A taste of Seoul, Korea: Three nights

Korean food is hot! “Spicy” is probably the most prominent flavor in Korean cooking, but it’s also a sign of the increasing popularity of Korean cuisine. Everywhere you turn these days, it seems like someone is talking about Korean food, from New York’s superstar chef David Chang to the insanely popular Kogi food truck in Los Angeles. But for all the buzz Korean food is getting among eaters, many of us know little beyond the Korean basics of barbecue and Kimchi. What exactly do they like to eat in Korea? And why is everyone so obsessed with the food there?

During my recent visit to Seoul, I decided to investigate. Armed with only my camera and an empty stomach, I dived head-first into the sizzling center of Seoul’s food scene, curious to discover what Koreans liked to eat. But before I started, I needed to find some help. As any local will tell you, eating in Korea is a communal experience, with dishes passed and shared among friends. To help me navigate my way through the bewildering array of Korean food choices, I met up with three of Seoul’s top food experts: Dan from Seoul Eats, Joe of ZenKimchi, and Jennifer from FatManSeoul. Over the course of several meals with my hosts, I began to get a sense of the surprising, subtle and savory flavors that make Korean food so special. Want to get a taste of what Korean food is all about? Join along as we take a big bite of Korean cuisine – click below for more.

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Up All Night in Hongdae
Hongdae, a youthful neighborhood west of Seoul’s main downtown, has become in recent years a hub for all things fun, young and trendy. Stroll down any side street near the Hongik University metro stop and you’ll be assaulted by cozy coffee shops, raucous pubs and of course, plenty of food.

I started my culinary exploration of Seoul here in Hongdae, with Dan Gray, creator of Seoul food website Seoul Eats. The first stop was a spot simply called “RIBS,” specializing in Galbi, or pork short ribs. These tiny bite-size meat morsels make a perfect accompaniment for drinks are flavored with plenty of pepper and spices. Like many young Koreans out on the town, this was to be the first of several more stops, with plenty of drinking and snacking along the way. We headed to Chin Chin, best known for Makgeolli, an unfiltered rice wine. The drink has a milky, tangy taste to it, with a finish not unlike the yeasty taste of good Hefeweiss beer. Patrons can enjoy the drink al fresco, paired with the buzzing throb of Seoul’s plentiful motor scooter traffic jams.

After a few rounds of Makolli, we were hungry again. Thankfully, Korean food lends itself well to consumption on the street, with literally hundreds of vendors lining the sides of Hongdae’s many alleys. We headed to a Pojangmacha, or tent restaurant to get a taste of late-night Korean snacking, where we enjoyed Gaeran Mari, an omelette-like drinking snack made of eggs, veggies, ham and doused in ketchup.

Roll Up Your Sleeves in Mapo
Hongdae gave me a taste of Seoul’s frenzied late night eating scene. But I was still curious to see what the average Korean might be eating for dinner. To discover more, I met up with Joe McPherson from ZenKimchi, for a mini-food tour of Mapo-Gu, a largely working-class district east of Hongdae. Mapo is also home to Mapo Restaurant Street, a huge cluster of eateries offering traditional Korean specialities like Bulgogi and Bibimbap. They also offer more eclectic fare, including dog meat soup.

We got our hands dirty by starting with a Samgyeopsal eatery, specializing in salt-grilled pork belly. Barbecue is perhaps Korea’s most well-known cuisine. Diners typically gather round a large hole in their tables, filled with glowing red coals, while the meal’s meat is cooked in front of you. Dinner was salt-pork, accompanied by the ever-present Kimchi (pickled cabbage), as well as eggs, which were cooked up using a lip on the edge of our grill and mixed with the Kimchi.

One meal is never enough in Seoul. Like many of my nights there, we moved on to try another Korean speciality, a cold buckwheat noodle soup called Makguksu. This icy-cold dish makes a refreshing contrast to the typical spicy, smoky flavors of most Korean food. We ended our night on a decidedly blue-collar note, stopping by the 7-11 for corn ice cream sandwiches a uniquely Korean frozen novelty.

Taste the Past in Itaewon
I had been snacking till dawn and had a taste of Korean working-class cuisine. But now it was time to get a taste of the past. Korean food has a long and illustrious history, with some unique traditions that set it apart from their nearby Chinese and Japanese neighbors. To get better sense of this, I met up with Jennifer, creator of FatManSeoul and walking encyclopedia of Korean history and culture. We headed to Itaewon, Seoul’s historic district, a throwback neighborhood lined with old-style buildings, traditional Korean handicrafts and tea shops.

Our meal for the evening would be Hanjeongsik, a cornucopia of traditional small plates. No meal goes by in Korea without the ubiquitous banchan, small dishes of pickled vegetables, dried seafood and sauces that are used for dipping and as sides. Hanjeongsik takes banchan to the next level, meant to symbolically reflect five colors (black, yellow, green, red and white), directions, the four seasons and five tastes. Our spread included prawns, tofu soup, fish cakes called odeng, seaweed and plenty of pickled veggies. It’s a decadent and delicious way to sample what traditional Korean eating is all about.

We finished our evening at a tea house nearby. Though many younger Koreans now seem to gravitate towards the ubiquitous coffee shops of Seoul, tea houses will give visitors a taste of the Korea of days gone by. The humbly-named tea house “Second Best in Seoul” in Itaewon takes the traditional Korean tea to the next level. The tea here is less a drink than a dessert, combining fruits like persimmon, nuts and red bean paste into delicious post-meal concoctions. We enjoyed our tea sitting in the shop’s retro 1970’s chairs, digesting our meal. Like so much of the cuisine of Korea, it proved to be a surprising blend of the old and the new, a collection of culinary surprises waiting to be discovered.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months traveling through (Southeast) Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.