notes + observations + star addresses
STREET FOOD, MARKET FARE & OTHER QUICK AND EASY BITES
Last spring, I ventured from one foodie capital to another, my home in Paris to Seoul. Of course, there were many must-see sights on my checklist (about which I will rave in another post), but let's be honest, the main motivation during my trip to South Korea was based on food. The following are select culinary highlights of my Korean-food fest. In parts 2 and 3, I will rave about Korean BBQ joints and Seoul's (newly minted) Michelin star restaurants; but, first things first, let's chow down on the fast, tasty treats.
Otherwise known as the shopping district for make-up and cosmetics, Myeong-dong offers a myriad of food options for retail enthusiasts, whether you're snacking on-the-fly or refuelling in tiny eateries. We were on our way to lunch, but could not resist these deep-fried, breaded shrimps called saewoo twigim (above, left). They also sold these toasty broiled sunny-side-up eggs called gayeranbbang (below), which we saw everywhere, each served in its own little doughy-bread crib.
The local sit-down haunt in Myeong-dong is Myeongdong Kyoja (below), a slender four-story building whose first two floors house the restaurant famous for their dumplings. It's a quick and low-key (read: inexpensive) option. Drawers at each table allow you to serve yourself spoons and chopsticks. There are only four main dishes to order, which are kindly displayed in photos on the wall. Kyoja, I learned, is another word for mandu or "dumpling," a bite-size noodle pocket with stuffing, which was originally introduced to Korea by the Chinese.
Of course, we had to try their signature dishes. First, we ordered their mandu shaped like little cabbages. The filling is made of leeks and ground pork sourced from, according to their website, a "female pig that was killed less than three or four days ago." Apparently, this gives the meat a fresh fragrance. Next, we took the kalguksu, which literally means "noodles made by cutting dough into thin slices with a knife." Topped by four pyramid-shaped mandu, the oft-imitated dish is prized for its thick boiled-chicken broth and soft noodles. Next to that, its a bottomless bowl of kimchi. Nothing left to say about this, save that all the hype is true. Not to be missed.
After our deeply satisfying lunch, I found this roasted chestnut (and baked sweet potato) vendor who sells the small sweet nuggets already peeled! If you know me, you know that I love chestnuts and that I buy them wherever I go: Rome, Osaka, Taormina, everywhere. But being so overloaded with dumplings, I had to resist. I wasn't worried though, as I knew I'd find many more of these chestnut stalls all over Seoul - and I did.
Kwang Jang Market
Alternatively written as Gwangjang Market, Kwang Jang is a popular clothing market. But it is also loved for its makeshift fast-food stalls and convenient sit-down tables. Being a complete stranger to the wonderful, fragrant world of Korean cuisine, it was hard to identify most things just by eyeing them, but a lot of dishes here were marinating in thick sauces, and many were deep fried. Kwang Jang is definitely for the adventurous foodie. Take a look at this little video I shot (52 seconds).
Lotte Department Store
My first time trying tteok-bokki was outside a Lotte department store (there are many locations, but this one was the original, I think). While we were waiting for it to open, I was drawn to this lady's hot bar stand where she sold the cylinder-shaped noodles (tteok means “rice cake”) that I kept seeing everywhere (see image below). I later found out that the red sauce, often called "sweet sauce", is made from chili paste, not tomatoes. Recipes vary according to individual vendors, and this one in particular was so spicy I couldn't eat more than a few mouthfuls. Some versions are more sweet than spicy, like those outside of schools where Korean kids pop over for a quick snack. I guess my palette has some growing up to do.
Once the doors opened at Lotte, the staff lined up at the entrance to welcome the first batch of shoppers like royalty. We were looking to buy those traditional Korean stainless steel bowls with matching lids and chopsticks. When we were unsuccessful, but soon found ourselves in the basement food court, which is basically a gastronomic trove of Korean foods.
Bukchon Hanok Village
I wanted to discover Bukchon ("north village"), which was originally an area for aristocrats who wanted to live near the Gyeonbokgung palace, but in the early 1900s transformed into smaller plots of land and populated with wooden homes called hanoks. These traditional abodes with decorative tile rooftops and private courtyards have metamorphosed once again into small museums, galleries, cafes and restaurants. It's a charming way to spend an afternoon, strolling up and down hills and winding in and out of busy alleys. Along the way, there are many food options, such as this steamy stall that sells various kinds of dumplings (7-second video).
Walking a bit further, I stumbled upon this sweet potato stand. I once had a friend in high school, Ji-Hee Yang (where are you now?), who sometimes came to school with a baked sweet potato wrapped with foil in her lunch box. I see now that Koreans, in fact, are in love with this root vegetable - and I don't blame them. (One can even order sweet potato lattes at many of the ubiquitous cafes in Seoul.) When a sweet potato is cut up into small cubes and deep-fried, it has a similar velvety centre and slightly caramelised crispy coating as a roasted chestnut. You only have to remember to wait for it to cool down, otherwise you risk burning this inside of your mouth and tongue. What other vegetable can you say is this delicious? Well, pumpkin comes close, but you cannot dice up a pumpkin the same way.
Not too far from Bukchon Hanok Village is Insadong. It's also quite touristy and packed with shops, eateries, galleries, souvenir shops and, yes, tourists, but there's a playful vibe at Insadong that makes for a very interesting cultural escapade. Where else will you see little waffle-like pastries shaped just like...well, see for yourself. Maybe it was inspiration for the Smartphone emoji.
I later read that South Korea has a slight obsession with doo-doo. They have a toilet-themed park, and various other poo-themed cafes. At one in particular, coffee is served in toilet-shaped mugs and the pastries are shaped as tiny, coil-shaped number-two pyramids. But let's get back to the caca at hand. These pictured here looked to me as though they were modelled after Japan's taiyaki, a popular fish-shaped pastry filled not with fish but sweet bean filling (very close to hopia, the filipino mooncake that I grew up on). The shop's mascot, Dongchimee (see image above), wears a yellow onesie and an excrement-hat. You can also buy a stuffed-doll version of Dongchimee that features a little tube of faeces "on its way out" behind a little flap over his bum. Seriously, I'm not B.S.-ing you.
We found ourselves here a few times, either crossing through it on our way to somewhere else, or on a mission to buy some traditional Korean bowls and chopsticks. Namdaemun is a retail/wholesale jungle that offers almost anything you could ever need: homeware, fashion, shoes, cameras, kitchenware, souvenirs, stationary and more. You only have to think of it and it will be there, amongst many other things you've never heard of before. There are tall buildings and ground-level tents, and about a million people. Thankfully, to feed this population, there are countless food stalls and numerous food alleys - like this one... Be forewarned, this video (1 minute 19 seconds) can make you dizzy.
Of course, I didn't have time to try every single Korean street food (I tried!), but my favourite nibbles were the "Korean pancakes" called bindae-tteok, which when Koreans say it sounds like "pindatok". These savoury cakes are made from mung beans, mung bean sprouts, ground pork, eggs, minced vegetables and sesame oil. I loved them so much I searched for a recipe online and found this easy, step-by-step recipe on YouTube by extremely happy blogger Hello, Hangari! Now, I just have to find mung beans and sprouts. Any tips for where I can buy these ingredients in Paris are welcome.
I wanted to add this little video (12 seconds), which will impress any chestnut-lover out there. Just outside of Gyeonbokgung Palace (and in front a tiny little bookstore called Seoul Selection that sells English titles - I bought a very informative book called Traditional Food, A Taste of Korean Life) I was mesmerised by this chestnut-peeling machine. Brilliant. No more chestnut shells all over the streets! Hint, hint, Paris and Rome.
There is so much more to eat in Korea, and I know I've only tasted the tip of the iceberg. It might warrant another trip in future (let me know in Comments below all the things I shouldn't miss next time I'm in Korea). But I hope if you've already been to Seoul, this brought back some memories for you, and if you still haven't been that I've whet your appetite. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Parts 2 and 3, about Korean BBQ and Michelin star restaurants in Seoul (yes, it's new). Sign up at the bottom of my HOME page if you'd like a head's-up when the posts go live.