Category Archives: Food

Park’s Menu

After a year of Korean food (sometimes unwillingly), I came home and found myself missing it. Since then, I have struggled to find a Korean restaurant anywhere. To be fair, I haven’t spent a lot of time in major metropolises and I haven’t tried as hard as I possibly could, but I was still very pleased when I discovered that there was a Korean restaurant around the corner from the guest-house where I was staying this past week.

Park’s Menu is a small restaurant on Klipfontein Road (Durban Road) in Mowbray, Cape Town (Campground Centre for those who are familiar with the area). It’s bigger, inside, than it appears from the street. Chairs and walls are white, with collections of odd, old wall-cabinets decorated with old books and china and flowers, creating a comfortable, airy feel. The place is a little quirky, but not in any way pretentious or annoying. Gentle jazz in the background completes the relaxed, warm atmosphere. It’s a bit of an oasis on a busy road.

The menu is properly Korean, ranging from manduguk and bibimbap to galbi and ssambap. Also, a take-away menu that says “there is more dish if you eat at the reastaurant”. I was standing outside, reading the menu in the window when the waiter came out and handed me a take-away menu. I think he was a bit taken aback when I immediately said I was coming inside.

I sat at a pretty white table next to the window. The waiter was super-friendly and efficient and, interestingly, not Korean, although all of the other staff do seem to be Korean. I took ages to order – how do you choose when you haven’t eaten any Korean food in 8 months and you know you won’t be back soon? Eventually I settled on mandu for starters and haemeul pajeon for mains.

As I waited, it struck me that the place smelled Korean. Not overwhelmingly and not in a bad way. It’s a smell that is difficult to describe but I think probably has something to do with bean sprouts and tofu. I never noticed that in Korea but it triggered such strong memories of so many Korean dinners.

The mandu (steamed dumplings) was great. Just the way I remember it. And distinctly different to the dimsum you get at other places. It’s tough to identify exactly the difference but I think it’s the filling. And the dumpling bit is softer. Also, joy of joys, proper chopsticks. Not metal chopsticks, sadly, but flat chopsticks, the shape of the Korean metal chopsticks. So much better than other chopsticks!

The haemeul pajeon (seafood pancake, but that translation is wrong and I have yet to find a better one) was great. Apparently it’s the chef’s speciality. It was thicker than I’m used to, which made it a little difficult to cut with chopsticks, but it was delicious. The mains come with kimchi and beansprouts (namul). Nothing quite like the spicy, sour, crunchy, juicy joy of fermented cabbage. Nothing in the whole world. It’s definitely an acquired taste but once you’re used to it, it can be really good. This was good kimchi. Not too spicy, perfectly crunchy and sour.

The restaurant also has, specially imported from Korea, tables with the stove-top grill so typical of restaurants in Korea. It’s a great way to eat. There is a particular stove-top table section on the menu. If you’re up for spicy food, try the kimchi-jeongol. Or (less spicy) the Bulgogi (delicious beef stew).

They also have a Korean-food buffet once a month – 12 March 2011 is the next one – which would be a great opportunity to experiment if you’ve never tried Korean food. The menu doesn’t offer alcoholic drinks (so strange to eat Korean food without Hite or Cass) but they seem fine with people bringing their own wine (corkage R25).

I’m delighted to have found a great Korean restaurant in South Africa and will definitely be back. Just thinking about it now, I’m wishing I was close enough to pop through for lunch. If you’ve never tried Korean food, or you haven’t eaten kimchi in a while, Park’s Menu is a great place to spend some time and enjoy the tastes of kimchi-land.

Craving kimchi

It’s strange the things you find you miss when you’re not there anymore. I never, in a million years, thought kimchi would be something I missed. And yet, I found myself, last week, really, really wishing for some proper, hot, crunchy kimchi. It wasn’t even a specific nostalgia moment. Some days, for example, I really feel like going down to the hut and ordering kimchi-jeon and dongdongju and sitting there with those friends for hours on end.  The memory is so strong I can almost taste the heat of the kimchi and the icy-cold dongdongju and the touch of the table and and the sounds: the loud foreigners, the background of quieter hangul and, of course, ‘Congratulations’.

This wasn’t that. I just wanted to be able to pop down to the local ‘mart’ and get some kimchi with the rest of my groceries. Apparently there is a Korean mart, of course not in the small town I’m currently in, but as soon as I go to Cape Town again, Korean food it will be. I miss metal chopsticks, too. I guess the places you visit become a part of who you are.

It’s funny the things you miss and remember. I was idly sitting in front of the cooking channel, reading my book, the other day and they were making pancakes. Pancakes, South African-style, so crepes, rather than American pancakes (which we call flapjacks for some reason). Pancakes make the think of Windhoek now. One of the best things about the backpackers where I stayed in Windhoek was the pancakes in the morning. The price of accommodation included 2 cinnamon-sugar pancakes and coffee or tea for breakfast (7am to 10am). It was a gorgeous wake up, in the cool of the bar area, by the pool, early enough that the day wasn’t yet hot, with BBC World News on the TV, to keep track of what was going on in the real world.

That experience, traveling there, has changed my reaction to hot days, too. It’s hot in the Eastern Cape at the moment, hot and humid a lot of days, but it’s not hot like Windhoek. The cool of the morning reminds me of how hot it gets there. The cool morning air feels the same as it did in Windhoek in December.

The heat is like Gaborone. There was a thunderstorm here the other day and I found myself wishing for the downpours of Gaborone, the hard, pouring rain, relief after the glorious, exhausting, almost-overwhelming summer heat. The feeling of ice-cold water after a round in one of the sweltering venues. Sitting that hot, stuffy briefing room. Still hot at three in the morning. All the people. The Irish singing.

Sensory memory is so strong. Some days it makes me glad to be here, remembering. Some days it makes me wish for the things that were normal there – like kimchi and early morning pancakes. Other days it makes me wish to be off, a backpack and a guidebook, traveling again.

Stopping by Hongdae

Korea has had both good and bad moments. I’ve travelled more than ever before and learnt to enjoy exploring by myself, among other things. The place where I spent the most time, however, was a relatively small (by Korean standards), fairly conservative and determinedly ‘normal’ city. A city unlike any other I’ve lived in or known. In order to ease the transition, and also to take in one of the major Korean tourist experiences I’d so far missed, I decided to spend a few days in Seoul on the way out. This ended up being just one day and two nights, thanks to the usual Korean complications of bureacracy and poor planning, but turned out to be a good choice.

I arrived in Seoul on Monday around 5pm. I took the KTX up from Daegu. It would probably have been simpler to take a bus, with my life-for-one-year-in-a-foreign-country-sized suitcase, but the KTX was faster and I wanted to travel on a high-speed train just once more. Once in Seoul, I hopped in a cab and headed for Hapjeong Subway, where I found myself at completely the wrong entrance for the directions I’d been given. After lugging my large case up and down various staircases, I found the right exit and set off, dragging said suitcase behind me. I was booked in a Kims’ Guest House which was perfectly nice, if rather annoyingly far from the subway when dragging 20kg of luggage.

Having settled in and dumped the bags, I headed off to explore a little and find some dinner. I vaguely thought about going to the area I’d visited with a friend not too long ago (Hongdae) but wasn’t particularly concerned, really. I was just walking. How strange to think I’ve become comfortable and confident enough in Korea to set off ‘just walking’ in a city I barely know. A year ago, I would most certainly not even have come close to considering it. As it turned out, my wandering led me, by gradual and unintended twists and turns, to something that looked familiar. Sure enough, before long, I spotted the bar I had visited with that friend.

I was pretty tired, thanks to all the suitcase-lugging and leaving-Daegu admin, combined with a late night on Sunday, so my first thought was to stop into the first place I liked the look of and get some dinner. But then I saw another place that looked interesting. And another. And another. Each with its own unique style and atmosphere. Each as interesting as the last.

As sunlight faded into romantic dusk (with candles on tables and couples sipping wine), I wandered the streets of Hongdae, almost overwhelmed by it all. French Bistros sat next to Spanish grills. Japanese Sake Bars shared pavements with galbi-on-the-street. Cafés offered coffee and wine. One place was selling pork cutlet pizza (pizza topping on a giant port cutlet). Another offered “ethnic oriental food”. And the music! Sophisticated wine bars spilled elegant jazz onto the pavements. Rasta-style taverns echoed with laid-back rhythms. Cafés moved with hip-hop. Bars pounded old-style rock. Cellphone stores and clothing shops kept the usual K-pop in the mix. Music drifted and mingled and enveloped.

In restaurants, on streets, tripping up the stairs to drink cocktails and beers, Koreans (and not a few foreigners) of all shapes and sizes, styles and fashions populated the area. There were punk rockers, emo kids (appropriately blonde in contrast to the standard black), jocks, tattooed bikers, pretty girls in summer dresses, stylish women in six-inch heels and all manner and form of doc martens. Hair ranged from black, through red and orange and purple to white-blond and yellow with a streak of pink. It’s hard to accurately express the significant difference between Daegu downtown and Hongdae but I suppose the key is contrast – Daegu’s peaceful, controlled, highly-(over)valued normality against Hongdae’s effortless, unconcerned energy and variety.

I stopped into a lovely place called Piccante and had a simple (but good) thin-base margherita pizza and a glass of wine. Wine by the glass? What a novel idea. Behind me, on the raised edge of the main restaurant level, was a row of wooden letters, table-high (and holding up a glass counter) spelling out PIZZA&PASTA. Just great.

I could have wandered Hongdae all evening but I was tired and had a (relative to what has been my usual) early morning planned, so I went back to the hostel and slept like a baby.  I went back the following evening, though, and spent a very happy few hours – my last night in Korea – with pen, paper and glass of wine, in a delightful Italian Restaurant and Bar called The Gabriel.