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The Seoul Street Food Challenge

June 27, 2012

If you had some time to kill before catching a long flight out of Korea there is probably one thing you wouldn’t do – test the strength of your stomach by sampling an array of questionable street foods in Seoul.

Well, we did just that and it wasn’t simply the moment of eating that worried me, it was the hours afterwards, stuck on a plane dealing with the potentially volatile repercussions, that had me questioning every mouthful.

Just to put things into context, I had just finished working on a TV shoot in Korea and had the best part of five hours to explore Seoul before flying home. Joining me were two of my fellow crew mates Dave (cameraman) and Tom (editor). Now, as is the nature of many a TV team there are lots of dares, pranks and general laughs to be had and today was no exception.

I had originally envisaged a slow exploration of this popular city and had briefly flicked through a guidebook to see what we could feasibly do in the time we had. However, the moment we arrived all my plans of visiting secret little tea houses and wandering around grandiose palaces went straight out the window, to be replaced by “right guys there’s one rule, whatever one of us eats we all have to eat!” Thus the Street Food Challenge was born.

Before the eating began I did get to do some wandering around first and indulged in a little bit of urban photography before heading for the food stalls. One thing I will say is that Seoul offers up plenty of great photo opportunities, whether you’re a seasoned professional or an amateur like me who just wants a bit of practice.

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It was actually down this very alley (pictured above) that we encountered our first test – bbq’d fish. I’ll be honest, despite the flies buzzing around, it seemed like a fairly safe choice and it actually looked pretty good so I was all for it.

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We took the fish away, got stuck in and as expected it tasted great, if a little too salty. But when I was presented with a clutch of tiny yellow fish eggs fresh I felt my first pang of doubt, not about the food but about myself; I knew fish eggs were the norm back home in England so I wasn’t too fussed about that, but I’ve always hated the idea of eating fish eggs, it’s just one of those things that gets me. However I was determined not to let the side down – being the only girl I felt it necessary to finish above if not equal to the guys.  So I closed my eyes and ate the little yellow cluster trying my hardest not to think about the millions of eggs I was about to swallow.

On reflection that was most definitely the warm up act because the next thing I knew Tom and Dave were sticking their tooth picks into the fish’s eyeballs.  A mere trace of hesitation and they crunched them down, job done. My turn. Now I don’t know if they’ll debate this but I clearly drew the short straw, as the eyeballs they had just eaten were not whole and had been burnt away slightly by the flames. My eyeball, however, was whole and fully intact; which Dave had great pleasure in informing me as he plucked it from the socket. After some understandable deliberation I crunched it down – and it really did crunch.

Next up was some battered food, which looked a little more appetizing if only because it concealed whatever lay within.

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As it happened the most daring ingredient was squid, which I could handle with no problem. Actually it was delicious, as was the battered vegetable option – I’d gotten off lightly this time.

It was at this point that there was talk of dodgy stomachs and cruder things that I won’t write about here and it had me seriously worried. The other two were complaining of worrying symptoms and kindly reminded me that if they felt this bad a meager hour on from our first fishy meal, then it didn’t bode well. How would we survive the long flight that loomed in the not too distant future? That was when my own stomach began to gurgle and I started to panic.

Little did I know that actually they felt fine and were trying to wind me up. Well, it worked a treat and I can now testify to the power of the mind, phantom illnesses, placebos and such like because the moment they started to complain I needed the loo and fast.

After power walking down the street and literally risking death as we darted across a very busy road, barely dodging the many cars and motorbikes as we went, we thankfully found a loo. But to my utter relief it seemed to be a false alarm. So, we pressed on with our courageous hunt for ‘interesting’ food but not before stopping to do a bit of souvenir shopping.

Actually we decided that we should have a sit down meal next (as if we actually needed to eat anymore) and treated ourselves to some more conventional fare – noodles, tea and Kimchi – a dish of fermented Korean vegetables which actually tasted quite nice.

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Our final test on the food circuit, after deciding to avoid seeking out dog meat, was probably the climax of our challenge. Faced with a giant wok full of ‘Beondei’ – the pupa of silkworm (before they turn from caterpillar to moth), I was sure that this would be my downfall.

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(Photo from ‘Orthogonal Thought’)

They smelt disgusting. I mean really bad. They didn’t look much better either but they were dead which was a plus I suppose.  Anyway, as they had done thus far, Tom and Dave wasted no time in getting their teeth into these little delicacies. But I’ll happily tell you that their faces were a picture as they grimaced and winced before swallowing the bugs down.

I was much less macho about the whole thing and it took me a good while to get the courage to even hold the toothpick upon which sat an impaled Beondei. It took me a few attempts to actually get the thing into my mouth as the moment it touched my tongue I’d pull it away again – I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Eventually though, and with a small crowd gathering, I did it but then I had to actually crunch it…

I fully prepared myself for a taste as foul as the smell had been but (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) it actually tasted ok, a bit like a chestnut! So after a huge build up and lots of hype I actually managed it with a smile, Ha!

That smile continued as I arrived at the airport several hours later with a happy and dare I say it contented stomach. But it disappeared promptly after when I realized my debit card had been blocked, I had no phone signal and no cash…but that’s a story for another time!

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From → 2012 Travels

2 Comments
  1. The bugs, “bundaegi,” are absolutely vile. I am very glad your friends tried them. I’ve had them on multiple occasions as my ex-father-in-law was nuts about them.

    There are other ways to cook them, particularly in taenjang jigae (fermented soy-bean stew, which also has a strong smell, but is very tasty) as a protein alternative.

    I enjoyed your post very much, thank you.

  2. Wow, well done for eating them more than once!

    The taenjang jigae sounds interesting, should I ever get the chance to sample another bundaegi I’ll be sure to have it in that!

    It seems that fermented dishes are very popular in Korea: Kimchi, I think there’s a fish that is fermented (is it called hongeo?) and taenjang jigae. I’m sure there’s plenty more too.

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