Head to Seoul!
Korea … torn between the tug of modernity and the tidal pull of their own traditionalism. Royal palaces and tombs still dot the city, traditional cultural performances and festivals are everywhere. And so are the Apple stores. Korea is a mind blower. Like Tokyo, Seoul is one of the most hoppin’ happenin’ cities in the world and without a doubt the most underrated food city in the world. Paris, Tokyo, NYC, San Fran, Sydney … they get all the publicity, but Seoul is the real deal, too. Koreans love to eat and despite the OVERWHELMING dearth of restaurants serving anything other than Korean fare, you will never tire of the cuisine in Seoul because Korean food is so diverse it makes Dolly Parton’s closet seem mundane by comparison.
Seoul’s largest market is Noryangjin Fish Market, a 700,000 square foot facility that houses over 700 shops selling the most insanely diverse product from 15 fishing ports around Korea. The complex includes numerous restaurants, an auction floor, and an adjacent produce market but everyone comes for the fish. Octopus is a popular delicacy here and is eaten cooked or raw. If eaten raw, it is either eaten whole (and very much alive) or it is sliced up, its tentacles still wriggling as it goes into your mouth. You’ll also find local flower crabs, prawns, abalone, clams, oysters, sea snails, sea cucumber, sea slugs, and sea squirts. And of course, live fish can be seen swimming in tanks all over the complex. You point at the fish of your choice and the seller weighs it and informs you of the price. You can take the fish home with you whole or have it gutted and cleaned. On the floor above the Fish Market, you’ll find several seafood restaurants. You can buy your seafood from the market and bring it upstairs or have it delivered upstairs for your dining pleasure. Awesome. The restaurants will provide the side dishes, liquor and prepare hot soup from the carcass of the recently deboned fish. Of course, if you don’t want the hassle of doing it yourself, you can just order at the restaurants and the ladies will yell your order downstairs and it’ll be on your table in a couple of minutes. I love this place.
Koreans love spoiled and fermented foods, and have developed fermented food recipes in order to preserve foods that would provide essential nutrients throughout the lean winter months. Fermented foods are healthy (think sauerkraut!) and they show the wisdom of ancestors who sought the secret of longevity. Fermented sauces made of soybeans were created, kimchi was made and stored for winter when it was hard to grow vegetables, and fermented seafood was developed as a way to deal with the all the food that comes from the sea and couldn’t’ be consumed immediately. Now hong uh wae is fermented skate, left to rot at room temperature for several days before being eaten raw. Skate spoils faster than almost any other seafood and because the animal is loaded with uremic acid and pees through its skin the flavor the rotted skate flesh makes other rotted seafare taste like cotton candy. Yummy. But I loved the kimchi in Korea and got to eat plenty of it with every meal, as well as big piles of all my other fave fermented foods.
o Jangajjis – A dish of dried or salted vegetables and herbs pickled in bean sauce or bean paste or peppered bean paste.
o Ganjang – Korean soy sauce.
o Doenjang – Fermented soybean paste. Doenjang is made from the solids left over after Gangjang is drained from its fermentation vessel.
o Gochujang – a hot paste made from soybean powder fermented with boiled rice, flour, and sticky rice powder and seasoned with salt and spicy peppers.
o Cheonggukjang – a fermented soybean paste that contains whole as well as ground soy beans.
Everyone in Korea dines out and it is a common habit for people in Seoul, so there are thousands of restaurants scattered throughout every neighborhood. Unlike restaurants in the US where you pick a meal off a large menu with endless choices, restaurants in Seoul tend to specialize in one or two certain foods. Eating out is a group activity and you don’t see many people dining alone. You want soup? Go to a soup restaurant. Want BBQ? Hit a BBQ joint, and Korean BBQ is superb.
I made sure to check out a Sutcama, a sauna emporium where you bake in a hut heated by hundreds of pounds of wood and charcoal. Friends go here together for a sweat and then a shower. Afterwards, you eat the house specialty: 3-second pork belly. The pork is placed on a grate and put in the coals and cooks in seconds.
I also went to a BBQ restaurant in Seoul for intestine, ox-liver and omasum (pork stomach). All these extremely popular restaurants have grills set into the table and each specializes in a certain kind of meat. Typical choices are beef (bulgogi), beef ribs (galbi), pork (samgyeopsal), or chicken (dak) but there is a type of BBQ joint to suit every taste.
There are many unusual soups and stew eateries in Seoul. Since soups and stews are such a big part of everyday eating, and the majority of restaurants in Seoul specialize in amazing meals in a bowl. I even got to try a soup called Dead Body Soup … dont ask!
I made sure to try as many other soups as I could and here is the list:
o Loach soup
o Sunji Haejangguk (clotted-blood soup)
o Potato with pig backbone stew
o Knuckle bone soup
o Ox tail soup
o Tripe soup
o Sea mustard soup
o Doganitang – soup made with jellified cow’s knee cartilage
o Haejangguk — a favorite hangover cure consisting usually of meaty pork spine, dried cabbage, coagulated ox blood, and vegetables in a hearty beef broth
o Seolleongtang — ox leg bone soup simmered for more than 10 hours until the soup is milky-white. Usually served in a bowl containing glass noodles and pieces of beef.
o Maeuntang — a refreshing, hot and spicy fish soup
o Gamjatang (“pork spine stew”) — a spicy soup made with pork spine, vegetables (especially potatoes) and hot peppers. The vertebrae are usually separated. This is often served as a late-night snack but may also be served for a lunch or dinner.
o Cheonggukjang jjigae: a soup made from strong-smelling thick soybean paste containing whole beans
o Samgyetang: a soup made with Cornish game hens that are stuffed with ginseng, a hedysarum, sweet rice, jujubes, garlic, and chestnuts
But here is the best advice I can give you. Head to Seoul, and see for yourself. You will love it. Especially the food.