Understanding the Korean Spice – And how to be at one with Kimchi

I get a lot of tourists saying to me, “Rob, I’m a foodie! Take me some place good to eat where all the Koreans go!” Or, “Rob, I’m an adventurous eater! I want to try new things!”.
Seeking out for some of the exotic
Seeking out for some of the exotic
I say, “Alright, let’s do it! I know just the place”
And they say, “But nothing spicy. I don’t like spicy.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 9.22.30 AM And then my mouth just drops. Whaaaaaa?? How can you tell me you are any sort of self-respecting adventurous eater of foodie, if you can’t indulge in anything spicy? It is the crux of Korean cuisine and the centerpiece of every dining table here. Look, I get it. You were hurt once. Stung…and you don’t want to feel the pain of it again. But that was years ago…it’s time to move on!

kimchi
kimchi

The Korean spice is a very different kind of spice. Other spices will give a sharp sting on contact and leaving a lingering singe in your mouth. Others you’ll feel it after you ingest it as it makes its way through your stomach and eventually scorches the other end of your gastro-extremities. The basic Korean spice is a bit of a warming spice. You won’t feel it right away, but as you fill your stomach with beef, rice and kimchi. And more beef, more rice and more kimchi…you’ll start to notice some tingling sensation in your taste buds. Things are starting to get warmer but you can consume it at a pace where you don’t overwhelm your mouth with any singular flavor.

soon dubu jiggae
soon dubu jiggae

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8 Things Commonly said by Tourists visiting Korea

Happy New Year 2015! And may this year be another great year for people to come to Korea.

A very rare species in Korea:  The Garbage Can
A very rare species in Korea: The Garbage Can

Being a tour guide in Korea, it’s funny to hear some of the same comments and questions over and over again from tourists. In doing so I’ve compiled some the top 8 as well as responses to debunk a lot of what is said or misconceived about Korea. Whether you are visiting Korea or are an expat entertaining guests who visit here, it’s good to equip yourself with some knowledge on how to address some of these observations. 1. “Since Korea is home to Samsung, Galaxy phones must be cheaper. Where do I get one?”Wrong. Samsung phones, as well as a lot of other products of Korea are actually more expensive here than anywhere else in the world. Even with the taxes and tariffs, you are better off buying them where you are from. Samsung claims that they are being fair with the prices due to the difference in “distribution systems”. What does this mean? Probably something to do with the vast competition other markets have vs Korea’s limited competition (which in turn creates a cartel). Whatever the reason is, bottom line: Samsung products are NOTICEABLY more expensive in Korea when in fact they are originated from here. In fact, a great gift for your hosts in Korea would be to bring them a new Samsung phone.

The Galaxy S5 phone sells for 918,800 Korean Won or approximately $830USD
The Galaxy S5 phone sells for 918,800 Korean Won or approximately $830USD

* On a side note: Because of this oligopoly, it tempts other foreign companies to come in and take advantage of us as well. Take for instance H&M and more recently IKEA. These companies are globally known as cheaper brands, but when they first came to Korea, they tried to charge higher than their normal prices here. They soon lowered their prices after informed netizens called them out on this. Too bad Korean netizens don’t have power over our home grown companies. I really need a Hyundai right now. 2. “Ooh, they have cider at this Korean restaurant. Let’s order that!” – Wrong. Cider in Korea is not the alcoholic drink that you are thinking of. It’s actually a word to describe a non-alchoholic carbonated drink similar to that of Sprite or 7-Up. So if you order cider at a restaurant, often times you will get that or a Korean local take on the beverage with Kin or Chilsung Cider which tastes lighter. Cider one of those English loan words that have been beaten up pretty bad after being loaned over two times through the Japanese Occupation (1910 – 1945). If you can just imagine a Japanese person back then trying to show a Korean how sophisticated they were with English you would come up with words like nan-ning-gu (난닝구) and bban-seu (빤스). Sound familiar? Somewhat? Kinda? It’s a derivative of the words “running-shirt” and “pants”, but you have say it a couple times in your head before you can actually make the connection. You then have to take it to the second-derivative to fully understand that it actually means…hold it…wait for it… “tank top” and “underwear”, in the Korean language. You can’t call this Konglish because it’s not our fault. But older-generation Koreans will use the words back at foreigners fully expecting that they will understand it thinking it’s English.

it's not what you think it is
it’s not what you think it is

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The DMZ Tour is NOT the DMZ tour!

Or at least, it’s not the tour attraction in Korea that companies will lead you to believe. It’s called something else. The DMZ is the De-Militarized Zone  and it is the border that cuts Korea in half by North and South Korea. It gets a lot of attention in the media, so a lot of people request to go there through tour companies. Just about all tourists going to Korea for the first time will believe that the DMZ tour will take you to see North Korean and South Korean soldiers standing across from each other at the border staring down one another in a game to see who flinches first.

This is the JSA Tour that lots of tourists mistake as the DMZ Tour
This is the JSA Tour that lots of tourists mistake as the DMZ Tour
North Korean Soldier off in the distance
North Korean Soldier off in the distance

Yet tour companies will lead you astray and show you something else. What people are WANTING to see is actually the JSA Tour. That is where you see the soldiers and go inside the blue MAC building where you are technically in North Korea.  JSA stands for Joint Security Area and it is the tour that people are usually thinking in the minds of the depicted standoff between North and South. You should really make sure you clarify that you want the JSA Tour and not the DMZ Tour. 

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The Dark Side of Korean Tourism

No matter how you slice it and dice it, 40% is still not a good number for tourism. Especially when you compare it to China and Japan. As a tour guide in the Korean tourism industry, after reading this article and seeing the news segment that relates to it, I can say that it doesn’t just stop there. There are old-boy tour companies here that partner up with their buddy-buddy shopping centers and other places where tourists are told to spend money. They herd tourists around from one commission-based shopping to another. Sometimes you get a place added onto your itinerary to a so-called “museum”, only to find that it is a one-room exhibit explaining what kimchi is with the other parts of the warehouse as showrooms dedicated to selling overpriced products to locked-in tourist. This is not just Korea, but as I’ve traveled all throughout Asia, this seems to be standard practice. As a developed nation Korea should look beyond this now.

Adding in these mandatory commission-based stops allows many of the tourism companies to lower their tour fees to what’s called a “minus tour”. Minus tours are local tour companies “buying” tourists from foreign tour companies on the expectations that their souvenir-buying commissions will pay for the “minus” deficit they incur from purchase.  This is not tourism. This is probably closer to being a bookie managing a sports gambling book of bettings.  Tour groups are often tagged with the odds of buying “souvenirs” given their specific demographics. Some tour companies hire statisticians to often place value and hedge against less profitable tour groups. Overall the tours are run poorly, not being sensitive to the tourists needs as well as taking away from the chance of seeing other parts of Korea. 

This needs to stop. Korean is not a 3rd world market here.

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