K-pop and great shopping aside, Seoul should be on every gastro tourist’s list of culinary destinations. Here’s why.
Words and Photos Iris Wong
Illustrations Tim Cheng
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 91, February/March 2017
Seoul has never been on my travel bucket list. I don’t follow any K-pop groups. I can hardly afford regular waxing sessions, let alone plastic surgery, and (somewhat blasphemous as a food writer) I’m quite happy just taking bites of kimchi pancakes with some makgeoli on Kimberley Street. But never say never. As I discovered on a recent trip, there’s more to Seoul than meets the eye, especially when it comes to gastro travel.
Dividing the city in two is the Han River, or Hangang, which has 27 bridges connecting the north and south banks. North of the river are historical landmarks such as old villages and palaces, while on the south is the city’s most affluent district, Gangnam-gu (the name may be familiar from Psy’s 2012 international hit, Gangnam Style). One of the Seoul’s least-developed areas until the 80s, it now has the city’s most expensive real estate, the South Korean headquarters of global tech giants such as Google and IBM, and Asia’s largest underground shopping centre. COEX Mall. Not only is Gangnam the epitome of luxury living, it is also the powerhouse of medical tourism. Apgujeong-dong, also known as the “beauty belt”, is flanked with plastic surgery clinics with the most common procedures being double-eyelid treatment (not considered cosmetic surgery in Korea), rhinoplasty and chin augmentation.
The main strip seems to have an unfeasible number of big-chain coffee shops, many of which are open 24 hours, with more around every corner. People saunter through the streets carrying takeaway coffee and the hearty aroma of roasted beans permeates the air. According an article in The Korea Herald, South Korea ranks fourth in the world for the most Starbucks outlets per capital, with more than 1,000 branches nation-wide. Coffee has become a symbol of luxury: imagine a Korean Carrie Bradshaw strutting down Cheongdam Fashion Street in sunglasses, shopping bags hooked over her left elbow, a skinny latte in her right hand…you get the idea.
Even if you don’t drink coffee, the many small cosy cafes are a good place to rest your feet after shopping and sightseeing. Hipster coffee joints are clustered around the popular university area, Hapjeong-Hongdae, while the local artsy crowd heads for the cafe street in Samcheon-dong. For something different, there’s a raccoon cafe in Yongshan District called Blind Alley (yes, you can pet and feed them), and a Sherlock Holmes-themed cafe in Gangnam. Caface prints your selfie onto your drink, while Monster Cupcakes celebrates Halloween all year round.
For those seeking refined dining experiences, head south of the river for some of finest, most talked-about restaurants, including South Korean celebrity chef Edward Kwon’s LAB XXIV (the iced persimmon is delightful). At Soigné, chef Jun Lee serves contemporary Korean cuisine in the form of an “episode” menu that changes every three months. Chef Tae Hwan-ryu offers a 23-course menu of Japanese-French hybrid cuisine crafted with local Korean ingredients at Ryunique. Or try his latest restaurant, Rooftop by Ryinique, in Apgujeong.
When it comes to street food, Korea’s first permanent market, Gwangjang, is a great place to start. It overwhelmed the senses, with mung bean pancakes sizzling on a grill, customers shouting their orders, and ganging-gejang (soy sauce crab) and other fermented delicacies oozing umami and mouthwatering pungency. Eventually I settled down at one of the stalls with my travel companions to sample some tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), Korean fish cakes in a clear broth and to sip makgeolli (fermented rice wine) from small metal bowls. One of my biggest regrets, however, was not trying the live octopus sashimi, despite the friendly persuasion of the ajummas (Korean middle-aged ladies, all with similar perms and the same shade of lipstick) manning the stalls.
There’s a great debate among Koreans about which store serves the best chimaek (Korean fried chicken and beer). Everyone gives a different answer – BHC, Baengi, Goobne, Kyonchon – each endorsed by a different celebrity. But there’s a consensus that the best way to enjoy chimaek is at the park by the Han River, at sunset. Take a picnic mat, grab a new beers and order fried chicken (there are people handing out flyers) to be delivered to your exact spot. Sunbathe, people-watch, leaf through a good book, and tuck into crispy yet tender fried chicken and ice-cold beer.
For a more hands-on food experience try gimjang, or kimchi-making, which was listed by Unesco as Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. I signed up at the Museum Kimchikan, where the chef-instructor guided us through the ingredients, steps and techniques of making kimchi. I packed a box of my final product in my suitcase to bring back to Hong Kong, but be sure to wrap it up in several ziplock bags unless you want your clothes smelling like kimchi, as I learned the hard way.
The best way to end the day is to visit a jjimijilbang, a bathhouse where you can steam, sauna, bathe, eat and even sing karaoke. If live music tickles your fancy, head to one of the many jazz lounges in Itaewon, the Lan Kwai Fong of Seoul. All That Jaxx is the first jazz club in Korea and offers some of the best live jazz in town for a reasonably low cover charge. It’s a dark, moody jazz bar that doesn’t scrimp on quality (or alcohol) in its drinks, making it the perfect way to wind down in the company of friends, old and new.
| First Things First
What to Do
In spring or autumn, start the day with an early visit to Haneul Park. Be sure to take your camera for amazing photo ops with a sea of spring flowers or silver grass and fall foliage. Hikers can take a short two-hour hike up Mount Bugaksan, and be rewarded with spectacular views of the city and the famous Gyeongbokgong Palace. For lunch, head to Gwangjang Market for Korean street food such as bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), tteokbokki and sundae (Korean blood sausage), with makgeolli. Seafood lovers might prefer the 24-hour Noryangjin Fish Market, where you can pick your catch and have it prepared any way you like it at one of the restaurants. For coffee Samcheongdong or Hapjeong are packed with cosy, trendy cafes that know their brews. For shopping, Garosu-gil (which translates literally as tree-lined street), is great for high street brands and local designer stores. Meyongdong, another hugely popular shopping district, has a variety of fashion and beauty stores, with luxury brands as well as department stores. Rest your feet after all the retail therapy and devour plate after plate of gable at Samwon Garden, one of Seoul’s most famous Korean barbecue restaurants. Then unwind at a Korean bathhouse, or jjimijilbang, for a unique local spa experience, or with an old-fashioned at one of the many live jazz lounges in Itaewon.
Where to Stay
Art: Le Méridien Seoul
Opened late last year, Le Méridien Seoul was inspired by the golden age of travel in the 1960s and exudes the glamour of a bygone era. The hotel is all about “coordinates, culture and cuisine,” with timeless chic interiors, state-of-the-art facilities, great dining options and even an art museum, M Contemporary, which hotel guests can access free.
120 Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul 06124
T +82 2 3451 8000
Homely: Hotel 28
This luxury boutique hotel was inspired by a retro film set, with interiors by global design studio HBO+EMTB. Guests can unwind in the hotel’s rooftop garden, visit the cinematheque and gallery, or dine at the restaurant Wolhyang.
12 Myeongdong 7-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul 04534
T +82 2 774 2828
Historical: Rakkojae Seoul
Rest mind and body at this beautiful hanok (traditional Korean house). The serene Rakkohae Seul has three rooms and a separate house with two rooms, each with a slightly different feel and en-suite bathroom. Enjoy unusual activities such as a natural mud sauna, kimchi-making workshop and tea ceremony.
49-23 Geyonggi, Jongno-gu, Seoul
T +82 2 742 3410
Where to Eat and Drink
One of the most popular street foods in Korea, these cylinder-shaped white rice cakes are highly addictive. Often eaten with Korean fish cakes and boiled eggs, tteokbokki are drench in gochujang (chilli paste) or non-spicy ganjang (soy sauce). We tried it at Yupdduk, in Dongdaemun, in a huge portion enough to feed three people.
Who can resist fine cuts of beef and pork being sizzled on a hot grill right in front of you? Diners usually cook their own meat, but renowned Korean barbecue restaurant Samwon Garden has export who grill the meat for you. We highly recommend the Korean fresh short rib and the beef tartare.
Ganjang-gejang, raw crab marinated in soy sauce, is a must-try in Korea. Get your hands dirty as you suckle on the creamy flesh and slurp up the roe. Head to one of the restaurants on famous Ganjang-gejang Alley in Sinsa-dong to savour this fermented seafood dish.
Popular in summer, bingsu, or shaved ice, is a Korean dessert topped with anything from fruits and matcha powder to chocolate brownies and condensed milk. One coming variety is patbingsu, made with sweetened red beans. Head to Sulbing Korean Dessert Café for Injeolmi Sulbing, with nutty bean powder, chewy rice cakes and sweet, soft cheese.
Fried Chicken and Beer
Koreans call it chimaek – a compound of the words chicken and maekju (beer in Korean) – and there’s no denying the pleasure of gulping down ice-cold beer after mouthfuls of tasty, crispy fried chicken. There are lots of chimaek chains but we recommend Chicken Baengi and BHC.