The bibimbap that arrived at my table was like a work of art: an edible Joan Miró painting in a shiny brass bowl. Glistening yellow egg yolk crowned a mound of reddish-brown, coarsely ground raw beef, nestled on a palette of fresh cucumber, bean sprouts, mushrooms, celery, pickles, and pine nuts on top of a layer of unctuous sticky rice. It came with a porcelain cup of rice wine and an array of side salads, kimchi, and pickled vegetables. I lingered, as one would at an art gallery, taking in the beauty of simple ingredients perfectly presented—before attacking it with chopsticks and gusto to break the egg’s silky membrane and mix the ingredients into a gluey medley at once sweet and sour, hot and salty, rich, tangy and smooth.
Korea’s cuisine, hansik in Korean, with its raw red meat, fish roe, seaweed, live seafood, fermented vegetables and pungent stews is, I accept, an acquired taste. But fortune surely favours the brave. At the heart of hansik is the process of fermentation, the science of zymology. The conversion of sugars to acids preserves and flavours the food. The most famous example of the technique is kimchi, of which there are hundreds of variants, although the best known is fermented cabbage. South Korea’s national dish is salted with shrimps or anchovies and rubbed with a mix of ginger, garlic, chilli, and other spices, before being left to ferment underground for months. It’s served alongside every meal, including breakfast. In autumn, womenfolk gather in family groups to prepare larder stocks for the winter. So culturally important is this ritual that UNESCO has deemed the process of kimjang, the making and sharing of kimchi, as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Kimchi is considered so healthy that during the SARS epidemic in 2005, eating it was believed to protect you from the virus. Despite no actual evidence of its prophylactic powers, it is said kimchi sales increased by 40 per cent. While kimchi consumption is reported to be waning, driven by the increasingly westernised eating habits of young Koreans, the average Korean still consumes 18 kilos of fermented vegetables each year. Since the nation can’t make enough kimchi to meet demand, the shortfall is met by imports from China.
The adventurous palate, however, is richly rewarded for venturing beyond kimchi. Off the hustle and bustle of Namdaemun Market, Seoul’s massive wholesale shopping district, I found a narrow street called “Hairtail Fish Alley”. The street takes its name from the spicy hairtail fish stew that is a speciality around these parts. In contrast to the finesse and impeccable presentation of the meals I have savoured in the Korean capital, here was a tiny six-table restaurant serving delicious, rich, smoky squid, along with a baked egg preparation and salty cockles.
It was washed down with a few soju bombs: shots of Korea’s famous high-proof alcohol dropped in glasses of beer. Its potency made my run through the streets of the city’s Central Business District the following morning, a sluggish affair.
Later, in the hipster-ish Seoul suburb of Bukchon with its artisanal bakeries and boutiques I ate at Baeknyeon Tojong Samgyaetang, which literally means “100-year-old-authentic-ginseng-chicken-soup-shop”. It makes a stunning lunch: each portion a whole bird stuffed with rice and cooked in a broth of ginseng, a frequently used restorative ingredient, which laid to rest the echoes of my hangover.
The next day, I decided to explore the city via the metro. Seoul has the basic ingredients required of great cities: a cheap and efficient mass transport system, well maintained public spaces, a waterfront, and great restaurants. It’s a chic, manageable city with the world’s largest metro system, which moves an estimated 8 million commuters each day around 18 colour-coded and numbered lines.
After taking a look at the gigantic and imposing National Museum I wandered through the leafy streets of the upmarket suburb of Ichon on the banks of the Han River that divides north and south Seoul. Hangang Park has cycle paths and riverside walks through head-high pampas grass, left wild, giving habitat to all manner of flora and fauna. Young families and office workers picnicked on freshly mown lawns. Two streets back from the river, I spied a first-floor burger joint. Smokey Saloon is a neatly kept 20-seat establishment where I ordered a delicious teriyaki burger and beer.
On a side street beside the Deoksugung Palace, opposite the modern glass and steel architecture of City Hall, I sat in a corner of the Myeongdong Noodle Restaurant, slurped a bowl of ramen (Japanese-style noodle soup) and ate a bowl of rice with spicy chicken. I watched the changing of the palace guard accompanied by an exuberant band of drummers (in false moustaches) for the princely sum of US$5/₹300.
The island of Jeju, famed for its fish is a short flight to the south of Seoul. It has historically been Korea’s honeymoon destination. Among its attractions is the remarkable Loveland, a theme park with 140 sculptures depicting sexual congress and a range of related activities. The island’s stunning coastline, rugged interior and recent inclusion as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature make it a big draw for tourists.
My interest in the island was two-fold: A bracelet of 20-plus paths called “Olles”, totalling more than 250 kilometres, form a continuous ring around the island making it an exceptional trekking destination. Then there’s the food. Fresh fish is a major part of the local economy and its culinary culture. I planned to tackle those in that order: walk then eat. But Sunny Hong, our guide, had other plans.
Arriving on a sunny Sunday at lunchtime, we were driven from Jeju’s airport about 20 minutes to the seaside town of Yongduam (Dragon Head Rock) where a seafood feast awaited. The centrepiece was mulhoe, a vinegary, raw fish soup. It was super fresh, spicy, sour with the conch (sea snail), abalone, and sea cucumber. Served in a bowl made of ice, it tasted of the sea. The ensemble was completed with crab cakes, seaweed, two huge mackerel—one served in a sweet chilli-based stew, the other merely rubbed with oil, salt, and pepper and grilled—and kimchi.
Post-lunch I walked a portion of Olle 18. Easily accessible by a short cab ride out of Jeju City, it affords contrasting views: first over the city’s harbour where ferries and fishing boats berth, and then of rugged black lava beaches. It’s a moderate walk—the kind requiring what my mother used to call “stout” shoes. Along the way I met a gang of guys from the mainland on a “golfing” weekend. No clubs in sight, their current activity involved eating raw fish and drinking soju on a wooden jetty. It would have been rude to ignore their invitation to join in.
The following day was packed to the gills. After a visit to underground lava tubes (tunnels), a 4D film in the Jeju World Heritage Centre, and a walk up the side of the caldera of Seongsan Ilchulbong “Sunrise Peak”, formed some 5,000 years ago by a powerful hydro eruption, I was ready to eat.
Getbawee is an unassuming restaurant whose name translates as “on the shore”. On the front porch sits a giant fish tank in which swims dinner. Aside from a visit to Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale fish market a decade ago, I’d never been treated to such a spread of fresh fish. Translucent slices of tuna, halibut, mackerel, octopus, and hairtail served on platters of glass noodles; live abalone that wriggled as you chewed them. Plates of grilled prawns, battered prawns, and more mackerel, arrived accompanied by quail eggs, pickles, and (you guessed it) kimchi. As the flow of plates slowed, a portable stove arrived with a chef, who steamed fish bones into stock, which she mixed with rice to make a smoky porridge topped with pink fish roe. A memorable feast: freshly culled fish that had travelled probably less than five miles from harbour to table prepared with care but without fuss.
My adventurous palate sated, I thought about my conversation with our host, a vegetarian Indian representative of the Korean Tourism Organisation, from a few days ago. “We want to overcome Indians’ concerns about the food in Korea and let them know that there are good vegetarian options available,” she had told me.
She was right too, up to a point: I’d spent lunchtime sitting cross-legged on a wooden floor sampling a nine-course temple food tasting menu at the Balwoo Gongyang restaurant, located upstairs in the Templestay Information Center in the Jongno district of central Seoul. The food, made by Buddhist monks, is otherworldly. They blend Korean culinary culture with Buddhist tradition to create sumptuous dishes. The day I ate, the menu included: a delicate clear soup with pine nuts and lotus leaf; crunchy three-coloured pancakes of chilli, green bean, and black sesame; wild sesame porridge; wheat cakes with pumpkin and mulberry leaves; sweet, aromatic sticky rice mixed with honey and nuts, boiled in a lotus leaf served with soya bean soup with tofu and pickles; glossy pumpkin jelly; and cinnamon tea. It was zingy, zesty, and very healthy. The seasonal ingredients are sourced locally and handled with love and precision. It had turned out to be a gastronomic treat even for an enthusiastic carnivore.
Monastery food aside, I’d learnt that there really isn’t much for vegetarians, and even many vegetable-based preparations such as the ubiquitous kimchi are peppered with fish ingredients.
Back in Seoul from Jeju, I watched the sun set over the city from the HanCook Restaurant at the top of Seoul Tower. The setting is spectacular and on this one occasion, the view, a 360° panorama of the city, eclipsed the food as the star of the show.
Nestled among a circle of mountains, Seoul is a beguiling city. With English signs and translations abounding on menus and the metro, it’s easily navigable and extremely memorable. For the gastronomic explorer with a willingness to try new flavours it’s an outstanding destination. A voyage of discovery, a foodie paradise; its taste lingers.
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “A Taste Of Korea”.
Mark Hannant was born in London and migrated to India in 2009 in search of adventure. He is an entrepreneur and co-founder of a creative agency. He balances his love of food and wine with fell walking and distance running. He lives in Mumbai.