Over the last five months we at Beauty & Seoul have sampled many aspects of South Korean cuisine; the good, the bad and the ugly. Even for the worlds biggest foodie, South Korean food can be a bit of a minefield. When faced with a new cuisine and the menu is throwing up confusing options, I often just ask the waiter/chef what they would recommend and it normally serves me well. In South Korea this can be gastronomic russian roulette (raw crab anyone?) so i feel that you do need some pointers for where to start. These recommendations reflect our favourite South Koreans foods which should appeal to the Western palate. Please let us know what you think in the comments. In no particular order we start with…
Korean BBQ 고기구이
This is probably the most obvious entry on the list. If you have been to only one Korean restaurant either in Korea or outside of Korea, the chances are it was a BBQ. The average Korean’s diet seems incredibley similar to that of a T-Rex i.e meat, meat, meat and maybe some veg that got in the way when trying to eat meat. For this purpose a BBQ is a carnivore’s heaven. You simply sit down around a circular table with a gaping hole in the middle and an industrial suction fan hanging from the ceiling, order the meat you want to grill (various cuts of beef or pork, some marinaded some not) and what alcohol you want to wash it down with. After this you let the theatre commence. The waiter/pyrotechnician will bring a bucket of flaming hot coals from outside of the restaurant and plonk it straight in front of you and another waiter will bring you the tray of selected meat, salts and sauces. You will also get about a hundred side dishes, called Banchan, which come in varying degrees of tastiness.
After that, you are on your own. The first rule of Korean BBQ club is there are no rules. You grill the meat as per how you like it, slice it as thinly as you want, hell you can chuck on all of the side dishes onto the grill to see how they taste BBQ’d (BBQ’d Kimchi tastes better in my humble opinion as the intense flavour mellows out). The standard way of eating this is to pick off the meat off the grill with your chopsticks, dip it in the sesame oil, the salt and the chilli paste before placing it in a lettuce or perilla leaf (a leaf with a slight aniseed flavour). You then add whatever additional bits and bobs you want in from those extra dishes in your table before wrapping it up before doing the eating equivalent of “down it in one”. Yes, it all goes in the mouth, no time for second bites here. Celebratory Shot of Soju encouraged. The real popularity of the BBQ is rooted in the Korean culture of sharing food and also socialising (well, drinking). Everybody is chopsticks in picking at the various pieces, filling up their soju glasses, playing drinking games and plenty of raucous laughter. Family, friends or work colleagues it is a firm favourite.
Pretty much everywhere, look for people starting fires in buckets on the pavement then follow them. My favourites are;
Piggy Bank (돼지저금통) Exit 8 of Hongkik University station, immediately take a right, and walk until first roundabout, turn left, walk to second roundabout and you will see it on the first corner to the right. An institution, has been featured many times on TV, is still great value and just has that classic BBQ vibe.
Queen Pig (여왕 돼지) Exit 2 of Konkuk University first left and left again and halfway down this road. To be honest i like it because it is really cheap (25k won for 2 people inc soju and beer) and was local to us. There are MANY cheap and great BBQ venues around this location known as Kondae.
Maple Tree House (단풍나무집) Exit 2 of Itaweon station, first left and then left again. This one is more premium (60k Won for 2) but the surroundings are very stylish and you can even have a glass of red wine, unheard of at any other Korean BBQ!
Korean Fried Chicken 양념 치킨
Korean Fried Chicken (the other KFC) is one of the most plentiful, tasty and best value foods you can find. In its plainest form coming in just two styles; Spicy or not spicy (which is still pretty damn spicy) and possibly the additional option of bones in or out. The secret to the success is the chicken is fried twice to render out the fat from the skin and then dipped in a beautiful sweet and sticky chilli sauce. The result is the crispiest batter you will ever eat, followed by a hit of the lovely sweet chilli. The trend, called Chimaek (a combination of the Korean words for Chicken & Beer) is more than just a take away food, it is also a pretty solid metaphor for the booming Korean economy over the last 30 years. Like commerce heavyweights Samsung and Hyundai, Korea took a foreign concept, quickly got up to speed with it before suddenly being better at it then most of the world.
Just a pity they didn’t do this with their beer though 😦
There are a lot of chicken chain restaurants in Seoul but Kyochon (교촌치킨) and
BBQ Chicken (비비큐치킨) are my favourites – copy and paste the hangul spelling into google maps to find the nearest one. There are a LOT of great small individual restaurants scattered around Seoul (especially around any university) but i’ve always been either in a rush or a bit tipsy to know precisely the names I’m sorry :-O
These dumplings are very similar to Gyoza or Pierogi and are insanely addictive. Every “restaurant” (some are literally a hole in the wall) will have their own recipe but they on average they contain a mix of minced pork, tofu, spring onions, garlic, ginger and glass noodles. They usually come either steamed or deep fried (yummmm) and also can include shrimp or kimchi. Which is the best? Answer is they all are, just go for the combination platter and savour them all. You can usually spot these restaurants from a mile away, simply look for the jets of seam pouring from the facade. We’ve loved them and they have saved us on many occasions, they are very cheap and incredibly filling.
The one and only Bukchon Sonmandu (Dumplings) 북촌 손만두. The flagship stall is off the main Insadong road (Anguk University, Exit 6). It’s down an alley opposite Insadong Gil-9, adjacent to the Ssamzie-gil Market, watch out for the plume of steam. These are hands down my favourite and run by a lovely bunch of ajummas! Keep an eye out for the branding and you will start to see the other branches all over Seoul.
OK so we are firmly into the territory of foodstuffs you are unlikely to have heard of. First of these is a very tasty dish called Jjimdak, a braised chicken, potato and noodle dish stew with passing similarity to a Malaysian style curry. Ordering this dish is pretty simple. 1) how many servings required? 2) any add ons such as noodles or mozzarella? 3) Chicken with Bone in or out? and finally 4) Spice level 1,2 or 3?. Just a note on the last one, we opted for spice level 1 and it nearly blew our heads off. God knows what level 3 would be like, i can assume it is served with a fire hydrant. As with most korean cuisine, its served in one pot in the middle on a gas stove and you all patiently watch it cook before digging into the communal pot.
Yeolbong Jjimdak (열봉찜닭) Gangnam Station Exit 11. Out of the subway, walk down the main Gangnam road, take the first right, then the first left, then the first right.
Korean penicillin. The dish to eat if you have a cold or a more self inflicted illness such as the hangover, Seolleongtang gets you back on your feet again. The dish comprises of a milky, ox-bone broth with tender slices of brisket and sliced spring onion. It arrives at the table bubbling hot and one sip warms you right to your very bones as you feel its healing powers get to work. As a Brit, closing my eyes and tasting the tender brisket evokes memories of a Sunday roast beef with gravy. So there you have it, miracle healing sunday roast in a soup. What is not to love about that?
Sinseon Seolleongtang (신선설농탕) is another wonderful chain. The Myeongdong Branch is open 24 hours, perfect for night owls, drunks, or jet laggers (i’ve been all three). Lovely silky broth and also the mandu and kimchi pancakes on the side are not too shabby either. The cost is only 7,000 won per serving too.
The first thing which will draw you towards a Hotteok stand is the gorgeous smell. Like a freshly baked doughnut, the sugary, buttery aroma makes you willing to spend everything in your wallet just for a taste. Thankfully it’ll only set you back 80 pence. When you take the first bite, you not only get that classic doughnut taste but also the unexpected filling of cinnamon, peanut and melted brown sugar. This is hands down my favourite Korean sweet. I think the only slight drawback is Hotteok can get a little greasy from time to time, which is peculiar as in general Koreans have a great dislike for oily/greasy food. I guess the Hotteok is just so damn tasty, they are willing to look the other way just this once.
Everywhere on the street! Follow your nose. If you want further pointers, head to Insadong (Anguk University, Exit 6) and find Teolbone Hotteok, close to Ssamzie-gil Market, walk to roughly at this point on the map and look out for the maroon sign.
Good examples can also be found in Namdaemun Market, near Hoehyeon station, where you can also get vegetable or noodle filed versions.
Jajangmyeon 자장면 & Tangsuyuk 탕수육
Chinese food in Korea is… basically not Chinese food at all. I mean, i’m sure it was once upon a time but it has been so heavily adapted for Korean taste that it barely resembles Chinese food anymore, therefore I class these as Korean food. By far the most popular dishes are Jajangmyeon, which probably started out once upon a time as Stir fried pork in black bean sauce and Tangsuyuk which was once sweet sour pork cantonese style. The Jajangmyeon is simply noodles coated in a thick black bean sauce which contains diced pork, onion and root vegetables. It is actually custom in Korea for being the first dish you order when moving into a new home, until you eat the “Jaj” you haven’t really ‘moved in’. The Tangsuyuk is strips of pork, deep fried in a light batter, absolutely drenched in a thick gluey sweet and sour sauce with lots of chopped vegetables. Amazingly, even through the dousing in sauce, the pork retains its lovely crispy batter. If you find yourself in a ‘Chinese’ restaurant in Korea and start to fret because none of your favourite Chinese meals are on the menu (they won’t be) you will do a lot worse then start off with these two platters. As ever with Korean dining, sharing is caring with these.
Andongjang (안동장), Exit 10 of Euljiro 3-ga Station on subway line 2. Walk straight until you find it on your left. One of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Seoul, if not the first. It really doesn’t look like much on the outside (or the inside for that matter) but the food is excellent, and very reasonably priced.
Paik’s Noodle. Another massive chain all over Seoul, just look for the guy’s creepy face in the red circle and go in. Its cheap, a bit greasy but immensely satisfying.
Budae Jjigae 부대찌개
This dish fascinates me because it shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work. It is a spicy Korean stew containing instant noodles, Spam, frankfurters, baked beans, grated mozzarella and macaroni. Huh Spam, err what? It reminds me of my student days when you would chuck whatever you had left in the cupboards just to piece together something resembling a meal. But you see, that is exactly the reason for Budae jjigae. It also fascinates me because it has a really great story behind it. Budae jjigae is more commonly referred to as ‘Army Base Stew’. After the Korean war, times were very tough for Koreans. The economy was in tatters, people were living in deep poverty and food was incredibly scarce. To fight malnutrition, Koreans would go to US army bases to beg, borrow or steal (well, i don’t believe Koreans would ever steal) supplies in order to survive. What supplies did the US army have in surplus? Instant noodles, Spam, frankfurters, baked beans, grated mozzarella and macaroni. They were all incorporated into their local Doenjang Jjigae (Spicy tofu stew) and the result is a delicious stew which is a total Frankenstein of a dish but it just worked. It worked then and it still works now – believe me.
Nolboo (놀부), Myeongdong 10-gil. Exit 8 of Myeongdong station, take the first left and keep on walking, past the massive starbucks and it is a few doors down from the famous Myeongdong Gyoja (also a great restaurant). Nolboo is also a chain and can be found over Seoul.
n.b searching on googlemaps will take you to a slightly different place so this pin above is where we found the restaurant.
Seafood Pajeon 해물파전
Pajeon is a pancake batter (jeon) mixed in with spring onions (pa). It does sound quite boring, and i’ll admit it is, however where this dish really comes alive is the addition of seafood. Some of the most luxurious seafood you can imagine (Scallops, Mussels, lobster, prawns) get lumped in with the pancake batter before being laid over the spring onions to fry off. Add some savoury dipping sauce (fish sauce with some apple vinegar and sesame seeds) and you have one very accomplished dish. Often eaten as a side at a Bulgogi or BBQ restaurant, or one of many other dishes, this pancake really gives the dutch counterpart a run for it’s money. Simple, yet remarkably decadent, seafood pajeon deserves to get more prestige on the Korean dinner table rather than put as a side dish.
Busan Galbi (Exit 2 of Itaweon station, first left and then left again) does a solid pajeon amongst some other excellent Korean staples.
According to many, Gimbap is the original Korean fast food, the Korean version of a Big Mac. Gimbap is steamed rice, laid across seaweed and filled with a choice of fillings before being rolled up, sliced and handed over to you. Gimbap is truly a food of the people, simple honest and incredibly tasty. The women (its usually women) who make the Gimbap are extraordinarily talented. Like finely tuned machines they knock out millimetre perfect slices each time at great speed. Popular fillings include tuna mayo, bulgogi, Spam or my favourite “cheesyu” (cheese if you haven’t guessed). Gimbap shops are often located around metro stops and you must try, as if you don’t like it, you’ve lost out on a mere £2.
For this and so many other dishes, go to Gwangjang Market (광장시장). Exit 8 of Jongno 5-ga station. Whilst you are there, also get bindaetteok, mung bean pancake (tastes like a massive hash brown), which was also very unlucky not to make it on my top 10 list.