Japan has long attracted visitors by its sushi, China with its Peking duck, Thailand with its curries and cooking classes on tropical islands, but it is time to put South Korea on the map of East Asian culinary travel destinations.
With one of the highest restaurants per capita rate in the world, Seoul is the place to go to sample Korean cuisine. However, you and your dining companions must agree on what you would like to eat prior to choosing a restaurant. Most are small and highly specialized, serving only one dish or type of food and meals are generally shared.
Barbeque is the king of Korean food and kim chi (spicy fermented cabbage) the national signature dish. Slip off your shoes at the door and sit on cushions around a table with a large grill or charcoal pit in the middle where you, or your waiter, cook your own food in front of you. The meat comes out raw in its seasoning or marinade. Some restaurants are so specific that you can only get one cut of meat, for example kalbi (ribs) from either beef or pork. At any restaurant a selection of side dishes, salads (always including kim chi), and soups accompany each meal and are complimentary with unlimited refills. Due to its proximity to a major university, the neighborhood of Sinchon attracts many students to its cheap barbeque restaurants, karaoke bars, and nightlife.
Seafood does not get fresher than from the Norianjing fish market. The large warehouse on the southern bank of the Han River in Seoul has long rows of live fish in tanks where you can purchase your fish and take it upstairs to the restaurants where they cook it up just for you. The fish market is mostly used for wholesale supply for the thousands of seafood restaurants in the capital. This is the best place to try the Korean specialty: live octopus. Buy a small live octopus from the tank and the restaurants will cut up the tentacles for you into bite-sized pieces. They appear on your plate still wriggling around. Dip them in sesame oil and a spicy red sauce with your chopsticks before putting them in your mouth to helps prevent the suction cups from sticking to your throat. You can still feel them sticking a little, as you chew. Supposedly, one or two people die every year from eating live octopus because the tentacles stick to their throats.
Kim chi is known for being one of the world’s healthiest foods and is a Korean national symbol. Many Koreans have argued that it aids digestion and can cure everything from minor colds to cancer. Traditionally, cabbage is harvested in the fall and families would make enough kim chi to last all year. The would store the plants in special kim chi pots, large earthenware urns that were buried underground while the kim chi fermented. Now, many homes have an extra refrigerator that only stores their kim chi. Some of the fancier models use a silver lining that is believed to eliminate the strong odor kim chi is known for.
The arts district of Seoul, Insadong, is one of the few parts of the city that still has traditional buildings pre-dating the Korean War, 1950-53. Old wooden buildings with traditional tiled roofs create narrow alleys with restaurants and teahouses off the main thorough fare filled with contemporary art galleries. Vegetarians will be happy to find restaurants here that specialize in Buddhist temple cooking. Excellently restored royal palaces are within walking distance.
Cheap take-away options offer substantial ramen and udon noodles; bi bim bap, which is rice with chopped vegetables, sauce, and a fried egg on top; kim bap, similar to sushi it is rice wrapped in seaweed but instead of raw fish inside it often has vegetables, egg, and spam, the legacy of the Korean War when American soldiers introduced this beloved brand of processed meat to the country. North Koreans are missing out on this variation.
Further afield, Jelloa province in the south is home to the Boseong green tea plantations where the local food is heavily influenced by green tea. The meat served at barbeque restaurants in the seaside town of Yulpo comes from animals raised by feeding on green tea leaves that the locals swear makes it healthier. Jimjilbongs (spas) also capitalize on the green tea health craze by offering baths infused with green tea and minerals.
If a trip to Seoul for Korean food is too far, there is always Hana in Zamalek off Ismail Mohamad and Paxy’s in Mohandiseen in the basement of the Amoun Hotel on Midan Sphinx. Both restaurants offer a full selection of Korean meals with barbeques in the middle of each table.