Flying overseas for home-cooked food

Whenever we travel, our first priority is always to find good local food, whether it’s at a casual eatery, street food stall or high-end restaurant. But unless we gate crash someone’s house, which we haven’t attempted (yet), it’s almost impossible to sample authentic home-cooked local food when we’re overseas.

During our recent trips to Taiwan and Korea in 2019, before the world changed forever, we did manage to find two restaurants that gave us a glimpse of everyday Taiwanese and Korean food.

It wasn’t easy to get to White Gourd and Fat Person in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. We had to take a bus, walk through a small neighbourhood park and then down a narrow dark alley before we saw a house with their signboard under a warm yellow light.

Before I get flamed for fat-shaming anyone, I just want to point out that they (not me) came up with their English name; literally translated from Mandarin: 冬瓜與胖子.

We didn’t manage to meet the chef, but we did have a nice chat with his pretty and petite wife, who, based on their various FB and IG posts, strictly controls the purse-strings. So, by the process of elimination, I assume that the chef is on the chubby side.

The house that housed the restaurant was clearly in a residential neighbourhood, and the various dining rooms were decorated to give a lived-in feeling. The seating areas were different in each room, and we were seated on a ledge facing the window. Behind us was a long but low table with sofa seats that held a family of four.

It was strictly self-service, with a teapot, small glasses printed with their logo and utensils in a small basket. On the table was also a newsletter, which on closer inspection, turned out to be write-ups on the restaurant itself.

Most of the articles were descriptive or promotional material, but some were quite amusing, including one with the headline: “Still asking us what dishes we’re going to serve?” followed by a lengthy clarification that they are a no-menu budget restaurant serving 无菜单料理 that can change based what they buy from the market that day. Points for being entertainingly grumpy.

When we sat down, we honestly didn’t know what they were going to serve for dinner that night. But when the food arrived, it lived up to its reputation for good home-cooked food.

The tau kwa, or semi-hard beancurd, was lightly braised in soya sauce and then fried with minced meat and spring onion. It had the right balance of sweet and salty, and would have been a great with a bowl of white porridge.

The two vegetables that were served was fried lightly to allow for the freshness to shine. Taiwanese stir-fried cabbage is a very simple and common dish, but I’ve always found it to be so much sweeter and tastier than those in Singapore.

I can still recall the best version we’ve had, which was served in a 民宿 (Min Su) that we stayed up in the mountains of 清境 (Cing Jing), and this was a close second. The greens also reminded us of the forest vegetables that we had in a hotsprings restaurant up in the mountains of 乌来 (Wu Lai), and again, it was pretty similar.

The mains were braised pork belly and fried fish, which were accompanied by a bowl of wintermelon soup. The fried fish was fresh and light tasting, as was the soup, which was a good thing because the pork belly was heavy and cloying.

It was rich and flavourful and actually tasted almost exactly like the Peranakan dish babi pongteh. The resemblance, both in looks and taste, was uncanny. We asked the lady boss if that was intentional, but she’d never heard of it before. So we wrote down the name on a post-it and asked her to check it out online.

The restaurant was full that night, and based on the conversations we caught, they all sounded local. There was a young couple seated next to us, and the family behind us included two young kids. The bigger table downstairs also sounded like they were a family that lived in Kaohsiung.

The food definitely tasted homely and different from big Taiwanese restaurants like Shin Yeh or Din Tai Fung. It was closer to what you’d find in 热炒店 , or small eateries that cook up local dishes, but simpler and more basic.

The food in southern Taiwan tends to be a bit on the sweeter side when compared with the north, and this was also noticeable at WG&FP. We won’t know for sure if this was the true taste of home-cooked Kaohsiung food, but it definitely did feel like it.

Given our success in Taiwan, we actively tried to find a similar restaurant in Seoul and ended up having lunch at Parc Seoul.

Their website describes their food as “… traditional Korean food inspired from authentic family recipes by owner Pak Mogua’s mother, Heo Junghee, that have been passed down through generations of family. After 4 years of traveling the world, Pak realized the strong impact his mother’s cooking had always had on him with its unique and genuine flavors. It was then when he decided to collect all of his mother’s recipes to not only document for himself, but to also share with people he loved.” 

Bingo!

We were still a bit skeptical as we made our way there, because it was located in Hannam-dong, a high-end neighbourhood near Itaewon. After walking up a short slope, we found the restaurant, which had a small entrance with a prominent menu chalkboard outside. The interior was decorated to make it feel homely, but it was less rustic than WG&FP.

We ordered the set lunch for two as well as a fresh makgeolli that was delicious and slightly carbonated. The banchan came out soon after, followed by generous portions of the mains.

The deep-fried mushrooms with sweet and sour sauce was similar to Korean tangsuyuk (typically served with jjajangmyeon) but with the pork switched out. Next was the stir-fried shrimps with broccoli in spicy sauce, which was spicy but not overwhelmingly so. The pan-fried beef top blade steak was served in big chunky pieces together with a side of various greens.

Nothing in particular stood out, but everything was definitely good. The makgeolli probably helped, because food always tastes better when you’re day drinking. The bright, airy space was comfortable, though it did get a bit noisy as the place started filling up.

The food at Parc Seoul did give off a home-cooked vibe but when compared with WG&FP, it was definitely more polished and felt almost bistro-like. Perhaps that was what the owners were going for, especially when they choose the classy Hannam-dong location.

The customers were mainly young and trendy Seoulites, both local and foreign. No families with children and we might possibly have been the oldest people there. Regardless, it was a nice, tasty and relaxing lunch and, at the very least, hinted at what a meal made by a Korean ahjumma would taste like.

Given the success of our two forays into local home-cooked food overseas, we’ll definitely continue searching for more in our future trips. Now, the only thing that left is for international leisure travel to re-start again, but realistically speaking, that might take a while.

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