Korean food is probably the least known in all of Asia. If a non-native has any clue at all about the cuisine, it is usually limited to the populist trinity of galbi (marinated short ribs), kimchi (fermented vegetable pickle), and bulgogi (barbecued beef). This, of course, is the year that South Korea co-hosted the World Cup with Japan. It was a big deal, perhaps the global sporting to-do, and the country gained a lot in international exposure and cultural exportation, not the least because of their semi-finalist ‘Red Devils’, the Korean national team. As many locals will tell you, one of the biggest consequences of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul was the fact that kimchi got a global profile. And so I’ve come to Korea’s capital to sup my way into the post-World Cup era, to try and ascertain what tastes might linger in the mouths of visitors and locals alike when David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane have gone.
Korea is renowned for its tendency to be insular, the famous ‘Hermit Kingdom’. It is only in the last few years that there’s been a surge of homegrown art and fashion that’s gone beyond the traditional. Artist Lee Bul snared a show of her own at New York’s Guggenheim; the ready-to-wear dresses one finds at Andy & Deb’s in Apkujeong-dong’s Galleria are beginning to show up in Europe; and films like Peppermint Candy are making inroads on the international festival circuit. But what about the food? What are the traditional dishes and where can one find them? How does modern Seoul taste? And is a country that won’t buy foreign cars willing to ditch the traditional stir-fry for its modern equivalent, the pan-sear?
To understand where Korean food is and where it is going, one must first know where it’s been. That means going all the way back to the founder of the country, the mythic offspring of a god and a bear named Dan’gun. Legend has it that the bear wanted to be human, and went to its god with that request. The god gave the bear 20 cloves of garlic and told it to go away for 100 days. Upon return, the bear, now a woman, mated with the god, and Dan’gun was born. Anyone mildly experienced with eating in Seoul knows that garlic use has multiplied exponentially in the centuries since.
Indeed, there is nary a historical experience that hasn’t affected the local palate. Sixteenth-century invasions by the Japanese contributed the now-ubiquitous chili to the Korean kitchen. Proximity to China has yielded a love for noodles. The American military presence has resulted in the use of Spam. Colonial years under Japan birthed the beloved soju tent, which one sees propped up on roadsides (with red-faced men propped up on sweet-potato vodka inside). Ditto street-stall adaptations like kimbap (Korean sushi) and twigum (Korean tempura). There are even curious haunts called hofs clearly inspired by German expatriates and their beery café culture. Hofs are neighborhood institutions that serve draft suds, fried chicken, and greasy chips until 4 or 5 a.m.
On the whole, Korean food is rugged, honest, and comforting. At first taste, it’s not unlike the cooking found in other parts of the world with rocky coastlines and extreme weather; think Ireland, Normandy, or New England, where there’s a similar emphasis on stews, sea-food, grilled meats, and preservation. But the food of Korea is above and beyond those cuisines in its abundance of dishes and range of ingredients. The flavors are direct hits, salty and spicy and sometimes stinky in their retort to scorching summers and bitter winters. Korea is a gastronomical knockout, and the sheer number of traditional dishes available is more on par with Thailand or China.
Over 10 million people subway, lunch, and putter their way around Seoul on any given day. Centuries-old palaces, stone gates, and leafy parks lend dignity to the increasingly modern cityscape of 12-lane roads and lithe, glass-bound skyscrapers. Despite one of the best underground systems in Asia and the neat north-south urban division of the Han River, it can be a bewildering place to navigate. There are 25 gu (districts) and 527 dong (neighborhoods) all told. Subway stops and their numbered exits are often used as locators. Nameless alleys vein off the main roadways, and it is here that a large amount of memorable food can be found. Fax machines, I’m reminded by several residents, are popular because people are always procuring directions from restaurants and friends.
There’s a vigorous strain of dish-specific dining in Seoul. Almost everyone seems to know what they want, when, where, and with whom. Said dishes come from a back-catalog in the hundreds and speak to the type of fiercely flavored and impressive cooking that Koreans label normal. Goryeo Samgyetang in Jung-gu, one of the city’s busiest areas for work and mealtime, specializes in the soup of the same name. It is made by stuffing a small chicken with sticky rice, jujubes, and ginseng and boiling it until the water and its contents transform into an aromatic broth worthy of the elixir tag. One need merely spoon-tap the bird to watch the contents spill like treasure into the bowl. Myeong-dong Gyoja in the Myeong-dong shopping district, a popular hangout for teens and university students, has café au lait colored walls and is famed for its kalguksu, a thick hand-rolled noodle made from wheat, afloat in a hearty chicken broth. Mandu are Korea’s version of the dumpling. Sold in every neighborhood, look for a steamer (which oddly resembles Seoul’s new World Cup stadium in its silver-gray vastness) sitting outside a foggy window. At Manduhyang in Gangnam-gu, one can watch as several ajumma (literally ‘aunties’) pat, stuff, and pinch the dough from its raw state into plump mandu-ness.
Grilling meat is a serious craft in Korea. Bulgogi, galbi, and samgyeopsal-gui (grilled side of pork) are eaten on a daily basis. ‘This is our basic weekday meal,’ announced my friend Michael, while we supped on ansihm-gui (grilled tenderloin) near his apartment. The meat was tenderized in a marinade of pears, garlic, green onions, and soy. Dinner in Seoul is often do-it-yourself, and so we grilled the sirloin shards tabletop and dipped them in seasoned sesame oil to taste. Peter, an English teacher, was the youngest present and thus drew the role of pouring soju (one touches one hand to the other arm out of respect) for the crowd. Served with ho-hum factualness to every table, the house salad was a superlative treetop tangle of slivered onions and local cress, with a citric zing. It’s sort of the secret to every one of these places. ‘Simple, yes, but it’s what makes the flavor of the meat stand out,’ Michael added after snaring the last grilled mushroom cap. It was the color of caramel by that time.
Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur,
East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications
around the world.