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.

KakaoFriends Store: Gangnam

The first thing I did when I moved to Korea, after setting aside my suitcases, was download KakaoTalk. There are two different chats for all the teachers at school–one for general information, and one for pictures of the kindergarten students that later get sent home to parents. I have a handful of one-on-one chats and some group chats where I can look forward to Meme day every Wednesday.

To say that KakaoTalk is a messaging app used by Koreans of every age is an understatement. I use KakaoBus to time leaving my house in the morning, and should I be running late, KakaoT(axi) will get me to where I need to go. There’s also KakaoMetro and KakaoMap, even KakaoPay and KakaoBank. Moving a conversation off of a dating app to KakaoTalk is seen as A Thing here. Kakao is more than just a simple internet company–it’s a brand. And along with that comes brand imaging, and Kakao does not disappoint.

Introducing: KakaoFriends, which started out as KakaoTalk emoticons and took on a life all their own.

a large figurine of Ryan, an orange lion without a mane, holding a to-go coffee cup in one paw and resting his other arm on a small table where there is a sign about requiring masks to be worn and a bottle of hand sanitizer

My favorite Kakao character is Jordy, a “dinosaur that has been kept secret since its existence.” Ryan, a mane-less lion and Apeach, a… peach, are two of the more popular characters, but I’d like to also highlight Muzi, who is actually a piece of pickled daikon radish in a… rabbit costume. Listen, just go with it. They’re cute.

There are a few KakaoFriends stores, but my friend and I went to the flagship store in Gangnam. (Unfortunately, we were there too early to visit the café on the third floor.)

the exterior of the KakaoFriends store, featuring a large glass windows that have a picture of Esther Bunny (non-Kakao character) in a collaboration with APeach

Who’s your favorite character?

yours truly next to a Jordy figurine behind the booth of a cute fake radio station

Making 깍두기, Korean Radish Kimchi

You know it’s 김장 (kimjang) season, the time when kimchi is made in large batches to last throughout the winter, when you see the following outside every market:

two large carts filled with packaged napa cabbage and one large cart filled with bags of large Korean radish

For a cooking exercise with our kindergarten students, we made 깍두기 (Kkakdugi), radish kimchi. Obviously they can’t use real knives, so their task was cutting pre-cut strips of radish into small cubes with plastic knives.

Here’s our steps for radish kimchi!

Ingredients:

  • Korean radish
  • red pepper powder
  • salted shrimp
  • minced ginger and minced garlic
  • chopped green onion
  • sugar
  • a pinch of salt (not pictured)

After you’ve cubed the radish, apply a good helping of the red pepper powder:

Mix the red pepper powder with the radish:

And continue adding the rest of the ingredients:

Mix all that up and you’ve got your radish kimchi! It tastes delicious fresh, but let it sit overnight in a sealed container to really become delicious!

Summer Vacation 2021: Jeju Island

Two four feet tall dol hareubang statues with masks over their faces flank a sign reading “Welcome to Jeju International Airport” in English and Korean

My co-teacher Mary and I went for a quick trip to Jeju Island for summer vacation (which was only three working-days off). Jeju, for those of you who don’t know, is a Korean island located to the southwest of the mainland and is a popular resort island. Because of travel restrictions due to Covid, Jeju Island has become even more popular this year for Korean tourists who normally might have considered Guam, Japan, or the Philippines as their vacation spot.

The flight was only an hour long, but by the time we reached our hotel in Jeju it was after 5pm and we were beat. We ordered pizza and I ran a bath–something that came with my upgraded “couples” room. It was totally worth the extra cost. I used the Temple of the Sky Lush bath bomb.

On Sunday, we went to the Manjanggul Cave, which has an impressive lava tube that is accessible for about a kilometer underground and ends with a stone pillar that is the largest in the world. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so busy watching my feet as the floor was both uneven (thanks, lava) and wet. There were some wooden bridges over the more uneven parts, but even still, I trekked slowly and was amazed at how many people blew past me wearing flip-flops or even, in one case, platform flip-flops. The lava tube takes about an hour in and back, and going back was certainly easier than going down, although I was wheezing after climbing back up the stairs at the beginning.

What was not lost on me was the fact that there were several handicap parking spots out in front of the entrance and a ramp for wheelchairs, although the cave is completely inaccessible for wheelchair users and many others who have walking problems.

There was a memorial outside the cave that read, “Bu Jonghue and young expedition party: In 1946, Mr. Bu was a teacher at Gimnyeong Elementary School. He and 30 of his students set out to go spelunking without proper equipment. They only had a few torches and wore straw shoes. However, they were well organized into three groups each in charge of the torch, supplies, and measuring the cave. Manjanggul Lava Tube had become known to the public thanks to their numerous expeditions. It was a remarkable achievement of Mr. Bu and his little explorers, which was led with tenacity and an adventurous spirit. Mr. Bu named the cave using the word “Man” meaning long and the word “Jang” come [sic] from the name of third entrance “Manjaengi Geomeol.”

Ah, the 1940s, when you could still take your 10-year-old students spelunking without the proper equipment.

After the cave, we went to visit the recently opened Blue Bottle, located in the middle of nowhere. Having just opened on the 30th of July, there was still a queue and we had a lot of confusion about where to stand, as the information was not explained very well in English. A couple in front of us turned around and showed us their phone, asking if we had made a reservation. When we nodded our heads, they showed us how to make a reservation on an iPad that was on the other side of the line we were waiting in. Our wait from that point on was half an hour, but it would have been much longer had that couple not taken pity on the foreigners who had no idea what they were doing, so thank you kind souls!

Despite the long wait, we were able to get seats after about ten minutes. Blue Bottle is an excellent example of why cafes shouldn’t have wifi–if there were people camping out all day, sales would suffer and people would get annoyed at the lack of available seating. Without wifi, people come in, have a drink, and then leave, creating a much-needed turnover. But I digress.

Blue Bottles everywhere are all the same and yet all different. As each cafe is designed for the space in which it exists, this Blue Bottle had a beautiful open window into the Jeju countryside and a barn-like structure with a high, triangular ceiling fit with strips of lighting. All of the chairs and tables were that recognizable light wood, and there was built-in cabinetry under all of the display shelves.

I ordered an iced mocha with oat milk, a blueberry fizz, and a piece of chocolate pound cake as they were sold out of the liege waffle. Mary ordered the lemon yuzu fizz and a scone. I assisted a woman behind us who basically asked what all the fuss was about and what she should order. I sincerely hope her drinks lived up to the Blue Bottle name and was worth her wait.

I also bought two bags of the Jeju Blend coffee, which has notes of mandarin orange, rose, and caramel. I am excited to try it!

For dinner on Sunday, we went to a spot along Black Pork Street. The black pig is a domestic breed native to Jeju Island, and apparently was kept as a means to dispose of human waste up until the mid-century. In the restaurant we chose, the worker refused to let us just buy one portion of pork belly as we were two people (but Mary doesn’t like pork so she wasn’t going to eat it) but that ended up being just fine as I ate enough for two and also had an entire bottle of beer myself.

Normally I don’t like the fatty bits on meat and will sometimes leave it on my plate at lunch. However, black pig fat makes me understand how some people say that fat “melts in the mouth.” The skin was chewy, and the meat was juicy. The attending kimchi was perfectly sour instead of mind-numbingly spicy, which I prefer, and the ssamjang was excellent on the perilla leaves, which normally I do not like as it tastes too much like herb (it’s related to the mint family). I dipped the perilla leaf into the ssamjang, dipped the pork into a little mixture of salt and pepper and oil, added a string of kimchi, a little rice, wrapped it all up and ate it for one amazing flavor bomb unlike any other. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had.

That night I ran another bath, this time using the Rose Jam Bubbleroon. In retrospect, I probably should have broken it in half as the entire bar made a bit too many bubbles.

On Monday, we went to the Gwaneumsa Buddhist temple, the oldest on Jeju Island. This wasn’t the temple we were going to originally see, but one that was closer to us so we decided to visit it instead. After the first gate, you’re greeted with a large statue of the Lord Buddha off to the left, and if you continue further ahead, there’s a beautiful path lined with hundreds of various Buddha statues, most holding prayer beads that worshippers have given to the statues.

Further on, there is a small cave. By this time, it had started to drizzle a bit, and upon entering the small cave, one was taken aback by just how incredibly warm the cave was, owing to the hundreds of candles that had been lit inside. (Don’t worry: there was a fire extinguisher inside as well.)

There was a giant gold Maitreya Buddha statue, behind which were thousands of smaller Buddhas. There was the pot-bellied, laughing Buddha of wealth with some coins sitting atop his belly. There was a Buddha statue in the middle of a pond with a small bridge atop a goose’s body. It was a very lovely temple site, with a rich history that tells of Korea’s tumultuous past, as well as the tumultuous path of Buddhism in Korea.

And just like that, the two days in Jeju were over. We left early Tuesday morning as we had to be back at work Wednesday. It was way too soon, in my opinion, but still a relaxing and interesting break. It was the first “proper” vacation that I’ve had since moving to Korea and I plan to make my way to Jeju another time and checking in a cart of fruit for the flight home like all the other Korean tourists.

One thing I really enjoyed was how Jeju does its contact tracing program. We have to pull up our QR code in the KakaoTalk app and scan it in, which sometimes takes several tries. In Jeju, after we downloaded the app, we essentially took a picture of the QR code the business had, and our phones would beep right away. It was much easier to use.

A High-Schooler, Delivery Driver, and Hagwon Teacher Walk into a Vaccination Center…

On Saturday, the director picked up the foreign teachers at my hagwon and drove us to the vaccination center, which seemed like some sort of general meeting area that had been cordoned off into different sections for the vaccination process.

The vaccine roll-out did not go smoothly as planned, as many foreigners complained that “glitches” in the system didn’t allow them to register for the vaccine. Fortunately, our director handled our registering so we were all registered and given vaccination dates and times based around our ages. We were able to go all at once to get injected instead of going at various times throughout the week.

We got to the center around 8:30 and were out by 9:40. We were given disposable gloves and had our temperature taken by a machine that you put your hand under and it dispenses hand sanitizer as well as taking your temperature (we have the same one at school now). We filled out some forms and were given a number and sat down in some seats that were socially distanced from one another. I was number 51. There were a lot of high schoolers in the center, as well as delivery drivers, who had all parked their delivery trucks in the parking lot.

They called the numbers and you saw someone that went over the form with you and sent you into the next room, where you sat again and waited to see yet another person who went over your forms. From there, you moved a little further into the room and finally saw a nurse.

The injection itself is a piece of cake, and we were given a sticker with a time on it and sent to sit in another part of the conference room with a projected clock that must’ve been at least ten feet tall. At your designated time, you could take off your now sweaty gloves and leave the center.

I had some minor muscle pain later that day, but nothing since. We’ll go back sometime mid-August to get the second dose. We all received Pfizer which were part of a vaccine swap with Israel.

As far as everything else goes, South Korea has seen a huge jump in number of positive Covid-19 cases, and our level is now a 4. Under it, places must close at 10 pm and there can only be a gathering of two people after 6 pm. Oh, and gyms can’t play music with a bpm higher than 120. That’s a bit ridiculous, but oh well.

I hope everyone is keeping safe and continuing to wear masks and socially distancing!

What Happens When a Student Tests Positive for Covid

Back in March, myself and the other foreign teachers at my hagwon had to submit to a Covid test mandated by the government. Not too long afterwards, the government withdrew their order to test all foreigners and decided to test only those “foreign workers at high-risk workplaces, such as those in close, dense and enclosed work environments.”

We got up early and our director took us to the testing place, a parking lot across the street from a health clinic. They had set up several tents and were very thorough. You got a pair of disposable gloves while waiting in line (socially distanced of course) and wore them throughout the entire ordeal, which involved going and filling out some minor paperwork to being handed the two vials and ushered up to a booth where a health professional stood, only their gloved arms protruding from two holes.

a long line of people waiting in a socially distanced line

The test was not like the test I’ve heard some people in the US have gotten. This was not a mere nasal swab; this was a brain poking. I was honestly shocked that someone could stick something that far back into my sinuses. It wasn’t painful, just really uncomfortable.

All of us tested negative, fortunately, and it was back to business as usual.

a Covid testing center, with several tents

The question that has always lingered in my mind is: what happens if one of the students gets Covid?

Unfortunately, a little over two weeks ago, a student did test positive, albeit asymptomatic. Her father had tested positive and when they tested the entire family, she was the only one who also tested positive.

I feel really bad for this student because she had already missed two weeks of school because there had been a positive case at her elementary school, and now she would be missing yet another two weeks of school.

It was determined that only a few of us would get a Covid test: her immediate classmates (there were three) and her two teachers, which included myself. CCTV footage showed that she and her classmates remained masked up the entire time they were at the hagwon, which no doubt helped keep everyone safe.

We were closed Wednesday through Friday of that week, and on Wednesday I went by myself to get tested for Covid again. I had been informed that the center opened at 9 but when I got there at 9:30, I discovered that they actually open at 10, so I was the first in line to get swabbed. It went super quick and was only a little more uncomfortable than the last time.

Fortunately, everyone tested negative and we could open up school the following Monday.

a yellow and black paste-up of a Stop sign to socially distance those waiting in the line to get a Covid test

This week we closed Wednesday through Friday because the neighboring town of Okjeong has a massive outbreak involving at least 20 students in a high school. There was also an outbreak in the neighborhood of Hongdae in Seoul that was linked to foreign instructors, including one at another branch of the hagwon I teach at. That outbreak was confirmed to be of the Delta variant.

I’m hoping that all of this can be held at bay and we can reopen on Monday–if not all the way, then at least kindergarten can be in person and we can do online classes in the afternoon. With every day that the school is closed, we lose one day of our holidays, and as selfish as it is, I don’t want to have to lose my summer holiday that I’ve been looking forward to (as I didn’t have any holidays last year because of Covid).

a poster in a bus that has multiple squares of excuses illustrating that Corona19 likes “it’s okay”, as in, “we know each other, we can get together” and “the vaccine is coming soon, it’s okay”

Keep washing your hands and wearing masks.

Nari Park 양주나리공원

Back in October (my gosh, has it been that long??), my friend Ola and I visited Nari Park in Yangju (양주나리공원). It’s a little off the beaten path (don’t plan on being able to pop into any cafes or restaurants in the area) but absolutely worth it for the amazing views of fields full of flowers. When we went in the mid-morning there weren’t too many people there yet, so everyone was able to maintain a safe distance from others. I can’t say much else so here’s the photos.