A walkabout Seoul

Before ringing in the new year in Tokyo, I spent a few days in Seoul, South Korea cramming in as much food as my stomach would allow. This bustling city is home to over twenty percent of the country’s population, making it one of the largest cities in the world. All these people need places to eat, and in Seoul, there is no shortage of choices.

Kalbi and bibimbap have become nearly as ubiquitous as chicken teriyaki in The West, but there is so much more to Korean food than barbecued beef and rice. Navigating the labyrinth of alleyways and side streets in Seoul can be a challenge, particularly if don’t speak Korean, but a sense of adventure will be rewarded with some of the best eats in Asia.

I stayed at the Hotel Ibis in Myeongdong, a trendy shopping district that’s conveniently located at the heart of north Seoul. The room was on the small side, but it was clean and had a fantastic view of North Seoul Tower. This photo of the tower at dawn is brought to you courtesy of some serious jet-lag, fourteen hours worth to be precise.

Aside from the shopping, Myeongdong is also well known for its brick cathedral which is the home of the Catholic Archbishop of Seoul. As one of the earliest examples of Gothic Revivalist architecture in Korea and a former sanctuary for political dissidents, it has a long and colourful history dating back over a century.

Just north of Myeongdong lies Insadong, an area that has long been the center of art and culture in Seoul. The main street, Insadong-gil feels like a throwback to the Seoul of yore with its zigzagging maze of side streets shooting off in every direction. Surrounded by a forest of futuristic glass and metal towers, Insadong is an anachronism in the best kind of way. While some may call it a tourist trap, it’s a cultural haven for locals as well as visitors, brimming with antiques dealers, art galleries and restaurants.

Sanchon, a vegetarian restaurant that specializes in Buddhist temple food, can be found down an alley off the west side of the main strip. The old building is constructed almost entirely of wood and is decorated in the style of an old Korean home. Steering clear of kitsch and having been founded by a former monk, Sanchon can credibly claim authenticity while providing a fun experience for visitors to Seoul. The set menu which runs about $30 comes with no less than 20 plates of delicious vegetarian fare ranging from fresh salads to tart fermented pickles to a bubbling ceramic pot of denjang jigae (Korean miso stew).

Each wooden bowl is filled with a few bites of local vegetables ranging in flavour from mild and delicate to bold and intense. For dessert I was served these puffed rice pastries that were kind of like sweet, packing foam that turned sticky and slightly chewy as you eat it. The mulberry tea they served tasted like sweet roasted corn and was so good, I bought a big bag to go.

In Seoul (as with many Asian cities) it’s a lot harder to find a terrible meal than to do so in New York. The city has tens of thousands of restaurants, many of which are small family run operations, so you need only walk a few steps out of your hotel to discover the next fantastic hole-in-the-wall. At night a small army of food carts, or pojangmacha come out and setup makeshift restaurants in back alleys and empty lots all over the city.

Unfortunately I didn’t really get any usable photos at the many street food stalls I visited because of the poor light, but here are a few from one that set down roots and opened a storefront. See more about pojangmacha and a recipe for a quintessential pojangmacha dish in my post on tteokbokki.

Kimbap (nori rice) is another popular street food which looks a bit like sushi, but includes items like egg, ham, cucumber, pickles, and sesame leaves rolled in rice and nori flavoured with sesame oil. I got this particular kimbap in a tiny restaurant the width of a hallway and with a ceiling so low I had to duck to avoid hitting my head. The photo below was taken looking out towards the entrance where the nice lady was rolling my kimbap.

In Namdaemun, west of Myeongdong, there is a whole row of seafood restaurants that decided the daily catch just wasn’t fresh enough, and opted to setup aquariums to store their seafood live instead. These little buggers might still be moving when they hit your plate.

It wasn’t all exotic though and these were some of the best Belgian waffles I’ve ever eaten. I made a daily pilgrimage around the block from my hotel to grab breakfast at this place. The yeast leavened waffles were laden with crunchy bits of caramelized sugar and were thoroughly doused with butter and syrup before being handed to us. Between this and the Seoul outpost of the Doughnut Plant NYC, which was also right around the corner, I started each morning with a carb-induced high.

Whether it’s the ancient food of Buddhist monks or Western junk food picked up on the go,

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  • http://manggy.blogspot.com/ Manggy

    Oh! I still remember that Amazing Race episode where they ate live octopi! Everything looks gorgeous, Marc. I think I would still opt to eat Kalbi among everything else– it’s just simply too good ;)

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com Manggy

    Oh! I still remember that Amazing Race episode where they ate live octopi! Everything looks gorgeous, Marc. I think I would still opt to eat Kalbi among everything else– it’s just simply too good ;)

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com/ Peter G

    What a great adventure Marc. The eating choices are certainly varied!

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com Peter G

    What a great adventure Marc. The eating choices are certainly varied!

  • http://elrasbaking.blogspot.com/ Elra

    Oh Marc, My mouth just couldn’t stop drooling…
    This is why my husband keep asking me that we should go to Korea!
    Cheers,
    Elra

  • http://elrasbaking.blogspot.com Elra

    Oh Marc, My mouth just couldn’t stop drooling…
    This is why my husband keep asking me that we should go to Korea!
    Cheers,
    Elra

  • http://joiedevivreanamateurgourmetsguide.blogspot.com/ Joie de vivre

    Oh wow! These are so fun. Beautiful photos. Squid has always been my culinary bane! Eeewww!

  • http://joiedevivreanamateurgourmetsguide.blogspot.com/ Joie de vivre

    Oh wow! These are so fun. Beautiful photos. Squid has always been my culinary bane! Eeewww!

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com/ Daily Spud

    I stayed in Insadong when I was in Seoul and ate in Sanchon – a wonderful experience. There’s even a picture of the meal I has there at http://www.thedailyspud.com/about/

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com Daily Spud

    I stayed in Insadong when I was in Seoul and ate in Sanchon – a wonderful experience. There’s even a picture of the meal I has there at http://www.thedailyspud.com/about/

  • http://www.buffchickpea.com/ Hayley

    Your photos are so inspiring. It looks like you had a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.buffchickpea.com Hayley

    Your photos are so inspiring. It looks like you had a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://fivestarfoodie.blogspot.com/ Natasha – 5 Star Foodie

    This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing your wonderful travel pictures!

  • http://fivestarfoodie.blogspot.com Natasha – 5 Star Foodie

    This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing your wonderful travel pictures!

  • http://www.realepicurean.com/ Scott at Realepicurean

    Sounds like a great place to visit. If only I had the pennies :(

  • http://www.realepicurean.com Scott at Realepicurean

    Sounds like a great place to visit. If only I had the pennies :(

  • http://chefholly.typepad.com/holly_hadsell_el_hajji/ Holly

    I love Korean food, one of my favorite grocery stores is a Korean grocery, they have really great vegetables, a kim chee bar, and the best short ribs to make Kalbi. Great post!

  • http://chefholly.typepad.com/holly_hadsell_el_hajji/ Holly

    I love Korean food, one of my favorite grocery stores is a Korean grocery, they have really great vegetables, a kim chee bar, and the best short ribs to make Kalbi. Great post!

  • http://www.kalofagas.blogspot.com/ Peter

    Another wonderful postcard. The problem I have at Korean eateries is the endless menu choices…I need your wife to cull the selection!

  • http://www.kalofagas.blogspot.com Peter

    Another wonderful postcard. The problem I have at Korean eateries is the endless menu choices…I need your wife to cull the selection!

  • http://thehungrymouse.com/ Jessie

    Oh my goodness, what wonderful pictures! Thanks so much for sharing!

    +Jessie

  • http://thehungrymouse.com Jessie

    Oh my goodness, what wonderful pictures! Thanks so much for sharing!

    +Jessie

  • http://wanderingchopsticks.blogspot.com/ Wandering Chopsticks

    I loved your walkabout tour. I so want to visit Korea some day. And I admit it, it’s mainly because of all the fabulous street food I’ve seen from so many blogs.

  • http://wanderingchopsticks.blogspot.com Wandering Chopsticks

    I loved your walkabout tour. I so want to visit Korea some day. And I admit it, it’s mainly because of all the fabulous street food I’ve seen from so many blogs.

  • http://annamatic.blogspot.com/ annamatic

    Thanks for your review of Sanchon — I live right around the corner and have avoided that place for years just cuz it looked suspiciously touristy. I will have to give it a try (but first have to convince my anti-vegetarian husband)…

    Ooh, live octopus! My favorite place for that is Noryangjin seafood market, of course….

  • http://annamatic.blogspot.com annamatic

    Thanks for your review of Sanchon — I live right around the corner and have avoided that place for years just cuz it looked suspiciously touristy. I will have to give it a try (but first have to convince my anti-vegetarian husband)…

    Ooh, live octopus! My favorite place for that is Noryangjin seafood market, of course….

  • Sarah

    Hi – this is my first time at your site but I’ve fallen in love with it already. I’m currently living (and eating heartily) in Seoul. I was wondering if you have any memory of the waffle place you mentioned. Was it a stall or a chain? I would love to find a place that makes crispy, yeasty, slightly crunchy waffles for when a western food craving hits. Thanks!

  • Sarah

    Hi – this is my first time at your site but I’ve fallen in love with it already. I’m currently living (and eating heartily) in Seoul. I was wondering if you have any memory of the waffle place you mentioned. Was it a stall or a chain? I would love to find a place that makes crispy, yeasty, slightly crunchy waffles for when a western food craving hits. Thanks!

  • vena

    I like it so much. I wish I could also have a tour in Seoul… I’m so excited.

  • vena

    I like it so much. I wish I could also have a tour in Seoul… I’m so excited.

  • verna

    Wow.. I love the place it’s so beautiful and the foods so delicious. I hope I could have a tour in Seoul! with my friends of course!(ô_ô)(^_^)….. :)

  • verna

    Wow.. I love the place it’s so beautiful and the foods so delicious. I hope I could have a tour in Seoul! with my friends of course!(ô_ô)(^_^)….. :)

  • Aubrey

    Oh.. I like it. I think the foods are delicious and healthy.
    Ahm, can I have one? Just joking.. :)

    I want to say thank you to the one who made this. I feel I’m in Seoul already. I pray I’ll be there someday, soon…:)
    Hehehehe…

  • Aubrey

    Oh.. I like it. I think the foods are delicious and healthy.
    Ahm, can I have one? Just joking.. :)

    I want to say thank you to the one who made this. I feel I’m in Seoul already. I pray I’ll be there someday, soon…:)
    Hehehehe…

  • http://fabjena.blogspot.com/ Fabjena

    I love sushi, and these ones are looking just SO adorable!! :))

  • http://fabjena.blogspot.com/ Fabjena

    I love sushi, and these ones are looking just SO adorable!! :))

  • Surin

    Although there have been several positive comments mentioned about this restaurant, my experience there was far from pleasant.

    I visited it last Sunday and even though the food was palatable (it was very pricey too!), the service was beyond lacking. After several attempts of calling the attention of the waiters, I was kept waiting for a further 30 minutes by which time I had had enough. I was not even served the full course because no-one had the courtesy of ever coming to the table to see why I had called them in the first place.

    And when I eventually decided to leave the restaurant, I was forced to wait even longer to pay! And the manager did not even bother to apologize after I politely lodged my complaint.

    Definite pass on this place!

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I'm Marc, and I want to teach you some basic techniques and give you the confidence and inspiration so that you can cook without recipes too!