Seoul Food

Posted on April 20, 2014

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Seoul is the second most populated city in the world with 25 million – more than the whole of Australia. Built for practicality and convenience, it seems that aesthetics have not been front of mind (even cars only seem to come black, white and silver). Convenient it is though and when everything works, it works well. To get a good view of the sprawl walk up the mountain in the centre of the city, Namsan. Somehow the mountains surrounding the city make it look less small. I discovered that living on the south side of one of these mountain is highly desirable as North Korea can’t easily fire missiles (houses there have a price tag to match).

View on the walk to Namsan

I stayed near Itaewan, on the other side of the river from Gangnam where many of the expats live. This meant there are a plethora of restaurants of every food you can imagine. I was a big fan of the Kimchi fries at Vatos ‘urban tacos’ just off the main road.

DMZ Korea

The highlight of my trip was a USO tour to the DMZ (demilitarised zone) with North Korea. This is the only trip that takes you right into the zone, including the conference room where talks between North and South are held. You can feel the tension as the RoK (Republic of Korea) soldiers stand in the taekwondo ‘ready’ position. To serve on the border they must be at least 5′ 10″ tall and wear sunglasses – both intimidation tactics and the latter to ensure that a misplaced glance of the eyes isn’t taken in the wrong way. You are also taken to other significant landmarks in the area including the bridge of no return. Book in advance as it gets sold out quickly. Also note that if there is a hint of tensions rising, trips can be cancelled at the last minute. Let’s face it, that’s not the place to be when things kick off.

I found it interesting that South Korea is ready for reunification. They encourage it. They have even set up a high speed rail line and motorways have been built right up to the borders so that when the day comes, they are totally ready.

The differences between North and South have become huge. The South, initially far less prosperous is now a high tech heaven famous for companies like Samsung and HTC. Fashion is also starting to take a lead and Doota, a shopping mall with up and coming Korea designers is worth visiting if you have time to shop. Go late at night when Koreans shop to soak up the atmosphere. The famous Dongdaemun market for for clothes and particularly handbags  is only open from midnight to 13h. I also hear that Namdaemun is incredible for the gate to the city and the market next to it.

IMG_5920Nothing is small in Korea. All attractions are vast and it’s worth getting up early so that you miss the crowds. We did this for the Korean Folk Village which is a living museum full of displays and performances. It’s great with kids and nice to get an idea of the more traditional Korea when time is tight.

Other day trips include: Olympic ParkEverland (Koreas biggest amusement park), Seoul Zoo, and, to get out the smog for a while, Seoul Forest.
Pajeao preparation

Pajeao preparation

Korean food can be, um, adventurous. My brother has worked there a year and has been served some dishes that would turn some people’s stomachs. The only thing he has completely turned down is raw offal.

 

Korean BBQ

Korean BBQ

My experiences were relatively safe and I loved everything I tried, finding it mostly tasty and healthy. I even bought back dried seaweed, a great snack and one which I’ll be searching out back in London. Having a Korean BBQ goes without saying. Delicious. You can probably get more authentic but Maple Tree was excellent quality and the ventilators at each table makes it a lot less smokey.

 

Bibimbap on the plane

Bibimbap on the plane

My other favourite dishes included Bibimbap (vegetables mixed with rice, sesame oil and hot pepper sauce), Bulgogi (thin slices of marinated beef cooked on a grill) and, surprisingly, Bindaeddeok (mung bean pancake). Everything is served with Kimchi, which is traditionally cabbage but is actually a process and can any fermented vegetable. I loved a mushroom kimchi.

 

And food needs to be washed down with soju. Drunk so widely that the government subsidise it. There are many rules to be adhered to, the most important seem to be: the youngest person serves and has the right hand on their heart, or on their left arm; you must always lift your glass when someone serves you(with two hands); the first shot is drunk in one and soju is only served into an empty glass.

Seoul isn’t yet a huge tourist designation but is becoming one. Miss the crowds by going in spring (for the blossom) or autumn and consider a tapping on a  trip to the Korean holiday island of Jeju.

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Posted in: Asia, Destinations