Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Sounds of Seongbuk

Of all the things I'll miss about Korea after we leave, I think one of the things I'll miss the most are the sounds of our neighborhood. Almost every morning I've woken up to the sounds of birds -- which I think is rare in about 90% of the rest of Seoul. There are powerful caws from the big, black-billed magpies that like to perch on the railings of our porch. And there is the light chirping of sparrows. There are even some birds that sounds like small owls, with these short, bright hoots... though I'm not sure what those are.

Then there's the Korean flute player. He's somewhere behind our house, I think (and I imagine it's an old man), tucked somewhere between the forest and the cluster of old, plaster and brick buildings, playing these ancient-sounding melodies that wander through our windows every morning like a breeze. I've always wanted to seek him out and meet him, but never have.

Then there are the rhythmic broom strokes of the retirees who come through to sweep up the neighborhood. The endless chatter of schoolchildren in the schoolyard, and the now familiar electronic melody that signals the beginning of every period. There is the junk collector who drives through and blasts the same message on his megaphone every day, imploring people to offer up their used air conditioners, refrigerators, and TV's for him to resell. The sound of utensils clattering in a house nearby.

And in the distance, no matter what time, you can hear the hum of Seoul's roads, which never sleep.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Mike accompanying Andrew on "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

Nissa waiting for the bride and groom after the wedding.

An elevator full of flowers.

We went to our friends Andrew and Yeonhee's wedding yesterday. It was our third wedding in Korea, but it felt really different since we actually helped out with the ceremony. Mike played guitar while the groom sang to his bride and we both helped carry flowers back to the newlywed's hotel room.

The wedding was yet another reminder of the things we'll leave behind in just over a week. While we're moving on to greener pastures, I hope that we'll be able to keep in touch with all the friends we've made in Seoul.

Night music in Hongdae

Rapercussion drum band in Hongdae.

Silent disco party in Hongdae.

Head to Seoul's Hongdae neighborhood on Saturday night and you're bound to see college kids lining up for blocks to get into northern Seoul's most popular -- and pricey -- dance clubs. For people on a budget, though, the entertainment's on the streets. In the alleyways and on the sidewalks bands set up a few chairs and play through the night, turning up their amps to compete over the din.

The most well-established buskers head to the more spacious children's playground across the street from Hongik University. This is where the art fair Free Market is held during the summer and where Mike has frequently played acoustic sets during daylight hours.

We went there on a recent Saturday night when we were trying to kill some time before an indoor concert. Beside the usual cover band and rap groups fighting for attention, we were surprised to see a crowd of people in headphones dancing by themselves. They were participating in a "silent disco party" sponsored by the World DJ Festival. Music was being transmitted to wireless headphones so that only the dancers could hear the DJ performance.

The silent dance party didn't last for long, however. A Brazilian percussion band marched into the park and almost immediately everyone's headphones came off. No matter how gimmicky technology gets, nothing beats live music.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Leaving Home (Again)

In exactly one month, Nissa and I will be moving out of Seoul. I can already feel my mind shifting into a different mode -- worrying about what lies ahead, thinking about everything I'll miss about this country, calculating all the different things we need to take care of before leaving. It's a strange feeling. I still surprise myself when I tell people I've been living here for more than two years. In some ways it really has felt that long. In other ways I wonder where all the days went.

I put together a photo album this week of our time here and it's really amazing to look back and see all the things we've done and the places we've been to -- especially when it's summarized in a breezy 50 some-odd pages. So much has happened since we quit our jobs and moved here that I never, EVER expected or could have anticipated. I hosted a radio show for three months. I met and interviewed Mayor Daley right before he retired. I lived out one of my dreams to do international correspondence and got stories on American radio. I taught English to a bunch of children and adults (and surprisingly, liked it a little). I saw more of Korea than my parents ever did, and then some.

That is not to say all of this was a glee-filled joy-ride. I have complained. A lot. So much that Nissa has painstakingly created a life-size wax figure of herself for me to file grievances with (I have to admit, it listens well). Whether it's about work or editors or feeling stuck in a country where I don't totally belong, there have been plenty of moments when I wished I was anywhere but here. I've gotten extremely homesick at times, missed my family and friends terribly, wanted nothing more than an Arby's Super Roast Beef sandwich -- but as you may know: there are no Arby's in South Korea (which is also the title of my upcoming travelogue). There have been times when, out of frustration and spite, I completely retreated into my own shell, wanting nothing to do with the world around me and rejecting whatever it may have had to offer, good or bad. Not exactly the best mentality to have while living in a new country.

But even in my darkest moments, when everything seemed to be going wrong, I never once regretted going on this journey. There have been times when I wanted to leave, sure, but never once did I wish I hadn't left. There have just been too many great things that have happened to me in the past two years. I am thankful for every one of them.

I think the frustration comes more from the fact that in order to live this way, I've had to make sacrifices. You always hear that phrase in different contexts, "make sacrifices", but it's such a difficult thing to quantify. It's like that old cliche of the boss telling his employees they're all going to have to make sacrifices during a tough financial period. No one ever knows what that really means until there aren't any donuts in the break room on Friday morning (true story). I think when we first left Chicago, I was like a naive employee working in a bad economy. I figured we would occasionally run out of printer paper and maybe the light bulbs wouldn't get changed as quickly as usual. I could handle that. No big deal.

I had no idea how much I would really have to give up in order to move here. My friends are having kids, getting married, and going on adventures of their own; my brother's dating a girl I've never met and becoming a doctor; my parents... well, they got a new laptop (I just wish I had been home to troubleshoot). It kills me to miss all these things. I'm sure it's a lot better than it was during medieval times, when moving halfway around the world basically meant never seeing or hearing from your friends and family again (also, potentially dying of scurvy along the way). Now there are phones, e-mail, Skype -- tons of different ways to stay connected. And that's great. But I do sometimes wish teleportation was possible. It'd be nice to sit down and have a beer with an old friend every now and again. (That reminds me. Dear Stephen Hawking...)

Of course, the same will be true when we leave Seoul. There are people and things I know I'll miss. I've grown especially close to my cousins over the last two years, to the point where it's weird to think about how poorly I knew them before moving here. There are a handful of good friends that I feel completely at home with, despite how briefly I've known them. My taste buds have grown accustomed to certain flavor biases -- namely spicy and salty. I can't imagine life without the subway. But just like before, I probably have no idea of how I'll really feel until I've left.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: traveling can be amazing. It does everything people say it does. It changes the way you look at the world and how you look at yourself. It broadens your perspective and tests your limits. It introduces you to a world that you never knew before, filled with possibilities and unexpected gifts.

At its best, it shows you what you're really made of and, sometimes, what you aren't.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunset over Mt Bugak

The view from our porch tonight.

Bibimbap take 2

Yesterday I made bibimbap again and tried to apply some of the lessons I learned from the first time around. I'm not sure if the taste was any different from my first attempt, but it sure was more photogenic.

Tomorrow marks the start of our 1 month countdown to leaving Korea. While I'm excited to begin the next chapter of our life, it's also strange to leave a city to which I've grown so accustomed. The last two years have pushed us in ways we couldn't have imagined -- from the challenges of learning a new language from scratch to trying to navigate a workplace culture that favored age and gender (a win for old men) over the quality of one's work.

It certainly hasn't been easy, but it's helped that we've been able to lean on Mike's family in Seoul whenever the goings get tough. We've carved out a niche for ourselves here in Seongbukdong and have even learned to relish the few benefits of being a foreigner here. I take free Korean language classes four days a week at the local Seoul Global Village Center and we've been able to take French pastry classes for a pittance. Being the only foreign couple on our hill has also meant that our local shopkeepers know us well. We always get a hello from the owner of the Korean-style roast chicken restaurant when we walk by, and the ladies in the produce section of our small grocery store greet me with a smile.

To think, all of this nostalgia came from one bowl of bibimbap! But there will be plenty of time to reminisce (or reminissa, if you will) later. Now, we have one month left in Korea and we plan to fill every minute of it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Birthday wishes

Even in Korea, dentists never forget my birthday.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sokcho trip

This past weekend we took a trip out east to Sokcho, a seaside city close to the DMZ. We visited the city once before in the winter and loved the small town atmosphere and fresh seafood and vegetables served there.

On our first day we visited Seoraksan mountain, the third highest mountain in Korea. We were feeling kind of tired, so we decided to take the cable car up to Gwangeumseong peak. It was foggy, but when the breeze cleared the sky, we were able to see all the way out to the sea. When we visited the mountain in the winter, the park was nearly empty and very peaceful. This time it was pretty crowded and the park was filled with tourists more interested in checking their cell phones than looking at the scenery. We even saw some people doing video chat on the mountain peak ... pretty weird, but that's 2011 Korea for you, I guess.

On the second day we hung out at the beach and went swimming in the ocean. The waves were much stronger than in Busan, but the water was the perfect temperature. It was so nice to get away from polluted Seoul for a few days and take in the seaside air.

We ate a lot of great food on the trip including North Korean-style naengmyun (or cold noodles in broth), ojingosundae (squid sausage), grilled fish (including melt in your mouth, freshly caught Chilean sea bass), wild greens bibimbap (vegetables and rice), and Sokcho-style sundubu (soft tofu stew). We also tried a corn-based liquor that was like makgeolli. It was incredible how fresh all the food tasted ... and how reasonably priced it was. Sokcho is only a 3-hour drive from Seoul, but somehow the produce and meat in Seoul is twice as expensive and less flavorful.

A few funny notes from the weekend. On our second day in Sokcho, we randomly chose a grilled fish place to eat at for dinner. It turned out that some acquaintances from Seoul were eating there too, though they were almost finished with their dinner. The incident reminded us of just how small this country is. It seems that we're constantly running into other expats that we've met during our two years here, even when we're not in Seoul.

Secondly, there were some funny stores in the downtown area of Sokcho. The first is "Bar Dumb," which is pretty self explanatory. The second was "Parma" -- a hair salon that copied the Puma logo. Parma means "perm" in Korean, so we thought that was a pretty clever rip-off.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011

French pastry class II

Chocolate mousse with almond slices.

Yesterday Mike and I took our second French pastry class, this time making chocolate mousse and creme broulee. Mike had a lot of fun with the blow torch on the creme broulee; I think he would buy one just for fun if weren't moving. While I always thought those pastry blowtorches were expensive, it turns out you can get one for less than $10 here -- though most people use it to unfreeze their pipes in winter and not to make french pastries.

The chocolate mousse was super rich and good, better than what they serve at D & J Bistro's I think. It's amazing that all three recipes we've made so far are basically made form the same three ingredients: eggs, sugar, and vanilla. No wonder they're so good!

Creme broulee, freshly fired.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

French pastry class

The meringue "islands" of ile flottante.

On Friday, Mike and I took a French pastry class at the Seoul Global Center in our neighborhood. For just 5,000 won ($4.60), we learned how to make the meringue and creme anglaise dessert ile flottante, or floating island.

French food is impossible to come by in Korea and even the most expensive "French bakeries" have more things in common with Dominick's than Paris. So it was nice to have some handmade and very good pastries for once. Next week, we'll take another French pastry class, so expect more photos then!

Freshly made creme anglaise: milk, sugar, egg yolks and fresh vanilla, straight from the bean pods.

The finished product, with freshly made caramel on top.

Wrapping up the pastries to take home.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer in Busan

Last weekend we took a trip down to Busan, on the southern tip of the peninsula. It was our third trip there since living in South Korea and our first time staying at a hotel off of the main tourist strip in Haeundae. Since it's peak season and we were planning the trip with only a week lead time, we weren't able to find a reasonably priced hotel near the country's most popular beach. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Our hotel was on the much chiller Gwangalli Beach overlooking Gwangan Bridge.

We spent most of Saturday laying on the beach and swimming, and then had the freshest crab we'd ever tasted for dinner. The next day was a scorcher and while we originally planned on doing some sightseeing, we ended up hanging out at Haeundae Beach until our train left. I have never seen a beach that crowded! Unfortunately, the large number of people attracted quite a few thieves. The girls sitting next to us had their bag stolen while they were in the water. Although petty theft is super rare in Korea -- most people leave their laptops and purses at their tables while they go to the restroom in restaurants, for example -- Mike and I are cautious Chicagoans. We took turns swimming and watching our bags, and came home with all of our belongings.

Since we're leaving Korea in less than three months, this was largely a farewell trip to Busan. The city has always held a special place in our hearts ... maybe because with its smaller population and waterside location it reminds us a lot of Chicago. I'm not sure when we'll come back to Korea again after this year, but we've already decided to make Busan a destination when we do.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gwangalli Beach

Spending the afternoon at Gwangalli Beach in Busan right now. The weather is great and the water nice and cool. I dug a pretty deep hole that a bunch of little kids have inspected with curiosity and amazement - also that a guy with a handful of inner tubes accidentally fell in. Woops.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bingsu Heaven

It being summer, we went to get ourselves a popular Korean treat called "bingsu". It's traditionally a mix of fruits and ice cream served on a bed of shaved ice with a topping of sweet, red bean sauce, but these days Koreans have gotten more creative with it. We went to a place Nissa had been wanting to come to for a while called Cafe Add Bing and ordered the Oreo bingsu, which was basically an Oreo milkshake on a bed of shaved ice. It was an indulgent delight. The ice actually served as a nice diluting agent for the richness of the cookies and cream.

Oh, and the waitress actually brought us 4 spoons at first - maybe that was a hint? Whatever. We Americans could handle it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Three's a crowd

A group of boys take shelter from the rain in our neighborhood. Captured by Mike using his HTC Desire cell phone.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Giant bowl of homemade japchae.

My latest attempt at Korean cooking was japchae, or stir-fried cellophane noodles with vegetables. The recipe I chose did not indicate how many servings of the dish it would make, but I assumed that like the other recipes on this website it would make four or five. I was wrong.

We now have enough japchae for at least 10 people! I'm hoping we can get rid of some when we see Mike's cousins this weekend, otherwise we'll be eating japchae at every meal next week.

In case you're wondering, the japchae I made includes cellophane noodles, carrots, spinach, ground beef, onion, green onion, garlic and button mushrooms. And like bibimbap, each ingredient is cooked and seasoned individually before going in the serving bowl. Simplicity is a rare thing in Korean cooking.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


A bowl of homemade bibimbap.

This week I made bibimbap for the first time. I never realized how much work went into the ubiquitous dish! The version I cooked involved rice, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, fern brake, bean sprouts, beef and eggs ... not to mention various oils and seasonings. Each ingredient is cooked individually and using varying methods, quite a task in our tiny, two-burner kitchen. I used every bowl and piece of tupperware in the house just to keep the ingredients separate before serving them at dinner.

Mike was happy to report that the fruit of my efforts was "just like Mom makes," so I imagine we'll be eating bibimbap at home a lot more in the future.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

TYWMIK Revisited

Lotte Sand: Looks like an Oreo, but tastes better

When we moved to Seoul two years ago, one of our biggest challenges was finding the products and types of food that we enjoyed back home. We quickly found that The Body Shop, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and peanut butter were "Things You Won't Miss in Korea." But it took us several months to track down things like taco seasoning, tortillas, and M&Ms.

As time passed, so did our cravings for items that you just couldn't find in Korea, like fig newton cookies. Our taste buds evolved so much that I now prefer patbingsu (shaved ice with fruit and red beans on top) over ice cream in the summer. And stranger still, some of the items that we considered knock-offs of American food now taste better to us than the authentic import.

Take Oreos, for one. The Korean cookie aisle is almost unrecognizable to an American, filled with jam-filled snacks and Market O 'premium' brownies. Any decent sized grocery store here, however, will stock Oreos in their foreign food section. But we now know not to fall for the alluring blue packaging of "America's Favorite Cookie." The Korean interpretation of the sandwich cookie, Lotte Sand, is less sugary and a lot more yummy. Plus it comes in mini packs, so you won't ever make the mistake of eating the whole box in one go.

Mountain strawberries: Look like raspberries, but taste like blueberries

The box: Bought on sale for 9,800 won ($9), usually closer to 20,000 won

Then there's fruit. The only people who eat cherries, raspberries, and blueberries in Korea are the mega wealthy. They sell a pint of cherries at our local grocery store for the equivalent of $45. Raspberries are sold in larger quantities, but prices still start at $15. The only blueberries I've seen in grocery stores here are the frozen kind.

So the other day when the store had a fruit sale, Mike jumped at the chance of getting us some berries. What was sold as "mountain strawberries" and looked like raspberries ended up tasting like blueberries. And they were wonderful ... perfectly ripe and tasty.

Multigrain Hoops: Look like Cherrios, taste like Cherrios

Of course, there's always the knockoff food that tastes exactly like its American cousin. While "Multigrain Hoops" may not roll off the tongue quite like Cherrios, the taste is identical. And the Tesco brand has two adorable leopards to boot.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My first race

On Saturday, I ran the Nike Women's Race Seoul 7K with one of my friends here. It was a tough race complete with hills and balmy weather, but I had a great time running it. I am a newbie when it comes to running, only having trained seriously for the last few months, so it was really satisfying to see all my hard work pay off. I made my target time and came in 681st out of 6,000 -- not too shabby for my first race.

Say what you will about Nike, they know how to throw a party. The race kicked off at 6:30 pm with fireworks and a pep talk from a popular TV show host. During the race, DJs blasted music at the water stations and a group of young male cheerleaders high-fived the runners and shouted "Fighting!" (the Korean version of "You can do it!") when the course started going uphill.

As I ran through the finish line, I met my own cheerleader, Mike, who had bag-holding and photo-taking duty during the race. I caught my breath and then headed toward the reception line where men in white tracksuits and bow ties clapped demurely while the ladies picked up their complementary necklace designed by none other than the queen of Korean female athletes, Kim Yu-na.

But the race was just the beginning of the evening's events. Most of the 6,000 women who participated in the race stuck around for the After Party featuring unlimited glasses of (cheap) white wine and performances by some of Korea's biggest musicians. I was excited to see Drunken Tiger and Kim Tae-woo since I actually knew some of their songs, but I have to say the best performance by far came from the pop orchestra that kicked off the show. Only in Korea will you see thousands of people sing at the top of their lungs and dance along to an orchestra.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jeju Island vacation

This past weekend we took a mini vacation to Jeju Island, commonly known as Korea's Hawaii. Located at the southern tip of the peninsula, the island was created from volcanic eruptions two million years ago. Today, the island is home to South Korea's tallest mountain, Hallasan, and dozens of waterfalls and beaches.

We crammed a lot into our three-day trip, including a 20-km (12.4-mile) hike up to Hallasan's summit. To get a full sense of the impressive nature hidden in an area one-tenth the size of Seoul, expand the photo slide show to full screen and click on "Show info" in the upper right hand corner.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lotus Lantern Festival: Year 2

In 1975, economist Milton Friedman wrote, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." And last night, we learned that there's also no such thing as a free lantern.

After I missed most of the Lotus Lantern Parade celebrating Buddha's birthday last year due to work, I was excited to go again this year and see it from the beginning. Since it was nice out, we walked the 2.5-mile journey from our apartment to Jogyesa Temple in central Seoul, the home base of the evening's festivities. We arrived two hours before sundown and volunteers were handing out paper lanterns with candles. Not ones to pass up free gifts, we naturally got in line to get the lanterns.

As soon as we left the temple we saw dozens of people lining up along the road with their lanterns, and we realized our mistake. The lanterns were meant for people who were going to participate in the parade. So we were faced with a dilemma: Return the lanterns or join the parade.

We decided to join the parade and marched with the rest of the Jogyesa Temple brigade to Dongdaemun, where the parade began. Our group wasn't scheduled to go on until near the end of the parade, so we got to sit back and take in the floats before becoming a part of the festivities.

It was surreal to march down Jongno Road -- one of the oldest east-west thoroughfares in Seoul -- surrounded by thousands of lit up lanterns. Some mistakes you regret, others turn out to be the most memorable nights of your life.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Temple Stay

Learning the meaning of the three Buddhas in the main ceremonial hall.

In March, we went to Geumsunsa temple in Bukhansan National Park for a weekend-long Buddhist Temple Stay program. An article I wrote about the experience was published in this month's KOREA magazine. Considering how many temples we've visited since moving to Asia, it was nice to learn more about the religion and its practices.

Learning how to meditate.

Relaxing after doing 108 bows.

A Royal Spring

Some springtime shots of Changgyeonggung Palace, a half hour walk from our house.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The "Changing Room"

E-mart on a Sunday afternoon.
At first glance, this looks like the corner of just about any department store: racks of clothes, posters with hunky/sultry-looking models, a checkout counter, large nylon sheet hung up with a couple metal hooks -- wait a minute. Large nylon sheet hung up with a couple metal hooks?

Oh, Nissa's just trying on a bra in the store. For a second there I thought something weird was going on.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Seoul from 66 years ago

"Time" magazine's 1945 map of Seoul and Korea.

I was looking at some old photographs of Seoul the other day and came across Time magazine's 1945 snapshot of post-war Korea. It's an interesting slice of history as told by the foreign correspondents based in Seoul.

The various landmarks on the map of Seoul, above, caught my eye, in particular. I had never heard of the "White Buddha" featured in the northwest section of the map, so I did a little research and found out that it dates from the 13th or 14th century. It's funny how the Bodogak Hall White Buddha was considered -- at least by Time magazine -- to be one of the most important historical landmarks in 1945, but today doesn't even show up in tourist guides to the city.

"Not Slave, Not Free," Oct. 8, 1945

"City of the Bell," Oct. 8, 1945

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Korea's favorite sport

The stadium at Jamsil in Seoul.

On Friday, we went to Doosan Bears vs. Kia Tigers game in south-eastern Seoul's Jamsil stadium. As I reported early in our trip to Korea, baseball is Korea's most popular sport and the fans really put Americans to shame. Like at some US ball games, each batter had his own theme song. But I blushed when more than half of the 27,000 fans attending Friday night's game started singing "Sufin' USA" in unison for Kim Seung-hee (see video at end).

Batter up! Kia Tigers

The game, as see by Mike.

The crazy fans.

Baseball meta: A fan watches the game on her cell phone TV and in real life at the same time.

Rocking the nosebleeds.

South of the river

Ginger coffee latte and organic strawberry cupcakes at Mug for Rabbit Cafe in Apgujeong.

Bicycle on Garosugil, Seoul's fashion center.

A quiet moment at Asia Park, a remnant of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Yeouido: The 'useless' island

The walk toward the 63 building.

Yeouido Island is known in Korea as many things -- the home of the National Assembly and the largest Protestant congregation in the world; the headquarters of LG, the Korea Exchange, and broadcasters MBC and KBS; and the location of Seoul's first airport in the 1920s. Still, this important business and political center in the middle of the Han River is called "Yeouido" or "Useless Island" in Korean. The name comes from the centuries the island was left to the whim of the Han River's floods. When the water was low, the island was a pasture for sheeps and goats. When the water was high, only a tiny bit of the island remained visible.

One giant river engineering project and six-lane bridge later, the river is one of the newest developments in Seoul. This week I had the chance to explore some of those developments while waiting to meet some friends for dinner on the island. Following are some photos from the trip.

Yoido Full Gospel church is the largest Protestant Christian congregation in Korea, and some say the world.

Yeouido Park in the center of the island used to be an airport.

A traditional Korean forest in Yeouido Park.

The crosswalk to the Han River.

The 63 building was the tallest building outside of North America when it was built in 1985, but today is more famous for the aquarium in its basement.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Old Standby With A Modern Twist

One of the staples of Korean food is the rice cake, known generally as tteok. It is commonly found in many dishes, usually in the form of small beads or oval-shaped slices dunked in soups, playing the role of a filling starch (like noodles). But tteok can stand on its own as well, as a dessert or snack. Songpyeon, for example, is a small, bite-sized rice cake filled with sweet sesame or bean paste that is traditionally made and eaten in large quantities during the Chuseok holiday in the fall. There are plenty more varieties that I don't know the names of but could identify pretty easily by sight: the rectangular, rainbow-colored kind that is just sweet enough to satisfy a midday sugar craving; the round kind that are filled with super sweet red bean paste; the extra soft kind that are coated in a nutty, beige powder. A visit to any tteok shop in Seoul is always a visual treat because of how colorful the different kinds of cakes can be.

Variety of tteok.

There's one tteok shop in our neighborhood that we've come to love over the last six months, and I'm pretty sure I haven't bought tteok from another store since discovering this one. That's partially because I've eaten a good amount of mediocre tteok since moving here. But this store also never fails to impress.

Usually, they stick to the classics (like the ones I mentioned). No fancy pants surprises, just straight up good tteok. But today Nissa and I noticed a kind we'd never seen before. Right away, she thought it looked like tiramisu -- and she wasn't far off. The shopkeeper told us it was coffee-flavored, which I had never seen or heard of before. There are a number of cases, mainly involving cheese, where Koreans have infused a new ingredient in a traditional dish and made it incredibly better -- melted cheese on bibimbap, for example (there's also cheese-filled tteok... proving, once again, cheese makes anything better). I was hesitant but Nissa really wanted to try it, so we got a pack. And boy was it worth it. Soft, creamy, and with just a hint of sweetness, this stuff is the genuine article. I don't know if this store was the first to try this, but I won't be surprised if I see it again someplace else. Coffee-flavored tteok is seriously good.