I threw myself into swimming in a big way when I was a student, lost loads of weight, got fit, and then got bored with the routine of going to the pool every day, and gave up. A couple of years ago, I bought a Wii Fit and launched into that with great gusto. That lasted for a couple of weeks, then my mind started to die a little bit every time I switched it on to do the same old routine. I gave up.

This time, I am mixing it up in the hope that I can convince my brain that exercise is not mind-numbingly boring (which it is). I work out on my Wii Fit, but if I come home bored at the very thought of it, I pull on my trainers, switch on the pedometer app on my phone, stick in my earphones, and power-walk to (and along) the river, not coming home until I’ve covered at least 5km. My boss has invited me to come along to her gym with her to play a Korean ball game she showed me last summer, which is a lot of fun, good for toning, and will get a post of its own once I figure out what the heck it’s called. And tonight, I started the Jillian Michaels 30-Day Shred exercise video.

Holy jumping catfish, as my granny might rightfully remark.

My (much thinner, much fitter) friend recommended it to me as a fast but effective workout, and for that reason I am now sitting here unable to walk.

You’re not allowed to take any breaks in this rapid-fire, circuit training-style punishment from the fiery pits of hell. She puts you down on the floor for painful stretchy exercises, then forces you right back up on to your trembling legs for cardio stuff, then has you lunging in all directions with weights in your aching arms. And then you do it again. And again.

“OK, now, back up on your feet, quickly!” she snapped at me as I lay like a sweaty beached whale on the floor after something called ‘abs crunches’. “I can’t!!” I moaned in genuine distress as I tried to pull myself up and realised that my legs were shaking too much to hold me. Towards the end, I threw down my weights (bottles of water!) to get down on the floor for more painful stretchy things, and descended with more of a desperate, wobbly crash than a sprightly bound. I actually had to hold on to the wall when I was showering afterwards, since my legs had apparently turned to useless pillars of jelly.

These events transpired over an hour ago, and I swear my face is still an alarming shade of red. This exercise thing is Not Fun At All.

And yet, strangely, I feel amazing after every single exercise session. Not physically – physically, let’s face it, I want to die – but emotionally. I feel alert and happy and positive, no matter how rubbish or tired I might have been feeling earlier in the day. So, for now, that’s going to keep me at it.

It’d better bloody work, though!

Sod this for a game of soldiers.

No, no, no.

No more.

I am not sure why or how it is, exactly, that I am in Korea for yet another summer, but as the weather becomes increasingly painful for me, I am firmly resolving that this shall not happen again. During my time in Korea, I have come to detest, loathe, fear and resent the summertime. Sweat, fatigue, perpetual dehydration, sweat, wet clothes, mosquitoes, sweat, monsoons, humidity, sweat, bugs the size of your hand, steam rising from the ground, sweat, sunburn, heatstroke, sweat, sweat, everywhere SWEAT.

Enough. I am over this. I am Northern Irish, and we were not designed for such a place as this. There are those who chase the sun, travelling around as the seasons change so that they never have to wave goodbye to summer. This sounds like absolute insanity to me. I have decided, therefore, to become the exact opposite of a sun-chaser. I am going to seek to live my life in a permanent state of winter.

When my contract ends at the start of next spring, I shall flee the country before the gradual inevitable descent into humid hell begins.

I will be going from a place where I spend a considerable chunk of the year like this…

Aircon + paper fan + electric fan = still not enough in the Korean summer.

To one where you can socialise in a bar like this…

Ice bar serving ice cocktails in an ice hotel in Quebec.

I am going to move to Canada. Yes.

Did you know that in parts of Quebec, it is winter for approximately half the year?! Even summer struggles to be as warm as a Norn Irish summer. I almost cried with joy when I realised that such a heavenly place exists right here on Earth. Not only that, but they’re really fussy about you speaking French when you’re there, so the government throws you into an intensive full-time language immersion course when you arrive. For FREE. This is my kind of place. Generous. Helpful. French. Cold.

Now I just have to figure out what I’m going to do when I get there. More teaching… have another crack at the whole writing thing… or now for something completely different? Decisions, decisions.

And in the meantime, with less than a year left in the country that has (in an odd sort of way) become home to me, it’s time to start blogging about the remaining everyday oddities that now seem commonplace to me, lest I ever forget how totally, utterly surreal my life here has been at times – or how completely, wonderfully life-changing the experience has been. Thanks, Korea, you crazy monkey, you. I’m not done with you just yet!

Visitors and a child genius.

Two little things happened today that reminded me yet again why I love teaching young children.

I was herding my unruly first graders down the stairs to get their bus, trying to zip up backpacks and remind them about homework and wondering why I even bother shouting “don’t run!”, when Allie, the school secretary, came towards me leading a little girl in an unfamiliar school uniform by the hand. I did a double take and then found myself emitting an uncharacteristic girly scream. It was Jennifer – my favourite child from kindergarten, who I taught for two years and then broke my heart saying goodbye to when she graduated in February.

Jennifer is the girl who made me a snowflake when I was sick, and wrote me a poem in a Valentine’s card. She was my little star, and so friendly, hardworking, kind-hearted and thoughtful that I often lost sight of the fact that she was only 6 years old. Saying goodbye to her was extremely sad for me.

“What are you doing here?!” I squealed, forgetting all about my howling first graders and rushing over to her. She didn’t answer. Instead, she broke away from the secretary and ran towards me, jumping up into my arms for a bear hug. She wouldn’t let go. I looked at Allie over her shoulder, and she laughed. “She has been asking her mother every day if she can come see you. She finally gave in and dropped her off here while she goes to pick up her other child from school.”

Well, that was the nicest thing I’d heard in a long time. :) We sat in the entrance hall surrounded by the usual yelling chaos that is the kindergarteners going home and the elementary students arriving, and Jennifer climbed on to my lap and held my hand tightly as she told me all about her new school and teachers and subjects. Her mother arrived to pick her up and looked apologetically at me, as if she had somehow inconvenienced me and not in fact made my day. What a lovely little surprise!

I went back upstairs to prepare for my next class, and greeted my second group of seven-year-olds, who were playing with some kind of elaborate Lego robot on the floor. I stepped over them and groaned as the fan swooshed a wave of humid air around me. “How is it this hot already, at the start of May?” I grumbled crossly to myself, reaching for the air con remote and then collapsing at my desk with a bottle of water.

One of the boys suddenly popped his head up over my desk like a little jack-in-the-box. “Well, teacher,” he began very seriously, “you know the Earth?”. I looked suspiciously at him, hoping he wasn’t about to start telling me it was really called Korea. “I do know the Earth, yes,” I replied warily. He nodded, satisfied. “Around the Earth there is a… a… cover?” He made some gestures with his hands, looking expectantly at me for the vocabulary he didn’t know. “What is this? Earth, then sky, then…?”. I gazed at him, mildly surprised. “Are you talking about the ozone layer?”. He nodded confidently. “Yes, yes. Ozone layer. Ozone layer has a hole. The sun is spilling in the hole and getting on to the Earth. That is why it is hot so early. April and May, it is spring, but it is hot. Ozone layer is broken. The Earth is getting warmer.”

He looked intently at me to check that I now understood global warming, and for a moment I could only nod speechlessly. “Um… thank you, Andy. Thanks for explaining that.”

“No problem, teacher!” says he, going back to play with his Lego on the floor. I sat back and watched him playing like any other 7-year-old, my mind completely blown.

Days like today make it all worthwhile.

Twigim (튀김)

Aside from the horrifying amount of yellow dust floating around these parts (we are all gasping and coughing like a deadly plague has descended upon us), it’s quite pleasant to be outside at the moment. Sunny, breezy, bright and cheerful.

I’ve spent a glorious afternoon in the park with friends, and several lovely evenings sitting at the picnic tables with cold drinks outside a convenience store downtown, watching the Korean world go by. Wandering through the streets as the sun is setting is still one of my favourite things to do here, perhaps stopping at a tiny mini-bar-in-a-tent to buy a refreshing cocktail in a bag – the novelty of that has yet to wear off! My favourite is the French Kiss, partly because it’s sweet and has a fruity and summery flavour, and partly because it’s fun to ask for from the cute ‘bartenders’ at the stalls.

And of course, there’s the street food. Good grief, I do go on about it a lot, but I absolutely love it! I’ve blogged about various kinds before, from fresh fruit or fried potato slices on sticks, to heavenly sweet syrup-filled pancakes, to spicy tteokbokki and hot roasted chestnuts. But I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned the one that’s the most ubiquitous of all: twigim.

Twigim is the broad, general term for the huge variety of deep-fried foods you can find stacked high on at least a couple of stalls on any given street in Korea. Similar to tempura (but miles better, if you ask me), twigim is addictive, deeply satisfying, and probably extremely unhealthy. I haven’t even come close to trying all the different kinds, mainly because I tend to find one I love and then order it every single time until I take a bite of whatever a friend is eating and decide that that’s my new favourite.

I’m not entirely sure what the exact definition of this street food is, but it seems to me that you can batter and deep fry pretty much anything and declare it to be twigim. Just about any vegetable, on its own or chopped and mixed with others, or stuffed… mandu (dumplings)… glass noodles wrapped in seaweed… squid… whole shrimps…

The pre-cooked snacks are piled on the table and usually sold in portions of 3-5. When you order, the vendor tosses your selection into the frier, and by the time you’ve paid and gotten your chopsticks (or toothpick!) ready, you’re being served a steaming plateful of Yum. You can take it away with you, but it’s really one of those foods that’s best eaten immediately, either standing right there at the cart or squashing around a rickety table under the canopy.

Brushing deep-fried mandu with sauce at a food cart in Seoul.

Some of my friends eating deep-fried stuffed peppers at one of our local food tents in Daejeon.

The battered snacks are usually chopped up into bite-sized pieces for you, and served with a soy sauce based dip.

Dipping sauce

Stuffed peppers: “고추전” (gochujeon)

I haven’t tried one that I didn’t like. My favourite for a long time was the shrimp  – golden and crispy on the outside, tender and succulent on the inside – but a few weekends ago Irish Friend One introduced me to the peppers and I cannot seem to move on from them. Whole green chilli peppers, stuffed with a mix that varies from vendor to vendor but usually includes other vegetables, egg, beef, spices, and noodles, all finely chopped and mixed together. The crispiness of the batter combined with the heat of the pepper and the flavour of the stuffing is out of this world.

No, this country has not been very good at all for my figure…