Seoul Food To Go

People travel for different reasons. To escape, for love, for art and beauty, for Instagrammable moments. Before the retail explosion in the Philippines, before global brands found their way in our favorite malls, we would travel abroad to shop. We’d plan our itineraries around shopping districts in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, the States. But these days, we don’t shop as much as we used to, right? Uniqlo is cheaper in Manila. We prefer to purchase luxury brands on zero-interest here. Except perhaps when we fly to Jersey for the outlets.

In the last few years, my travel plans are just outlines of the convenient ways from one great food destination to the next. I travel to eat, essentially. There’s no better way to explore a culture than to eat what the locals eat.

The first thing I check out is the street food. It’s always a delight to see it in abundance, in a variety of colors, prepared in the strangest ways. Seoul’s is my new fave in Asia, more than Bangkok, because the former is more playful and diverse.

These are my thoughts on Korean cuisine – all conjectures, sans any empirical support.

Their harsh winter influences the type of food they serve. Lots of pickled dishes that keep through the cold. The scraps of spicy stuff they use to flavor other preps. Lean beef, poultry and pork are staples. The iron they provide warms the body, and provides the energy a Korean body needs from all the walking through the hilly peninsula.

They’re used to gathering around the dining table, grilling and stewing together. Hence, the food, including the single servings and the food sold in the streets, is meant to feed more than one.   They barbecue a lot for added heating.

The Korean aesthetic is cute and whimsical. You see in how they design their shops and their fashion. The fried and skewered food on display can be as fancy.

Nothing seems to be done slowly. The Koreans are an efficient lot, always in a hurry. If they linger, they’d freeze, said one local. It’s an ideal place for the impatient foodie – food is served fast everywhere.

Wherever you’ll stay in Seoul, you’ll find great-tasting, easy-to-eat treats on the streets. The best ones are found in these areas: Namdaemun, Gwangjang, Dongdaemun and Insadong. Myeongdong, the key shopping district in Seoul, is also teeming with food carts, but it’s just too crowded.

My top picks: red bean dumplings, grilled steak with beansprouts and parsley, fish cakes, corn dogs, ice cream fancily swirled, chocolate covered strawberries, chestnuts, egg tarts, sweet corn.

Go plan your trip to Seoul, if only for these. Stay on the streets of Seoul all day, and be happy.

Seoul Culinary Picks

Seoul is an underrated culinary destination.  But those who’ve been there would attest to its excellent offerings — from street food to fine dining.   Just like its coffee shops and cosmetics counters, food is in great abundance.  Its food scene is much more overwhelming than Tokyo (where street food is almost nonexistent).  Cheaper, too.

On my second visit to Seoul, I had more time to explore the food destinations and had the freedom to pick the ones I liked.  The first time I was with a huge group each time, and the the places the tour operators chose, just like in most group tours, weren’t special enough.  Here are my delightful resto discoveries:

Seorae Galmaegi.  Our first stop and our top pick.  The place doesn’t look special at all — so don’t go there for a romantic date.  It’s ideal for a group that would like to drink at lot of soju or Hite Beer.  The meat is well-seasoned: sweet and nutty.  They say it’s skirtmeat, whatever that means.  But it’s just so good.   It’s inexpensive so that makes it even more unforgettable.  Their kimchi was also great.  My sisters, who’d usually not take anything spicy, had heaps of servings of that hot pickled Korean staple.

We went to the Sinchon branch near Hongdae which was just a 10-minute walk from the Sinchon station.  By the way, Hongdae is a perfect place to stay.   It’s vibrant but not as maddening as Myeongdong.  It’s teaming with young college people lending it more funky.  Retail is also alive in that neighbourhood.  Cosmetic shops and shoe stores are in great abundance.  Coffee shops and ice cream, too!

Noo Na Hol Dak – Oven Chicken and Beer.  The restaurant is located right beside Hotel Ibis Ambassador in the city’s shopping centre, Myeongdong.  It is a short walk from Eujiro 1–ga Station (Line 2).

I liked the fried chicken at Frypan in Itaewon in my first visit.  Noo Na Hol Dak’s oven-baked version is just as great.  Koreans know how to cook their dak really well and make the  perfect sauces.  The portions are huge and come with the crunchiest fries and Korean pickled sidings.

Gusto Taco.  After three days of samyeopsal and kimchi, we thought we should have something non-Korean.  We searched for Gusto which was rated as the number one restaurant on TripAdvisor.  Strange, but true.  It’s run by a native New Yorker Aaron and his Korean wife.  They make their own tortillas which make all the difference.  It certainly deserved its top ranking.  Must-try’s are the taco, burrito and the cheesiest nachos.  Be sure to be there at odd hours since the queues could get long.

Café Snob.  Aaron of Gusto Taco recommended this dessert place to us and he was right: the best cakes and tarts in Seoul are served there.  It’s a block away from Gusto.  The fruits they use are fresh, not canned.  The cream in their cakes makes all the difference — tastes like 100% milk which makes it rich yet soft and light in texture.  We tried almost everything displayed in the counter.  Strawberry, lemon, chocolate — everything was just yum.

Point of interest:  the people manning the store were unsmiling.  Could that be deliberate?

(photo by

Chawoonga.  This restaurant in Hondae used to be a traditional Hanok house with a courtyard, which is rare in Seoul.

It’s different from other restaurants for its diverse menu.   The portions are individually-sized, unlike most other restaurants where the food is meant to be shared with a hundred people.  The recipes were created by the owner’s 87-year-old mother who still works in the kitchen (she was chopping cabbage when we were there).   I had the beef soup with seaweed which was also called the birthday soup.  And a stir-fried pork which was just as divine.  My siblings had baby octopus, chapchae noodles, raw mature shrimps in a light broth (yes, raw but delicious), and more pork.  This place is special and not to be missed.

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This Fabulous Barbecue Place in Hongdae.  Sorry, I didn’t get the name.  But here’s the façade.  It’s close to the Tourist Information Station.

Here’s the spread of beef in various cuts.  Cost 39,000 won or about 34 US$.  Can feed six people.  Not bad at all.

Lastly, my favourite dessert in Seoul:  The Blueberry Snowflake at Ediya Coffee Shop.  Ediyas abound in Seoul.  It’s the perfect final course after all the kimchi and grilled stuff.  The Mango Snowflake is also good.  

So, those are my new discoveries in Seoul.  If you visited Seoul, I suggest you should.  The glorious food, the endless array of inexpensive choices, are worth the 4-hour flight from Manila.  I haven’t even told you about the street food which is just as exciting as Seoul fine dining.  See my next post. 🙂

Beyond Petronas: Melakka

Months ago at a travel fair in SM MOA, I got myself a cheap ticket to KL on Malaysia Airlines. I wanted El Nido or Coron, but I couldn’t get any flight for the weekend before my birthday. I settled for KL. Why KL? Because I love Malaysia and its abundant treats.  And for my dear friends who live there. Accommodations are free – the best part.

I must be one of a handful of Pinoys who like going to Malaysia. I don’t blame those who don’t get Malaysia. The food seems strange. It’s hard to get around. There aren’t enough sites beyond the Petronas Towers. But any foreigner could say the same thing about Manila. Traffic and public transport are horrible. Kwek-kwek is strange. ‘Scenic’ is all about a few bricks in Intramuros.

To know Malaysia, and give it the love that it deserves, you have to have friends to take you around. And just like the Philippines, Malaysia is not its capital city. There’s Penang which I visited two years ago. There’s also Melakka (or Malacca) which I enjoyed just as much as Penang.

Melakka is a quick two-hour drive on a fabulous highway. There are just two things to do in Melakka: walk and eat. The city is a UNESCO heritage site. The historic preservation is not token. It’s a complete surviving historic centre with a succession of influences from an early sultanate to Portuguese to Dutch. There are rows and rows of old shops and townhouses which now serve as businesses for antiques, food, spas, fashion, books, and local food. Take a look at all these textures. If you love walking and taking in history, architecture, kitsch, this is the place for you in Malaysia. Give Malaysia a second look.

[Thanks to Ken Mah for most of the gorgeous photos!]


A CCP that we deserve

I’d get these bursts of pain everytime I walk into the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Our premier institution for culture and the arts continues to deteriorate, at least, physically. The carpet stinks. The ceiling is falling off.   The escalators creek loudly.   It’s dark, dingy.   The walls badly need a paint job. There are makeshift booths that sell Boy Bawang. The Locsin edifice, while magnificent from a distance, hasn’t been renovated to make it more functional and easier to navigate. Napabayaan.

We’re known as a creative nation. We export our artists who do well in Sothebys and concert halls overseas. Yet, we don’t have a national arts center that we deserve. I’m seriously praying for a CCP makeover.

Last Saturday, I went there to see the new musical, Mabining Mandirigma. The show’s inventive and entertaining.  You have to see it. You’d be proud of Pinoy talent — from the actors, Nic Tiongson’s writing, Chris Millado’s direction, Jed Balsamo’s music to James Reyes’ steampunk costumes. If it were supported much more financially, it could draw more crowds as Phantom did.

I had a lot of time to spare before the show started. So I checked out the other corners at the CCP.   I didn’t know it had several exhibition halls.  To my surprise, there were a lot of  interesting shows happening that weekend. So it was even more painful to realize that such great works of art should have been housed in a place that was as lovely.

First stop was Jojie Lloren’s fashion exhibit. I saw these pieces in last year’s Red Cross Ball at the Shangri-la Ballroom. I was so glad that he decided to share this collection for everyone to see much more closely. The Shangri-la show was underwhelming since we didn’t get to appreciate his intent: the translation of familiar lines, figures and colors from modern Philippine art into couture. The meshing of a particular artist’s aesthetic with Lloren’s own which is clean, impeccably tailored, cleverly patterned. His whole concept was ambitous. But he pulled it off very intelligently. His couture became art itself.

Here are some of the pieces and see the influences from Bencab, Manansala, Nena Saguil, Legaspi, Malang, Baldemor and other big names in modern art.

Right outside the room where Lloren’s creations were installed, Jo Ann Bitagcol’s own photography exhibit was happening. You’d first see one of Lloren’s creations hanging in a corner.

Bitagcol’s pictures were hanging right next to it.

If you look closely, the images were taken from inside Lloren’s gown. Awesome.

From Bitagcol’s show, we went one floor down and discovered a Bencab restrospective of his prints. The whole experience was seductive. After Bencab, no one ought to do a printmaking show of such magnitude.

So last Saturday, I had my fill in spite of the patches of ugliness that greeted me at the CCP. That’s the story of every Pinoy’s life in the city.   You just have to make do, in a metropolis of hideous lampposts, billboards, U-turn slots, overpasses, malls and condominiums. Just keep looking.


The Lulugayan Misadventure

Remember the times when mom would tell you to finish a meal that you don’t like, and make you feel guilty about kids who aren’t as lucky and have nothing to eat? The same concept applies to travelling. When something goes awry, always think about someone who’s worse off, one who’s having more miserable misadventures.  Something didn’t go according to plan in our recent Samar adventure.

But there’s something about Northern Samar that makes you zen. There, life is really slow. No traffic jams to stress you out. The people are gentle and trustworthy. The scenery is beautiful. No ugly billboards. Maybe it’s the abundant nutrients from Samar seafood that supports overall metabolism. Samar makes you kinder.

Last Sunday, we woke up early for the trek to Lulugayan Falls near Bobon. Motorbikes picked us up at our resort and took us riding through the countryside. Can’t get more rural than this. I loved it.

 After the ten-minute bike ride, we got off and started the trek through the woods. It felt like a scene from Brillante Mendoza’s “Captive” where the Abu Sayaff were herding the French captives through the forests of Mindanao.

The hike wasn’t too long – about 15 minutes in all. But it was hot. The trail was narrow and quite slippery. The hard part was keeping ourselves quiet. The locals told us not to talk loudly lest we upset the spirits inhabiting the enchanted forrest.


When we got to the top for the falls, this was what we saw.

A slab of stone. It was dry. Not a drop of water. The locals told us to come back during the rainy season.

Sigh. After all that effort. So, we took more pictures. We didn’t complain. It’s all about perspective, really.  At least I wasn’t that person whose wallet had just been stolen by the Niagara.

The Rocks of Biri: Otherworldly

The Rock Formation in Biri defines the entire province of Northern Samar. That’s the high point of a trip to that part of the Visayas. It’s just too sad that it isn’t as popular or visited as other landmarks like Bohol’s Chocolate Hills or the lake in Taal. Believe me, it’s spectacular. Nothing is as dreamy in the archipelago.

The locals describe the gigantic rocks as the “battle of the gods”, formed through the ages by crashing waves, fierce storms, the heat, quakes and strong winds. Everything’s carved out by nature to cinematic proportions.

Our guide tells us that there are four drop-off points after a ten-minute motorbike ride from Biri proper. There’s a specific time of day that’s ideal for every point. We chose the farthermost point – Bel-at – at 4pm. The tide was low, the conditions weren’t as turbulent. Plus, it wasn’t so hot late in the day.

Just a few travel tips:

  • Bring 15 pesos for the bike ride, and 200 for the tourist fee.
  • Walk slowly on the loooong footbridge that takes you to the Bel-at rocks. Look down the whole time. The planks aren’t even and not attached closely together.
  • Have a guide who knows the trail and who’ll help you tread and climb up the slippery rocks.
  • Swimwear, of course. There’s a natural lagoon you can swim in. You can’t swim in the ocean, though. Much too dangerous.
  • Wear aquasocks. Slippers would get you bruised.
  • Forget everything but your camera.
  • the bridge to the troubled waters
    the bridge to the troubled waters
    under the bridge
    under the bridge

    clear, still, no leeches P1080426 P1080427 P1080432 P1080433 P1080434 P1080443 P1080449 P1080454 P1080467

Roughing it up in Northern Samar

The ignoramus in me would always tease my Northern Samar-born friend, haute couture fave Dennis Lustico, about his birthplace as nothing else but copra country. It must be overflowing with “gata” (coconut milk), I’d say. While Samar is abundant with “buko”, there’s more that awaits the traveler who loves nature at its most pristine, and food at its freshest, and cheapest.

I immediately said ‘yes’ to his invite to see his place in June for the first time. I had vowed to see more of the Philippines. I also wanted a different kind of adventure – the rough kind. I was curious about how far I could manage without the usual luxuries from my travels.

Well, proudly I can say, I survived Northern Samar (that’s in Eastern Visayas, underneath Bicol, adjacent to Leyte, and to the east of Cebu). I survived the 45-minute jeepney ride from the Catarman Airport to the port where we a banca ride to Biri. The motor was rumbling loudly and unbearably for 45 minutes.   I shut my ears with my hands for the entire trip. After landing on Biri and spending a short pitstop at Dennis’ relative’s home by the beach, we took the a 10-minute habal-habal ride to our resort. The habal-habal is the lone mode of transport in Biri Island (15 pesos for every ride). It’s a motorbike with a long makeshift metal seat that could fit in 3 passengers. It sounds like death on wheels. But it’s actually cool. The drivers are skillful. The ride is not dangerous since the roads are good, and there’s no traffic on the streets.

The resort – Villa Amor – was clean and spartan. Don’t expect multiple thread-count with the bed sheets. The fabric felt like my non-absorbent high school uniform. Plumbing works, but the water pressure in the shower isn’t strong enough. I used the “tabo” the whole time. There was an A/C, but power would get cut from 12 midnight till noon. Get ready to sweat well before dawn.

But you’d forget you’re not in Shangri-la Boracay when you look out and see the Pacific. The sea is at its clearest in Samar. That’s what happens when there are no hotels or Andok’s restsos erected by the beach, and no throngs of people who misuse and abuse natural resources.

My only wish is for the national or provincial government to at least give Biri 24-hour electricity.  Samar is scorching during the dry months.  Basic full-functioning utilities, they owe the tourists.  And the locals, who would get even more productive with working electricity. For chrissake, it’s 2015.  Our hardworking countrymen in the South do not deserve 12-hour blackouts.  I heard in nearby Capul, another tourist destination known for its beaches and Spanish-era architecture, they only get 8 hours of power.

The food is as much a highlight as the scenery. The best seafood is in Samar. There’s something about the Pacific that makes marine life taste sweeter than usual. Must-eats aside from fish: baby lobsters, slipper crabs, crabs, squid, seaweed (“lato”). Sea urchins are everywhere but the Samarenos don’t eat them. So, bring gloves to cut the urchins with if you plan to have fresh uni. In Samar, they don’t have the concept of fastfood. You catch it, you cook it. Nothing’s frozen.

Here’s a peek into Northern Samar. The high point of our trip – the Biri Rock Formation – is up next.

the approach to Biri
the approach to Biri
a huge religious structure in the high seas
a huge religious structure in the high seas
disembarking on Biri Island. there's the deafening banca.
disembarking on Biri Island. there’s the deafening banca.
it runs fast despite the load.
it runs fast despite the load.
Crystal.  The view from Villa Amor.  Best place to paddle board.
Crystal. The view from Villa Amor. Best place to paddle board.
The break of dawn in our humble Shangri-la
The break of dawn in our humble Shangri-la
baby lobsters. yummier than the large ones.
baby lobsters. yummier than the large ones.
slipper crabs
slipper crabs
the sweetest thing
the sweetest thing
jelly-like seaweed that doesn't taste like the Pacific Ocean
jelly-like seaweed that doesn’t taste like the Pacific Ocean
That strip can be made into a beautiful boardwalk.
That strip can be made into a beautiful boardwalk.
kids at play by a speedboat.  if you have extra cash, rent one to get to islands faster.
kids at play by a speedboat. if you have extra cash, rent one to get to islands faster.
a small port by the town plaza.
a small port by the town plaza.



The crazy, beautiful vibe at Prado Farms

I’ve known the family that runs Prado Farms in Lubao Pampanga since the 70s. One of the kids I went to school with in Don Bosco Pampanga through Ateneo. But I had not set foot in their Lubao home, until last Saturday’s children’s party for cute little Dia, despite several invitations in the past.   I knew I was in for a treat since I always thought that the Ocampo-Gutierrez was one of the most uniquely creative families in the country.

Their aesthetic is folksy, Pinoy, whimsical, unconventional, un-trendy, crazy. At Prado, they took it a step further – everything is junk made artsy.

This 6-hectare property used to be all sugarcane until the old man Hugo built a home for the large brood, and set up an LPG refilling business. He planted every tree that remains lush and tall in Prado. A few years ago, they converted the rest of the property into a camp/resort/retreat-house/resto/conference-venue/hotel.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a surge in local tourism developments in places that weren’t at all touristy. In that part of Western Pampanga, Prado Farms is a gem.   A must for people who want a quick getaway from the metro, and those who want to imbibe a sense of history through innumerable pieces of art and curiosities. It’s also a great resource for interior design ideas. And for the lechon! Everything served here is organic. The native pigs only feed on arugula and bananas.

Yesterday, we were with Finn, a four-year-old who lives in the Makati business district. It must be his first time to see carabaos, cows, ducks, pigs and goats feeding and lazying around in their natural habitat. He had so much fun. I did, too. Farm life just makes everyone happy.

* * * * * * *

You can’t just walk in.  Call for reservations –  Prado Siongco, Lubao, Pampanga.  Tel. Nos.: 400-2185, 0920-9030964

a mosaic of LPG tanks greet, junk, colorAn air-conditioned hall made out of materials used in an old Pangasinan train stationa study full of odditiesthe path to the hotelfacade of the main dining hallmain dining hall where organic lechon is served.more found art:  a caro used in religious processions

where religious services are held; sometimes, yoga Ifugao rice granary turned altarmish mash.  perfect for chill, or breakout love the ride!

People-Watching at the Taj

I GoPro’d it, Lumixed it, shot it from every possible angle, from varying vantage points.  The Taj is now the one landmark I have most pictures of.  After Taj fatigue, I thought the tourists in Agra were as interesting as the Taj itself.  Why not shoot pics of people?

First is a series of “I’m holding it up” poses.  Almost everyone was doing the obligatory Eiffel gesture.  Their equivalent of “I’m pushing the Leaning Tower” pose.  I hoped they nailed it.


Next, their beautiful garb.  No other country in the world has a more amazing mix of traditional wear than India (or maybe other than Japan).  It’s nice to see their women use it for everyday wear, not just during cultural presentations.  The dyes, the silks, the long unstitched saris, the intricate ear jewelries, the diversity — everything is still vivid to me as the whiteness of the palace itself.

Some friends in our group mourned that there were just too many people, that they wished there were less so they could take in the romance and grace of the Taj.  That would never happen.  So just take it all in.  Embrace the colors of India.  Watch an authentic parade of national costumes.

The Taj

The Taj Mahal in Agra, India is one of those places that always turns up in lists of sights to visit before you die.  It was on my bucket list.  But I never planned to visit it within the next few years knowing how grueling the trip would be for a Filipino.  I’m so blessed to have been given the chance to see it much earlier than expected.

The agency network I belong to organized a trip to Agra after a 3-day conference in Delhi.  I grabbed the chance since it would’ve been expensive for me to do it on my own.  The flight alone from Manila to Delhi via Singapore costs hundreds of dollars.  And a pain too, if I’d do Agra on another occasion.   You fly to Singapore for a little over 3 hours, lay over in Changi for 3, then take another 5.5 hours from Singapore to Delhi.  It was exhausting.  The only consolation was the nice, chilly weather that greeted the Philippine delegation in Delhi.  It was around 11 degrees.  Early March was a great time to be in that part of India, where temperatures rise as high as 45 in the summer.

About 30 people from the conference stayed on for Agra.  A fun group composed of colleagues from the Singapore, Jakarta, Seoul and Manila offices.  We rode a huge bus that traveled for 3.5 hours through the swanky Yamuna Expressway.  The 165-kilometer-long highway connects Delhi and Noida, the access to Agra.  It was a comfortable ride — think NLEX and 3 hours of watching the Bulacan countryside.

We got to Agra early Friday evening, then checked in at the ITC Hotel (great exteriors, nice lobby and restos, but the rooms desperately need a makeover).   We took the 10-minute trip from ITC to the Taj the next morning.  This is what we saw.  Not much annotation needed.  You must know about how an Emperor’s love for a dead wife made it happen, the special white marble, the symmetry, its unique architecture an all.   India is incredible indeed.

The entrance.  You can't bring it lots of things: food including mints, water, cigarettes, lighters, even selfie sticks!
The entrance. You can’t bring it lots of things: food including mints, water, cigarettes, lighters, even selfie sticks!
the courtyard
the courtyard
the other courtyard and structure to your left
the other courtyard and structure to your left
The crown of palaces is peeking through.
The crown of palaces is peeking through.
the main gate to the Taj
the main gate to the Taj
ceiling detail
ceiling detail
the best part:  the reveal
the best part: the reveal
in all its glory
in all its glory

marble and inlay detail
marble and inlay detail
the back view
the back view
the Yamuna River
the Yamuna River