Category Archives for "Food and Leisure"

Oct 06

Silkworm pupae, urine fish, and farmer’s wine: A meal to remember in Korea’s culinary capital

By Mitchell Blatt | Drinking , Food and Leisure , Korea , Local Politics

Koreans have a saying, “Eat once in Jeonju, and you’ll be spoiled for life.” The city of 600,000, which is the capital of North Jeolla province, is a UNESCO Creative City for its gastronomical heritage.

On a visit this past July, I was excited to taste Jeonju’s legendary fare. So why, when I went with two Koreans to a famous dining district, was I staring down at a plates full of silkworm pupae, jelly made of smashed acorns, and a fish that has been fermented in its own urine?

We were at the Jeonmun Makgeolli Town, one of seven makgeolli towns prominently featured on tourism maps. Makgeolli is a Korean “farmer’s wine” made from rice and traditionally served in bowls. It has a reputation as being an honest, working man’s drink. It’s a drink that old men drink straight from the plastic bottle outside convenience stores at 3 in the afternoon. In fact, the national security law during the period of military rule was jokingly called the “Makgeolli Security Law” because so many people were arrested for things they said in casual conversation.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

In short, makgeolli seemed to me to be a representative drink for the progressive stronghold of Jeolla, which was the site of both the 1894 Donghak Peasant Rebellion in Jeonju and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising to the south.

The restaurant we chose, Yeongjinjib Makgeolli, was loud like the Jeonju people, and the walls were covered in Korean graffiti. For about 6,000 won (US$5.30) each guest, a table gets six dishes per person of food and a brass kettle of the milky yellow liquor—a good deal, considering the more extravagant hanjeonsik royal feast can set you back 90,000 won.

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After a waitress covered our table with plates, my Korean friends encouraged me to take a bite of a sickly tan gelatin-like substance. It jiggled and limply fell apart in chopsticks. The taste wasn’t good either, but I washed it down quickly with a gulp of sweet makgeolli. Later they told me it was dotori-muk (acorn jelly), which is what you get when you mash the innards of acorns into powder and then boil it into unappetizing squares.

Next on the menu was beondegi (silkworm pupae). The round fat insects had bodies the brownish color of nature, with eight clearly segmented outer body sections. A dirty brown liquid covered the bottom of the plate and glistened off the pupae’s bodies. They looked like bugs from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

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While relatively flavorless, the texture of beondegi is another story. My teeth came down and there was no crunch but rather a gooey, chewy sensation that almost had me retching. One pupae was enough, and then a long sip of heavenly makgeolli.

Finally I saved the smelliest for last. The fish, hongeo (skate), excretes urine through its skin. For some reason, it is considered a delicacy especially in the southern part of Korea. Even drenched in hot sauce, a bite of hongeo still smelled like an outhouse as I brought it to my mouth. Of the three, hongeo had the best texture but the worst taste. I gagged it down and emptied my bowl of makgeolli.

Despite such extreme foods, I was starting to feel good vibes. Although makgeolli is just between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, it is carbonated, and it gets to you quick. I could kind of understand why urine-flavored fish is considered a perfect compliment to makgeolli; it makes you want to drink!

The rest of the foods I honestly enjoyed, but they all had one thing in common: heavy flavors. Whether it was sweet pumpkin, smoky mackerel, or seafood in spicy dipping sauces, each bite called for a drink to clear the palate.

Eating once in Jeonju is something I’ll remember for life.

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Oct 24

LINE Friends Cafe: How LINE app turned chat stickers into a branded character universe fans wait in line to see

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Food and Leisure

Transformers and the Lego Movie showed there’s still a market for movies based on toys. Now the success of Line Friends in Asia shows that there is also a market for cafes and merchandise based on emoticons and stickers.

At Catherine Plaza in Nanjing, China on Sunday afternoon, October 23, a line of over 100 people waited for entrance into the newly opened Line Friends Cafe & Store. While they waited they took pictures with the giant statues of a bear, a chic, a rabbit, a frog, and a moon.

The Line Friends are a cast of characters originally developed as stickers for the chat app Line between 2011 and 2013. As the app exploded in popularity, Line eventually expanded the character lineup and featured them in animations (Line Town) and games (Line Rangers). Now they have started opening stores.

On its website, Line claims to have 45 stores in nine countries either open or in the works, but the list appears incomplete because it doesn’t include the Nanjing location. Besides Asia, Columbia and the United States (Times Square, NYC) are also listed as the sites of planned future stores.

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The shops that have just opened in Shanghai and Nanjing are extremely popular. Fans, who were about 70-80 percent female and largely younger than 25, waited in line for 30-40 minutes to get in on Sunday afternoon. Inside the place is divided into sections based on the characters, including a cafe, a restaurant serving hot dogs, and a merchandise section that included apparel, backpacks, bags, and branded items for 100-300 RMB (which the women I was with thought was too expensive).

However despite the great interest in the Line Friends characters and the popularity of Line in neighboring Asian countries, few Chinese use the chat app Line Friends were originally developed for. Of the dozen fans I talked to, none said they actively used it and few said they downloaded it but didn’t use it. WeChat and QQ are the leading chat apps in China. Line claims to be the leading social network in Japan and boasts 700 million users worldwide, with popularity in Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Spain as well.

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But Line Corporation, which is a subsidiary of the Korean internet giant Naver, has found a way to turn their chat stickers into expansive brands. It created a whole universe around the Line Friends called Line Town, and it developed the stories of the twelve characters in a series of 50 1-3 minute short animations.

It also worked to get the Line Friends in people’s minds through multiple media channels. One fan at the cafe said she heard about the Line Friends through Korean music idol group Exo. Line Corp also capitalizes on the popularity of photo-taking apps in Asia. Some of the Chinese fans did use the app Line Camera, which lets users take photos of themselves with the images of a Line Friend’s face superimposed over their own face.

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A corporate promotional website lists six related and overlapping areas of business development: “STORE”, “Café”, “Collaboration”, “Character Goods”, “Licensing”, and “Contents.” Besides the 5,000 Line products that are said to be already in production, Line will also develop “license business with the world’s best partners in various fields” and introduce “authentic products collaborated with world famous brands.” Possibilities for Line entertainment features include “animation, movie, game, education, [and] publication.”

When it went public on NASDAQ in June of this year, Line raised $1.1 billion to become the biggest IPO of a slow year.

Aug 13

Eating silkworm larvae – Day 15

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure , Korea Trip 2016

I arrived in Busan, a city of 3.6 million on the south coast, yesterday and went out to try the local cuisine. The Gupo Market is nearby my hotel, so I went out there. A few streets were crowded with pedestrians, flashing lights, and brightly lit signs, so I joined in the crowd and searched for a local-looking restaurant with a lot of people in it.nightlife

Finding a small restaurant full of Koreans with pictures of seafood on the outside, I walked in and found a menu on the wall. No pictures, no English, and I didn’t have my phone with me with a translation app. So a perfect real Korean experience.

I picked a dish off the wall at random, garibigu (가리비구), and then the wait staff brought out plates of tomatoes, cucumbers, silkworm larvae, and shells that you have to suck the meat out of.Continue reading

Jul 31

Bibimbap: A basic Korean dish, but the gold standard for assessing taste and authenticity – Day 2

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure , Korea Trip 2016

The first time I tried dolsot bibimbap (stone pot mixed rice) was at a Japanese/Korean restaurant at Indiana University called Ami. I loved how the vegetables, meat, and egg mixed with rice to create full flavors. I went back to Ami many times that year and often ordered dolsot bibimbap. That summer I went to San Francisco and ate bibimbap at a hard-to-find restaurant on a second-floor in Koreatown. It was amazing. Next fall I went back to Ami. Their bibimbap tasted terrible.

I’ve tried a lot of dolsot bibimbap since then, but nothing compares to the real thing. Last night, for my last meal before flying off to Seoul, I tried stone pot bibimbap at a Korean restaurant in a Korean ethnic neighborhood of Yantai, which is not far from the Korean Peninsula. The place was filled with the sounds of spoken Korean. The kim chi in the banchan (pre-meal snacks) was especially sour and crunchy. The main course was better than most bibimbap dishes in China.

But now I’m in Korea. The first thing I did when I got off the bus from the airport shuttle was to enter a restaurant and order dolsot bibimbap.

It came in a scalding hot bowl with dried seaweed on top and a real cracked raw egg inside. I mixed it up. Now that was real good dolsot bibimbap. The rice on the edges of the bowl was cooked till it was crunchy.

The banchan was also different. Continue reading

Mar 07

A guide to Taiwanese snacks

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure , Travel

I couldn’t help myself while walking around the basement level of the Shilin Market in Taipei. Everywhere I looked there were delicious-looking snacks. Fried salty chicken, crispy crab, dumplings, meats of all kinds ready to be fried… I ate something here and something there, and by the time I got to the end of the line, where I saw an iron griddle restaurant that proudly displayed a set of award trophies, I was full.

A good piece of advice for visiting a Taiwanese night market is to always walk through once to see all the fare before you make your choice. With so many treats, you don’t want to miss something. However, that’s hard to do on an empty stomach, so you should read this summary of Taiwanese snack food instead.

Taiwanese night markets are widely praised in tourist literature. Before even stepping foot in Taiwan, an image of Taiwanese pancake rolls filled with beef showed up on my Facebook feed. “I must eat this when I go to Taiwan,” I thought. So I did.

Lao Dong Beef Noodles (老董牛肉面) is a successful noodle restaurant Taipei that was featured at the Taiwanese Cuisine Exhibit of the 2010 Shanghai Expo as a representative example of Taiwanese fare. Besides beef noodles, it also has other typical snacks like shrimp rolls and beef stuffed pancakes. All three satisfied my taste buds. Though Lao Dong may not be the best in Taipei, it had a lot of variety of snacks for reasonable prices. My favorite was the beef (or pork) wrapped in scallion pancakes. The beef was succulent, and the pancake was cooked crispy on the outside. Visitors in a hurry can purchase them on the go at a window on the outside of the restaurant, which is located at 35 Minsheng W Road, Zhongshan District (民生西路35號,中山區), just outside the exit of Shuanglian Station.

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Beef noodles are also a widespread dish in mainland China, so what is so special about Taiwanese beef noodles? That is also the first thing I thought when Taipei locals told me to try beef noodles there. Beef noodles are so famous in Taiwan that it is considered a national dish. It turns out that Taiwanese beef noodles are indeed different from the Chinese variety, which were popularized by the Hui ethnicity. Taiwanese beef noodles usually have a richer soup flavor, derived from the addition of soy sauce and other ingredients, including sometimes five spice powder. The beef was also thicker—in chunks at Lao Dong—than the thin pieces of meat at Lanzhou Beef Noodle restaurants.

    Night Markets

The most exciting place to try snacks in Taiwan is without a doubt a bustling night market. As you walk through throngs of people, you can see all kinds of food in every direction and breath in tantalizing smells. One of the largest of Taipei’s night markets is Shilin Night Market. Spread of over multiple blocks inside and outside, the area includes both souvenir shops and snack stalls. Arriving by subway one night (Shilin station or Jiantan station, line 2), I could see brightly lit signs hanging from the sides of buildings and a long line of people walking down the pedestrian street.

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The main food area, however, is located inside a building at 101 Jihe Road (基河路101號, 士林區). On the first floor vendors sell packaged snacks that one can take home for friends. Such famous souvenir snacks include pineapple cakes and mochi. Pineapple cakes, with the fruit encrusted in buttery crust, vary in price from machine-manufactured and cheap to the handmade varieties. Bargaining is possible and recommended there. Mooncakes with pineapple or other tropical flavors are also popular in Taiwan.

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The cooked food restaurants are on the basement level of the Shilin Market. It is there that I looked around, unable to decide what to eat. I had a list of famous Taiwanese snacks drafted from research and recommendations:

Oil noodles (担仔面)
Duck soup pot
Eel noodles (鳝鱼炒意面)
Shrimp rolls
Taiwanese meatballs (肉圓 – ba wan)
Braised pork rice (沾肉飯)
Pan fried buns (生煎包)
Taiwanese-style hamburger (割包)
Pepper pork cakes (胡椒餅)
Three-cup chicken (三杯雞)

Some of those are hard to find in Taipei because they are regional foods. Eel noodles, for example, are from Tainan in the south. Others, like braised pork rice, which has fatty pieces of pork braised in a soy sauce-based sauce and put over rice to soak the rice, can be found anywhere. As I walked through the night market, other dishes I hadn’t thought of came to my attention. Pepper chicken (deep fried chicken drenched in black pepper with fried mint leaves) looked and tasted irrestible.

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Others like pan fried buns were simple and nothing special.

To summarize a few highlights:
Taiwanese Meatballs
Like a round dumpling, when you bite into it, your mouth fills with happiness. Steamed rice and sweet potato flour balls filled pork with vegetables like bamboo, usually in soup. While it is called rou yuan (肉圓) in Mandarin, Taiwanese call it ba wan.

Three cup chicken
With chicken cooked to absorb flavor in a mix of rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil, this chicken is very moist and flavorful. Garlic, ginger, and basil added afterwards add to make it bursting with savory kick.

Danzai noodles
This noodle dish from Tainan includes pork, shrimp, egg, and spices in soup. In Taiwanese dialect, danzai (擔仔) is pronounced as ta-a.

    Other Night Markets

Night markets are found in abundance in Taiwan. The Taiwanese tourism bureau has a page listing 12 famous night markets throughout. In Taipei in particular, Linjiang Street Night Market and Ningxia Night Market are also listed. I visited Ningxia Night Market as well on my trip. It is near Shuanglian station, along Ningxia Road (at the corner of Ningxia Rd and Mingsheng W Rd). It is completely outdoors, a pedestrian street lined with stalls.

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Apr 14

The Strangest Food Yet: Chicken Egg With Embryo

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure

The English text on the menu said “egg with legs”. The Chinese text wasn’t much more reassuring. Huo zhuzi (活珠子) translates to “living bead”. What it is is a chicken egg with a partially developed embryo.

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One look at it, and I probably wouldn’t have decided to eat it if I wasn’t with some Chinese friends. In fact, I wouldn’t have even known about it if they didn’t tell me about it. When I posted a picture of it to WeChat, a Chinese social network app, a friend from Hong Kong asked what it was. It is a specialty food of Nanjing and not very popular in China outside of Nanjing. (A related food, the balut, is eaten in the Philippines and southeast Asia.)

Of course, it’s not a terribly strange food for Nanjing people, but it’s unique enough that Nanjing people know it is strange for foreigners. With that said, it isn’t the worst tasting food I’ve eaten either. In fact, it was actually kind of good. I mean, it tasted basically like an egg, anyway, and the partial embryo tasted like meat.

To eat it, you are supposed to crack the top of the shell and then suck the soupy liquid out of it then put some salt and spices on the partially developed embryo and eat the yellow of the egg. Leave the hard white part at the bottom.

If you are in Nanjing and want to try it–or other Nanjing local foods–I would recommend Nanjing Da Pai Dang (南京大排档). The chain has restaurants all over the city, and all of them are decorated with lanterns and rustic wooden tables like the set of a Zhang Yimou film (i.e. old fashioned Chinese country houses).

Mar 24

Prostitution in Shanghai: Interview With a Prostitution Tout

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure

East Nanjing Road has always been the base of prostitution in the city that became known as “the Whore of the Orient.” The classic Chinese novel The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai written in 1892 describes life in the prostitution houses on Hankou Road and Fuzhou Road, just south of Nanjing Road.

Sidney Rittenberg, who stayed in China and joined the Communist Party after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, recalls in his memoir walking down Nanjing Road just after the War and being bombarded by prostitutes:

There were girls all up and down Nanjing Road. Phalanxes of girls. Columns and regiments of hungry, ragged girls who blocked my way insistently, grabbing at my sleeve. ‘Quickie, Joe?’ ‘Quickie, Joe?’

Today, the industry is still there. Walk down the street, and a bunch of touts are always hawking their ladies with calls for “massage.” East Nanjing Road has some of the most aggressive and shameless touts in the country, selling souvenirs as well as sex.

What’s it like for the touts today to work such a historic street?

I decided to find out, interviewing two touts on the street.

Hefa, male, Shanghainese
“How long have you worked this job?”
“10 years.”

“Why do you choose Nanjing Road? I don’t see this kind of promoter on other streets.”
“Because there are so many people on Nanjing Road.”

“Do you target Chinese people, too, or just foreigners?”
“Yes, I also ask Chinese people. If they have money, then I’ll ask them.”

“Do the police ever give you trouble?”
“No, they don’t care about this business.”

Xiaolou, female, from Hebei
“How long have you worked this job?”
“2 months. I graduated from a very low-ranking university and couldn’t find a good job.”

“Do the police ever give you trouble?”
“No, the police don’t give me trouble. Our boss is a big player. The police just care about money.”

“What day do you do the best business?”
“Sunday. On the weekend, there’s more people.”

Mar 01

100 Century Avenue – The Best Views in the World From a Bar

By Mitchell Blatt | Food and Leisure , Travel

The best view in the world from a bar is in Shanghai (and in this post). 100 Century Avenue, the bar and restaurant in the Park Hyatt on the 91st floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. It has been referred to as the highest bar in the world.

The Shanghai World Financial Center is the third tallest building in the world measured by accessible floors. (Taipei 101 has a very tall tower.) Why don’t the towers of Dubai or Abu Dhabi have a bar and restaurant at the top floors? If they do, 100 Century Avenue is at least the third best view in the world, but maybe it will move to second best after the Shanghai Tower is built and third best if Sky City ever gets built.

Drinks at 100 Century Avenue were of course expensive. 70 RMB ($11.25 USD) for a Guinness, 60 RMB for a Qingdao, and 55 RMB for a glass of juice, but that is actually not terribly expensive for the view in a city where Qingdao costs 50 RMB at almost all the night clubs.

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.