Seoul Eats: Traditional Hotpot Noodles and Porridge

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One of our contacts brought us to a delightful place in the Seochu area. I have no idea how to get back there as it’s in a back alley in a business district. On first glance, the place looked like a barbecue place as it consisted mainly of long private rooms where people sat in the sunken area around similarly long tables. I was surprised and relieved that we weren’t having barbecue for lunch as I wasn’t looking forward to an entire afternoon of business meetings smelling like charred beef.

First came the typical side dishes. There were a few types of kimchi: cabbage, turnip and one that the locals themselves argued about. It was a spicy salad of Korean shiso leaves, but not fermented, hence the hot debate. There was also oddly enough fried spam and a sort of potato salad with sweet thousand island dressing.

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Next, the hotpot was cooked in front of us, with plenty of beef slices, leek, Chinese cabbage and siew bak choy. There were also mushrooms, noodles and plenty of spice. Strangely enough, we didn’t do anything ourselves. Having the pot in front of us was strictly ceremonial as the waitress quickly whisked the pot away when the noodle soup was done and portioned them out into individual servings.

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Each serving was huge as it is. It was a hearty and simple noodle dish that hit the right spot of warming and spicy. Deep inside, I wondered if it was a tad too simple for a business meal.

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Of course, the Koreans never stint in their hospitality. That bowl of noodles was only part one! There was plenty of stock left in the noodle pot and they mixed in rice, seaweed and other yummies. This was all done away from the table so we had no idea what else went in. This porridge was even more delicious than the noodles and we happily slurped it all up despite the premonition that food coma plus afternoon meetings did not add up well!

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August in China: Pasteurised Hands and Little Fat Lambs

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There was a cleaning station at the entrance of one of the higher quality restaurants our relatives took us to. I was incredibly amused by the request to pasteurise my hands.

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As I dispensed the happy juice, I was relieved that water at 70°C didn’t spurt out and bathe my hands for 5 minutes! Hee.

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In other stories, I treated my uncles to dinner at Xiao Fei Yang (Little Fat Lamb) the night before we flew back home. This place specialises in hotpot and has a few flavours to choose from. We chose the herbal chicken and the mala flavours. True to usual form, we over ordered. Between the three of us, we had so much food that the restaurant had to provide a side table to cram everything in!

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Here’s me and First Uncle before the food fest started. I guess at this point you’d want to know how it tasted. Of course it was good, if not why would I post it? I’m going to leave you to track down a branch when you next go to China!

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August in China: Food in Chengdu

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The first pit stop for food was at Mr Bunglez favourite noodle place opposite his building. It has a rather impressive steamer at the front of the shop selling bao and other steamed goodies to supplement the noodles.

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The star of this little place surely had to be the noodles. There were three types: the regular thin lamian type, the flat type like meepok or fettucine, and the large flat sheets like ravioli sheets or mee hoon kway. They were served according to weight, so you could order one, two or three jin of the good stuff. For us two Singaporeans embracing the low-carb craze, we opted for one jin servings. I worked my way through the various flavours and on several occasions out-ate Mr Bunglez by ordering seconds. I did, however, concur with him that the best variation was the lajiang mian (hot sauce noodle) with minced pork and the best chilli sauce ever. It was complexly savoury, with slow burn chilli and the almost menthol kick of huajiao (Szechuan peppercorns). This stuff was so addictive I ate a portion practically every day there.

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Not all Sichuan food is spicy, case in point being the tomato-egg noodles at this famous joint further away from the town centre. Here, it’s a simple affair of noodles in a tomato broth topped with a fried egg. There’s something about the combination of sweet-savoury tomato and oily fried egg that really hits the spot after a night of clubbing.

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Of course there’s also the street food. Here’s me with a stick of barbecued tofu coated with chilli powder and msg. It probably pickled half my insides and made me lose a handful of hair with the amount of sodium on it, but what’s street food if not satisfying and unhealthy?

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And of course Mr Bunglez took me to an upmarket place for authentic Sichuan food. Oh my, mapo tofu and shuizhu yu are such revelations done the right way! Authentic mapo tofu is done without minced meat and has liberal lashings of chilli powder and huajiao. I don’t know how they do it, but the depth of flavour and contrast with the soft smooth tofu was simply awesome.

Shuizhu yu (literally: water-cooked fish) is a complete misnomer. Don’t be fooled by the innocuous-sounding name. Fish slices come in a vat of boiling chilli oil. It’s so covered with dried chillis and huajiao that it’s hard to spot the fish under it all. Again, the combination of chilli oil and numbing huajiao practically anaesthesized my tongue, but you know what they say about painkillers and addiction!

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Finally, there’s the mala huoguo (spicy numbing hot pot) which most people would translate as steamboat. I grew up eating steamboat Cantonese style in which the thinly sliced morsels were cooked in light broth made with chicken and pork bones. Here in Chengdu, mala huoguo is more a pot of chilli oil with a small ladleful of broth in it rather than broth with a bit of oil on it. This way, the raw morsels are pretty much boiled in chilli oil. After boiling each slice of meat in the numbing hot chilli oil (of course there are huajiao inside, this is Sichuan food!), I dipped it into my bowl of xiangyou (fragrant oil), a concoction of sesame oil, chopped coriander and a good dose of rich black vinegar. Of course, the wimpier you are the more vinegar you add. At first the morsels aren’t spicy at all, since the xiangyou washes off most of the spice. As I ate, I found the food getting spicier and spicier. The xiangyou was obviously soaking up the chilli and huajiao. Shortly, I felt the familiar addictive anaesthesized sensation on my tongue. Then I started sweating and soon after, I was gasping and pleading for peanut milk to soothe the spice. Needless to say, it was a fantastic meal. Sorry no pictures this time. I was too distracted to take pictures of the food!

August in China: Ciqikou

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Ciqikou a historic street that has been very authentically and unobtrusively restored. The narrow streets of this former porcelain making district is full of old world charm.

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Off the main tourist stretch, this place is surprisingly untouristy, with all sorts of old shopfronts. One of them was of a fortune teller, with signs on the outside extolling its virtues and mindful of its fame, also warned potential customers that only those who sincerely wanted their fortunes read were welcome. The sign also warned tourists not to take pictures, otherwise a dire fate awaited. I, of course, didn’t want to tempt fate and took a picture of this doctor’s traditional remedies for everything from common quotidian illness to fertility problems and more.

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Heading back to the main drag, I ducked into one of the little family-run eating places for a pot of jizha (literally: miscellaneous chicken parts), a local speciality recommended by my guesthouse. This was the smallest pot available at ¥25. Be glad that the photo is slightly out of focus because it’s a mixture of two kinds of chicken giblet and liver. No light meat, dark meat here, it’s all about the innards. Making up some bulk was some daikon, onion, carrot, leek and river kelp. It was all covered in chilli oil and had dried chilli and szechuan peppercorns floating in the mix. The first few bites were good. Gradually it got spicier and spicier and the rice in my bowl worked more as a blotter for the oil than a staple to accompany the food! I fished out all the liver, which I like, and vegetables, leaving the giblets and chillis behind. It was a great experience though.

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I love taking pictures of children.  Here are the restaurant bosses’ kids waiting for lunch to be served after most of the guests had left. They’re so happy playing at having lunch while waiting for everyone else to turn up.

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It was a mistake to cool down with this odd bowl of pudding with weird local toppings. Hygiene-wise, it was fine. Check out the red fly-chasing ribbon swirling about. The soft yellow pudding was sweet yet strangely bitter. It was one of the few things I threw out after one bite on this trip.

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There was a temple with a gazillion steps leading to it. Ever one for a challenge, I leapt for the exercise and bounded up.

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Great architecture and carvings here, but I wasn’t completely impressed until…

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… these massive joss sticks turned up. That was a pretty cool sight. I wonder if there’s more reason than impressing the gods to the size of these things.

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