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Bi Bim Bap - a loopa

Part of the fun of Korean food is how easily the names can be punned into western song titles. I’ve passed many an idle hour smiling to myself about the likes of Kim-bop, Galbi there and my personal favourite, Getting jiggae with it. However, while puns are all very well, most of the fun remains in the eating of the stuff and this is no less true of the quiet man of Korean cuisine, Bi Bim Bap.

The perfect way to regain some of that strength after going ten rounds with the Kindergarteners, Bi Bim Bap dishes all follow a variation on a basic set-up of rice, julienned vegetables, a fried egg, dried sea weed and sesame seeds. If you opt to go dol sot (which I do, always) then the whole thing arrives in a sizzling bowl adding a bit of pizzazz to the whole arrangement. Into this tumultuous cauldron go a few spoonfuls of gloopy, firey chilli paste to taste, after which it’s ready to go.

With Bi Bim Bap you’ve gotta work for your supper, giving everything a good mix to evenly distributed the various parts. The result is a mighty fine bowl of food. The rice, a staple of the Korean diet is transformed by the chilli paste and sea weed, while the egg provides an indispensible protein fix. While I mostly eat this basic version of Bi Bim Bap at the diner beside our school at lunch times, we will occasionally go to a special Bi Bim Bap restaurant for dinner, where a number of variations are on offer. My personal favourite is an extra spicy concoction that includes a liberal amount of tender, shredded pork and a bowl of mussel soup on the side.

I originally dismissed this unprepossessing bowl of rice and vegetables as merely a healthier (and as such less interesting) alternative to whatever dead animal I was in the process of shovelling onto my plate, but I am fast finding out that, as with a lot of Korean Food, there is more, much more.

Unqualified Food Criticism: Dave's Fish and Chips

Several friends of mine had recommended the breakfast at Dave's so we decided to head out to Jangsan and try it out on Sunday. I have only had an English breakfast a couple of times before and neither time was in England, so what follows is merely the opinion of my own sizable gut.

There were several couples in the cozy place when we arrived. The dining room sat about twenty four and had a huge (and remarkably clean) picture window which offered a pretty nice street view and brought in a lovely morning light with the southern exposure. One wall was decorated with a hand drawn mural depicting a mill on a stream. Painted on another near our table was a hearth with a roaring fire. It was only noon on a Sunday but I still contemplated sampling some of the beers Dave keeps cold in a corner cooler. The list was impressive. I will definitely be going back for dinner.

The food came out quick and hot. Crispy bacon (I like mine a little chewier, but that is a matter of personal taste), hot toast, and a fried egg (this was exactly the way I like it although I wasn't asked: they must have read my mind), were accompanied by baked beans and a grilled tomato slice. It was all delicious and I don't think they had to wash the plate when I got done (no, I didn't lick it...I used the last piece of toast). And a nice hot pot of black tea. And juice. Many of the coffee shops in Busan serve their sugar in liquid form (sugar syrup) and I went for what I thought was a squeeze bottle of that and it turned out to be lemon juice so watch out for that. There is a dispenser of granulated white sugar in the basket as well.

We arrived more around lunch so we took the opportunity to try the specialty as well and the fish and chips did not disappoint. I like my potatoes fried a little bit more but I suspect that they are done medium rare on purpose. The fish was divine. A huge slab with just the right amount of breading done to a golden turn (that phrase courtesy of Mike Madonia in a catfish commercial back home). It was wonderful.

After our meal the proprietor came out and chatted. He has been in Korea for six or seven years and I don't think he's leaving. I probably told him way more than he wanted to know about my life (sorry...its a habit), but he was a very nice fellow who shared with me the physique of someone who knows how to find the bottom of a bowl or a bottle. I look forward to going back and sharing a beer with him soon.

Dave's Fish and Chips is a five minute walk from the Jangsan subway terminal, three if you are hungry. When you leave the subway station look around and find the 2001 Fashion Outlet store. From the corner it sits on walk to the opposite corner (the intersection has the jaywalk crosswalks) and take the sidewalk on the right. It is about half a block past the next stoplight, 2nd floor on the left. Look for a rather small (by Korean standards tiny) red sign. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Saturday and Sunday. Tell Dave Joe sent ya!

I'm Only Happy When It Rains

I have never been a rainy day type person. I am actually a little more mental on cloudy days than I am normally and that isn't good usually (yay! three adverbs) but I love Busan when it rains. This city, for reasons peculiar to itself, really benefits from a bath. It is normally a little dusty, a little grubby, and wears all of its odors maybe a little too proudly. A little rain gives it a shine and softens the stonger smells. It is nice.

And so it has been for the last few days, which have produced a steady drizzle. I don't even need to look. I can hear the rain tread of the tires in the busy street up the alley. I think, BTW that the alley that terminates in at my building is the steepest and shortest in Busan, but this is most certainly wrong. It is certainly fun to navigate when neither of us are too dry (me or the alley).

I went to my first professional basketball game last night, the (Busan) SK Magic Wings versus the team in green. 'Magic Wings' always makes me think of some innovation in feminine hygene but I cannot recall from my subconscious the source of the association. The crowd, like so many here at any sporting event other than baseball, was sparce but enthusiastic. Koreans love to cheer and they aren't afraid to jeer either. Professional Korean sports teams are allowed a limited number of foriegn players, and basketball is no exception. They were each allowed two gigantic African-Americans. Only one was allowed to play in the second and third quarter. we missed the first quarter (Allison, Jiho, and I attended), but when we arrived Busan was about three points down. The center for Busan (who remained in) was a likeable fellow who didn't hog the ball and made some very good assists to his Korean teammates. By the end of the third quarter Busan had built a ten point lead mainly through team defence and excellent passing. The Koreans were not great drivers but they were able defenders and played a complicated pick and pass game akin to the WNBA. The center was several times signalled to stand on the baseline in three point land to draw his counterpart out of the lane, allowing the Koreans to run a successful set play, a role he graciously accepted.

The fourth quarter ushered in the other foreign player, a guy who probably would have played point or shooting guard in the NBA, and who thought (mistakenly) that everyone in attendance had come to see him. He asked for the ball every time down the floor and got it and proceeded to drive on triple teams. He usually ended up either laying on the floor, producing a fast break for the other team or being called for charging. The opponents scored 16 unanswered points and won the game handily. Needless to say I was disgusted.

Afterwards we went down to Yeonsandong (my neighborhood "downtown") and walked the narrow alleys until we found a cute little chicken spot to eat. We ordered the variety platter and it was really good. Allison, my new coworker and apartment neighbor, ordered a pitcher of Soju and fruit punch, and ended up drinking most of it. The chicken was great and I brought the leftovers home. So ended another lovely rainy Friday night in Busan.

What to do if you get sick while teaching in Korea:

Go to the hospital. Once you have your alien registration card and your physical you are registered into the country's mandatory medical insurance plan. I pay about 37000 won per month out of my paycheck (employer pays the other half) for the coverage and it is well worth it. I have been sick twice since I got here and both times I got fast and effective medical treatment. Today during lunch (this is why I am writing about this) I went to the hospital across the street with a bad cold. I was examined at the door and sent directly to the doctor who diagnosed me with an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) and wrote me a prescription. I had that filled at the pharmacy down the street and I took a dose and lunchtime isn't even over yet and I feel better already. I can breath at least.

Moral of the story: get your alien card and physical as soon as possible after you arrive and if you get sick (and you will) go to the doctor immediately. I started working on my alien card fairly quickly and it still took almost a month to get everything back (you have to enroll in the medical plan after you get your card and that takes a minute as well). Also, bear in mind that immigration will be holding your passport while they process your alian registration. I had to adjust my travel plans for the first month to compensate for not having a passport. I arrived at the end of June and the school closed for the last week of July and I would likely have gone to Japan if I was sure I would have got my passport back in time.

And at these prices there is no use trying to medicate yourself with over-the-counter meds. The doctor's visit cost me 3500 won and the prescription, which included six doses of four and a half pills each, don't ask me what) cost me 1400 won for a grand total of 4900 won. That is $3.81 in the current exchange value.

Which sadly brings me to my second topic: the exchange rate. I have tried in this blog to avoid any negativity about my experience here in Korea, and there has been very little of it. My job is hard sometimes, but my jobs at home were as well. I love Busan, my beautiful adoptive hometown, and the rest of Korea (what I have seen) is a gem. The people here are wonderful and kind, and there are many other things I could say about this wonderful experience...but there has been one big downside for me.

Korea sends a major portion of their exports to the United States and as a result of the US financial crisis the won/dollar conversion rate has tanked. Since I started watching it last January it has dropped by about 30% against the dollar. It is still very cheap to live here and there is very little inflation to erode my standard of living (which can't be said of other ESL hotspots where I read that you may go from comfortable to desperate in the course of a one year contract) but I have financial responsibilities and waiting till the currency rebounds (which it almost certainly will eventually) is not an option for me. If you are in the same situation, bear that in mind when looking at your contract: if you need US currency look at the current exchange rate when contemplating a budget. Of course, there is not way to predict what will happen in six months, but is is worthwhile to see what you are working with if you have an immediate need for dollars.

Here is a link to the English language website of the Korean National Health Insurance Corporation (turn down your volume before clicking or you will get blasted with a special video message that's set to stun).

Crunch King

Up until quite recently I thought the only crunch I was going to experience in Korea was the one that sits atop the gloriously chocolately “Crunch King,” (pictured) a Cornetto type ice-cream that tastes even better than it sounds.

However, things changed dramatically last month when I discovered I was thirty pounds down on my monthly cash transfer to my home account.

Since then the Won has been on a (mostly) downward spiral. My first remittance of 1 million won bought me a cool £500 sterling back in August but that same amount now is worth little more than £400. In fact, the currency is so volatile that if I check the exchange rate online before I leave for the bank I’m likely to get a different rate entirely once I get there.

The situation has gotten to the point where I’ve stopped sending back money entirely. Instead, I’ve decided either to keep the money in my Korean account in the hope that things won’t get much worse, or blow all my pay check on a Crunch Kings and electronics. A tough choice and if I know myself (which I think I do) the latter will prevail.

Still, at least Korea has President Lee Myung Bak to steer it through these troubled times, a man whose sole contribution to the global recession debate has been something along the lines of “we must not lose sight of free market economics.”

In this uncertain climate it looks like Sarah and I may have to put our planned trip of “five or sixth months or so” at the end of our contract on ice, having most definitely counted all our chickens before they hatched.

"Here & Now" opening performance, Danwon Arts Center, Ansan

Yesterday, I was invited to do the opening performance for the Korea Contemporary Art 1000 Artists Exhibition, held in the Danwon Arts Center in Ansan City, just south of Seoul.
This performance was called "Here & Now " and was a symbolic tea ceremony to celebrate the passion and creativity of the 1000 artists who joined together for this exhibition.

The artist rolls a circular black table symbolizing "now" until it intersects with a square black box symbolizing "here".

At the meeting point of "here and now", the artist inscribes these words in Korean and English and then begins to set up the table to perform a ritual tea ceremony.

A square black silk cloth is laid under the round table, and a square gold teatray,and jars of various spices are laid out.

The artist creates a multicultural and fragrant blend of tea and five different spices that are labelled (in Korean and English) as "courage", "passion", "persistence", "self-belief" and "audacity".

These spices represent some of the qualities that artists need to continue to create uplifting and inspiring art in a world that is all too often focused on destructive and materialistic endeavours.

The teapot is marked with an infinity sign, symbolizing the infinite power of human creativity and the infinite power of the "now" moment.

Thus the tea is called "infinitea", and the audience members are all invited to drink the tea to share in the special energy of the creative "now" moment.
You can see a video below:

Korean Egg Quiche, HALLOWEEN SPECIAL (계란찜) (vegetarian)

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