*26.07.12 Updated with more photos! Stay tuned for South Korea Part II write up on Jeju island.
My earliest memories of South Korea were blurry and in all honestly, not good at all. All I can recollect is the very cold winter, long bus rides, ski resort which we barely saw, bad food coupled with the fever that I was running – this was a good decade ago where my family headed on a group tour to Seoul and Jeju-do.
Fast-forward to today, I’m so glad to say that all those memories have been replaced with really good ones. To have to summarise it in a single line would be hard but I will have a go – summer, wanderings through interesting alleys, breathtaking natural wonders, tradition meets modernity and above all, great food!
Even though summer season meant periodic passing showers and occasional heatwaves, the weather couldn’t get our spirits down.
Food in South Korea is not entirely unfamiliar to me – I have eaten it in Sydney where I was properly acquainted with this cuisine and then in Singapore where you see a proliferation of Korean food from the ingredients you are now able to find at a supermarket to the Korean restaurants that start to pop up all over Singapore.
That being said, this trip to Korea has opened my eyes to Hansik (Korean cuisine) where almost all meals are very well-balanced with a lot of vegetables due to the number of side dishes being served with the meal. Every meal is a feast fit for an emperor.
Here’s my list of food experiences that you should consider putting on your itinerary if you are heading to Seoul:
1. Bibimbap, 비빔밥
(Rice with vegetables and meat)
Bibimbap is the first Korean dish that I’ve tried and love so I wanted to try it on Korea grounds. I tried the Jeongu style Bibimbap.I like it a lot because it is so beautiful to look at; all the colours in that bowl are so inviting. It has a good mixture of everything – seasoned vegetables like mushrooms, spinach, cucumber, bellflower root and beansprouts, beef and egg. This mixture is topped with gochujang (red pepper paste) which is made by fermenting soybeans with chilli and glutinous rice. My favourite version of the bibimbap is actually the dolsot bibimbap which is served in a stone bowl where I can spoon away the golden brown and crisp rice grains.
Gogung, 고궁 (Insadong)
B1F Ssamzigil, 38 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Tel: 02 736 3211
Opening Hours: 10:30~21:00
Get there by train from Anguk Stn. (Line 3, Exit 6) and a 4 minute walk.
2. Street food along Myeongdong,명동 and Insadong, 인사동
South Koreans love their street food and food carts. They can be found in many streets in Seoul. I’ll just point you to the ones in Myeongdong and Insadong because they make perfect snacks while you get hungry after shopping. It’s best if you bring along a friend so you can share those snacks and get a taste of everything. I love the experience of just peering at those carts to see what is being sold. It’s an assault of the senses – the smell of Tteokbokki(spicy rice cakes) permeating the air, the snacks that comes in all colours, shapes and sizes. You can find gimbap (Korrean sushi roll), tteokbokki, roasted chestnuts, twigim(fritters made with sweet potatoes, squid, shrimp), and grilled dried squid.
Try the skewered potatoes on a stick. I saw the man spiraling potatoes with a nifty gadget. The potatoes are then skewered and deep fried. You can choose to dip them in a array of powders like chilli and cheese.
Galbi houses are really popular with the young and working crowd in Seoul. It’s not hard to see why – kicking back on a Friday night with some grilled meat and soju, what’s not to love?
I had a few galbi meals in Seoul as well as Jeju. I’m surprised that I enjoy the experience very much. It is a do-it-yourself styled indoor bbq with loads of side dishes. Even though it is usually very meat heavy (dependent on the meat you order), it comes with lettuce and perilla for you to wrap your grilled meat in. It gives the meat a little refreshing crunchiness. You can dip your grilled meat in ssamjang, a sauce made from fermented beancurd and red pepper paste (pictured below) or coarse salt. You should order the premium cuts of beef as much as possible. I think it makes a difference. And don’t forget to order some pork belly for some melt in the mouth goodness!
Wangbijib Galbi Restaurant
26-2, 8-ga Myeong-dong, Chung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Myeongdong Station (Subway Line #4), exit 8
Maple tree house 단풍나무집
116-1 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
4. Samgyetang, 삼계탕
(Ginseng chicken soup)
Samyetang was the best thing about my Korea trip a decade ago. I still have fond memories of eating that bowl of warm and flavoursome soup that did more than to warm me up on a cold winter’s night.
Samyetang is a slow-cooked chicken soup made by stuffing a chicken with glutinous rice, ginseng, garlic, ginko nut and jujube.
This time, I was searching for the best samyetang in Seoul. Unfortunately, I only had the opportunity of having this dish just once at Tosokchon. It came served with a shot of Insamju (ginseng liquor). To me, their version a little of a disappointment especially after we had tried the ginseng chicken soup with abalone in Jeju. It’s good but not fantastic.
Perhaps it boils down to the way Tosokchon does the samyetang a little differently- they roast their chicken first before putting it in the soup. The soup broth a little cloudy and heavy unlike the light broth-like type that I like.
85-1 Chebu-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Tel: (02) 737-7444
Take Line 3, get off at Gyeongbokgung station, and go out from exit 2. Walk 120m towards Hyoja-dong direction, and make a left at GS25.
5. Noryangjin fisheries wholesale market, 노량진수산시장
Noryangjin is one of South Korea’s largest seafood markets; there are about 850 varieties of seafood for sale in this market. I went there one morning just to catch the bustling action in the market. It is great fun just walking in the wet market and looking at some of the weirdest looking seafood. Even though the names of the seafood are in Korean, I found out that some of the store owners can speak a little mandarin and I managed to find out what I wanted.
This market is a highly recommended place for all foodies. While you are browsing the stores, why not buy some seafood and bring it up to a restaurant on the second floor of the market. They will cut and prepare the seafood for you.
I bought some gorgoues abalone and got the restaurant to butter grill them for me. They were perfect – succulent and sweet. The most exciting experience for me was trying the sannakji, live octopus sashimi. It took me a whole 5 -1 0 minutes of starring at those suckers before I dared to put one of its tentacle in my mouth. Those suckers really grip onto your chopstick and then suck on your tongue as you chew away. That aside, they do taste pretty good eaten with a sesame sauce.
Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market
Take the train to Noryangjin Station (Subway Line 1) and go out from exit 1. Walk 100m across the bridge. You can actually smell seafood before you even get to the market.
Tip: Do check the prices of seafood at a few stores before making a purchase. If you are buying a few items, you can ask for a discount by saying “Taka jusayo”. They would give you a little discount and maybe throw in one or two new seafood.
6. Nangmyeon, 냉면
(Cold buckwheat noodles)
It was on a very hot day when I had this dish. It was very good. The buckwheat noodles was served in a clear beef broth topped with a beef slice, shredded egg, pickled radish and cucumber. I think it’s especially good to cleanse the body after a heavy meal of galbi the night before.
Bong Pi Yang 봉피양
67-2 Tongui-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea
Tel: (02) 732-9292
7. Tea and rice cakes at a traditional tea house
When in Seoul, one should not miss out on the experience of having Dawasang (tea and tea snacks) at a traditional tea house. There are many traditional tea houses along the alleys of the Insadong area. The tea house ambience is very cosy and quaint unlike the modern cafes that you find in Seoul.
I tried a cold Omija Hwachae (오미자 차) which is also known as five flavour berry tea because of the five flavours of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and biter that you will taste. I really like this tea and when you order tea, they will serve some complimentary traditional rice cakes for your enjoyment. It’s indeed a pleasant way to be spending an afternoon in Seoul.
Shin Old Tea House
Take the train to Anguk Station, Line 3. Exit towards Insadong. Turn left onto Insadong street. The cafe is at the end of an alley off to your right after you walk past Ssamzigil.
Dalsaeneun Dalman Saenggak Handa Teahouse, 달새는달만생각한다인사동
Insadong 4-gil, Insadong
Take the train to Anguk Station, Exit 6
Tel: 02 723 1504
Hope that you’ve enjoyed this post. Stay tuned for the next post on South Korea Part II: Jeju-do!