BUSAN, March 22 – Sometimes it’s good to throw away the guidebook and follow your instincts. When you travel to a new place, the best way to discover delicious local eats is to just observe what the residents are eating. With this in mind, we discovered a few unexpected gems as we traversed the streets of Busan:
As night falls, it’s time to chill out with Korean barbecue or gogi-gui at this popular corner restaurant. Grab a few friends and join middle-aged Korean men enjoying their food and sake.
The set-up is nothing fancy with plastic chairs and metal tables. Throw some pork belly or fresh clams on the hot grill. Make sure you order the divine-tasting galbi or marinated beef short ribs with their slightly charred sides.
You will be spoiled for choice with the vast variety of banchan or side dishes that range from the unusual sea squirt to ho-hum canned peaches. Our favourite is the beondegi or boiled silkworm pupae (it tastes like peanuts!), hard-boiled quail eggs and yangnyeom gejang or raw crabs marinated in a spicy gochujang sauce.
Yong Oi Jib 용이집
Along Gwangbokdong 1(il)-ga, Jung-ju, Busan
Walk along Gwangbok-ro towards Lotte Department Store. Turn into the alleyway between a carpark and the shop Jessi New York. Walk down and the restaurant is at the corner of the lane and alleyway.
All tangled up
If you can’t stomach wriggling raw octopus, follow the Koreans’ lead and join the long queue for jjukkumi or grilled mini octopus.
The par-boiled octopus is marinated in gochujang or spicy red pepper paste that burns the tongue. If you fear the heat, go for the sweeter sauce.
The octopus can be eaten straightaway or left to grill longer for a crispier charred taste. Wrap each mini octopus with perilla leaf, a dash of mayonnaise, mung bean sprouts, shredded cabbage and garlic.
Once your side dishes are finished, help yourself at the self-service counter that includes hard-boiled eggs for quick sustenance. In addition, bindaetteok or mung bean pancakes filled with pork can also be ordered.
Jjuggmi & bindaetteok 쭈꾸미 & 빈대떡
부산광역시 중구 부평동1가 36-12
36-12, Bupyeongdong 1(il)-ga, Jung-gu, Busan
Move over KFC, there’s a better fried chicken in town. Koreans love to eat fried chicken with beer or what is commonly known as chimek -- “chi” for chicken and “mek” for mekju or beer.
Find a good version at Cultwo Chicken, a chain restaurant owned by the presenters from the popular SBS entertainment radio show Cultwo Show. Here, the fried chicken pieces boast of a light crackly texture without any greasy aftertaste, a result from double frying.
Even the meat is juicy. Big appetites will appreciate the hefty portions as the minimum order is a platter of half chicken. Orders can have dual flavours – plain and the spicy sweet version. Each order comes with crunchy refreshing radish cubes drenched in vinegar that cuts away the greasy taste.
Cultwo Fried Chicken 컬투치킨
컬투히킨 광복사랑1호저 11-2
11-2, Donggwangdong 1(il)-ga, Jung-gu, Busan
Sweet chilled treat
Look for this bustling cafe along the busy shopping area of Gwangbok-ro for their version of bingsu or shaved ice dessert. Their snowflake sherbet uses frozen milk that imparts it with an addictive creamier taste. A shot of sweetened milk is also given to pour over the dessert.
The shaved ice is completely covered with aromatic kinako or toasted soybean powder. As you dig into the dessert, you will discover tiny chewy cubes of injeolmi or glutinous rice cake mixed with almond flakes.
Different versions of the sherbet can be ordered with all kinds of toppings like sweet red beans and dried jujubes. If you feel peckish, try the injeolmi toast – crispy bread sandwiched with the melted injeolmi and sprinkled with kinako. We guarantee you will want seconds of this delicious toast.
Sulbing (설빙) Korean Dessert Cafe
부산광역시 중구 광복로 54-2
54-2, Gwangbok-ro, Jung-gu Busan
Open:10.30am to 10.30pm
Take the Nampo subway station exit 7 and turn left and walk down the street. When the road splits at a three-way intersection, go left and you will see the cafe’s signage for the second floor, above a Lacoste shop. The cafe also has other locations in Busan. You can also find the cafe at Changwon, Seoul, Daegu, Cheonan, Suwon and Cheongju.
Mix it all up
For the less adventurous, the multi-storey Lotte Department Store offers a wide selection of Korean eats at its ground floor food court and its tenth floor restaurants. One such place is Mi Hiang, a restaurant frequented by Koreans for its menu of all kinds of bibimbap - “bibim” for mix it and “bap” that refers to rice.
For additional flavour and crunch, go for the dolsot or hot stone pot versions that form a nice crust at the bottom of the heated pots. Enjoy the octopus version with vegetables or even a seafood version topped with shrimp and tuna.
Vegetarians can order the wild edible greens or mushroom variant. In addition, the menu features five types of crispy pajeon or pancakes including the common seafood and spring onion. Our favourite is the sweet-tasting pumpkin version with its crispy edges.
Each order of bibimbap is accompanied with side dishes and a small bowl of pumkpin porridge. Set meals for bibimbap and pajeon are also available starting from 12,000 won (about RM36).
Mi Hiang 미 향
10th Floor, Lotte Department Store, 20-1, Jungangdong 7(chil)-ga, Jung-gu, Busan
Hit the street
It’s hard to starve in Busan at night as the streets are full of stalls selling food. You will notice that the stalls selling the same items tend to clump together making it a difficult choice to pick one particular stall.
One of the Busan specialties is the ssiat hotteok – a light crispy pan-fried cake split into two and stuffed with pine nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Join the crowd at the popular stall located in the middle of BIFF Square.
As you wait in the queue for your hot pancake, you will notice that the walkway of BIFF Square is lined with famous celebrities’ handprints who have attended the yearly film festival here. Crowd around the stalls and nibble on all kinds of eats that include tteokbokki or chewy rice cakes in a spicy sauce, kimbap or seaweed rolls, pajeon or spring onion pancakes, and various kinds of oden or fishcakes on skewers.
Take Jagalchi subway station and go out at exit 7.
Warm the belly with soup
A trip to the seaside at Haeundae is not complete without a comforting bowl of sogogi gukbap or beef soup with rice. With more than 40 years of legacy under its belt, this 24-hour place run by friendly grannies is popular with celebrities and television shows.
You will spot the large cauldrons bubbling away with the light-tasting beef broth. Each earthenware bowl is filled with a mild spicy beef broth, rice, beef slices and topped with soybean sprouts. Braver ones can order ox blood cubes.
If you prefer, you can also enjoy the beef broth with noodles. The side dishes are self-service and the restaurant also gives you a probiotic drink as a free dessert. Its popularity has even a rival outfitted in modern fittings opening next door and claiming to be the original stall selling the beef broth.
Wonjo Halmae Gukbab 원조할매국밥
27, Gunamro 21beon-gil, Haeundae-gu
Get off the Haeundae subway station and take exit 3. Walk straight and turn left on Gunamro 21-gil.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 21, 2014.