Or, what I ate on my vacation.
Meal 1: Jokbal
When you're traveling abroad to eat, it helps to be adopted by a group of>"/>
Or, what I ate on my vacation.
Meal 1: Jokbal
When you're traveling abroad to eat, it helps to be adopted by a group of food bloggers. A couple weeks before my trip to Seoul I emailed chef, radio personality, blogger, and networker extraordinaire Dan Grey, of Seoul Eats, to see if he'd be available to hang out one night while I was in town. He ended up leading me on three nights of eating, talking, and karaoke, with a roving cast of expat and Korean food lovers -- most notably, Fatman Seoul, who is neither a man nor fat (long story) but instead a wisecracking encyclopedia of food in Korea. I can't thank them enough.
This photo was from jokbal night, where we went to a street that specializes in braised pig trotters, waited outside the restaurant that Dan and FS had heard was the best, and then devoured an entire platter of pork, the rind and fat braised into complete submission, the meat especially delicious when dredged through salted shrimp and fermented soy-chile sauce. (You can find jokbal at Sam Oh Jung, FYI.) This was the night after the three-year-old-kimchi-and-homebrewed-ricewine expedition, which was equally delicious but required several coffees and red-bean-paste croissants to recover from. (Side note regarding Korean pastries: Red-bean-paste croissants are actually tasty. Hot-dog and ketchup danishes, however, are not.)
Meal 2: Dolsot Bibimbap
Even the tourist brochures for Jeonju, a city in the central southwest part of the country, declare that it's the best food town in Korea. This is much harder to experience when traveling alone, since the restaurants I stopped in wouldn't serve solo travelers hanjeongshik, a complete dinner that comes with so many banchan that you may not be able to taste all of them before becoming stuffed. However, the banchan that came with my simple dolsot bibimbap, or rice cooked in a stone bowl with roots, seeds, and a raw egg, were overwhelming enough. So many of my meals in Korea had a reassuring familiarity to them -- I've eaten similar food in Lynnwood, Oakland, and LA, if not always as good -- but the panchan in Jeonju were utterly new. The season came through so intensely: Most of the plates contained spring greens and sprouts foraged from the surrounding countryside, some drizzled with a sauce of fermented chiles and vinegar, say, others with toasted sesame paste. Even the mulkimchi (water kimchi) was made with an unusual radish that tinted its salty, tangy brine Barbie pink. I came home dreaming of new ways to dress up fiddlehead ferns, nettles, and purslane.
Meal 3: Nokcha Kalgaksu
At Boseong, near the southern coast, I took a bus up winding roads lined with blooming cherry treas to walk around Korea's steeply terraced tea plantations, then stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants specializing in dishes made with green tea. These kalgaksu, or knife-cut noodles, were delicately flavored with tea, and came with a side dish of aromatic, slightly bitter tea leaves tossed with sesame oil. Boseong was also where I realized that every meal involved endless crunching -- cabbage kimchi, radish pickles, greens and the like -- and then started noticing how many Koreans have excellent teeth. When I returned to Seoul, FS said to me, "Did I tell you to look for pork belly from pigs raised on green tea?" Note to any future travelers to Boseong: Please make up for her omission, and send me photos.
Meal 4: Tteokbokgi
Seoulites, I was told, take a progressive approach to eating out, which explains why the city makes New York look like a restaurant wasteland in comparison. There weren't just restaurants on every corner, there were often two stories of restaurants on every corner, with a street stall right outside. It's a world-class city to eat in, especially with the won at 1,300 to the dollar, which meant we never spent more than $25 per person on a three-restaurant expedition.
My last night out in Seoul began with raw beef with sesame oil and Asian pears. Then we headed up into the gallery quarter, where we ducked through alleys between arch-roofed hanok buildings to eat tteokbokgi. Tteokbokgi is the iconic Seoul street food, tube-shaped rice noodles cooked in a sweet and spicy sauce, but here it's cooked at the table, and you're provided plastic aprons with your pot so that you don't walk out looking like your clothes have caught the measles. Once we slurped up all the ramen noodles, tteok, hard-boiled eggs, fish cake, mussels, and cheese, the cook took our pan back to the kitchen. She added rice, corn, and seaweed to the remaining sauce, then fried it into a spicy, crisp-bottomed patty. A better end to a trip I couldn't imagine.