Café Review: Café Onion, Seongsu

the word “onion” in white lowercase font above a wide, open glass door framed by exposed brick, at the corner of a street

Café Onions seem to embody the space in which they’re located, and there is no better example than the Seongsu location.

Here, the drab gray of unfinished walls reflects the light streaming in from large windows, and the floor features the yellow paint of another time. At once there is mini faded blue tile, and again the unfinished plaster. Where a window or a door once was, bricks have been shoved in to seal the space, unenterable entrances, impassable passages.

There is a long table with plastic separators, hand sanitizer, and outlets for people who come here to study. Come here to snuggle? Worry not–there’s a few tucked away couches for that. If the weather is nice, you can head up to the rooftop but be careful of the stairs, as they’re all a bit uneven and I almost ate it going to the rooftop to take photos.

Located on a plaque near the door:

Artist: Fabrikr
Medium: Mixed media
Dimension: 759m²
Date: 2016

“The space was first built in the 1970s. And it transformed into supermarkets, restaurants, homes, maintenance shops, and factories for nearly 60 years. Each time, the useless parts was broken as needed, and the part that needed to be added were added in a rule of thumb. Since it is a space that has changed based on usability rather than aesthetics, the original appearance of the space gradually disappeared with time.

While exploring space, we discovered the value that new things could not give in the structure of the past. The paint marks on the floor, each of the added bricks, were a great material to remember the time. We focused on recreating the space of the past, keeping all these traces alive. It was necessary to reinterpret it as a space of the past and a space of the same time.

ONION is made of materials that seems to be separated but respect organically connected structures and are carefully added in consideration of users’ functions. Furniture was also made by adding architectural elements to become part of the space. Plants that coexist together are also familiar as they have always been here.

This space will be a place where there are rest and services that purify the mind and a haven to calm the noise in the head of those who seek space. We hope that this place will be remembered as a place that gives someone new inspiration for life and complete rest for someone.”

Makgeolli 101

a clear container with brown lid next to a bottle of sikhye, a sweet non-alcoholic rice beverage, and a pen that I would later accidentally steal I’m sorry

Back in April, I was one of twelve lucky people chosen to partake in a special event held by the Royal Asiatic Society Korea and Gastro Tour Seoul, and located in the Korean Food Grand Master Center in the Bukchon area of Seoul. It was entitled “Korean Traditional Alcohol Brewing Culture Experiences” which is just a long-winded way of saying that we were going to be tasting various types of Korean alcohol (called “sool” 술, originating from the words “water” and “fire”) and learning how to make makgeolli, a rice wine.

If you really want to nerd out about alcohol and the various brewing processes, check out this link.

Makgeolli (막걸리) is a rice wine made with three things: water, rice, and a fermentation starter, called nuruk. The resulting brew is milky-white and can be carbonated or uncarbonated, and will continue to ferment if unpasteurized. According to Wikipedia, it was given the name “drunken rice” which I actually adore, although that title would be more appropriate for soju, which is higher in alcohol content.

But first, we had to taste some alcohol. Starting on the low end of alcohol content at 7% is Baeglyeon Misty Makgeolli, a sweet white drink that barely tasted like anything at all (official notes: “rice, white lotus”). Next up was 13% Wangju, a clear orange beverage with more of a kick (“glutinous rice, wild chrysanthemum, matrimony wine, pine needles, plum”). 13% Solsongju, roughly the same kind of kick as the Wangju but with more distinguished fermentation (“rice, pine needles, wheat nuruk”). At 25% is Leegangju, which was like drinking cinnamon-flavored mouthwash (“pine needle, honey, turmeric, cinnamon”). Last was Andong soju at 45%, which was what I expect from a soju: a clean, crisp burn. Apparently Andong soju is so unique it has its own artisans who keep the tradition alive.

Let’s get started! First, we need rice. And not just any rice, but godubap (고두밥), also known as “hard-boiled rice” or steamed rice. We were allowed to taste this rice and it was not very pleasant–chewy and more akin to rice if it were cooked al dente.

Once the rice was cooked, we got to spread it out so it would cool evenly.

While we let the rice cool down, it was time for us to try, first-hand, what would hopefully be the fruits of our efforts. Gloving up, two lucky people got to squish and smash the makgeolli mash through a mesh bag and sample it out.

It was delicious! It didn’t taste alcoholic at all, which makes me think it hadn’t been fermenting for too long. The longer it ferments, the more sour and more alcoholic it will become. For the time being, we just kept slyly passing our cups back to the table to be refilled.

Now the time has come for us to make our own makgeolli! First, we measured out 600 grams of the godubap. Then our helper scooped out 60 grams of nuruk for the mash. We added 300 ml of a base makgeolli, and 500 ml of water.

With gloves on, we squished and squashed and mixed everything as thoroughly as possible, without breaking the rice grains. Then it was ladled into our special disinfected containers, ready for us to take home and continue fermenting.

I left my makgeolli a little too long (because I struggled finding an appropriate filter for the mash) and it was very sour, which means it had a very high alcohol content in the not-pleasant way. I think I fermented all of the sweetness out of it, and need to try making it again.

The venue was really cute and I adored their “photo zone” which was facing a wall of ceramics that was meant to “fill… and spread… the Value of Hansik [traditional Korean food].” They also had traditional cushions and tables along the stairs there so you could sit and chill.

I really enjoyed the experience and the best part was that it was not only free, but also intimate. There were two people who signed up for the event but didn’t come, and to their luck, two people showed up for the event that hadn’t RSVP’ed and were able to secure those spots.

I definitely want to try my hand at making makgeolli again. In the meantime, I wrote this post enjoying a bottle of sparkling red wine makgeolli that I picked up in Busan Station while on vacation there (post forthcoming). Check out this article if you want to see how traditional makgeolli is served. You still get the tin bowls to drink it from even when you buy a plastic bottle of makgeolli at a restaurant.

Have you tried makgeolli? Do you know of any other traditional drinks made from rice?

Unboxing “Colors” the First Mini Album from Ars, Choi Youngjae

After not getting a Youngjae photocard from my purchase of Got7’s latest mini album, I decided to go back and buy Youngjae’s mini album. I bought both versions, with the only difference being the photobook and random photocards.

the album is a book
like other Kpop albums, the actual CD is in a sleeve in the back of the photobook
photobook with various lyrics
various things from one of the versions: two photocards, two stickers, two film negative photos, and a professionally done photo that looks like the ID photos teenagers put on their phone cases of their boyfriend/girlfriend so that’s exactly what I did

Café Review: Café Onion, Anguk

the word “onion” in white lowercase font in front of a traditional hanok style entrance with a giant wooden door

Café Onion in Anguk is probably my favorite café in all of Korea. Located steps from Anguk Station and constructed inside a traditional wooden Korean house called a hanok, it serves up great coffee and pastries baked in-house with an amazing atmosphere. Come early or expect to wait for a seat, or grab your drink and pastry to-go.

I’ve gone to the café in several seasons, so these photos will feature snow and rain.

My order: iced Oatly latte with an extra shot, strawberry pastry, iced americano or espresso for round two.

Located on a plaque near the door, translated via Papago:

Artist: Fabrikr
Medium: Mixed media
Dimension: 661m²
Date: 2019

“I remember the day when this house was first built.

Even then, someone would have sat on the floor of the main house and looked at the yard. The gaze would have filled the space from the floor to the sky, and from left to right…

Over a hundred years, numerous footprints remained, numerous horses piled up, and countless eyes overlapped. We groped through all the stories from the past to the present, keeping the air in line with the current use.

Place this space on white paper and extend the past gaze to today. Even then, someone would have looked at the yard from the Daecheongmaru. Today, someone sits on the floor of the Daecheong and looks at the yard. I pray quietly that our present may rest for a while, and that the inspiration for a new life may be here.”

Follow them on Instagram: @cafe.onion

Address: 서울특별시 종로구 계동길 5

Kpop Music Monday #41: AleXa, “Bomb”/”Wonderland”

I’m unsure how many of my readers are from the US, but if you are, you may have seen a clip or two from American Song Contest. Based on Eurovision, it pits all 50 states (and territories!) against one another in a song competition. It was hosted by Snoop Dogg and Kelly Clarkson.

Its contestants seem to run the gamut from being well-established artists in their own right to up-and-comers. The winner, hailing from Oklahoma, was probably someone that you’ve never heard of, but if you’re into Kpop, you should definitely know who she is.

Her name is AleXa, and her music brand is cyber-punk pop (not punk-pop, that’s another thing). Her videos feature lots of shiny lights, robotic doohickeys, lasers… It’s much more sci-fi than we’ve seen in Kpop.

AleXa is notable because she was born and raised in Oklahoma, the daughter of a Russian-American and a Korean adoptee, making her half Korean. There are a handful of half-Korean and not fully Korean Kpop idols, but none that have made it this far on an American singing show.

AleXa has great stage performance and is an incredible dancer and I hope to see what else she has in store for us!

Unboxing Got7’s “Got7” Mini-Album

got7’s album: bright green with the names of the members along the top and the names of the songs going up the album, to make a “7” out of the members’ names and song names

There are several kinds of Kpop fans (also known as “stans”). There’s the “I only like This Group” stans. The “I Only Like This Member in This Group” stans. The Only-Boy-Groups stan. The Only-Girl-Groups stan. The Music-Only stan. The I-Collect-Everything stan. The I-Spend-Thousands-of-Dollars-on-Albums-to-Get-Photocards-Which-I-Then-Trade-or-Sell-For-a-Profit stans. The same kind of stan, but their reason for buying so many albums is to get tickets for meet-and-greets, which usually work in a lottery system. There’s the Broke stan, and there’s the kind of stan that I am: mostly Broke, but still supportive when I can be.

The first Kpop album I bought, after years of listening to the genre, was Kim Jonghyun’s posthumous album “Poet | Artist.” All proceeds went to Jonghyun’s mother, which she used to create the Shiny Foundation.

The second album I bought was Got7’s “Present: You,” bought on ebay so I could get Youngjae’s version. Multiple versions of Kpop albums are released, each with different photocards or different photo booklets, meaning that a group with 7 members could have 7 (or 8!) different versions for the purchasing.

Like I mentioned before, some Koreans and Korean expats make money by purchasing Kpop albums in bulk and selling the photocards. Or they buy in bulk to hopefully score meet-and-greet tickets and the photocard re-sale is just a perk.

The unfortunate thing is that once the photocards have been taken out of the album, the value has decreased, so then the person needs to get rid of hundreds of open albums. There have been several posts on various expat groups of people trying to get rid of hundreds of albums for free because they have nowhere to store them and can’t sell them.

From a capitalistic view, it’s the perfect shakedown of a predominantly young demographic–buy ten random albums, get ten random photocards and a chance to meet your idols! I mean, if the Backstreet Boys had photocards and different photobooks for the members, you can believe I would have begged my mom to buy me all five versions. Without knowing on the package what version you’d get, you’d have to buy more than five, and probably have to trade versions with your friends in order to get the complete set. That is a lot of money for the record label.

I decided to buy Got7’s latest mini album to support the boys on their new venture and see what my luck would give me.

Come unbox with me!

I got Yugyeom’s version! He’s not really one of my favorites, sorry.
along with each version is a “pop-up” picture card of the member
super-glossy and therefore hard-to-photograph member photo of Yugyeom
super-glossy all member photo
lyric booklet, with lyrics in Korean, English, Mandarin, and Thai
photobook with all the members
the actual CD with two random photocards (Yugyeom and Mark) and a fake Polaroid photo of Jackson

Kpop Music Monday #40: Eric Nam, “Can’t Help Myself”/”I Don’t Know You Anymore”

Years ago, I missed out on an Eric Nam show in Washington, DC because of strep throat and I’ve been angry about it ever since.

You can’t talk about kpop and its international appeal without mentioning the likes of individuals like Eric Nam, whose straddling of cultures and multi-lingual abilities help bring Korean music to the world that doesn’t speak Korean. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Eric got his “big break” when a music cover he did went viral on YouTube and he was invited to participate in a Korean talent show.

He’s been lauded for his numerous interviews with Korean and non-Korean celebrities, has gone on several successful world tours, is currenly on podcast number two, hosted Arirang TV’s After School Club (a kpop show broadcast all over the world), was virtually married to Mamamoo’s Solar in “We Got Married,” and is behind the infamous “Your dog speaks Chinese?” clip.

His most recent release was an English album which had this gem on it:

Kpop Music Monday #39: Pink Fantasy, “Tales of the Unusual”/”Poison”

I had saved this group’s “Lemon Candy” video in my “Kpop Forever” YouTube playlist but found it to be your run-of-the-mill rookie-group-from-a-small-company music video so I didn’t add it to my song playlist or even look into the group further. I figured this was their concept: cute, bubbly, highly-saturated and colorful. It didn’t even register that one of the members was wearing a cat mask.

At some point, their video for “Tales of the Unusual,” specifically the Zombie version, popped up on my feed and maybe it’s because I love strange, macabre things, or maybe because it’s just so unusual to have such a concept in Kpop, but I was instantly hooked. They have a so-called “normal” version of the song, but the zombie makeup fits so well with the spooky song that it has over 3 times the number of views (308k to 74k).

And about that girl with the cat mask on… Her name is Daewang and her identity is unknown. In the early stages of the group, she wore a massive white rabbit head and the concept of the group was something like Alice in Wonderland, with Daewang being the (literal) white rabbit. No one knows who she actually is, but it’s been theorized that she’s none other than the CEO of the company the girls are under, MyDoll Entertainment’s Lee So Hee. So Hee was an idol prior to establishing MyDoll Entertainment, going under the name Chie in one group and Yumi in another.

Unlike other groups, the group also has a very large age-gap between members, with Daewang’s birth year being 1989 and the maknae’s 2005.

Ever since Dreamcatcher took home their first win on “Show Champion” with their song “Maison,” whose group’s concept is heavier and more rock-based than most kpop, I’d like to say that there’s room in kpop for edgier concepts and harder-hitting music. And I think Pink Fantasy would fit well in that mold.

Bonus video:

Restaurant Review: Potala Restaurant

Located in a basement in Jongno-gu is Potala Restaurant, a Tibetan/Nepali restaurant owned by a Tibetan.

view from outside

You can take a look at the menu in the doorway before you walk downstairs. The restaurant seems to pride itself on being tourist- and halal-friendly.

menu posted outside the staircase down to the restaurant

When I went at 5 pm, I was surprised that there was no one in the restaurant. I quickly ordered my food and ordered decidedly too much of it.

The waiter was Nepali, but could understand my butchered-Tibetan name of dishes, some of which are transliterated very strangely in the menu.

a plate of chowmein noodles with chicken and vegetables

First was the chowmein, which eating was like a punch to the gut. It reminded me of every Tuesday at Sarah College, when we would have chowmein, and the only thing missing was the curry ketchup that we would add to it. My students knew that I loved the chowmein and I’d frequently let them leave class a little early as to be the first in line for lunch.

a plate of shabakleb with dipping sauce

Next up was the “Shabakleb,” fried bread stuffed with beef and vegetables. It was okay. I think I preferred it to the chicken momos that I ordered, which seemed very underwhelming.

a plate of momos and dipping sauce

It was only near the end of my meal that two fellows wandered into the place, ordering in Nepali. I’m guessing the lack of tourists during the pandemic has hit the restaurant pretty hard.

Overall, it was a good intro to Tibetan cuisine if you’ve never had it and I really enjoyed my chowmein. The place was decorated very nicely if a bit over-decorated, but I found the faded post-it notes going down the stairs to the restaurant to be very tacky and off-putting. Stop in to support a Tibetan-owned restaurant! Bhod gyalo!

Address: Supyogyo Building B1, 35-2, Gwancheol-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul

The Latest South Korean Craze: Pokémon Bread

a package of Pokemon bread featuring a blue tadpole creature named Poliwag

“Teacher, you must wait. And wait. And waaaaaiiitttt.”

Apparently you have to wait a very long time in order to get your hands on the elusive Pokémon bread that’s been a craze in South Korea for the past two months. I’ve gone into a convenience store where the clerk was still putting away deliveries and the Pokémon bread had already been purchased by someone watching the store like a hawk.

Somehow these kids are still managing to get their hands on the bread, though, as numerous kids have come up to me to show off their Pokémon sticker, the real reason why the bread has made such a big comeback.

a sign on the door of a 7-Eleven stating that there isn’t any Pokemon bread, complete with a Pikachu, Squirtle, and Ditto illustrations

Today I was stopped by a sign posted on the door of a Mini-Stop that had a Pikachu illustration, but when I read the sign, it had nothing to do with Pokémon and was advertising a combo set you could now buy. Clever.

Edit: Baskin Robbins now has a Pokémon ice cream.