Sam and I are gangster gastronomes, and here is what it means. We’ve become savage diners. We give no effs. We’ll eat anything, from anyone, found anywhere. There’s not an English menu? Fuhgeddaboudit! No picture menu either? Doesn’t matter! Only locals? Come on, that’s the best! Big hair? Don’t care! Do you know what you’re eating? If it’s delicious, what does it matter? Pigs feet? Chicken lung? Beef stomach? If you don’t know, it doesn’t hurt you. Health Grade of an F? Better than a Z! No one speaks any English? Just smile and point at food. Level of spicy? I have no idea what you said. Order in Chinese? GoogleTranslate?
Part of our journey is a culinary one, and we’ve thrown ourselves into it with once-in-a-lifetime zeal. We’ve been to three big food powerhouses – Japan, Korea, and China. Our prodigious appetites have enabled up to consume the delicious, gross, spicy, and everything on the spectrum. Highlights and breakdowns below and always more to come. Suffice to say, it’s been an adventure.
As culinary connoisseurs, we make sure to try all national and local specialties. It’s vital that we get off of the beaten path and avoid the tourist track to really get the goodness. Not only do you get the best price but also you get the most authentic cuisine.
“Hey guys, how do you find these gems? Generally, we’ll be walking down around and we’ll spot a long queue at a food stall and standing restaurant. The criteria is that little old ladies either work at the stall or wait in line (high fives for both), there’s no white people around, it doesn’t appear on TripAdvisor, there’s no English, and the smells trigger salivation.
There does not seem to be a nascent food scene in China – it’s all about the original. The stuff that’s worked for generations is where it is at. We seek out the moribund old Chinese women cooking centuries old recipes as if it was there last day. They lay out a gruesome panorama of culinary curiosities for us to relish.
“Have you gotten sick?” Obviously. It’s a “play you pay” sort of atmosphere. Just be sure to pack a combination of Pepto, Imodium, tums, and TP. It’s all part of the process, just eat plain rice for a day and bounce back. I’ve been sick quite a bit, and the dreaded D isn’t worth missing out on tasty noshes of the highest. We have no wish to die or convulse on the floor of the bathroom in the throes of dysentery.
Anthony Bourdain put it best – “If I have one chance at a full-blown dinner of blowfish gizzard…and I’m in a strange, Far Eastern city and my plane leaves tomorrow? I’m going for it. You only go around once.”
“What was your most adventurous meal?” We planted ourselves on plastic stools in Seoul and pointed out our orders. We literally had no idea what was coming. We smiled, ate and googled the food when we got home. Here’s what we had:
Tteokbokki. Spicy Rice Cakes. Also known as teokbokki, ddeokbokki, topokki, these are cylinder-shaped chewy rice “cakes” cooked in gochujang – a sweet, spicy red pepper sauce. It is spicy. But this isn’t the weird part.
Sundae. This is no way is what you’re thinking. Instead, it’s Korean blood sausage. Sundaes are made by boiling pig’s intestines that are stuffed with various ingredients – including coagulated pigs blood with glass noodles. Ours was also thankfully served with a side of pig lungs and liver. This was chewier than the tteokbokki.
That’s not the most exciting meal, and I’m certain those inards weren’t the most adventurous meal we’ve had. We’ve taken down so many meat products with zero knowledge of what they are, where they came from, or how long they’ve gone without refrigeration.
“What was your best meal?” Just like picking your favorite child, there’s not a right answer to this one. And unlike picking your favorite child, there’s really not a clear winner. Here are some of our faves:
- Uogashi Nihon’ichi Tachigui – Standing Sushi – Tokyo, Japan – No seats. Stand at the bar. Taste the fresh, affordable sushi and slug an ice cold beer.
- Ichiran Ramen – Tokyo, Japan
- President Chibo – Osaka, Japan – This pig out fest was the best steak that we’ve ever had. Both of us. Melt in your mouth meat. But every morsel we feasted upon was incredible. There are two in Osaka, but go to the O.G. The okonomiyaki and teppanyaki
- Kyochon – Seoul, Korea Korean fried chicken.
- No Name – Beijing, China – Lamb Kebabs, Green beans with Sichuan peppers. There is a pepper/spice used in China that excites the tongue. It’s a little spicy but not overwhelming. It mainly tingles the tongue and the inside of the mouth. It’s a titillating and delicious experience. We crave this taste and feeling now.
- Jingfuju Roast Duck Shop – Peking Duck – Beijing, China
- Hawker Stall – Pork Sandwich – Dunhuang, China
- Hotel Urashima – All-You-Can-Eat Bluefin Tuna – After our hike on Kumano Kodo
- No Name Stall – Bao in Xi’an
- Three Sisters – Xi’an, China – Dumplings
- Korean BBQ – Seoul, Korea
- Gyoza Bar Anzukko – Kyoto, Japan
- Sushi – obviously.
- Izakaya: the Japanese pub.
- Okonomiyaki-ya: happiness on a hotplate. – sometimes called a Japanese ‘pancake’ or ‘pizza’ – is a mix of batter and shredded cabbage, with a choice of other vegetables, seafood and meat, cooked on a hotplate and slathered in a Worcestershire-style sauce and mayonnaise.
- Ramen-ya: universal comfort food. Slurping the hot noodles is key – it’s considered polite to do so. Ramen comes in a pork-, soy- or miso-based soup, with toppings such as sliced roast pork, chopped leek and bean sprouts.
- Yakitori-ya: meat on a stick. informal restaurants specialising in skewers of charcoal-grilled chicken (yakitori), usually basted with a sweet brown sauce or sprinkled with salt – a moreish accompaniment to a cold glass of beer or sake. As well as various white-meat chicken options, yakitori-yaalso serve chicken livers, chicken skins and grilled vegetables.
- Udon and soba: noodle nirvana. serve both udon (thick white wheat noodles) and soba (thin brown buckwheat noodles). The noodles usually come in a light, bonito-based broth with toppings such as spring onion, tofu and tempura. Typically soba and udon are served hot
- Kare-ya: Japan’s curry houses.
- Sukiyaki-ya and shabu-shabu-ya: meat in a pot.
- kara-age(fried chicken)
- Tonkatsu-ya: deep-fried pork These restaurants are dedicated to the art of deep-frying crumbed pork cutlets (tonkatsu),
- Tempura: morsels in crisp batter – Portions of fish, vegetables and prawns are lightly battered and fried at these tempura specialists. The fried items – best eaten hot – come with a light dipping sauce and grated Japanese radish. While it’s possible to order individual dishes at tempura-ya, most diners go with a teishoku(set course), which includes rice, miso soup and pickles, with your choice of number of tempura pieces.
- specially good for experiencing kaiseki – a multicourse event of carefully presented vegetable and seafood dishes using the best seasonal ingredients. Tatami-floored (woven straw matting) rooms, hanging calligraphy scrolls, flower arrangements, and politely aloof kimono-clad waitresses are standard.
- If you hate spice, look away now. Tteokbokkicomes with a bright red or orange sauce called gochujang, made by fermenting soybeans and red chillies into a sauce that is used extensively in Korean dishes, most famously in bibimbap. Well into the night you will find street-stalls and pojangmacha stewing oblong pans of tteok (rice cakes that resemble overblown penne pasta) in the bubbling gochujang. Tteokbokki used to be just for the royal court, but now even partygoers will stop on the street to fill up on it. The chewy rice cakes taste quite neutral themselves and almost demand the spicy and sweet sauce. Dressed up tteokbokkivariations add slices of fish cakes, boiled eggs or ramyeon (ramen or wheat noodles).
- Twigim (Korean-style tempura) Koreans don’t tiptoe around frying their street food. Twigimare various ingredients that taste great fried in a batter (think Japanese tempura but more substantial) – succulent squid, a hash of vegetables, sweet potatoes and even boiled eggs. You will be hard pressed to find twigimoutside of Korea, so fill up – pick up the piece you want with some tongs, and pay for the lot at the end.
- Korean street vendors know that putting anything on a skewer makes street food easier to handle with less waste. It can be as straight up as juicy corn cobs grilled on hot coals. Even envelopes of woodfired sweet potato or slices of sundae(blood sausage) can be eaten with toothpicks or chopsticks.
- Korean Fried Chicken
- Korean BBQ
- Tornado Potato
- Steamed octopus
In Běijīng and other large cities, you may be presented with an English menu. However, in smaller towns and out in bumbleville, don’t expect anything other than a Chinese-language menu without pictures and hovering waiter with no English-language skills. If you like the look of what other diners are eating, just point at.
yángròu pàomó (mutton broth and shredded flat bread).
Look for ròujiāmó (肉夹馍; fried pork or beef in pitta bread, sometimes with green peppers and cumin), ròuchuàn (肉串; ke- babs) and yummy yángròu pàomó (羊肉泡 馍; lamb broth poured over breadcrumbs)
The province’s most famous export is Lánzhōu beef noodles (牛肉拉面; niúròu lāmiàn) – hand-pulled noodles in spicy soup – which are available in small res- taurants and shops all over Gānsù.
jiǎozi (dumplings), head north and northeast. If you like them crispy, get them guōtiē (fried). Shànghǎi’s delicious interpretation is xiǎolóngbāo – steamed and scalding.
In the north, also fill up on a tasty dish of húntún (wontons) stuffed with juicy leeks and minced pork, or Ménggǔ huǒguō (Mongolian hotpot), a hearty brew of mut- ton, onions and cabbage.