I knew that eating out in Seoul on my first solo trip was definitely going to be a challenging experience. I’m a lazy person by nature and I was a bit nervous about the language barrier when it came to ordering food. Since it was my first solo trip, I hadn’t yet become comfortable at dining in a restaurant on my own and the fact is that I’m not a foodie. Food is for survival and I don’t think you should eat what you don’t like, and I hardly ever go out of my way purely for a good meal.
But food is a pretty important part of the local cultural experience, and tells you a little about the country and its practices. I definitely wanted to eat some traditional Korean cuisine despite all the hang ups I had, and I’m glad I managed to, even if they led to some faux pas and funny stories. Mishaps make the best travel stories after all.
Here are some of the more interesting food experiences I had on my Seoul trip:
Oodles of Noodles
I’d been walking all day and after emerging from the shopping centres of Dongdaemun, I was all ready for a nice hot bowl of noodles to cap a fruitful and tiring day. I ended up in a little food shack of sorts behind Maxtyle shopping centre where the menu had some English translations, so ordering was just a matter of pointing.
Hm, noodles in white bean broth, sounds pretty standard…
My order came soon, and my first reaction was what the heck is that floating in my soup? It turned out to be… ice cubes! What the picture and name of the dish failed to convey was that this noodle dish was icy cold, and I definitely wasn’t prepared for that as I was craving a nice bowl of hot noodles…
The noodles in itself were pretty decent – but it was a tad strange eating it cold, especially with the soy bean broth. I would find out quite a lot later that cold noodles were called Kong Gook Su and are a summer Korean speciality, and yes the cold soup sure is refreshing on a hot night, but it’s definitely an acquired taste if you’re only used to hot soup noodles! It’s also a little plain – just noodles, cucumber and an egg, but makes a good vegetarian option if you swing that way.
It was a rainy, rainy day in Itaewon. I braved the pouring rain and headed to Busan Galbi to get some lunch and wait out the rain. Since it was pretty chilly, I went with Galbitang, a soup version of the popular Galbi, or grilled beef short ribs.
Now I was just expecting something like your typical Singaporean Bak Kut Teh, or Pork Rib soup, where I would just get one sumptuous bowl of soup to enjoy, but no… every Korean meal is a FEAST. Check out that spread!
Besides all that Kimchi, they also gave me this clay pot of rice which was scraped into a separate bowl. Water was then added to the remnants of burnt rice, which was then left to sit on the table. Apparently you’re supposed to have this weird rice-water mixture with the kimchi but it tasted really strange to me – I would have preferred replacing the water with soup for something more yummy.
Somewhere in Ewha I chanced upon this cute restaurant with grass outside its door, and after perusing the English-Korean menu upstairs, I made my way down to the basement level where the restaurant Dorak was. Oddly enough, while there was an English menu upstairs, neither the menu nor the wait staff downstairs spoke any English, and merely kept nodding politely at me while I tried to get some recommendation. argh!
Luckily, there were some pictures on the menu, so I pointed at what I wanted to eat – the Bulgogi set, but there were lot of different types, so what sauce would I end up with? After about 15 minutes of trying to make myself understood that I didn’t want anything spicy, I decided to just take a chance and point at a random entry and hope for the best.
It wasn’t spicy at least… sometimes you do luck out. I wrote about it in more detail in this story for Epicure and Culture called A Seoul Food Experience.
I’d visited Korea before during winter with my Dad way back in 2007, and the strongest memory I had of Korean food then was their quintessential Ginseng Chicken Soup, or Tsamgyetang, and how wonderfully tasty and comforting it was, especially in the cold. The weather in July 2011 was as far from winter as it could be, but I still was jonesing for a great steaming bowl of chicken soup.
I checked in with the tourist information after my Jogyesa tour en route to Insadong, and they pointed me to Songdo, a tiny little shop where you had to take out your shoes to enter, and it was PACKED. Lucky there was just one of me so I was shown to a vacant seat near the door and pointed at the giant picture of Tsamgyetang while the busy Ajuma bustled around.
Tsamgyetang is actually a pretty simple meal – a steaming bowl of soup with a stuffed chicken and a little salt on the side for flavour. And it was awesome. Yum, yum. It’s surprisingly filling too – even without the numerous plates of Kimchi that you get pre-meal.
What are your favourite memories of eating and ordering food in South Korea? Tell me what I should try the next time I visit.
Check out my various experiences in South Korea for more: