My arrival in Korea was a gastronomic breath of fresh air. Seoul has an incredible range of treats on offer, although is bit of a vegetarian’s nightmare, focussing mainly on meat and rice in various forms. Each meal is served with a hearty portion of kimchi and various side dishes, often pickled vegetables. Here’s a run down of the best five things I ate in Seoul.
I was starving. I’d skipped breakfast and at 2:30pm was beginning to regret it. I strode into the first open restaurant. Having tried some handmade soup dumplings the day before, I was excited for more. Spotting a delectable photo on the wall, I ordered. Minutes later I was greeted by a portable stove. I’m Asian enough to know this only ever means great things. Arriving at the table was a massive steel pot loaded with the biggest dumplings I have ever seen, perched perilously on top of a garden of vegetables, simmering in a belting kimchi broth. Served with the best kimchi I have ever tasted. Gorgeously garlicky, and piquant to taste. Soup, only better.
Oodles of noodles
My love of noodles stems from my time in Japan. On hot days there are few things better to eat than a refreshing bowl of cold noodles. The buckwheat noodles in Seoul have a chewier texture and have a glossiness that Japanese soba generally doesn’t have. The broth and toppings were kept simple, allowing the noodles to do the talking. Partnered with a spicy bean paste and julienned vegetables, this dish is a summer treat. I ate a few kinds of noodles in Seoul, thin wheat flour ones, thick knife cut ones, all of them are awesome.
Chicken and beer
Chicken and beer is a winning combination anywhere, but never have I been to a place where entire streets are dedicated to the cause. The place I stumbled into wasn’t quite as outstanding as I had anticipated, but, you know, it’s chicken and beer. There’s little not to like. The chicken was marinaded in something intensely sugary, which post-fry caramelised and was left to perspire into the basket. But the thick crisp rice coating was bone crunchingly good, a great entry point to the serendipitous moist chicken. The portion size (there was only one) was stupendous. One and a half chickens had been butchered for the cause. I never ever imagined there could be too much chicken. But Seoul beat me. Extra points awarded for a solid range of tasty beer, and remember, Pale Ales are particularly good for degreasing.
Undoubtedly South Korea’s most famous dish is bibimbap. Previously I’d only seen the dish served in a heated, heavy set stone pot. Bibimbap consists of a steamed rice base, topped with a plethora of vegetables, raw and cooked. This is topped with spicy red bean paste and an egg. I opted for a metal bowl serve; it was too hot for a heated stone pot. This one was topped with a gorgeous sunny side up-er, and resembled a salad more than a hot pot. Just what I needed in the heat.
Chicken gal bi
I try not to go back to the same restaurant more than once, unless I really need Wi-Fi from them. But in a country where free Wi-Fi is almost a requisite for a building permit, I had didn’t need to do anything twice. But there was one restaurant we went to twice in Seoul, specialising in chicken gal bi. Much like Korean barbecue, we were seated at a table with a large hot plate. The vegetables; cabbage, pumpkin and onion, were fried first. The chicken followed, marinaded in a wonderful spicy red bean sauce. The staff do the cooking for you, all you need to do is don your bib and relax. The gal bi was delicious, but noted that most tables around us were enjoying a rice based dish. Curious, a couple of days later we returned. The chicken and rice were fried together in the same bean sauce on the same hot plate, but at the end a layer of shredded mozzarella was buried in the rice. The cheese melted and provided a creamy gooey contrast to the full on flavours in the rice. Delicious.
By now you’ve possibly noticed an lack of Korean BBQ on my list. I really enjoyed BBQ but it wasn’t one of the great experiences I had in Seoul. I have had barbecue of that calibre before. Contraversially I’d even say that (for me) nothing will beat barbecue at the Sapporo Beer Garden in Japan. Flavours are more important than hunks of meat, and there are better elements of Seoul cuisine which have much more going on.