Cactus Chocolate

Cactus Chocolate

Here’s another slightly bonkers souvenir from Korea, which is full of fascinatingly ‘different’ things just begging to be sampled.

The cactus in this chocolate is from Jeju Island, which with its volcanic scenery and reputation for pure, organic produce, is a major tourist destination. Here, the cactus fruit is apparently freeze dried and powdered to retain all its natural goodness before being made into the filling for individually wrapped chocolate pieces.

As a single cactus fruit is supposed to contain almost a quarter of your daily vitamin C requirement, this could be the healthiest chocolate treat I have eaten, although as the packet of 5 pieces weighs in at 232 calories, it is not what you’d call a diet aid.

I admit, I was originally attracted as much by the packaging as the ingredients, because the bright purple of the cactus fruit in the illustration really caught my eye. As it turned out, the colour of the filling was more pink than purple, and the whole thing had a very odd and slightly fibrous texture. The flavour was hard to distinguish, and did not really remind me of the cactus fruit I have eaten fresh.

Daughter #2 thought they were weird but not unpleasant, which summed it up fairly well. She added: “I thought they might taste like tequila, but apparently not…”

These do not appear to be available in Singapore, but even if they were, I think trying them once was enough.

Abracadabra Eye Mask

Abracadabra Eye Mask

This is from the Glam Rock range by Korean firm Too Cool For School. As with most Korean skincare and cosmetic products, how it looks is just as important as how it performs, so this eye mask is not only shaped like something you’d see on Zorro, it also has a pretty lace pattern.

This type of mask tends to be made of hydrogel and slippery wet with product. Unless you have a silicone over-mask to hold it in place, you absolutely need to lie down somewhere until your 10 to 20 minutes are up, otherwise this will be in your lap and soaking your clothes in no time.

But they do work really well, especially if they have been in the fridge for a while first. I use them a lot, and – having tried this one – I am sorry that Too Cool For School has closed in Singapore. It may be some time before I am back in Seoul.

Leg Stretching Patches

Well for a start, these do not stretch your legs, whatever the illustration might lead you to believe. The patches themselves do stretch, however, which makes them easy to apply to the curve of your calves.

From Korean firm Etude House, these contain pumpkin extract and caffeine, and closer investigation reveals that they are really designed to give tired legs a boost. As they are cold and sticky, they certainly wake you up whilst you are wearing them, mainly because they are too uncomfortable to relax in.

Although they were fun to try, in the end I think I would prefer to drink my caffeine and get a boost that way.

Jeju Volcanic Steam Towel

This looked like fun, a microfiber 3D towel from Innisfree, designed to steam your face and open up the pores before you then apply a face mask. (Preferably a volcanic clay one…)

In case you were wondering what a ‘3D’ towel is, that simply means it has been shaped and sewn into a contoured mask which fits neatly over your nose then curves around your cheeks. Amusing embroidered lids and lashes try to make you look more appealing as you are wearing it. (This is Korean, of course, so all about the cuteness as well as the efficiency of the product.)

The instructions tell you to wet the towel and microwave it for 20 seconds before placing it on your face for 5 minutes. If you have ever been offered a steaming hot hand towel in a restaurant, you will know exactly what that means – you have to toss it swiftly from hand to hand and shake it out a bit before you can use it without scalding your fingers.

Not wanting to burn my face, I may have wafted this about a bit too long, because it then went cold well before the 5 minutes were up.  But it was very refreshing and made my face feel soft and moisturised. I tried this out first thing in the morning, and did not actually use a face mask afterwards, although I probably will do that next time.

As the mask is made of towelling, you can wash it out and re-use it multiple times. Of course you could also achieve the exact same thing with a simple wash cloth, but it would not look half so cute…

Dwaejigamja Tea Filters

Category : Food

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Dwaejigamja looks like it might be sunroot or earth apple, alternative names for Jerusalem artichoke, which is sweeter than you would expect from a tuber. In Korea it is a very popular vegetable which crops up in salads, as a pickle, and here – as tea.

None of which I knew at the time, I was just fascinated by the packaging. Each bag contains 6 mini filters packed with dried dwaejigamja, attached to the sort of screw caps you find on the large size of mineral water bottles.

The idea is you replace the original cap with one of these, leave it to infuse, then enjoy your special tea. I did try to find instructions in English online, without any success, so had to leave the bottle (upside down, to encourage infusion) until it looked like it might be ready to drink.

Jerusalem artichoke, incidentally, is supposed to be good for you because it has lots of antioxidants which fight free radicals, and is packed with minerals and electrolytes such as potassium, iron and copper. On the other hand, consuming too much can also apparently lead to digestive problems.

I did not drink enough of this to experience any untoward effects, as the flavour – whilst not unpleasant – was not quite nice enough to warrant finishing the glass. It reminded me a little of Japanese mugi-cha, which I have to be in the right mood for. Never mind, it was fun to try out and perhaps some of my Christmas visitors might like to give it a go.

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Underground Emergency Kits

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Seoul is a modern, vibrant capital city in a very unusual position. Although the Korean War ended decades ago, technically there is still just a ceasefire in place rather than peace between North and South.  Without getting overly political, North Korea has not proved to be a particularly friendly neighbour, so a 4km demilitarized zone exists between the 2 countries and both sides are always on the alert.

There is supposed to be a greater concentration of soldiers in and around this narrow stretch of land than anywhere else in the world, and with tensions always high or higher, it isn’t surprising that all sorts of emergency systems are in place. In Seoul itself, a mere 50km from the border, the possibility of attack is ever present, and people need to know what to do just in case.

It has been like this for a long time. I remember in the 1990’s, watching from a hotel window as a weekly drill sent everyone in the city centre rushing into the underground tunnels which act as bomb shelters as well as handy underpasses and shopping centres. In minutes, as sirens wailed, the streets were completely deserted.

On my latest visit, I was fascinated to see that on every subway station platform stand large cupboards packed with gas masks and emergency supplies. Not just one per station, but one per train carriage along the platform. Benches also doubled as holders for ladders which could be used to access the tracks for an alternative escape route…

Amazingly, despite the ever-present danger, Seoul continues to thrive so well it is giving Tokyo a run for its money. I take my hat off to such a resilient people!

Omija (5 flavour) Tea

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This is something very Korean, a special tea which is a unique blend of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy. I first tried it in a traditional tea house in the Bukchon district of old wooden houses in Seoul. It came in a cup the size of a soup bowl, alongside a plate of some unusual but tasty cookies.

Once you get over the initial surprise of having all these flavours explode onto your taste buds at once, it is very nice indeed, quite apart from being supposedly good for headaches, hangovers and general malaise.

So when I saw this version in a store later, I had to snap it up, although I must confess that the interesting presentation was as big a draw as the flavour.

Koreans are good at ‘liquid teas’, which usually come in a jar and look more like runny jam with citrus peel than actual tea until you add water. This one was liquid with a lemon slice and some berries floating inside the pouch. All the instructions were in Korean but there were helpful pictures, a line marking how much water to add – either hot or cold, plus a handy straw.

There’s a ziplock style seal at the top of each pouch, but since this was already sticky on the outside I would not have liked to put it in my bag for consumption later. That aside, the tea itself was just as delicious as the proper version I’d had before. I hope I can find this again in one of the Korean groceries in Singapore.

Donkey Milk Face Cream

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You can always rely on Korean cosmetics companies to come up with interesting and unusual ingredients, many of them home grown natural products. It probably taps into the Asian way of embracing the change in seasons, which often means that certain foodstuffs are only available for a limited time each year. (Certainly, the fruit and veg you find in the supermarkets out here are a far cry from the year-round, hot-housed, usually disappointing produce on sale in the US or UK.)

There is also a constant race to come up with something new and surprising, because crazes come and go very quickly, and competition between the top brands is fierce. Some trends peak and vanish almost immediately, others stand the test of time.

Donkey milk (and its cousin, donkey gelatin) looks to be one that will stay. And if you think about it, Cleopatra is said to have bathed in this and she was famously the most beautiful woman in the world…

Legends aside, there is also some science to back this up. Donkey milk is apparently far closer to human milk than is cow’s milk, so it causes fewer allergies and it beneficial for sensitive skin. It is also low in fat, high in lactose, deeply hydrating for the skin, and contains all manner of good things including a range of vitamins.

You may be wondering why we don’t drink this instead of cow’s milk, but the reality is that donkeys have to be milked by hand, which makes it impractical to keep large herds.

I came back from Seoul with a small collection of donkey milk-related products, and have been trying them with interest. Luckily, they do not smell either of milk or donkey, which is a distinct bonus but means that I would not have guessed they were any different from the plant based products I am used to. But my skin feels soft, I have had no adverse reactions, so would consider buying a full-sized version of either of these creams should I see them again.

Sweet Pringles

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What were they thinking?

I saw these ‘butter caramel’ Pringles in Seoul and could not believe my eyes, then saw them again in Singapore alongside the ‘sweet mayo cheese’ version.

There is no way to be polite about them – fake butter flavour, horrible sweet taste… they were completely revolting.

IOYS 3D Figurines

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Did you ever want to be made into an action figure? Well, this is the next best thing.

Ioys (which stands, oddly, for ‘I’m on your side’) can turn you into a full colour 3D representation of yourself in just 2 weeks.

I showed up at the Design Lab in central Seoul not quite sure what to expect, but was quickly blown away by the amusement value in simply taking part.

The ‘studio’ is a screened off cylindrical space filled with cameras on stands. There are well over 100 of them, all at different heights and angles, designed to capture you in 360 degrees.

One click, one second, and it’s done – you get to check the expression on your face, and, if you blinked when all the shutters clicked, try it again…

Bright coloured clothing is recommended, and you have to pose carefully so that, for example, the finished arms are not dangerously skinny and easy to break.

The figurines take about 2 weeks to be completed, so there’s a convenient system to have them mailed to your home later. A whole series of sizes is available, and you can choose to immortalise a pet, a couple, or a family group instead. I chose the next to smallest size, which was on a very attractive discount. Besides, this was a mad enough idea without ending up with a foot high mini me standing on a shelf.

At less than 70,000 won including international postage, this seemed to be a very reasonable price for a real one-off piece of memorabilia.

The finished article arrived packed in multiple layers of box and foam padding, so there was no danger of any damage, and it is surprisingly well done for the price. The surface texture is grainy, which means the spray on ‘photo’ with the colour and details is slightly blurry, but it gives an appealing soft focus finish. I’m very pleased with it!