10 years ago I made the rather impromptu decision to move to South Korea to teach English to kindergarteners. I had zero experience in teaching and had never been overseas before. I didn’t know how to use chop sticks. Needless to say it was an eye-opening experience that reshaped my world view. As a naive 22-year-old, I had to learn to challenge a lot of my expectations and assumptions to adjust to a very different lifestyle. Exploring new foods was an important part of my experience, and I thought I’d dig up my old photos and relive some of the tasty (and not so tasty) foods I experienced during my year in Korea.
3am food in my adopted hometown of Gwangju looked a little different to the kebabs and cheeseburgers of Brisbane. Once after a big night out, I picked up some street food treats and was sorely disappointed when my potato scallop turned out to be a deep-fried boiled egg. Another time I failed to read a chip packet and didn’t realise I bought chocolate covered prawn chips until it was too late. Adventures galore!
Pizza in a cup was genius!
3am food, downtown Gwangju – rice tube things in tomato sauce
Fresh omelettes from a downtown street vendor
Dried fish, lightly grilled. The smell stuck in your clothes. The only food smell that was worse was boiled silkworm larvae – I would hold my breath and run past those stands!
Fruit trucks and stands were common on roadsides and at bus stops
The Chicken Man was a delivery guy who we saw frequently in our neighbourhood, Pungam-dong. How he navigated those crazy streets on a motorbike in a chicken costume is anyone’s guess!
Shabu shabu and galbi are definitely my two favourite Korean dishes. Both are shared meals that are collectively cooked at the table. This was my favourite aspect of eating in Korea – meals were shared, dining was leisurely, and side dishes were plentiful.
Shabu shabu is a Japanese food experience that Korea has mastered. It’s a multistage process that our favourite restaurant did like this:
Take a big ol’ plate of thinly shaved raw beef
Add it to the best broth of your life
Add in veggies and scoop out deliciousness
Cooking in the middle of the table is popular in Korea
I can still remember how good this tasted, even 10 years later (and as a vegetarian!)
Noodles are added once the meat and veggies are eaten
Fried rice is made from the leftover broth
The bottom of the fried rice got crispy, it was glorious
I don’t have good pics of galbi, sadly. This however is a barbecue meal in which you cook up pork rib strips, all manner of veggies (especially whole cloves of garlic, so good), cut them into bite-sized pieces with kitchen scissors, and make little bundles in lettuce leaves. Red bean chilli paste is a must!
Side dishes are a cornerstone of Korean dining – at least 10 little dishes of pickled veggies (kimchi every way you can think of) and tasty sauces were served up alongside the main meal.
Al fresco dining, Korea style! This waters-edge restaurant (?) in Jeju Island must have served the freshed seafood on the planet. Take a closer look at the diners – men in business suits!
My life largely revolved around school – I was a teacher, after all. I taught an English immersion class with the same group of students for the whole year. Little darlings (most of the time) came a long way! I hope they took away some Aussie slang, or better yet, a slight accent!
We went on many school excursions. One time, we went to McDonalds and us teachers donned uniforms and the kids practiced how to order a meal. Learning those all-important life skills! Matthew was impressed.
Not all excursions were to fast food outlets, thankfully. We visited a few farms too! Here’s John and Paul (who would be about 16 years old now, holy Moses)
Our school excursions took us to all sorts of exciting places, like this potato farm – here’s Paul and Ted having a go
Ah, life as a kindy teacher. Life is strange and wonderful!
The kids and teachers ate at school. This was the last school meal I had – seaweed soup, dried seaweed, seaweed and sticky rice, bean sprouts and kimchi. After this gem, I decided to go home for lunches!
Another school excursion – not food-related but it’s a cute photo of my class and I wanted to share 🙂
I’m still ‘learning to like’ kimchi, Korea’s national dish. It’s a fermented pickled cabbage (although many other vegetables can be used) that has a strong chilli and abalone flavour. I made it once at school – I enjoyed the irony of being a foreign teacher, showing my class of Korean children how to make their national dish! Another amusing moment in my Korean life.
Kimchi, Korea’s signature side dish, is traditionally made with cabbage. However, all sorts of veggies can be kimchified!
Life in Korea
Korea is a country of contrasts. I loved the cities – tightly packed, brightly lit, noisy and alive with people. I loved the outdoors more though – expansive, mountainous, with real seasons (not the two-season year like in Brisbane) and great diversity. I was fortunate to have my family visit me at Christmastime and I was proud to show them my temporary home.
Downtown Gwangju – shiny lights, lots of people, a fair bit of trash, sounds and smells hitting you in the face
With my family in Seoul during a bitingly cold yet snowless December
The street in Pungam-dong that I called home for a year. We lived in the pink flats on the right, first level (not the one with the yellow sign, that was a mechanic). It was above a samurai studio!
My favourite thing to do (apart from going to the expat bar, the Speakeasy) was to head out and see some of the historical sites. We saw this lovely village on a trip to Damyang county.
Boseong’s beautiful green tea fields were a favourite place – we went a few times to enjoy the view and stock up on green tea jubes!
Enjoying green tea in Jeju Island to the south of mainland Korea
A winter scene on a family ski trip (I say that like we’re a skiing family, which couldn’t be further from the truth)
Ulleungdo, Korea’s sole island to the east. We went on a very strange holiday there. We ate spam and cheese sandwiches and climbed mountains and dodged the drying squid that was on every surface, up every street, it was everywhere. We slept in a ‘hotel’ on ‘beds’ that were in fact three dirty stacked blankets. It was pretty interesting. It was the baseline for future holidays, which I can gladly say were much better!
The drying squid of Ulleungdo still haunts my nostrils
Once, my friends and I were interviewed for some reason while in Yeosu. We got right into it!
Autumn was spectacular – I loved the changing seasons which were so different to Brisbane’s two season climate (muggy summer and light winter).
My friends and I went on regular trips to Seoul, mostly because we craved international food. Gwangju was pretty light-on with cuisines apart from Korean, so we’d plan weekends that revolved around breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Snowfall in my neighbourhood transformed our little lake into a winter wonderland. I had never experienced cold like I did that winter!
The dear friends I met were hands down the best part of my time in Korea. Without them I wouldn’t have seen the incredible sights and cities or survived the classroom and Speakeasy!
I’m thankful for my Korean experience. It showed me that I’m resilient and capable, that I don’t know everything and have a lot to learn from other cultures, and helped me meet some of the greatest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. My time in Gwangju has shaped my life ever since, and for that I’m very grateful.