The Canadian expats reveal how they've immersed themselves in Korean and Japanese food culture while sharing it with over one million followers.
YouTube can function, in a sense, as a living travel guide. Search for any location, sort by most recent, and you can usually get an idea of what's going on in any corner of the world. That's thanks, in part, to the bevy of video bloggers documenting and uploading their sights, sounds, tastes, and experiences every day (okay, nearly every second).
When it comes to the countries of South Korea and Japan, Canadian expats Simon and Martina Stawski have mapped out just about everything you'd want to eat. The married couple moved from Ontario, Canada to Seoul in 2008 to teach English on little more than a whim, and two years ago relocated to the Kichijoji neighborhood of Tokyo. While living out their shared dream of residing abroad, the pair has launched a popular blog and created hundreds of YouTube videos covering restaurant reviews, food explainers, recipes, and, their adorable pets Spudgy and Meemers.
But Simon and Martina might never have accrued their community of over one million followers if it hadn’t been for technology, or, rather, lack thereof. "The day we got on the plane to South Korea, North Korea threatened to cover it in an ocean of fire. So our parents were freaking out. All of our friends were like 'you can’t go!'" Martina told Food & Wine. "We went anyways and realized 'hey, there’s no ocean of fire here. It’s pretty chill.' So we started making videos to show our families what it was like. Ironically we started posting them on YouTube because iPhones were blocked in Korea at the time," Simon recalls. "If we’d have had FaceTime, we would have just FaceTimed our family and there would have been none of this to begin with."
Those YouTube videos began to find an audience of hungry fans who weren’t related to the Stawskis, and with that void presenting itself, they took on the task of demystifying the foods they were experiencing in Korea for a less-privy, Western audience. "We’d run into a lot of foreigners that were afraid to try any of the food in Korea. They’re eating things like spaghetti or whatever they can cook. So we use layman’s terms to describe things. Instead of being like 'the umami or smokiness' which, we know those flavors are there, we try to say something simple—'this is kind of like fancy ketchup' or 'this is like a scrambled egg.' We wanted people to be encouraged to be brave and go out there and eat that food."
With nearly a decade of curating and sharing their food exploits in South Korea, Japan, and beyond, Simon and Martina have great tips on immersing yourself in a country’s food as an outsider, whether you’re just visiting for a week or planning to settle down.
1. Seek Cuisines, Not Addresses
Martina: When we travel somewhere, I look up what kind of food they have. I try not to specifically look up locations. Like in Bali, I tried to get an understanding of what food is there, what street food is, what high-end food is. I prep my mind to say 'here are the five foods I'm going to keep an eye out for.' Let's say you're coming to Japan and you really want to try udon. Well, make sure you know what the Japanese word for udon looks like, keep that in your phone in a picture album, and then when you go for a walk around your neighborhood you can see ‘oh, this curtain has the word for udon on it, I wanted to try this’ and pop on in. And that was one of our first experiences for ramen. We knew the symbol, went in and had some of the best chicken bone broth ramen of our lives. You can have a bucket list, but just because something is a bucket list location, doesn't mean you're going to love it.
2. Wander (And Drop a Pin)
Martina: When it comes to finding restaurants, we're really strong advocates of wandering. I love Google Pins on my map. We'll walk by a place and say 'this is cool, what is this?' And then we'll drop a pin and label it and come back some other time. One thing we try to encourage people to do is to let go of that schedule, otherwise you're on the train the whole time going from place to place. We want people to feel like it's okay to walk around and step into a bakery and just buy something and find out 'oh wow, there are beans inside this!'
Simon: I always want people to have at least one or two days with nothing scheduled. Leave your hotel or Airbnb and wander. Sit down in a restaurant and try something, or stumble upon a random temple. The places that you go to that are off-schedule, those are the best memories you're going to keep with you.
3. Eat High and Low
Martina: I think what’s great about getting into a culture through food is that it doesn’t matter what your social status is, it doesn’t matter where you are on a scale, everybody eats. Even if you’re thinking 'I’m broke, I can’t eat expensive food' that doesn’t matter. Everybody eats. Everybody knows the difference between good food and bad food. Even if it’s just base level mac and cheese, even if it’s just a peanut butter sandwich and the bread is dry, everybody knows that.
Simon: It's a totally different world here when it comes to food. It's very hard to find bad food here. It doesn't matter if you're spending $600 or $6. And the craft that these chefs are dedicated to is inspiring to us—how many years they've put in, the generations of families running these places, the pursuit of perfect ingredients.
Martina: It's never sloppy, even at the corner udon place everything is pristine and perfect. The kinds of foods we eat every day are comfort food, so how do you find out what Korean or Japanese comfort foods are unless you go out and see what regular people are eating?
Simon: And it depends on what time you go out. The 6 p.m. crowd is different than the salaryman crowd eating gyoza at midnight.
4. Don't Be Afraid to Be Confused
Simon: When some people travel, they want to cut out the element of surprise as much as possible. They want everything to be controlled and handheld. We want to encourage people to shake out of that. We want people to be confused. I want people to go and try something new that they loved and I want them to try something new that they hate. But even if you hate it, even if you spit it out, it's a great story to tell people afterward. That memory-building part of food culture is so overlooked.
Martina: Everybody is the same in some sense. Everyone is going to go to work, all the people have to throw out their garbage, everyone has to eat food, and we all have grocery stores or some kind of transportation whether that's a car, a high-speed train or a bicycle. People have this idea 'I couldn't move to Korea because I don't speak the language.' Well, you don't need to speak the language to get on a subway. You just pay and get on. We didn't look up things on Korea before we went there. Our school did not want us to learn Korean. You just get along.
5. Start Conversations
Martina: Whether you meet people at a cheap izakaya or an expensive place, you've always got something to talk about. And as soon as you start sharing with them you start learning a whole new vocabulary through the story that they tell you, like about their childhood. For example Tamago kake gohan, this rice dish that’s kind of a trend in Japan, if you look it up online it’s not like a 'thing' but all these izakaya people will shuffle up to you and they’re like 'when I was a kid in Hokkaido my mom would make this.' There are these emotional stories people have with their food.
Simon: I feel like everyone has an emotional story with food, everyone has something, they remember their mom’s home cooking or their grandma’s home cooking, and those memories are so much more poignant and powerful and impactful and you want to share those so much more than a lesson on how to make a collect call in week six of your language immersion class. I feel like it’s much more of an emotional question that way. And back to what Martina was saying, you don’t know if somebody’s rich or not, we did a video about Saitamaya, who’s a master of grilled meat. And we’re sitting in that restaurant and to the right of us is a guy that works in a nursing home and to the left of me is the director of Godzilla. But nobody’s freaking out asking him for selfies. Everyone’s like 'this is delicious, you want another drink?' Everyone is connected and equal when it comes to eating food.
Can't Travel? Cook!
Simon: The majority of the people that watch our videos our living outside of Japan, something like 98 percent don’t live in Japan. So for these people that are in America who might not get to experience a restaurant we go to, we ask how can we give them a similar experience at home? If we can show them how they can make okonomiyaki, it opens them up to being able to say 'I’ve tried this kind of food.' And even just going to the international market to pick up soft tofu, which they might not have gone to before, can open a whole new set of experiences.
Martina: Especially for a lot of our viewers, when we saw they don’t live in a major city, my hope was that people would be able to order things online and talk to each other, and that’s exactly what happened. They would be like 'I live in Ohio and there’s no Koreatown near me' and someone would reply 'you can order from this website' and the other person was like 'thank you,' and then two days later I see a post on Instagram and they’re saying 'Martina, I made my first onigiri and I bought everything online!'