In contrast to the often hazy, overcast weather, the monotony of endless grey cement throughout the city, and the low-key profile of many of Seoul’s neighborhoods, a culinary journey through the city could never be described as bland or boring, showing that the citizens know what’s most important: the enjoyment of life and its small pleasures. The flavors and aromas of Korean cuisine are incredibly strong and pungent, taking any normal characteristic (spicy, sour, sweet, etc.) and elevating it a few more degrees until your taste buds scream with delight (or pain, as is often the case). Korean cuisine is quickly gaining popularity on a global scale, but unfortunately, to suit many Western palettes, the flavors themselves are often watered down to avoid any unpleasantness or distaste in the mouths of the diners. Whereas many restaurants abroad are beginning to offer the untamed version of the national delicacies, a trip to their country of origin — whether it be during a royal banquet or a quick snack from a street vendor — will certainly allow you to experience the full-throttle onslaught that is eating Korean.
A few basics are necessary here, however, before diving into the parade of tastes and flavors that you’ll encounter when touring through Seoul (or simply Korea, for that matter). The first thing you’ll notice upon sitting down at your table is that the chopsticks, bowls, and often even cups are all made out of metal. This seems a bit odd at first, and one might tempted to ask why Koreans have eschewed the wooden chopsticks that the neighboring countries have adopted, or why one of the most well-known producers of ceramics, porcelain, and lacquerware would opt for metal over their own heritage. Depending upon who you ask, the answer always seems to vary: usually along the lines of having excess metal leftover after the war, the continuation of a tradition passed down from the times when silver was used in royal table settings as it would tarnish in the face of poison, or simply that it’s easy to clean and doesn’t break. Regardless of the reason, it adds one more unique element to the Korean dining experience.
Additionally, with every meal you order — not counting street eats, of course — you’ll be served a series of anywhere between two and twelve small side dished called “Banchan” (see opening photo), which can range from cold noodles to marinated vegetables. At least several of the banchan, however, are usually that famed food called kimchi — the National obsession of the Korean peninsula. Although you can “kimchi” just about anything, the most familiar for newcomers to the cuisine is that of napa cabbage that has been liberally coated in chili powder and a variety of other seasoning (most families have their own recipe), then allowed to ferment for anywhere from several days to several years. The results can be pretty funky from time to time, but once you’ve grown accustomed to its charms, you won’t be able to eat a meal without it — which, incidentally, is a good thing, as it isn’t uncommon to order a kimchi-flavored dish and be served kimchi as a side dish, too.
One additional note on eating in Korea is that a meal out is usually a communal experience, where a large group (of, say, office workers or a family) will take over an entire area of the restaurant and share everything that is ordered. As such, many of the dishes are served in large portions, meant to feed anywhere from 2-6 people. Because of this, a solo traveler such as myself can occasionally run into a few difficulties, as many restaurants won’t allow a party of one. When faced with this problem, however, I found flashing a smile and stating, ”Oh don’t worry, I’ll eat for at least two or three!” usually works.
Finally – as my usual disclaimer – attempting to classify an entire country’s cuisine in one post would be foolish, and if I did, you’d give up reading long before reaching the end. So the purpose of this post is merely to give you an idea of the tastes, flavors, and dishes that make up the Korean repertoire. Now on to the food, starting with a quick, obligatory pass through the market:
Hundreds of vendors and thousands of hungry diners at the Kwang Jang Market
Actually identifying what it is you’re eating can sometimes be a bit tricky, but regardless of whether you know what it is, it still probably tastes good
Walking through the aisles of the Nakwon Market
A variety of rice and grains on offer
Whether seasoning while cooking or seasoning to taste after the dish is completed, condiments, oils, vinegar, and soy sauces are another vital component
Dishes come in a variety of forms and presentations, but here are a few of the more common offerings that you’ll come across while visiting Korea (or, if you can’t squeeze the vacation time, at you local Korean restaurant):
A nice way to transition yourself into the local food scene is to grab a table at any of the popular open-air “Galbi” restaurants (translated directly, galbi refers to rib meat, but in practice, it is used to refer to any type of meat)
At these places, you order hunks of raw meat and then cook them to your liking on the grille set in the middle of the table
When the meat is done, place it in the middle of one of a variety of leaves, top it with a bit of ssamgjang sauce (a spicy, red condiment), some raw garlic, and perhaps some pepper and onion before rolling the whole thing up and popping it in your mouth. (any wrap here is refered to as “Ssam,” by the way)
Gimbap - in the same vein as sushi from neighboring Japan, this is essentially an overstuffed maki roll
Bulgogi – arguably the most famous Korean dish, consisting of strips of beef marinated in soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, pepper, and a few other aromatics before being either grilled or pan-fried
Dubu Kimchi — much like the classic pairings of peanut butter and jelly, wine and cheese, bacon and eggs, or chocolate and anything, there is just something magical about pork, kimchi, and tofu paired together as a trio
Japchae – sweet potato noodles and a variety of veggies (usually carrots, onions, and mushrooms) fried up, then flavored with sesame oil
Bo Ssam – similar to the Ssam wraps above, but this classic dish is made from steamed or boiled pork and served up in portions for 2-3
A tasty bite of Haemul Pajeon, a type of savory egg-and-flour pancake made with green onions and a hearty portion of of seafood (usually squid, prawns, clams and oysters)
Naengmyeon – Long, handmade buckwheat noodles served cold in a chilled, tangy broth and topped with cucumber, pears, and a hard-boiled egg. Although it is slightly against tradition, be sure to ask the waiter to cut the noodles a few times with scissors, otherwise eating this dish can be quite the challenge
Ganjang gejang, or Soy Sauce Crab — the name says it all, as it is a simply a nice looking crab marinated in soy sauce. Interestingly enough, however, the flavor doesn’t take on the salty notes of the soy sauce, but instead the preservation process transforms the sweet, stringy crab meat into a rich, gelatinous goo
Soups and Stews:
Another unique quirk to local cuisine is the Koreans’ love for stews of all varieties. Whether the weather is scorching hot or bitterly cold, whether you’re feeling energized or are dragging yourself around, they’ve got a stew that is custom-made for you:
Samgyetang – a soup consisting of an entire young chicken stewed up with ginseng and glutinous rice. This dish is consumed during the hot and humid summers, as well as a preventative medicine for illness. Additionally, it is usually accompanied by a glass of insamju, or ginseng wine, to open up the blood vessels and really drive home the restorative qualities of ginseng
Sundubu Ddkukbaegi – otherwise known as spicy soft tofu stew. This is another one that doesn’t sound great on the surface – a spicy clam broth with soft tofu – but actually turns out to be surprisingly addictive
Andong jjimdak – a stew of steamed chicken, potatoes, and vegetables marinated in soy sauce
Kalguksu – wheat-flout noodles served in a light broth with a few gyoza dumplings thrown in for good measure
Sundaeguk – a stew whose star ingredient is Sundae, or Korean blood sausage — made by stuffing a pig’s intestine with cellophane noodles, barley, spices, and a generous helping of pig’s blood
Although the above pictured dishes are enough to satisfy any normal appetite, for those who – like me – still feel the need to indulge between meals, you need not do anything more than simply walk a block or two in any direction and your cravings will be sated. Ranking up there with the likes of Bangkok, Hanoi, Singapore, and Penang, Seoul is another street-eats heaven, with small push carts and tented canopies dotting most corners — a characteristic of a city that I find most endearing:
A typical street vendor tending to her delicious offerings
Ddeokbokki – chewy rice cakes served up in a spicy hot sauce, the perfect way to end a night
Dakkochi — skewers of chicken, served straight-up or sometimes covered in a sweet, tangy red sauce
Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you’ll find one of the vendors that will even dust the entire thing in cheese powder, sprinkle on a few seeds and nuts for texture, and then coat it all in mayonnaise — delicious, but try not to eat this one too often, for obvious health reasons
Remember the Sundae stew listed above? Well, street vendors will sell you the bloody goodness all by itself, with nothing more than a seasoning packet and a few toothpicks by which to indulge. As a side note, for my first time trying this, I innocently wandered up to a vendor and ordered one serving for myself — thinking that at less than three dollars, it would only entail a few bites. After watching in dismay as she cut apart an entire sausage spiral, I was then left with this bag of over two pounds of sausage — and what, pray tell, and I supposed to do with all of this?
Hotteok – a small griddle cake filled with brown sugar and cinnamon
Lines waiting to sample this vendors dumpling-heavy fare
I obviously waited in the above-mentioned line and ended up with a few fried, gyoza-like dumplings that I believe are called Mandu (I think)
Bindaeduck – similar to the seafood pancake (haemul pajeon) shown earlier, but bean sprouts play the lead role in this iteration
Gamja Dog – a corn dog (which, I’d like to note, is already a hog dog coated in a cornmeal batter) that is then re-coated in another french-fry-like potato batter. Drop the whole Frankenstein-like creation in the fryer for a few minutes, coat it in ketchup, and then proceed to have a heart attack
Bungeoppang – small carp-shaped pastries stuffed with red bean paste
Kkultarae – a traditional treat in the royal court, this bite-sized snack is made by combining honey and sugar, stretching the combo until the strands are thinner than a strand of hair, and then stuffing it with a sweet nut filling. As soon as it hits your tongue, it instantly dissolves into a gooey mess
Imbibing in Korea:
Although coming to Seoul and eating your way around the city is certainly a thrilling experience, stopping there would leave you having only experienced half of the culinary scene. I can’t come up with an appropriate euphemism for it, so I’ll just go ahead and state is directly: Koreans LOVE to drink — and by ”drink,” I mean imbibe as much alcohol as the limits of the human body will allow. In fact, Koreans drink, on average, more alcohol per person than any other culture in the world (including the Irish!). And a significant portion of that alcohol comes in the form of a distilled rice liquor that tastes and smells like diluted vodka called Soju (which has, by no coincidence, also become the biggest selling spirit in the world).
Soju is the National Drink, so I obviously had to give it a try
Eventhough I did partake in a few Soju sessions, luckily there is a wealth of other options available for those looking to enjoy something that doesn’t taste like paint thinner:
A new favorite of mine is Makgeolli – Korea’s oldest liquor. It is an unfiltered, lower-alcohol beverage that has a slightly sour, slightly chalky taste that requires a good shake before serving to make sure the rice sediment is thoroughly mixed
When making Makgeolli, if you allow the sediment to settle to the bottom and then skim off the top, you’d be left with the sweeter, more floral (and clear) Chung Ha
The local beer of choice is a relatively bland lager known as Cass
It is also common for Soju or other rice wines to be flavored with a variety of fruits or aromatics. This example, served in a particularly attractive jug, is flavored with quince
Known simply as “Sweet After Bitter,” this popular cocktail floats a shot of soju on top of a shot of cola, which is then all topped up with beer and downed in one go
Bokbunja Ju, or wine made from local blackberries
Baekseju – a yellow rice wine flavored with a variety of roots and herbs, giving it an almost medicinal flavor (it tastes better than that sounds)
I never actually figured out what this one was. But regardless, yay for ambiguous alcohol!
For those non-drinkers out there — or for those who had one too many rounds the night before – Korea is also flush with many non-alcoholic options, largely based around traditional teas and tinctures. Here are a few of the unique options I was able to find while visiting:
Hidden away down the small alleys and tiny lanes that jut off the main roads, you’ll find many truly unique, full-of-charater tea houses such as this one, giving one a respite from the crowds outside
Omija Tea – made from the “Five Flavor” berry, which is said to give the taster the sensation of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy all at the same time
Daechu Tea (dried jujube)
Misutgaru – made from ground, roasted grains and sweetened with honey, this drink takes on a protein-shake like consistency
And a nice cinnamon-flavored bean porridge to finish things off
I knew before arriving in Korea that this would be one of the more food-centric stops for me, but I didn’t realize quite how much I was going to indulge here until I had my first taste. Even though I eat just about everything I can find wherever I go, my stomach hasn’t taken this severe of a beating for a long time (probably since Singapore). I honestly found myself delaying and putting off visits to the tourist sights in favor of staying around the markets to make sure I could try everything I wanted while I was still here. Alas, I’m now moving out of Seoul, but luckily I still have another 10 days or so on the Korean Peninsula in which to enjoy myself, with Suwon up next.
Until then, Chukbae from Seoul!
Post Script — Special Thanks to Daniel, Jason, Jason, and the rest of the O’ngo Team. You guys gave me a perfect intro into the culinary world of Korea!