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,