South Korea’s Not-to-Miss Foods and Where to Find Them
The 2018 Winter Olympics are in the books now, but the worldwide attention they brought to Korea (both South and North) will be long remembered. That’s only fair because Korea is one of the most frequently overlooked destinations in Asia. The country is mainly known as the front line in the last bastion of the cold war, but it’s so much more than that. South Korea has a tremendous depth of history, culture, and cuisine to share with the world, and a visit here should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Oppan Gangnam Style
Jungsik 11 Seollungro 158-gil Gangnam-gu Seoul
Goofy viral music videos aside, there’s a point to the rise of K-pop. Seoul is one of the great cities of the world, and it’s got food options to compete with any destination in Asia. Whether you’re the type to check your Michelin guide for the best of the best or you’re looking to discover the authentic hole-in-the-wall, Seoul’s got you covered.
You’ll need to make a reservation to experience Jungsik, a Michelin-ranked nouvelle Korean restaurant in Gangnam, with an additional branch in New York. Chef Yim Jung-Sik blends ancient tradition with modern interpretations of Bibimbap, roasted meats, and Korea’s signature kimchi side dishes to produce a unique dining experience. You can order off the menu, but the prix fixe options at Jungsik are the way to go. The signature tasting menu offers a bit of everything from tuna sashimi on seaweed crackers through roast octopus to some of Korea’s best beef. Jungsik’s beef will rival any Wagyu in Tokyo, at a price that won’t blow your entire budget. Prices for set menus range from $130 to $300 if you include wine pairings.
Also worth noting, Jungsik has an excellent wine list, and that’s not something you can expect to find in most Korean restaurants. More on that later.
Dodam 29 Mapogu Whawoosan-ro Seoul
Psy may have alerted the world to the upscale Gangnam neighborhood, but foodies will want to head to Hongdae. Located in the west end of town, Hongdae is a university and arts district known for its lively nightlife and a wide array of food choices. Pick any of the Korean barbecue shops in Hongdae for a snack – trays of meat you cook hibachi-style over hot charcoal. It’s affordable, and you’ll be eating like a local.
For a memorable meal, consider Dodam in the heart of Hongdae. Dodam offers an Asian fusion menu that shows the full range of Korean cuisine. Korean food is all about contrasts, in color, temperature, flavor, and technique. Bits of juicy roasted pork or seafood are wrapped in lettuce with a dash of chili paste and eaten by hand and chased with a bit of kimchi or rice.
You won’t find a worldwide wine list at Dodam, or at any mom & pop restaurant in Hongdae. Here you drink in the Korean style, with Soju and beer.
Soju is Korea’s version of Sake, but without all the pomp and circumstance laid on the beverage in Japan. In Korea, you can drink your Soju straight, but it’s most often mixed with beer. You can usually get a few foreign brews but try the Korean Kloud or Hite. We’re not talking artisanal IPA here; these brands are the PBR of Korea. You’ll get two glasses when you sit down, a smaller glass for Soju and a larger one for beer.
Typically, the technique is to fill the beer glass about ¾ full and then tip a full Soju glass into the beer. The Soju sweetens the beer and the combined beverage is refreshing as well as effective at cutting the heat of some of the spicier food. For bonus K-style points, take one of your stainless steel chopsticks and drop it into the glass of Soju and beer. Hold the chopstick firmly in the center of the glass and give it a good hard whack with your other chopstick, like you’re ringing a bell. The shockwave will make the beer foam up, and you can give a proper “Geonbae!” (Gun-beh!) to your tablemates and drink. Getting it right takes some practice, but you’ll get plenty of chances.
One more note – it’s considered bad form to pour your own drink in Korea. Hold your glass out with both hands and let your tablemates top it up for you, then return the favor to them.
Winter Wheat and the Bongpyeong Market
Bongpyeong Market 14-1, Dongijangteo-gil Bongpyeong-myeon Pyeongchang-gun Gangwon-do
Korea is a mountainous country, and the Olympic mountain sports were held in the highlands around Pyeongchang. This is an area known for growing buckwheat, and using it in every possible way.
The Bongpyeong market offers street food in abundance, but it’s likely to be cold and windy, so duck into one of the restaurants like Namchon Makguksu for some of the local favorites.
Buckwheat is the base food here, but there’s no lack of variety. Buckwheat noodles come in a savory or spicy form, in soup or with a chili-based sauce. Buckwheat pancakes are more like a frittata, with vegetables cooked in. However, the unexpected delight is something the locals call buckwheat jelly, which is a kind of firm and filling tofu. It’s served with vegetables in a savory sauce, and well worth your order.
Fresh Seafood in Busan
Cheongsapo Seafood Town 521 Cheongsapo-ro, Haeundae-gu, Busan
As a peninsula, Korea is surrounded by oceans on three sides. Especially on the southern end, Korea’s coastline is dotted with islands and inlets, and seafood is a major part of the cuisine.
The same barbecue techniques used for beef, pork and lamb in the interior are used in streetside tents near the water for fresh seafood.
Duck into a tent along Cheongsapo Seafood Town in Haeundae near the city of Busan for a special experience. There’s a hole in the middle of your table and the waitstaff will bring a big metal bowl filled with burning charcoal and covered with a metal grate. They’ll also bring you a big tray of seafood with whole clams, scallops, shrimp, octopus and more. Grab a selection and put it all on the grate to cook. When the clams open up, you’re ready to eat. Some of the scallops and clams will be shucked for you and dressed with vegetables and chili paste that cooks into a delicious sauce.
Don’t miss the steamed mussels at this location. They’ll come cooked in a bowl with a light broth and a few slices of Korean green pepper similar to a jalapeno. The mussels are excellent, but you’ll find yourself picking up the bowl to finish off the last drop of that broth.
Gyeongju, Royal Korea
Yosukgung 59 Gyo-dong Gyeongju-shi Gyeongsangbuk-do
One last stop you’ll want to make on your way back to Seoul is Gyeongju. This town was the seat of Korea’s kings from about 50 B.C.E. to 950 A.D., and you can stroll among the burial mounds of the royalty in an expansive park, and enjoy examples of Korea’s architectural and artistic history.
Be sure to make time to take a traditional meal at Yosukgung, operated by the Choi family for over three hundred years. The buildings are styled from the 7th century, and you’ll be seated on cushions for your experience. Foods will range from steamed crab and grilled fish to classic fermented kimchi and pancakes. The glass noodles here are a specialty you won’t want to miss, served with meat and vegetables in a delicate soy-based sauce.
Wherever you go, Korean food is all about variety, freshness, and making the best of local ingredients. Travelers from the west will also find that Korea is one of the easiest countries to manage without an extensive knowledge of the language and customs. Most signs are written in English and Korean Hangul, and people working in retail generally have enough English to conduct your business. Moreover, Koreans are genuinely happy that you’re visiting their country, and that will show in every interaction.
About the Author:
Jeff Zurschmeide is an automotive journalist by day, but he harbors a secret desire to be Anthony Bourdain. He loves traveling the world and eating every kind of cuisine, but he loves coming home to Tillamook, Oregon even more. He likes to think he can cook, and his wife and daughter indulge him with saintlike patience. Find him on twitter as @zursch.