5 Ways to Keep Healthy in Korea

It’s a fine balance, living abroad.

You moved away for an experience. You want to envelop yourself in everything foreign, immerse yourself in the new, the strange, the otherworldly. You want to feel it all, try everything once.

But that gets a little old after awhile. When you realize this isn’t a month-long backpacker’s jaunt—when you haven’t seen a vegetable in a week, when chicken-in-a-cup and ramen noodles become your daily staples—sure enough “living abroad” really means just that, you are living your life (in my case for a year) and suddenly the whole idea of balance becomes much more apparent.

Not eating every last meal out at some traditional Korean restaurant won’t mean missing out on the overseas experience. I prepare my own breakfasts and most lunches, but am more relaxed about dinners and the weekends, a fine balance indeed. We are here to save money, yes, but eating out rarely costs more than $5 CAD and the cost of groceries here is comparable to that of at home (except at the markets, but more on that later). These days, I feel much more like mysel… but that could just be cutting back on the soju, too.

Anyways, here’s how I’ve been keeping healthy while still working my way through the edible culture:

1. The Obvious: Kimchi

The infamous Korean side dish, the ubiquitous vegetable that I’m grateful to have served at each and every meal. Fermented spicy cabbage (or, occasionally, radish) keeps those good bacteria going, helps you digest the rest of your meal, and *knock on wood* has kept me from getting sick all year (except for the time I drank the tap water, but that’s a pin-pointable aside..). Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it doesn’t matter the deal. Just always eat your kimchi with every meal!

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2. Kale.

It is the blog’s namesake, after all. I couldn’t track down my cruciferous veggie of choice for the first month or two here, but now I feel silly—how could I not spot this friendly green giant in the organics section at HomePlus?! It is quite imposing. It’s a little more swiss-chard like here, sadly no curly or black varieties to be found, but alas, kale is here and I will find ways to sneak it into every juice, packed lunch, and snack. Hurrah for Korean kale!

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3. Bibimbap

Bibimbap is essentially a colourful chopped salad served atop a bed of rice with red pepper paste (gojuchang), so no complaints here. Well, a little more preferential treatment for brown rice would be ideal, but fermented greens and other veg goodies soften that blow.

Our favorite dosirak (boxed lunch, similar to Japanese bento) spot, Hansot serves up a good ol’ bibimbap (I usually get mine with tuna) for under $3 CAD, and I swap in brown rice for an extra buck. Ready in five minutes no less, picture below. See why I’ve been avoiding my tiny, ice-cold kitchen? 
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If you feel like gettin’ wild, you can also order dolsot bibimbap—it comes served in a traditional stone pot, piping, no, scalding hot, with a generous splash of oil at the bottom so the rice crisps up and makes the whole thing sizzle. We frequent the “Healthy Food Place” (the logo as picture on the bowl below, they’re pretty easy to find in Korea) for the best ever roasted or raw vegetable bibimbap and dolsot bibimbap. Plus they come with seaweed soup, more dried seaweed to make your own mini-kimbap rolls as you eat, and plum tea (yum!) for dessert. Kimchi too, but that’s a given. Yum!

bibimbap4. Shabu Shabu!

Whenever I say Shabu Shabu (which is probably more frequently than I like to admit), I always yelp it in a high-pitched, triumphant voice—one of our kindergartens went for dinner the night before coming to school and evidently enjoyed his meal—all day we heard his cries of “sha-boo SHA-BOOOO!” And this place lives us to the hype. Five-year-olds, they sure have educated palates these days..

Shabu shabu is Chinese hot-pot (although our favorite spot seems more Vietnamese-influenced) where you order up a plate of lean meat or seafood and throw it into a boiling vat of broth at your table, alongside your choice of greens, herbs, and sprouts. While the meat cooks, you assemble your own rice paper wraps with loads of fresh, colourful vegetables (cabbage, sprouts, leafy greens, even kale!), add meat as desired, and of course, the best part, dip in a choice of three incredibly tangy, spicy, and fresh sauces. Your own customizable salad rolls, fresh as they come. And that’s not all! After you finish the meat, you’re served buckwheat noodles and green onions to cook in the remainder of the broth. And once you’ve finished that round (can you believe this resourcefulness!), a bowl of rice, kabocha squash, and other veggies to simmer down into a risotto. Heaven, really. It’s a little more expensive than most restaurants around here, but at about $11 CAD it’s reasonable for a three-course meal.
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Another favourite, not pictured here, is cold soba or buckwheat noodles topped with loads of veggies and spicy sesame sauce. We usually find this at Japanese restaurants (like this one). Korean bbq isn’t too bad either, as you can wrap your meat in loads of sesame or lettuce leaves, and often one of the sides (I think it’s usually paired with duck) is a crazy-good sesame chive kimchi. Aeri’s kitchen has a recipe and some photos!

5. When all else fails, there’s always iHerb.

Hey, remember that time I moved to Korea and said I wouldn’t order anything from iHerb? You know, I wanted to live authentically and fully immerse myself in the experience?! Ha. Ha… ha.

Well I can fully say I’ve getting the experience in Korean, hell you don’t have a choice here sometimes. There’ll always be the goods and bads of living abroad, but one of those firm and true goods is getting a package in the mail once or twice a month from your friendly, inexpensive friends, iHerb. And thank god for that. (p.s., if you are a first-timer to iHerb, use my code QRS549 at the checkout—you’ll save $5 to $10!)

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So there you have it, my surefire tips to staying alive while living in Korea. In addition to these things, I take a Greens supplement, I juice a few times a week, and I go to the local gym (even when it’s colder inside that outside) and hot yoga studio (so lucky there’s one in my town) 5 or 6 days a week. And I must say, I feel a world of difference since when I first got here. But perhaps I’m missing something? Or you’ve another suggestion from living out of your element? I’d love any suggestions… we’re always open to trying new things. That’s why we’re living abroad, after all :)

Rice Milk: Riches from (Dish) Rags

It’s been a banner Lunar New Year so far.

Luke got food poisoning. I got head lice. (Who gets head lice?!) We had a nice run-in with some soju swaggin’ Koreans and some near-nasty repercussions. Our school closed down. Our school closed down! I guess it is, as they say, the Year of the Snake. We’ll be taking a pay cut for the next little while, but things could always be worse.

We still have jobs for the duration of our original contract here in Korea. We can keep our little, cozy apartment. Nobody got arrested or deported. I don’t have any little pests crawling through my hair, and Luke’s internal organs are in the clear. Also, I learned how to make rice milk.

Taking a temporary pay cut wasn’t in our original plans, but it looks now it’s part of the challenge to keep saving for our upcoming trip. We’ve been looking for ways to cut back, and one of the easiest ways to do so is to make do with what you have (right, dad?).

For example, we have rice. And lots of it.

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I do love my hyun-me bap and it’s sure a nutritionally sound alternative to the usual choice grain here, it’s bleached-out brother (see: my earlier post on its bountiful benefits), but man—nor woman—can live on rice alone. Faced with a barrel of the brown stuff, I decided to transform my grains into something a little more practical: rice milk.

Almonds aren’t cheap on this continent and I generally try and steer clear of soy, so my non-dairy milk options here are pretty limited. Thankfully, rice is everywhere, cheap, and organic is pretty easy to find. Perhaps if you head up to your local Koreatown or Chinatown you’ll find the same? If you’re on a tight budget of your own, maybe this trick will benefit you like it has me and my belly :)

Here’s the how-to:

1. Soak 2 cups of rice overnight and rinse well.

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2. In your food processor or blender, blend the rice with 4 cups of filtered water (If you want more or less, just stick with a 1:2 ratio and you’ll be fine).
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3. Use a nut milk bag, cheesecloth, or, in a pinch, a clean dishcloth or fine mesh strainer to separate the pulp from the liquid. (See my tutorial on almond milk for technique and photos.)

4. (OptionalRinse out your blender or food processor, pour the liquid back in and blend any combination of: 1 tsp. vanilla extract, a pinch of sea salt, a pitted date or some agave, or even cacao powder to make chocolate rice milk.
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5. (Also optional, but highly recommended!) Save your rice “grits” to make porridge–cover one cup of the rice pulp with water in a pot, stir in your favorite oatmeal ingredients (I like cinnamon, vanilla, and chopped medjool dates), bring to a boil and simmer, covered, till the water is absorbed. Add in a splash of your fresh rice milk and bask in your incredible utilitarianism.
IMG_3801I’ve been freezing batches of my rice grits in single-serving portions to cook up for quick breakfasts—one benefit of only having a hot plate to cook on is that I can get my grits boiling in under a minute… a benefit, so long as I can avoid burning said grits immediately after ;) Maybe you’ve better luck than I? Feel free to share your experiences below!

Until then, enjoy and annyeong ka-sey-oh!

Seoul Food

Before we boarded our train due north, I feared I’d put too much stock in our weekend away to Seoul. We’d waited nearly three months of living abroad to make the trek up to the capital—now, two paycheques later, the trip was finally plausible, and I couldn’t wait to check out the big city lights, and of course,  the big city bites.

Seoul is a serious city—it hosts the world’s second-most-populous metropolitan area, a population density twice that of NYC, and one of the top transit systems in the world, known for its ease of use (every station is marked in English and Korean) cleanliness (we sat on the floors, and eating off of them wouldn’t be out of the question), and price (about a buck a standard ride, though seniors and the disabled always ride free). And the shopping. Oh the shopping…. **pretends not to think about bank account**

After a casual 271 km/h, 2-hour jaunt on the train, we grabbed a cab to our hostel (Kimchi Hostel, natch), in Hongdae District—the University area which I’d liken to a Kensington-Queen-West mash-up for you folks back in Toronto. We checked in around 11:30 p.m. on Friday night… and then it was time to go shopping. By the time we arrived at Dongdaemun Market, it was actually Black Friday in the States, fitting for the endeavour upon which we were about to embark!

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This photo was shot at around 2:30 a.m. early Saturday morning—right amid market hours!  We were the wusses who left by 3 a.m., early by Korean standards, as Dongdaemun Market opens at 5 p.m. at night and remains frenzied until 10 a.m. or noon the next day, only closing for about 5 hours so vendors can take a nap before the next evening. Block after block is lined with a muddling of tents, food stalls, department stores, and bulk vendors hocking wholesale goods. And the people! Population density becomes evident at Dongdaemun, even in the early hours, as shopkeepers come and stock up on wholesale to sell back at their stores. For shopping fuel, I snacked on some mandu (korean dumplings) and a variety fish-meat-and-tteoboki-stick that was somewhat questionable and somewhat tasty. Ah, 3 a.m. street food, you are risky business.

In the morning, too excited and hopped up on city-energy to sleep, I strolled up to a nearby bakery and brought back an assortment of goodies and caffeine to fuel our day ahead. Not the most attractive presentation, but I’ve been continually impressed by the variety of baked goods we’ve come across in Korea..

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After some, er, more shopping we took the Metro up to Itaewon, the Foreigner’s District—the U.S. army base is around here so there were a lot of familiar accents around! It was so strange to be surrounded by English (or at least the mish-mash of languages we’ve become accustomed to in Toronto). We found a buffet (ah! a buffet!) that served Indian food called “International Food Restaurant,” chose to ignore the cheesy name, and went in. Here, some papadum, hummus (hooray!!!), tikka chicken, chicken curry, some daal, and a veggie pakora. Unfortunately the veggie dishes—the veggie pakora and the veggie curry—were pretty disappointing, the pakora tasting incredibly dry and somewhat stale, the curry with a strange artificial flavour. That said, the daal, chicken curry, and tikka chicken were excellent! Still not craving Western food, but Indian definitely was a nice change-up from Gochujang.

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Then, on Mipa‘s recommendation, we ventured in both National Foods Mart and High Street Market. We actually hadn’t sought either out on this trip as we didn’t want to stroll Seoul with bags of groceries, but we did happen to serendipitously cross both—meant to be, no?

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It was pretty comforting to see things I recognized on the shelves, with names in English (and Turkish, and Chinese, and pretty much any other language you can imagine—Seoul truly is an international city!). Thankfully, I’ll be heading home for the Christmas break in just a few weeks so I gussied up all of my willpower and limited myself to the necessities.

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At High Street Market, I was delighted to see this sign–a sign of the blogosphere in real life! I’ve been reading Mipa’s blog since before I came to Korea and couldn’t wait to try some of her vegan treats. Woohoo! There was a fine selection available, but knowing again that I’d have to carry whatever I bought around (a trip back to our hostel to drop things off would be a 2-hour round-trip journey), I picked what was really calling my name. Pumpkin chocolate chip banana bread. Oooooh yes.

 

Soft, moist, and with the density of a cupcake—oh yes, it was worth waiting for. Mipa, I will definitely be ordering some of your goodies when I come back from Christmas! If you live in South Korea, do check out Alien’s Day Out Bakeshop and order some for yourself!

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And the rest of my mini-haul from the foreign markets—Chimes Ginger Chews, a big ol’ bag of dates (hooooray!), and some blanched-almond almond butter. I’ve been making my own here, but the Korean food processor that was left in my apartment isn’t quite strong enough to do the job. Hopefully these goodies will last me ’till Christmas!

Late Saturday night, we savored each drop of beer from Riley’s, the Canadian-owned craft brew pub in Itaewon, a more-than-welcome respite from the unfavorable selection of Hite (shite) and Cass (tastes like ass) brews otherwise favored in Korea. We also had a few brews at the Rocky Mountain Tavern, a Canadian foreigner bar. Though the Moosehead tasted pretty funky, it was pretty incredible to be watching an OUA football game, talking to people with familiar accents, and be surrounded by Canadians in Korea.

Of course, a few beers calls for a few snacks. The mandu I ordered from this street food stall were the best I’ve had yet—deep-fried, perfectly salted, and with a savory soy-and-scallion sauce for dippin’, finger-lickin’ goodness. If only I could find a way to cram some nutrition into Korean street food…

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Food, shopping, and the perfect mix of plans and aimless wandering… Seoul was absolutely incredible, incredibly overwhelming, and way over my expectations— and I can’t wait to return. I’m sold on Seoul.