There are a lot of restaurants that can serve THAI FOOD, but most of it is kind of a watered down approach. I mean, I ate in Busaba about ten years ago when it was one of the first THAI Chains, and it was nothing special, but maybe if you’ve never been to Thailand, you’d enjoy it.
A lot of food in Thailand is eaten by roadsides, because the weather is so hot, people crowd around plastic tables and sit around for hours drinking and piling tables high with plates and bowls. Even when it comes to street food, you can get some really amazing food from vendors selling pork broths and skewers. Usually, it’s just one dish that they have been cooking for years and years.
Now you can find some good Thai food if you go to Giggling Squid , but if you want something that is reminiscent of the food they actually eat in Thailand, you can go to a wonderful Surrey restaurant. Chim’s avoids the cliched image of Thai restaurants, there are no plastic buddhas or elephant sculptures. It’s just a bare restaurant with minimal design, but everything has been carefully set up for you to really experience Thai food in it’s totality.
The first thing you notice when you get the menu is how varied the food is. Most people are familiar with Pad THAI and curries. And if you want them, you can get them here. I first tasted their food when I odered their Massaman curry over the grim lockdown period. It came studded with tender pieces of sweet potato that I at first ssumed to be lumps of fat. The curry had been simmered for hours to create a velvety smooth broth.
When I came to eat last Saturday, I was looking for the kind of food I wouldn’t be able to make at home.
A common idea about Thai food is that it is very spicy, but many of the dishes here are more subtle. Take the Isaan sausage, which is fermented and served with peanuts. It’s not fatty but it was still juicy, and it turned on its head the idea that sausages are cheaply made and processed.
I ordered Tofu Larb, because in the right hands it can be excellent. Rather than the overused Thai basil, it came with fresh mint, and red onions – a deliciously summery salad. I remembered that larb is a popular dish in some parts of northern Thailand and I meant to ask why they had used tofu instead of beef or pork, but I forgot to ask the server. After this healthy opener, I needed something richer to follow it. I ordered deep fried squid, because you have to order at least one seafood dish when eating Thai food. The squid came in some insanely sweet tamarind marinade that nearly broke out of the batter, but was awesome anyway. And I think this one had some grapefruit segments in, maybe because they couldn’t get any pomelo (it is a challenge to find the correct ingredients). By this point I was buzzing from the Italian chardonnay and the huge array of flavours, but I wanted more.
After reading the list of curries available, I was most interested in the Hinlay from Burma. It came in a blue china bowl decorated with roasted peanuts and fronds of coriander; I inhaled the fragrance of fish sauce and turmeric and my heart pounded in anticipation.
The curry itself was gloriously thick, but what stood out were the slices of caramelised plantain that studded the dish. Beside it I had a bowl of virgin white coconut rice that I used to soak up the curry…. One glass of Singha beer on draft and that was me done, in just under two hours I had tasted the real heart of thai cuisine and I had only tried a small section of the menu. I was going to have to return.
In the end, I went back two more times. Like a film that you re-watch to get more meaning, I wanted to see what else the kitchens could offer, and it turned out there were more surprises. Street food often means food that is drunk with alcohol, so I wanted to try one of their cocktails.
Tamarind Whisky sour put a spin on the classic and made an excellent accompaniment to my deep fried tofu. But on the third visit, I was most taken with the Thai Tea-rimasu. Not enough people appreciate how good Thai tea can be. Redder than Chinese tea, it’s often drunk in sweetened form with condensed milk and sugar. But here, they use it’s bright flavour in a truly brilliant dish that is in many ways nicer than a standard tiramasu dessert.
If you go to Chim’s, you get the sense of dishes that have evolved over time. But it’s nothing serious or boring, like a dish that people are too scared to adapt. The basic ingredients may not change, but each time you try the dishes you will get something new from them.
a guide to some of the best places in Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter.
People visit Birmingham for many reasons. Some come for the sporting events. Others might visit because of the massive indoor Expos that are held at the NEC. Personally, I visited Birmingham because of it’s Chinese Quarter, or Chinatown. England’s 2nd largest city has an area of three streets which are full of Asian restaurants, bars, the occasional nightclub, and even a Wetherspoon’s. The area is located just outside the city’s main train station, Birmingham New Street. After a night in the chaotic Broad Street area, I wanted to experience something more authentic. True, there are some Indian restaurants there which were doing a good trade, but most of the restaurants near my hotel were exactly the same chain-type places you will find up and down the country.
As you leave the station, you can see the brown tourist signs directing you to the Chinese Quarter. it’s easy to go the wrong way, but if you come out of the station at the main entrance you can see Hirst road right in front of you. This is where the Chinese Quarter proper begins.
There is a rather lovely looking restaurant with a green-tiled roof (China Court Restaurant) on Edgbaston Street. Next to it is another traditional Cantonese restaurant – Chung Ying.
As you walk along Hirst Street, you notice that most of the buildings have Chinese characters. You can’t miss a very large three-storey building houses Ming Moon, which caters to the Chinese love of gambling.
Further along, there is a branch of the very popular Happy Lemon bubble tea café.
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect to see a traditional pub, but that is what you get, although the styling of the Wetherspoon’s in this area blends in with its name and building’s façade.
If you feel that the street has a slightly faded air, which it does, you can take a left to the modern Arcadian area in Ladywell Way. This is a car-free zone. The restaurants cater to a younger crowd, with a few non-Asian venues such as Las Iguanas.
On show in the centre of the square was a stunning lantern display. As part of the marketing for the film Over the Moon (based on a Chinese fairy tale) Netflix has designed 26 handmade lanterns with characters from the film. Far from being showy and over the top like the Christmas lights in London, these were intricately decorated and looked even more magical in the evening when they were individually illuminated. At nighttime this would be a wonderful place to eat, especially if you can sit outside.
This area is home to a wonderful patisserie with cookies and cakes form Taiwan and Hong Kong – which are clearly made fresh everyday.
Coming back to Hirst Road takes you to an excellent Chinese restaurant which offers Dim Sum in the mornings and then Sichuan cuisine. This region of China is known for its red and black pepper which is pleasantly numbing. Many of the dishes incorporate tofu – eg mapo tofu or Salt and pepper tofu.
Walking still further down, you come to Korean and Japanese restaurants. It’s quite likely that these are still owned and run by Chinese restaurateurs who want to cater for those in the area who happen to like other Asian cuisines as well as traditional Chinese.
As the road goes down past the Glee club, there are student bars and nightclubs, and it seems to have become home to the gay population of Birmingham.
Whatever your thoughts on that, make sure you come to this part of Birmingham when you next visit.
The best thing about travelling to Asia are some of the amazing food stands selling things you can’t find anywhere else. Whenever I go to a new city I can’t wait to sample all of the snacks from the street vendors. Sometimes these are as good as dinners in restaurants at a much cheaper price, and I can afford to try several different foods at one time.
I start by visiting the Cheung Cheuk island, only thirty minutes by boat from central Hong Kong. In many ways, the densely populated urban centre of Hong Kong is just one side of the region. The many small islands of the archipelago are another side of the bustling city centre of skyscrapers and car fumes.
Because the islands are not too developed, they can be walked around easily and the lack of pollution or road traffic means that they are ideal for a causal stroll without the constant stream of traffic you find in Hong Kong’s streets. Getting off the ferry gets you right to the heart of the island.
It’s time to try the snacks. You can’t miss the typical fish balls – they are everywhere. Pay 10 Hong Kong dollars for two of the balls of compacted fish paste. You can choose from a range of flavours such as plum sauce, bbq or curry. Watch the sauce doesn’t spill everywhere, and be careful not to scald yourself as they are served just below boiling. The taste is not as important as the texture, which has a slightly springy bite to it.
Turn left from the harbour, past the McDonald’s, and you will see a guy with a grill and some dried squid and octopus. Make sure you try these as they are really unique, and go down great with beer. The squid are air-dried whole, then cooked on an open grill and coated with a soy based dip, then sliced into strips. Good as a healthy, low-fat snack.
Turn back to the main square, and you will see several stalls serving the aforementioned fish balls. You can buy ‘sa bing’ which is similar to bubble tea, and you can find a whole load of interesting flavours such as taro and sweet potato, for less than you would pay on Hong Kong Island itself.
Also in the Main Street is a guy deep frying ice-cream. This is something I learned to do at cooking school – as long as you keep the surface of the ice-cream coated, it will stay cold as the batter forms a protective seal around it. Unfortunately they use mass-produced ice cream so the effect is ruined.
Many stalls sell Mochi and this is always one of the best sweets you can buy. Mocho is a Japanese dessert made of sweet rice flour which is stuffed with various fillings and served cool. I’m crazy about the gooey texture of the wrapper and the sweet fillings inside. They are so chewy and soft, and very light tasting, consisting only of flour and sugar.
Another dessert snack is the Chinese steamed red bean cake (see picture). Like a tart but without the pastry, its eaten on a stick like so many of the snacks here.
Other than the snacks of the main square, you can find any seafood restaurants along the harbor. You won’t be able to walk five minutes without being accosted by ladies wielding menus trying to drag you in. It’s not only Chinese restaurants here. You can find several International restaurants, such as Morocco’s.
I still prefer the quiet stalls inside the square. For a more substantial snack, I can recommend the freshly made sushi at Japanese tea house, which are made into temaki rolls with a range of fillings such as crab roe and sausage.
Cheung Chau is easily reached from the central pier, number 5. You don’t need to book a ticket in advance, just turn up and use your Octopus card to go through the turnstiles. There are some hotels and guesthouses but most people tend to visit for the day and head back in the evening.
I stayed in large countryside home with traditional shoji
paper screens. For contrast, I also slept in a one-room studio apartment in a
suburb of Tokyo. Somehow I managed my 20-kilo bag inside Ryo’s place, using his
bed whilst he slept on the floor. All this is to say that while it might not be
common to be invited to people’s houses as a tourist, if you make the effort,
it will happen.
It was when I was on the local train for Imabari that I met an orange farmer who wanted me to visit her farm. At first I was doubtful, but decided it was worth making a small diversion. In fact, it was one of the best experiences of my journey. The house was traditional country style with the sliding doors I had seen in films such as the iconic ‘Love Letter’ and Unimachi Diary. There were so many interesting things about the house. For a start, the rooms were filled with furniture and captivating objects.
There were things everywhere, in a comfortable rather than cluttered way that reflected the eclectic taste of the owner, a slightly eccentric woman who has lived in the house since childhood. It was so spacious and comfortable that I didn’t want to leave. And the oranges which grew on the farm were some of the best that I tasted. It didn’t hurt that the owner had a fridge full of delicacies that she was happy to share.
The hotel industry offers a wide choice. At the bottom are guesthouses, or hostels. Sometimes they were quite adequate, with reasonable facilities such as a wide TV in the living area and decent cooking equipment. On the other hand, some were so dingy, dirty and crowded, I wished I had slept outside. There are simply too many visitors in Japan, many on such a low budget, and the basic hostels aren’t able to cater for them properly. The problem is the differing needs of backpackers who use these places to meet their friends, and businessmen who stay at them when they are on the road. If you’re Japanese tourist, you probably won’t really mix with the other guests for fear of making them feel obligated to you. In fact, that was the most notable difference between Japanese, and travellers from other countries, whether they would mix or not with strangers. It was most pronounced in the communal areas, where Japanese students would bury themselves in their phones, whilst others would be eagerly mixing, sharing food and other things, as well as comparing their experiences.
It was at the breakfast area that things became most awkward.
With up to thirty people wanting to eat at roughly the same time, it was
everything it took everything in their power to feed everyone. With only two
toasters with slots to cook 2 slices at a time, it became rather a long wait
for a piece of toast. Here the conundrum is do you cook 2 slices at once, thereby
hogging the toaster to yourself depriving others of the right to use it, or simply
toast two slices and offer one of them to someone else, then going back when
you have finished it for another slice, because you can’t keep toast hot very
long anyway. I never found a good enough solution. The fairest way would be to
have a toast monitor, someone continually refilling the toaster so that the
toast was always on hand? But then, I observed that some people would adjust
the toaster so that it cooked their bread for longer or shorter, and in my case,
I often got tired of standing in front of the toaster (I don’t know why I felt
I had to do this) so that I sometimes pulled it out early before the toast was
ready. Others just waited, up to two minutes, with their plate in hand. They wasted
a lot of time like that, but seemed to enjoy it. If someone else’s toast popped
up, they left it sticking out of the toaster. That was annoying too, but
perhaps they didn’t want to handle it too much.
Another thing was the choice of jam was limited to
blueberry, strawberry and marmalade. I didn’t want to leave any out so I had to
put a teaspoonful of each jam on my plate. I hardly used much, and I was
surprised the amount others used. It was the cheap bulk jam. The best bread and
jam I had was at the Maharashi temple in Onnomichi. It was there, on arrival,
that I discovered I had lost my passport.
Onnomichi is a small city along the coast not far from Matsuyama. I
didn’t do much there. I had been recommended to visit the Kendama rock café,
despite what it said online; it was stubbornly closed on both Saturdays I
attempted to visit.
Still, the kitchen offered free tea and coffee. It was powdered coffee, but I did drink it anyway. The problem this time was waiting for the water to boil. Kettles in hotels are usually so old that can take nearly 5 minutes to boil. When they are full the problem is far worse, and meant that there was always a line.
I think there have been too many jokes about kettles with
short flexes. Anyway, it’s probably a safety measure anyway. I’m more
disappointed by the lack of bathroom shower gel miniatures. When you are
travelling across the country, these are highly useful. Yet many of the hotels
I stayed in offered some facial cleansers and toners. What I wanted was
shampoo, but this was in the bathroom in large dispensers fixed to the wall. I suppose
they are saving costs. I didn’t take any thing from the fridge; there was
nothing there anyway. Sometimes they gave me an actual key. This was the case of the International in Nagoya. It was mildly
inconvenient. On the other hand, it was nice to be reminded of the past, when
people carried keys to open doors. It made a nice weight in my pocket too. That
hotel had gleaming gold buttons in the lift, more retro touches. There were
newspapers in the lobby for sale and cabinets of ceramics. Perhaps because I
booked late I was on the eighth floor. I wonder if there can be any choice in
floor level when booking?
The hotels offered a level of courtesy that was often superfluous to the hotel’s price. Bowing was common and many times I was given polite assistance to my enquiries. I tried not to be a pest but sometimes I enjoyed walking through the hotel lobby late at night. I wanted to see who was around. Sometimes prostitutes hang around outside hotels, but I couldn’t see any. It was only in the convenience in Nagoya that I met a lady I who I’m sure was a hostess. Just from the way she was dressed and her manner. But you can never guarantee these things.
Not only is the marriage rate among young people falling, the divorce rate is rising. To make things more complicated, the cases of remarriage is on the increase, with people going into second or third marriages, having children again and living with second or third partners, or having children extra-maritally.
What other social trends are on the rise? I saw a greater amount of tattoos on young people this time. And some anti-social behaviour, such as bad language and spitting that was somewhat disappointing to see. Smoking is still accepted in most places, but is carefully controlled in specially designated smoking areas. On the Shinkansen, there are standing capsules with a sliding door to access them. Only in the very expensive green cars is it possible to smoke in your seat. The trains are fast and clean and they connect all the big cities but the luxury might not be as much as you would expect. Most of the tables are no bigger than the trays you have on airline and there is not much room for big cases. Tellingly, the JR pass that allows foreigners the option to use the trains for 7, 14, or 21 days, does not give access to the faster services, conveniently reserving these services for the Japanese almost 100%. When I took the faster service from Osaka to Tokyo, I was clearly the only foreigner on board, while on the far slower stopping service, I had to jostle through backpackers and families with crying babies. The food cart cheerfully pushed through the carriages (I didn’t buy anything – too expensive), whilst most platforms dished out bento boxes. People queued up at the stations to reserve seats, while in the unreserved cars it was often standing room only.
Wherever I went, people seemed to be on the move somewhere, even before the big cherry blossom season. Restaurants were full and the only time I didn’t have to wait was in the fast food burger places and cafes. There are now foreign workers from Vietnam and Nepal in many restaurants. The government is currently making plans for 40,000 temporary foreign workers, never mind what it will do to Japanese society. Even though it wasn’t what I wanted, I underwent the charade of speaking Japanese with them. At the best restaurants, the staff were always 100% Japanese – these were far the best. Not only was the service better, the experience seemed to be that much better for being in Japanese. It’s convenient to be a solo diner as most restaurants offer counter service.
Women go to work dressed in high heels and dresses far more demure than anywhere else I have seen, making the Tokyo metro a perfumed paradise for the voyeur. There are hostess bars in all the big cities, offering services by the hour. There are plenty of opportunities for dating; you just have to look around. In fact, there seemed to be women everywhere just waiting to be approached, ready to be swept away by anyone who dared to try. At night-time things became more sexual, with dozens of girls bars and women standing outside soliciting passers by inside. There is some controversy as to what these venues provide. With prices as high as 5,000 yen, it’s hard to imagine they are just for talking. It may be that the charge covers the cost of drinks, but not sure. On numerous occasions softly spoken elder women who were trying to offer me various services, which I reluctantly declined, however much I wanted to partake, approached me.
The cost of living in Japan is high for Asia, but not exorbitant, you can get around easily for 50 dollars if you eat simply. It was travel and accommodation that put the biggest hole in my budget, and with just a few hundred extra pounds I could have done even better.
Some of the things I did seemed to be overpriced, such as paying to enter castles and gardens (where they would be free in London). It was something I did grudgingly; whilst it was great to be able to access free toilets everywhere. Hotels were reasonable considering the services provided. I made a point of accessing the free breakfast at the Nest Hotel in Matsuyama and it was excellent, but I could only eat half of it. Sometimes the beds in these place were uncomfortably hard, in others they were more luxurious. Probably the most disappointing hotel I stayed in was a branch of Toyoko Inn around Nagoya station. For some reason the hotel chain has become one of the biggest in Japan (there are some in Korea too) for providing reasonable rates and a free breakfast. Unfortunately, almost everything about the hotel was second rate. I found out there were limits of tolerance to my bad habits. I was told that I wasn’t able to have breakfast in my dressing room, despite being the only guest at the time.
I enjoyed Mystays Premier Hotel, a new range of business hotels. The hotel near Narita was extremely comfortable, with a pool and spa. It even had a 24-hour convenience store on the first floor. My budget forced me to stay in several hostels. They were like echo chambers for germs, with nasty coughing and sneezing preventing anyone from ever sleeping properly.
My most Japanese experience was at the site of First Airlines in Ikebukuro. Everything I had heard about the world’s first virtual airline made me convinced that I would love it and it proved to be so. From the entrance where they used ambient airport sounds and used monitors to show where the plane was heading, it was an immersive piece of conceptual theater up there with Punchdrunk. I ‘flew’ to Paris, having been unable to secure some of the other options Helsinki and New York.
Every new place I went had different candy that I saw in the food halls of the department stores. I lost track of most of it. Many were a kind of sweet bean filled bun known as mango that was pressed into a particular shape. In the Island of Miyajima they were maple leaf shaped. Sweets from Hokkaido were made using butter. Nagano offered highly unusual apple rice crackers – the first time I had seen anything like that.
Some of the best food I had was in unlikely places. The cookies from the Aunt Stella shops were superb: buttery and crispy and with some creative flavours, I found branches outside Nagano and Matsuyama stations, the latter is most charming, with waitresses wearing headbands and blue aprons. Really what you find is that every place has a speciality, one thing that they are good at if a shop sells cookies, they aren’t going to be messing around making brownies as well. You can find English bars, or very good attempts at trying to imitate them as much as possible. The idea of being able to drink freely without partaking of food is so radical that many go there just for the novelty of it. There are bars where you only have room to stand. Then there are those bars targeting an exclusive male audience – known as ‘Girls Bar’, they charge a cover fee, and are staffed by attractive young women wearing various stimulating outfits. The one I visited was open early, and I was fortunate to be the only customer there. You pay per half hour, and they give you an electric timer showing how much time you have left. It’s not really sexy; it’s more about some female attention. Of course, you could go to any normal bar and try to get female attention, but there’s a possibility you would be bothering someone. Paying for this service seems to be part of the appeal, but the idea of forking up money for nothing but chat put me off going for a repeat visit.
Numerous people have thought that Japan’s sexualisation of young women is a sign of something wrong with Japanese society. But on the other hand, it’s a way for these young women to make some decent money while they are studying. And what the hell is wrong with that? Many men would do the same if only they had the chance.
The more time I spent in Japan, the more I felt that it was
like a perfect society where everyone has their role and knew how to perform it
expertly. People often like to point out that Japan is a land of contrasts –
young and old, ancient and modern. But then, when you go there, these things
are not so much contrasts as part of one big palette.
If you check out out any tourist guide to Busan, you will find this place mentioned as one of the best places to visit for what Koreans call ‘Night View.’ Every time I ask for recommendations of where to go I’m always told that this or that particular place has the best night view of the city, so much that I’m wondering if anywhere in Busan is actually worth visiting in the daytime?
The Bay 101 is situated in Haeundae Marina, right at the bottom of Dongbaek Island (itself a great place to look at the sea at day and night). It’s one of the few buildings that really suits the landscape. Built in the modernist style, it looks out over the bay and offers views of the skyscrapers that dominate the skyline.
On visiting the BAy 101 on Saturday evening, I was afraid that it would be full of tourists. Actually there were so many locals and a few Chinese people, but hardly any foreigners. There are simply dozens of people sitting outside on the terraces. The tables were a close together but it wasn’t a big problem.
The food was worth trying, if not the ultimate reason to come here. Fingers & Chat is on the first floor of the building where you can eat inside at the restaurant or sit outside (which is what nearly everyone was doing) which we did on Saturday evening.
The menu gave us a choice of sea bass or cod, which was a good selection. There were several sides, including crispy dried pollack, which tasted like dried squid. They don’t give you a large piece of fish as you would get in England. Instead the fish is served goujon style in five pieces as you can see in the picture.
One thing I really liked was that they gave us two servings of mayonnaise as well as some creche. It showed that we were eating at a place which cared about small details. The fries were a little soft but I have yet to find anywhere which serves fries exactly as I would like them to be. We had to ask for salt and I’m surprised how people can eat unseasoned potatoes.
Everyone was having a good time with a fair bit of drinking going on. We stayed for an hour, after taking a few photos of the view. Personally, I’m glad that I have tried this landmark building in Haeundae, even if I’m not rushing to go back.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Ambience: 4 out of 5. There were a lot of people and some children running around.
Food: 4 out of 5. The Fish and chips were tasty and the mayonnaise was superb.
Price: 3 out of 5. You are paying for the location.
Service: we were served very quickly after standing in line at the counter for five minutes. After I finished I was about to take my tray inside when
Perfect for: a special romantic occasion. There were so many couples that I wouldn’t recommend going alone, unless you want to depress yourself.
One of the worst things is going to restaurants and bars on your own. Koreans have a hatred of doing things on their own. Don’t expect to be welcomed by other Koreans when you go to restaurants as a foreigner, they will completely avoid any interaction with you. Although I enjoy eating Korean food, the pressure of sitting in a restaurant being glowered at is too much sometimes. The bottom line: Korea can be very lonely place for a single person.
Aaahh, the Korean language. When I was England I was serious about studying Korean. I took lessons, went on language exchanges and used apps to improve my Korean. THe worst thing is when you have a conversation in Korean and people ignore you, or laugh, or answer you in English. I have learned very little Korean here and I am convinced my Korean is going backwards.
Wow, is dating hard work here. Its not that dating is unpleasant, it’s mroe the attitude Korean women have towards dating foreigners. For example, a common excuse is “I can’t speak English so I won’t date anyone who isn’t Korean.” It’s hard to approach someone and simply ask them out, at least, in my experience.
I visited the Korean palace in Seoul. Apart from a nice garden and a pond, there was little else to see. As for traditional culture, Korean’s traditional music, pansoori consists of a drum being banged loudly for half an hour whilst a woman makes a noise like she is being slowly impaled. Apart from concerts and Koreans wearing Hanbok, I see very little signs of traditional culture here. At least in Japan you can easily see kimonos and visit traditional restaurants.
When people talk about Korean Wave, Hallyu, it’s K-pop that often comes up. Now, I like K-pop. I think some of it has been good fun. What I don’t like is that for most people K-pop is the only music they will hear in Korea. There are some great rock and Indie bands but due to the large record companies that produce and distribute music its very difficult to hear anything but the Melon 100.
Korea has the most miserable work culture in the world. But at least Koreans can talk to each other and share food at work. As a foreigner, I feel excluded from most work activities. For some reason, it doesn’t occur to my colleagues to ask me any questions about my life or pay any interest in what I am doing, or invite me to lunch. Although many Koreans teach English, they would much rather talk to their colleagues in Korean than speak English to me.
Encountering old people is one of the hardest aspects of life here. For example, there are seats marked for use for the elderly, one of the many areas where old people have privileges over everyone else. It’s quite common for older Koreans to take up every seat in a carriage while young people who have been working all day must stand. Korea has a real problem with age. There are places where you won’t see anyone under thirty. At other times, you can visit an outside market and it will be mostly be seniors. It’s hard to reconcile the behaviours of older Koreans with younger people. It’s a problem that is going to get worse as Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world.
Clothes and fashion
I try not to buy many clothes here. It’s hard to find clothes of very good quality. Unfortunately Koreans have a mania for new things. It’s not socially acceptable to wear old clothes here. everything has to be brand new and up-to-the minute. I can’t deny that Koreans are well-dressed, stylish people, but the desire to follow the latest fashions seems exhausting.
This is certainly the least serious problem because there’s always the option of simply turning the TV off. There are typically three types of popular shows here:
1: Lifestyle and travel shows. A group of foreign tourists visit Korea and try kimchi, wear hanbok, etc. I can’t watch without cringing, but there are at least five programmes I can see which follow this theme.
2. Wacky and zany variety programs, the most popular is Running Man. They sometimes feature famous Americans such as Tom Cruise and Steven Youn.
In the last category are dramas. The good ones are ‘The Good Wife”, “The Return” and “Mr Sunshine.” There are also Korean soap operas which usually revolve around family relationships. A very common trope is a mother-in-law who criticises her daughter for not being a good wife, or making bad food or something. These are the least interesting programs on TV. There are several news programs which seem to be exclusively focused on domestic news. Which brings me to…….
Attitude to foreigners
As many have pointed out, Koreans have a strange attitude. On the one hand, I think they want foreigners to know about Korean culture. I see that they have a lot of information about Korean attractions on line. On the other hand, a foreigner could easily come to the conclusion that Koreans don’t want to have any interaction with foreigners unless it involves money. Come on Koreans, you can do better!
Besides being home to Busan’s International airport , Gimhae has many other things to recommend it as a place to visit. There is the excellent Gaya museum and the tomb of King Suro. For shoppers, there is a large Shinsegae department store and next to the Lotte Water Park there is a massive outlet store.
Last week I visited Jangyu Caffe Street. Busan has its own well known café street in the Jeonpo area of Soemyeon, but I was interested in somewhere off the beaten track. After a stuffy bus ride through the countryside, I was sure I was heading in the wrong direction, but eventually I saw the twisting tubes of the water park and realized I wasn’t far from my destination.
The area is known alternatively as Jangyu Café Street on Instagram hashtags. Most of the cafes were located in a street by Yulha canal in a long stretch of shops. I counted more than 15 cafés, which were impressive looking and the street is free (mostly) of the identical franchises such as Caffe Bene and Tom N Toms. There were so many that I wanted to try but I chose Labelles Heidi because it seemed to have the nicest atmosphere of all the places I passed.
Inside, the design was modern and light. There was a decent selection of cakes and yoghurt. But it was coffee I was there for. They offer a selection of roasts with guidance on the roasting, blend and flavour profile. Bitter, tart, sour, earthy are some of the words used to describe coffee. I could tell it was a great cup with out knowing too much about which coffee they used. It was spacious enough to find plenty of free seats, and much quieter than the more hectic cafes in Jeonpo. There were several ladies yakking away in the comfortable chairs downstairs whilst on the mezzanine the ever present young Korean girls were furiously tapping away on their phones.
Inside Labelles Heidi
A few doors down is Café Stein. I went there to try some very good Gelato, and chilled out for a while reading the Korean books on the shelves. Finally I tried one more coffee in Café 1001. The mood was a little cold so I ordered my coffee to go. But with so many high quality places I am sure to be going back soon.
Sometimes restaurants deliver in some unexpected ways and I react in different ways to how I imagined I would.
Like when I went to Hochi Bochi restaurant in Chiba recently.
I was lured in by the varied Okonimiyaki on offer restaurant. The restaurant has a very unique atmosphere With low level tables where we sat on cushions in front of a polished steel grill, which was where the okonomiyaki were cooked. Monje yakki was raw vegetables (tuna, cabbage and sweetcorn) which we combined with the batter to make our very own okonomiyaki.
To my delight the staff were nearly all female, with many of them young students. I started to focus more on them than on the food. They were wearing red bandanas with t-shirts with what looked like the restaurant logo.
I went back a second time the following evening. The restaurant has a great atmosphere where staff call out each order as they go back to the kitchen. In traditional Japanese style the servers greet each customer loudly and this happened on both occasions when I went there with my girlfriend.
Photo of Ayume, my girlfriend Mihi and me. I got so sidetracked by the female staff that my interest was moved away from the food and onto other appetites.
The atmosphere was warm and very inviting. The smoke rising from the grill greeted us as we entered, and the interior was so warm and cosy that we didn’t want to leave.
Ayume served us on both occasions and she was an absolute delight. Watching her sit down to scrub one of the grills in her bare feet was an experience I won’t forget in a long time.
She posed for photos, laughing as she did so. She works there every night from seven. I’d like to go back in a few months time to find out if she and any of the other cute girls are still there.
Recently I have been thinking a lot about my diet. It’s hard to say why, but I’m beginning to lose interest in meat. Although I’ve eaten meat my whole life, I find myself questioning whether I should continue to do so.
But in Korea at least 90% of the restaurants serve meat, and it’s hard to find anything which is strictly vegetarian. But, after some searching online, I came across this small vegan restaurant in Namcheon, which is one of the most pleasant areas of Busan. The area happens to contain a number of excellent bakeries too, but I didn’t try them today.
The name of the restaurant is 재크와콩나무 (Jack and the Beanstalk Vegan. We took our shoes off outside and were led to some simple wooden tables in the main restaurant area. The first difference between this restaurant and other Korean restaurants is that there is no music. You can focus on the conversation with your companion in a peaceful environment. The menu was printed in English which was helpful.
It’s easy to make jokes about vegan food without really understanding anything about it. People who think that vegetables are less interesting than meat are forgetting that meat is pretty boring too until it is seasoned or fried/roasted/baked.
A Korean woman came to tell us more about the menu and later a second woman, the chef and owner gave us her recommendation. She said that the kale and banana smoothie was delicious so I ordered it. Her suggestion was correct. They are known for a ‘steak’ that is actually made from soybeans but this wasn’t on the menu. Instead I ordered the Burrito set (rice and salad in a tortilla wrap) which came with falafel and hummus.
The food was extremely fresh and completely organic. I’m always interested in the line between healthy and delicious. For example, bread or pasta made with wholewheat instead of plain flour. It’s really a sign of a chef’s talent that they can make something healthy taste good. Having worked as a chef I can attest to the amount of salt, oil and butter that chefs use to make food taste good.
The best thing about vegan food is that you don’t get the uncomfortable ‘blow-out feeling’ which often comes from eating meat. This food is light but it doesn’t mean it won’t fill you up or leave you feeling unsatisfied.
The restaurant offers yoga classes in the mornings and evenings in the back room, which is where we ate out lunch. At this point it would be very easy to make some jokes about hippies and people in sandals and hemp and whatever. But I won’t, because it was all done in the best possible way. The chef/owner graciously posed for a photo after our lunch. They serve alcohol (wine and beer). The price was reasonable at 30000 Korean won for two people.
Jason Atherton is a great guy. He signed my menu for me when he was the guest chef for the London Art Week Pavilion in 2013.
When Gordon Ramsay opened his Maze restaurant in 2005, he chose Atherton to work there as head chef. I remember being amazed by the range of food, and the fact that you could order 10 or 12 small plates of tapas style dishes. The sharing concept was a new idea for London then but now you can find it everywhere in restaurants ranging from Peruvian ceviche joints to Italian tapas (Bocca Di Lupo).
As well as several Social restaurants, Atherton has now added Sosharu to the list. I haven’t been, but the restaurant has been reviewed very approvingly by several restaurant critics, including Jay Rayner (The Observer).
Giles Coren is my favourite food critic and I was keen to see what he had to say about it…..
After spending the first page of his review in rapturous praise of the toilets, which leave him ‘with a spring in his step, snd a full 10/10 waiting to be hung around Sosharu’s neck’, he gets round to discussing the food. I normally don’t mind some background information before going into specific details enjoyable but this is overdoing things somewhat.
Coren tries ‘two tiny rectangles of hamachi sashimi’ which come on a tray ‘made of ice and set in a wooden block.’ They are ‘too small to count as food’: it seems like he is going to be harsh about the small portions but he praises the scallop tartare as ‘fresh, summery, relatively filling, and fun to eat with the sleek wooden sticks.’
Then an open temaki, which pleases Coren very much. Not least the playful preparation of the dish, which comes with a miniature plastic bottle, similar to the squeezy bottles so often used by chefs for drizzling and dribbling sauces on to plates. He sees this as evidence of Atherton’s more playful approach to food and notes that ‘the great man may be truly lightening up.’
On trying the ‘best deep-fried chicken’ (Karage); Coren notes the value of his choice (£6.60), and finds himself ‘yodelling for the wasabi mayonnaise again’ which is served in another plastic bottle. The usually loquacious writer can only describe the taste as ‘dreamy.’
Already won over, he tries a ‘hockey puck of chashu pork belly and a puck of cabbage’ which are served on udon and oyster mushrooms. The presentation, so important in Japanese food, is given as much significance as the taste. The sheet of nori stuck in the side is described as like a 99 flake in a Mister Whippy, and tastes ‘exquisite.’
Too full to eat any more, he leaves a miso-glazed aubergine, having dined there alone.
The winner of the Restaurant writer of the Year award, Coren always makes you feel you can almost taste the food with his vivid descriptions of tastes and flavours.
His final scores are:
Review published in the magazine of The Times Magazine. Saturday 10 September.