7 things to do this winter in and around Seoul – Eat Eat Eat

Posted on September 24, 2010

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2. Eat Eat Eat

Korean men may be generally chronic chain smokers and drink Soju (a traditional Korean drink) as if they were receptacles with hollowed bottoms, but they certainly take their food seriously and pride themselves in the healthy properties of their cuisine. Fast food joints may be popular,  but the majority of the restaurants in Seoul, and gosh, there are a lot, still serve traditional local fare which is loved by young and old alike.

   

I didn’t really know much about Korean food before I went on my trip. Of course, there were my experiences of little parties Korean students used to hold in my country, and where they would make ‘traditional Korean food’, but this was particularly awful, not because Korean food is bad (quite the opposite, nowadays it makes me salivate just to think about it), but because the quality and nature of the ingredients just weren’t the same. The following is a short (and by no means exhaustive) outline of the most common elements of Korean food.

Kimchi and Banchan

Banchan is the general name given to what is traditionally consumed during almost every Korean meal, and translates to  ‘side dishes’. Banchan can be made of practically anything, with picked vegetables and fish being the most popular ingredients. In a restaurant, you could be served anything from a few to a whole table-packed spread, and indeed, a Korean meal is just not complete without Banchan. A kind of banchan but also one of the most important kinds of food for Koreans is Kimchi. There is nowhere to run or hide from Kimchi while in South Korea – this cabbage, chilli, garlic, ginger and radish fermented dish (other ingredients are included) is everywhere, probably even on the menu of the airline which will take you to and from the country. While everyone except the locals seem to find it a bit strange that the stuff is left to ferment even for 6 months in order to acquire a particular sort of slightly spoilt taste, it is far more appetising than it sounds. If you’re still not convinced, fresh kimchi might be what you are looking for – it’s sharp, salty and surprisingly refreshing. 

Bibimbab

I remember eating bibimbap for the first time after a long trip around the zoo just outside of Seoul. It was icy cold and the wind had been blowing into my face the whole time. I didn’t have any snacks in my bag, so I ended up reaching the restaurant within the zoo totally famished. While the writing under each menu item was also in Roman characters, there was no English description for the dishes, and so I chose the only familiar plate whose contents I was sure of. Bibimbap is a wonderful thing, not because it uses complicated ingredients, but, quite the opposite, because it creates something delicious through the simple combination of sweet and sticky rice and a selection of fresh mountain vegetables.

Korean barbeque

The best Korean eating experience for me has to be Korean barbeque, where you walk away from the restaurant still smelling of the food you have consumed. Since the meat you select is cooked in front of you on a grill, the smell of the grilled meat will stick, and I mean stick, to your clothes, to your hair and to your skin, causing you an embarrassing ride home on the subway as people stare at you. But don’t worry too much. Koreans love barbeque, so they will by default have had the same experience countless times.

And this is how you should eat your barbequed meat: Grill your meat, then cut it into pieces using the large pair of scissors you are given. Take a large lettuce leaf and place a piece of meat on it. Add a bit of chilli paste and some spring onions, then roll the whole thing and just shove it in your mouth in one go. Then tell me if that is not the perfect meal.

When I returned home from my trip to Korea, I got back in touch with a Korean friend who was living in Malta and studying English there. One day, when I was at her home, I watched her going through the entire process of making Kimchi from scratch, yes, the same stuff which I had binged on for one month and which had scalded my tongue at the beginning, but which was now a sort of guilty addiction. I watched her in wonder as for what seemed like hours, she rinsed a couple of chinese cabbages, sprinkled them with salt and let them dry. She diced radish, grated ginger and chopped garlic (lots and lots of it), then added a special Korean chilli paste and plenty of chilli powder, before finally gently proceeding to stuff the chinese cabbage, leaf by leaf, with this pungent mixture. At the end, she took a couple of leaves, wrapped them in a bite-sized portion, and offered them to me with her chopsticks. I opened my mouth and received the explosive gift. The mixture of tastes rushed straight to my brain and my heart. My whole mouth started tingling with pleasure and heat. I was in heaven.

 

At the end of the day, I could spend hours and endless seas of words trying to describe this food, but I will never be successful. I am always unsatisfied when food critics try to describe the tastes of things. They only managed to make me hungry, and when I do get to eat what they speak about, I always end up having my own personal, spiritual experience with the food which has nothing to do with what they described in the first place. So when it comes to Korean food, just hop on a plane and go and eat. And remember that I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg here and that Korean cuisine is as complex as that of its neighbouring countries. Even more importantly, remember that Koreans value communal eating, so you might want to bring a friend along for a much more enjoyable experience.

-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @ www.travelwithdenden.wordpress.com

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Posted in: Seoul