Archive | January, 2014
January 31, 2014

DMZ Tour

DMZ01According to William, our guide with When in Korea (WinK) Tours, the safest place in all of Korea is actually the Demilitarized Zone. This may in fact be true because there are so many international tourists on DMZ tours at any given time that North Korea would not dare cause trouble with so many countries all at once.

The DMZ is a buffer zone between North and South Korea, running along (or near) the 38th Parallel and, despite the name, is the most heavily fortified piece of real estate in the world. Approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide and splitting the width of the peninsula, the DMZ was created in 1953 as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, United Nations Command forces, and the People’s Republic of China.

As far as DMZ tours go with WinK, there are two main areas to explore. First, there is the Im Jin Gak area to the northwest where we viewed  the Freedom Bridge and across it, Infiltration Tunnel #3. Also, we spent time on the the observation deck where you can vaguely see the Gaesung Industrial Complex and a few North Korean towns. If you are lucky like we were and use the provided binoculars, you can even see some actual North Koreans milling about. Outfitted with hard hats, we made the brief decent into the tunnels and the reality of the tensions that still remain in the region as no official truce has ever been signed.

Then there is the Cheol Won area which is about 1 hour to the East from Im Jin Gak and due north of Seoul, where we went up on  a very nice observation deck via monorail, before descending into Tunnel #2. A total of four infiltration tunnels under the DMZ were discovered in the mid-70s. According to Jim Sides’ book, Almost Home, North Korea claimed upon their discovery that the tunnels were actually being used for coal mining. However, no coal has been found in the tunnels, which are instead dug through solid granite. Some of the tunnel walls have been painted black to give the appearance of anthracite, and it is quite something to think of the countless hours spent by North Korean soldiers digging these tunnels in secret.

(Please click on each image below to view full size or as a slideshow)

The tunnels are instead widely believed to be for a military invasion from the north. Although a bit claustrophobic, each shaft is large enough to permit the passage of an entire infantry division in one hour. Though the tunnels are not wide enough for tanks or vehicles, it is scary to think of them ever being used to stage a secret invasion of an unsuspecting south. After reemerging, we enjoyed a brief lunch of Dolsot Bibimbap (my favorite), and then hiked down into a beautiful ravine nearby. The real tragedy was the desolate feeling of the area which is primarily gorgeous farmland and marshy wetland filled with wildlife oblivious to the tension and significance of the area.We also saw a statue of Im Kuk Jeong, the Korean Robin Hood before being treated to a battlefield lecture where a highly animated and enthusiastic English-speaking soldier gave us a great history and visual tour of the landmarks of the area. The only upside to the area may be that because of its military designation, the area has been allowed to return to a more natural and undeveloped state, with birds and wildlife returning to what was once a ravaged war zone.

The main difference between the two tour locations is that Im Jin Gak area is more famous and heavily traveled. With the main bridge that would connect north and south as a gateway to the Gae Sung business complex, as well as to Panmunjum and the more crowded and developed areas. With a theme park for kids, souvenirs, food stalls (including Popeye’s), and coffee shops, this site has much more more (surreal) tourist-trap fanfare. The Cheol Won area was much more conservative and has preserved more of the way this beautiful region has been for decades. Also, in this area they were more lenient regarding picture taking and direct observation across the border. Most people say this part of the DMZ is much better, but its really difficult to skip the more famous Imjingak side for comparison and both can be easily accomplished in a well-planned afternoon.

Overall, our tour guide was friendly and knowledgeable, but the tour (though exhausting) was not as complete or informative as I would have hoped. The benefit of going with a travel and culture group like WinK was the casual and friendly nature of the guests on the tour, as well as the reasonable cost of about 50,000 KRW. Our tour guide was also able to relate the history from a more personal viewpoint, which was refreshing and free of  the editorialized propaganda that surrounds the real story of Korea. Most tour books recommend taking U.S.O.-organized trips instead, and if you are only in Korea for a short time, I recommend exploring some of the tours they offer, particularly to the Joint Security Area. Be sure to make reservations at least a month in advance, however, as these popular and well-run tours book fast and require time to complete a check of all proper credentials.


If you go, be sure to bring your Alien Registration Card (ARC) and passport. Also, be sure to pay close attention to signs permitting photography and sightseeing areas if you want to avoid a potential international incident. There is no dress code except that you should not be wearing something obscene, inflammatory, or anything that could be a problem walking about in Seoul. The floors of both tunnels were damp and were highly uneven surfaces, so certain types of shoes (like high heels) would not be advised and hikers or boots are actually preferable.

After all my time living here, this was the one destination that I was glad to scratch off my “Bucket List”. It was a long and tiring day by the time our bus dropped us off back in Seoul, but for the price and the experience, I can’t imagine coming all the way to this part of the world and not taking the opportunity to glance over the border safely into a mysterious, tragic, and altogether foreign land.

DMZ from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

January 22, 2014

Favorite Foods: Korea

TopFoods47Deciding on just ten of my favorite foods here in this part of the world is almost impossible. What started out at a real challenge  to try new things thirty months ago has turned into a culinary love affair. All I really knew about Korean food was kimchi, of course, and a friend’s recommendation that I try Bibimbap once I arrived. If Korean food choices existed at all back home in Columbus, they were never on my stomach’s low-frequency radar.

Part of what made my first few months so difficult food-wise was my embarrassment at not knowing the language and a picky, yet unrefined palate. My favorite meals growing up were either SpaghettiO’s or grilled cheese and tomato soup. I will still never turn down either comfort food meals, but my tastes have fortunately grown up a bit. As a result, I started out slow and I alternated between my favorite new dishes and regular meals at the Burger King near my school. When you are far from home, a #4 Bacon Whopper Combo is a remarkable, if unhealthy, comfort. Grilled cheese, cereal, and lots of fried egg sandwiches cooked at home filled in the rest of my diet.

Fortunately, something clicked-over once I decided to join a gym, get in shape, and leave all the Western-style junk food behind. I began to branch-out and try new restaurants regularly and I found that Korean food, while very spicy at times, is remarkably diverse, easy to digest, and just as crave-inducing as all the meals I had been missing from back home. Most travelers will rave about eating Korean barbecue, and it is indeed terrific. However, it never seemed very filling or satisfying given all the fuss and work involved, and is best eaten with friends or in a large group instead. As I was a solo diner most of the time, I tended to avoid the fancy BBQ shops in favor of the most plain and boring local dives. These family-owned joints that buck the latest trends and remodels always had the best food. I am now in the final term of my contract and I realized that I will certainly miss the following items the most, as well as the affordable (read: cheap!) prices and lack of a custom for tipping, too.

TopFoods371. Haejangguk (해장국)

The funny thing now looking back is that my current favorite dish, Haejangguk, was also the very first Korean meal I had here way back when I first arrived. My recruiter took me to a restaurant right across from my new apartment and I was not at all impressed. I guess my first Korean culinary experience was a bit of a shock, but it also prepared me right off that things were now going to be different. The dish, translated as “soup to chase a hangover,” consists of usually consists of dried Napa cabbage, congealed ox blood, and vegetables in a hearty beef broth that is served with a side of bap (rice). Although I have never been hungover in Korea, this hearty and spicy dish is perfect anytime of year, especially to warm you up on a cold, rainy, or snowy day.

TopFoods442. Bibimbap (비빔밥)

As identifiable with Korea as kimchi, the name Bibimbap means “mixed rice” and is a available everywhere and in many delicious varieties. My favorite, Dolsot Bibimbap, includes sautéed and seasoned vegetables, plus a raw egg over warm rice served in a hot earthenware (dolsot) pot. After adding gochujang (red chili pepper paste) and mixing thoroughly, this dish is delicious when washed down with a side of hot guk (clear broth). Regional versions also include barley mixed with the rice base, which adds flavor and nutrients as well as a rather undesirable side effect; wicked flatulence. Consequently, I do NOT recommend this dish before a long day of teaching or train ride in close quarters. Otherwise, Bibimbap is terrific anytime, especially when the rice cooks a little and gets crispy on the bottom of the dolsot.

TopFoods103. Mandu (만두)

Hot dumplings of many sizes and with endless terrific fillings are available on just about every street corner and can be either steamed, grilled, or deep fried. Cheap, delicious, and fully portable, Mandu dumplings were a staple in my diet from the very beginning and remain a great treat anytime. A little shop near my school in Neoun serves the best Wong Mandu (king-sized dumplings) I have found on the peninsula. Also served with a side of broth, these beautiful babies can be either a great snack or a meal unto themselves. Soup made with smaller dumplings, Manduguk, is also great way to enjoy this Korean comfort food, especially as the temperature drops (by degrees Celsius).

TopFoods134. Hotteok (호떡)

I have already raved on this blog about my fondness for these little Korean desert pancakes. The quintessential wintertime street food is typically grilled in oil, butter, or margarine and is usually filled with a sweet combination of  brown sugar, honey, and cinnamon. The southern, or Busan variety, adds chopped peanuts for a crunchy twist and both types are served in a paper cup or holder. Cheap, hot, and hopelessly addicting, the hardest part (other than waiting in the long queues) is waiting for the filling to cool off enough so it doesn’t burn a hole right through your tongue. These little treats are so good, though, that waiting is almost impossible. I am considering giving up my teaching gig for good and returning to the states to start my own Hotteok cart. As long as I don’t eat all the profits, I could make a killing.

TopFoods165. Hwedeopbap (회덮밥)

Since sushi and sashimi are technically Japanese, I can’t really include them on this list of Korean delicacies – no matter how much I adore them. In addition to all the wonderful Korean meals I have grown to love, my existing passion for raw fish has only increased here (and on my trip to Tokyo), as it is always fresh, comparatively inexpensive, and readily available in every Dong (neighborhood). The delighful Korean twist that has me hooked, however, is Hwedeopbap. Basically Bibimbap made with raw fish, cabbage, and kim (seaweed) added for saltiness, this beautiful and healthy option is something I hope to find (or make) back home on a regular basis. Topped with a little red pepper paste and served with a side of Miso soup or thick Udon noodles, this is the one dish I have happily introduced to  friends again and again. In the summertime I had this 2 to 3 times a week and still never got tired of it. It could easily be the one thing here I will miss most. When done correctly, it is as delicious as it is photogenic.

(Please click on each image below to view full-sized or as a slideshow)


TopFoods496. Kimchi and Sundubu Jjigae (김치찌개)

Unlike guk, which is comparable to a soup or broth, jjigae is a little thicker and its hearty consistency is more like a stew. One of the very best, of course, is the kimchi variety. Made with sliced kimchi of varying ages and either beef, pork or seafood, it can also contain tofu, sliced spring onions and garlic, and myeolchi (anchovy) stock. The stew is best when served boiling hot and eaten communally with a side of white rice and shredded kim (seaweed) and other side dishes (banchan). The fermented properties of the pickled kimchi provide “good,” healthful bacteria, similar to yogurt. I also recently began to enjoy Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개), a similar dish (pictured) in which hand-made uncurdled tofu (dubu) is the primary ingredient.

TopFoods217. Ju Mok Bap (주먹밥)

One of the key reasons Korean culture revolves around kimchi, rice, and seaweed is the ease of preparation and low cost. When combined with and endless variety of combinations and convenient portability, it is hard to argue with the logic, price, or taste. Ju Mok means “fist” in Korean and Bap, as I have mentioned, is rice. Some of my very first friends here opened a small shop in my building called Yummi Yummi and their simple menu revolves around these delicious fist-shaped rice balls. Served slightly warm and covered with grandma’s secret blend of spices, the filling is typically kimchi and/or tuna salad. Served with a side of hot Janchi Guksu (잔치국수), or Korean Party Noodles to wash them down, it is a cheap, quick, and filling meal that I will miss dearly. The Japanese version, onigiri, is wrapped in seaweed and is just as addicting and easy to find.

TopFoods408. Samgyetang (삼계탕)

As I began preparing to live in Korea, one dish, Samgyetang, kept popping up in every travel guide I encountered. Samgyetang means “ginseng chicken soup” and is a guk made with a whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice and ginseng. Served primarily in the summertime, it is believed that eating it will replace the nutrients you lose while sweating in the hottest days of the year. The broth, similar to chicken soup back home, also contains dried seeded jujube fruits, garlic, and ginger, and depending on the recipe, various other medicinal herbs. Readily available, I found the best Samgyetang served at a very old restaurant in Seoul’s Chebu-dong (in Jongno-gu), called Todokchon. While I understand the logic behind the seasonality of the dish, I preferred to be warmed by its homey comfort in the Fall and Winter, and when I was particularly under the weather.

TopFoods349. Godeungeo gui (고등어구이)

While most Koreans and tourists alike go crazy over the traditional Korean BBQ of either pork, chicken, and beef, my preference leans more toward grilled fish (gui) and the best, Godeungeo Gui, is grilled mackerel. Served sizzling hot with a variety of sides, this simple delicacy is generally a whole filleted fish which is lightly grilled or broiled so that the meat falls right off the bone. The crispy underside is a real treat, too, especially when served with dolsot bap, which (if you have been paying attention) is a hot earthenware pot filled with fresh hot rice.

TopFoods2810. Donkkaseu (돈까스)

This last entry is not really Korean, but is the Korean version of a traditional Japanese meat cutlet, Katsudon. Typically pork loin (or chicken) which is breaded, deep fried, and then served over rice with cooked egg, this hot and filling meal is found everywhere and in so many varieties it became a meal I got hooked on very early. Koreans use a darker soy or Worcestershire-based sauce or thick curry instead and serve it with cabbage. It is a tradition for most Japanese students to eat Katsudon before a big test or exam because “katsu” is a homophone of the verb katsu, meaning “to be victorious“.

All of this fails to mention all the terrific side dishes, or banchan (반찬), served with every meal. Complimentary kimchi and pickled radishes are pretty common everywhere you go, but the rest rotate depending on what the chef has on hand and can sometimes be served in quantities equal to a whole meal. Free refills are also pretty standard. One of my favorites is the small, dried anchovies called myulchi bokkeum (멸치볶음). Stir-fried in either soy sauce or red pepper paste, these tasty little fish are always a welcome surprise before the main meal is served.

A few other brilliant dining innovations here in Korea are ideas that I would love to back home. Cold filtered water is always delivered to the table in a plastic jug prior to placing an order so you don’t have to chase down your server every time you need a refill. Even if you did, Koreans have worked this out, too, by adding a doorbell-like button at each table to call for service or more food and drinks. Once you hit it, your table number registers digitally and help is on the way. Also, most restaurants, businesses, and facilities have a water cooler with hot and cold running filtered water at the entrance. Some even offer complimentary coffee, as well. How convenient and time-consuming is that?

Do I still miss my mom’s fried chicken dinner or a greasy breakfast at Jack & Benny’s? You bet! Will I miss the amazing food here in South Korea? Probably more than I can currently even begin to imagine. The local tastes, smells, and dishes are as identifiable as the people, places, and the experiences here I will never forget.