Dispatch, Korea: Exotic eats and comfort food

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Destinations editor Eric Moya is traveling throughout South Korea to experience some of the country's fall festivals.

Given some of the fare I'd sampled during my week in South Korea, you'd be forgiven for thinking that my snacking on fried chicken and beer during my last night was let's say, anticlimactic.

The Korea Tourism Organization crafted a festival-focused itinerary for our press/fam trip, which in many ways avoided the expected sights and experiences; we spent just a day in Seoul, for instance, and skipped the DMZ. But in terms of meals, the trip was very much a showcase for some of the country's most popular dishes.

Our night in Busan, for example, was spent at Geumsubokguk, which has been serving pufferfish (fugu) since 1970. Notoriously difficult to prepare (and potentially fatal to the diner if done incorrectly), the fish is served in myriad ways at the restaurant in the city's Haeundae district.

As a "fish cutlet," coated with breadcrumbs and served with a sweet sauce, it frankly was a little bland, much like the breaded chicken cutlet on which it was apparently modeled. It's not a particularly flavorful fish, and its dry texture, which reminded me of a cross between blue crab and white-meat chicken or turkey, wasn't anything to write home about. As the star of the restaurant's signature soup, it fared better, thanks to a strong supporting cast of mushrooms and scallions. Still, the experience was a great start as far as culinary bragging rights.

Far more conventional was the next night's dinner, at the Gimje Horizon Festival: barbecue (bulgogi), probably the cooking style most of us first think of when someone mentions Korean food. Trays loaded with han-u beef -- easily rivaling the intense marbling of Japan's wagyu -- were brought to our tables, along with lettuce (for wrapping the bite-size slices), onions, raw garlic and other accompaniments. Our gas-powered tabletop grill made quick work of the thin, simply seasoned slices, as did we.

In fact, Korean cuisine proved more meat-heavy than I'd anticipated, at least the version we experienced. The night of the Andong Mask Dance Festival, we ate that city's local specialty, Andong jjimdak chicken (bone-in chunks with vegetables in a spicy sauce). This, we were told, was a fairly recent invention, created sometime in the '80s by restaurateurs in the Andong Gu Market as a sort of calling card. It worked; practically everyone in the market today offers a version, and the dish has grown popular throughout the country.

That brings me back to fried chicken and beer, or chimaek as it's called in Korean (the word is a portmanteau of "chicken" and the Korean word for beer, "maekju"). This too, is a meal of wholly modern origins. According to a 2014 article in the Korea JoongAng Daily, the combo soared in popularity during the 2002 World Cup. Its popularity has even inspired a summer festival. (Dear KTO: not a bad idea for a fam/press trip, hint.)

Today, "Chicken & Beer" is front and center in such restaurants' signage, with the establishment's actual name rendered as an afterthought, if at all.

There was a chimaek spot a few blocks from the Lotte Hotel Seoul, my accommodations for my lone night in the city. I sat down to order about 12:30 a.m., and the place was empty. It was off peak, apparently: between the after-work and post-club crowds.

My plate of boneless jalapeno chicken, accompanied by potato wedges and washed down with a couple of $3 pints, hit the spot.

In terms of flavor, no real surprises here. It was a generous portion, clearly meant for more than one person. Undeterred, I ate about three-quarters of it. Maybe something like bibimbap (an egg-topped rice dish) would've been a more classic choice for my last night in Korea. But I have to confess, I wasn't thinking along those lines: Hungry after midnight, chicken and beer, simply put, sounded damn good. And it was. I'm sure Korea's chimaek fans can relate.

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