suitcases that smuggle food: the korea edition

I'm drinking red wine and wearing wool socks, sure signs that there is no more denying what season it is. Summer didn't put up much of a fight this year. She surrendered quickly to fall. But I don't mind because this season is the one that I've always been most smitten with. Blame it on the plump figs, soft scarves, and the sound that leaves make when scrunched under a pair of Chelsea boots.

The change in seasons makes my time in Korea feel like so long ago. Truth is that it hasn't even been two weeks, but if you measure in seasons instead of days, then a whole season has ended and another one has begun. I'm stilling absorbing all the chiles I saw and ate. I'm still adjusting to not having kimchi on the table at every meal. I even miss K-pop.  

Before my images of Korea are smudged by the passing of time (read: before I partake in three weeks of Oktoberfest festivities), I want to put these experiences to words, but for now let's talk souvenirs. As you know, edible souvenirs are the best souvenirs and here is a glimpse of what I packed in my suitcase.

 Souvenirs from South Korea

sea salt from Jeungdo Island (more on that to come), soju, dried jujubes (the Korean date, pictured scattered on the table, semi-dried and in a bag, very dried), gosiball (in the white box, flavours included strawberry, kumquat, grape, bean, cactus and black rice), green tea powder, lotus root chips, Asian pear chips, green tea with brown rice, dried anchovies, dried ginseng and spices for ginseng chicken soup, honey made on a rooftop in Gwangju, gochujang, and dried mushrooms


the queen of plums

When I booked my flight to Seoul earlier this summer I realized that I would be missing all of August in Europe. The pulsing metropolis more than made up for it, but when I first wrote the dates into my calendar I couldn't help but feel sad about the food that I would be missing: tomatoes; corn; and most regretfully, plums. Clearly my relationship with cooking has gotten serious beyond return. Before it was so easy for me to book a flight and not think twice about on what day or in what season I would be flying. Booking flights still comes pretty easily to me, but now I can't help but think about what I'll be missing in my small balcony garden and at the farmers' market. I guess this is what they call putting down roots.

Luckily, produce knows seasons better than it knows months. My reunion with my local markets this Saturday made it clear that I didn't miss any of late summer's jewels. They were waiting for me; however, my time to use them is short. I'm up to the challenge - this past week I've been sauteing corn, eating tomatoes like the fruit they are (that is like apples), and roasting plums.

I grew up eating plums with great enthusiasm. Red plums, black plums, and yellow plums. However, it wasn't until I moved to Europe that I discovered that the sweetest plums are green: Reine Claudes plums. They are the medjool dates of plums. They are a convincing argument that fruit is the best candy there is. So sweet and so tender, Reine Claudes are plums at their finest. 

Come plum season, I normally just eat Reine Claudes as they are. Coming from France, they have a larger price tag than the prune plums that firmly reign over Germany. They're also so naturally sweet that they don't need sugar or butter or flour to make them more appealing. This makes them the ultimate sweet snack. Quite frankly, I would have difficulty making a tart or pie with Reine Claudes and that is simply because I doubt that I could resist eating them raw, meaning by the time I've chilled the pie dough there probably won't be enough left for the filling. 

However, roasting them is another topic. You can simply roast as many or as few as you wish, with no pressure to fill a certain quota for a pie or tart. Since roasting concentrates flavours, it brings out the best in pretty much most produce. Reine Claudes are no exception. And although nothing beats these green plums in their raw and untouched form, roasting Reine Claudes is a close match, especially when thyme, maple syrup, olive oil, and sea salt are involved.

This recipe (if you can even call it that) is as simple as they come. You can of course use other plums (which I've done too), but I highly recommend the green plums with the royal name. The plums are irresistible, making them best served right away. However, you can also make a large batch, store them in the fridge, and use them to make anything from oatmeal to granola and from yogurt (as pictured) to ice cream all the happier. Call it breakfast, a snack, or dessert. 

Regarding the cooking time, I like to roast my plums until they are juicy and tender but are not yet collapsing completely. I like it when they keep their shape so that you can easily lift one with a fork, but then when you pierce a plum with said fork the juices ooze effortlessly and yield great temptation. 

Roasted Plums with Thyme and Maple Syrup

serves 2


6 Reine Claudes plums
1/2 tbsp dried thyme (or 1tbsp fresh)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp maple syrup
pinch of sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350F / 176 C / gas mark 4.

Wash the plums, cut them in halves, and remove the pits. Place them cut side up in a baking dish. Drizzle the olive oil and maple syrup on top and evenly sprinkle the thyme and sea salt over the plums. 

Place the dish in the oven and roast for 15-17 minutes, or until the plums are tender, the juices run off and bubble slightly. 

Serve immediately over yogurt (with a few toasted hazelnuts), vanilla ice cream, granola, oatmeal, or just as is. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a couple of days. 



postcards from Seoul II

Both a bad case of jet-lag and myself have made it back to Munich. The sky here fluctuates between a shade of gold, one that only appears once the leaves begin to fall and a very serious grey, one that warns of the season that is to come. Summer is over. And so is my love affair with Seoul and the country that it proudly is the capital of.

Luckily, jet-lag isn't the only thing that has accompanied me back to Munich. My suitcase is full of postcards and zines, green tea and soju, sea salt and gochujang. Yes, I have many stories to share, but for now I'll share postcards. The postcards of plants are from Oval, the messy ones on the top and bottom are from Millimeter Milligram and the llama in the middle is from one of the many cute shops in Hongdae. Seoul is a pretty easy city to want to return to. 

I got to know Seoul in the midsummer heat, when many of its residents wear hot-pants and carry an iced coffee in hand. I was charmed regardless of how sweaty and sticky the city and myself were. I can only imagine how much I'd like it in the fall.


red carpets of chili peppers

Over a month ago I flew from Munich to Seoul and in less than a week I will take a flight back. My weeks in Korea have been both sweet and spicy. The country has been generous yet also confusing. When on the road, I often found myself not sure which bus to take or stop to get off at, but someone was always watching over me, ready to tap me on the shoulder and point where I should go. 

This also means that quite often I use food as a common language. From sharing prawns and soju with strangers on the street of Busan to being gifted a cucumber by a farmer on an island, Koreans are charitable when it comes to food. And I've said many times before, food is the best method that I know for getting to know a culture and a country.

I know that it is an easy alliteration and a tad cliche, but the topic of food instantly connects Korea with kimchi. Can you talk about one without the other?  There is, of course, much more to Korean cuisine that this spicy fermented cabbage that has just as many fans as it does enemies, but since I fall into the former category I'm happy to use kimchi as my gateway to Korean food.

 One thing that has left a deep impression on me has been the kimchi pots that take up space everywhere from backyards to museum displays, from rooftops to fire-escapes, and from gardens in rural temples to alleyways in Seoul. I've made a habit of photographing of them and these photos map kimchi making activities from the country's densely populated capital to rural, aging islands. Numbers begin to illustrate the firm rule that kimchi has on this cuisine (the average person in Korea eats 40 pounds of it a year!), as do references to cultural habits ("smile for the picture and say kimchi"), but I think that the beautiful ceramic pots, in which cabbage ferments into kimchi, that are placed in prime locations across the country are the most beautiful proof of its culinary reign.

Although you do find white kimchi from time to time, almost always there is not kimchi without chili. This wasn't all the case, but when the Japanese invaded Korea in the 16th century, red chili came with them. In its most basic form, kimchi consists of cabbage fermented in the company of garlic, ginger, chili peppers and brine. The variations number in the hundreds and can include everything from fresh oysters to scallions, carrots to radishes, fish sauce to soy sauce. Gwangju even has a festival devoted to kimchi each fall, but I'll be back in Munich long before it starts. 

Chili peppers define the Korean landscape just as much as the kimchi pots do. For a long time, I found the picture of hot peppers growing to be nothing short of exotic. When I was in Mexico last year, I was visiting a good friend who had moved there. Over beer one day, she asked me if I knew what fresh lime juice did to human skin. "No," I answered. "Well, of course you don't," she said. "Neither did I because we both grew up in Canada." She proceeded to tell me a hilarious and dangerous story of her squeezing lime juice all over her hair, with the juices carelessly running over her body, not knowing that lime juice left stains (and ones in interesting shapes in her case). My growing up certainly did lack an education in both the side-effects of lime juice and the anatomy of chili plants.

Maybe it is because I didn't grow up seeing chili peppers still on the plant that this scene now makes my heart beat. This is something that Korea has certainly delivered. As much as I enjoy the view of rolling green hills and vibrant valleys from the windows of buses and trains, I get most excited seeing fields of red. In cities and beyond, there are piles of spicy peppers laid out to dry in the sun and those red carpets of chili peppers make my heart excited. 

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