If you have lived in Seoul as a foreigner, chances are you have heard of the fabulous website, A Fat Girl’s Food Guide to Eating in Korea, written and run by British expat Gemma Wardle. The site has a wealth of helpful reviews of foreign food restaurants in Seoul, recipes, and places to buy hard-to-find ingredients. Gemma’s website won the 2014 K-Blog Award in the “Best Food Blog” category, and she has written for or been featured in a number of media outlets including the Korea Times. I had the honor of sitting down with Gemma last week at Ikovox Coffee in Itaewon. Gemma is an Itaewon local, and as I wandered the narrow streets lined with quirky foreign food spots–a mac and cheese cafe, a pub advertising fish and chips, kebab and falafel, a Bulgarian restaurant–it made sense why she would be drawn to this neighborhood. Gemma is warm and wonderful to talk with, the kind of engaging friend always game for great food and stories. She has high standards; she sent back her drink when the barista brought it out in a to-go cup even though we were clearly sticking around. And she is incredibly helpful. At one point she stopped and asked me, like a friendly tour guide to Seoul’s foreign food world,
“Is there anything you are looking for I can direct you to?”
“Hmmmmmm….. for me personally, I miss salads, and fresh fruit for smoothies…”
“You just have to shop around,” she advised. “I usually find that one supermarket will be good for cheap vegetables, and one will be good for cheap fruit. You just have to keep an eye out, and you’ll find them!”
Morgan: So what first brought you to Korea, and how did you get started food blogging?
Gemma: I first came to Korea over seven years now. One of my friends who I had lived with in Australia was over here teaching. I wanted to travel more, so I came here. I have been teaching more or less ever since. I started the blog about three and a half years ago now because I had so much information about food, and it seemed like my friends were always asking me the same questions over and over again. “You can buy this in Korea?” “You can really make teas in Korea?” I didn’t really have any ambitions at first. But then the blog really gained momentum and became much bigger than I ever thought it would.
Since your blog has gotten so big, what has it been like? Do you ever have people recognize you on the street?
Hmmmmm… that has only happened two or three times. Once someone sent over a drink though! That was pretty cool. I think my blog is memorable because of the name, and I just have a lot of content as well.
How do you chose the restaurants you review? And when you go in to review a restaurant, what would you say you are looking for? What do you pay attention to?
I keep a list of places I want to review–places that friends mention or new places I see in this neighborhood. I keep an ear to the ground. Sometimes I am just craving something, or sometimes I am invited to try something on the house. The places I review I have to either really love, or there has to be something special or different about them. For example, because there are so many pizza places, for me to review a pizza place, it has to be really, really good. Whereas if you are the only Bulgarian restaurant in town, I just have to like it. I can be a lot more forgiving. I don’t write negative reviews. I critique individual dishes, but on the whole I want to blog to be positive.
I think that adds a lot to your blog that it is so positive. And it has a lot of good content! One thing that is hard about being a foreigner in Korea is finding shops where you can buy good ingredients for cooking and baking. You have some suggestions on your website, but I was wondering if you could tell me some of the top places that you go to shop for ingredients?
Costco. Once a month we go to Costco, because it is very cheap for dairy products. And then I shop weekly at my local Korean grocery store for fruits and vegetables. And the foreign food mart in Itaewon as well.
If you were to characterize the changes you have seen in foreign food in Korea during your time here–food fads that have come and gone–what have you noticed?
Oh, the changes have been insane… I remember several years ago when Paris Baguette started selling little chicken tender wraps, which were like some of my favorites at home. That was exciting. And then more and more products over time came–quinoa and chia seeds. There is nothing you can’t get now. Before there were things you couldn’t get, but now it is a very small list. And if you can’t get it, you can make it.
Are there any food from back home that you really miss, or are really hard to find?
I miss parsnips. I even bought seeds, but I haven’t planted them yet. Oh, and rhubarb. And “American” Chinese food, covered in batter and fried….
That sounds amazing… So most of the reviews you do are for foreign foods. Have you thought about reviewing Korean restaurants?
I never reviewed Korean restaurants in the beginning because so many other people were already doing it. And it’s not hard to find Korean food–it’s everywhere. I do like Korean food. But I eat mostly foreign food.
So you do a lot of cooking for yourself? I read somewhere you do a diet, “raw ‘til 4”?
Yes, I only eat raw food until four, but now I am not as strict with it. I always make a green smoothie for my breakfast and take a little box of salad for my lunch. That keeps my weight even.
What are some of your favorite Korean foods?
Bulgogi. And I am really into donkas kimbap at the moment…
I have never had that before!
I think it’s kind of new! There is a really good spot by my work that has it. I kind of get obsessed with things. I keep craving gamjatang too. I usually add my own ingredients to it to give it a special kick.
So since you are very much placed here in Itaewon, if you could eat anywhere for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, where would you eat?
That’s a good question! Let’s say this is a weekend. I would have brunch at Libertine–poached eggs with a mimosa or Bloody Mary. Then for lunch, I would go to Vatos, because they have great tacos, kimchi fries, and Mexican-fusion food. And they have a great party atmosphere. For dinner, I would go to Linus or Manimal for barbeque. And then I would go out after dinner to 12 Stairs–this really cool 1920’s cocktail bar. And then I would grab Gino’s on the way home.
Haha, so we are at five meals then!
That would be my ideal day.
So my last question is, what is next for the Fat Girl’s Food Guide?
Become bigger and better! I would love to be able to do it full time.
After we finished talking, Gemma directed me toward the foreign food mart in Itaewon. Her love of food is truly contagious, and I left Itaewon that day with quinoa, ginger tea, spinach, and a great deal of inspiration to find ways to eat well in Korea.
Many thanks to Gemma for meeting up, and be sure to check out the Fat Girl’s Food Guide here!
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