What are the first 3 things coming into your mind when you hear “South Korea”? Hopefully NOT “Kim Jung Un” or “North Korean missile testing” or “Samsung’s face burning smart phone”. When a dear friend of mine told me «let’s go to South Korea», spontaneously “Korean BBQ” and “Korean food” jumped into my mind. Hence our “Eat, Love, Pray” trip starts from a simple request this April.
If you like food, specially if you like spicy food, South Korea is definitely the destination for you. This time we visited Seoul and Busan and tasted a biog variety of Korean dishes.
Korean BBQ (고기구이)
When people think of Korean food they usually think of Korean BBQ and Kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage). On the first night upon arrival, we couldn’t help our excitement and went straight to a local South Korean BBQ restaurant in Myeongdong. “Mmmmm…” is the only word/sound we could produce that night. And if you are just trying it for the first time, then that’s a great place to start.
The beauty of the Korean BBQ is that everything can be grilled (e.g. beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, and seafood). Tender meat marinated in a soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil concoction and flame broiled right in front of your drooling face. There are many ways to eat it, but the true Korean way to eat is in a perfect bite of lettuce, soy bean paste, pickled radish or Kimchi and rice. In fact, my problem was that I always overstuffed my lettuce wrap with too much goodness and end up looking like a chipmunk. But it was all well worth it!
Also all Korean meals come with plenty of tasty side dishes thast can be refilled many times. Guarantee full belly! By the way, don’t forget to order a couple of bottle of Shuju (Korean Rice wine).
When you in South Korea, do what the South Koreans do! Noodles or noodle dishes play an important role in Korean cuisine. Similar to Chinese culture, the continued shape of the noodle were thought to be associated with the bliss for longevity. Jajangmyeon, a staple Koreanized Chinese noodle dish, is extremely popular in Korea as fast, take-out food. It is served with a black bean sauce and usually fried with diced pork or seafood and a variety of vegetables, including aubergines and potatoes.
As matter of fact, if you are Korean soap opera fan, Jajangmyeon is one of the main “Actor” of every single episode.
Jokbal & Bossam (족발 & 보쌈)
So are you starving yet? Great! Now let’s talk about Pigs Feet or Jokbal, an expensive Korean delicacy. It is not looking glamorous and definitely not healthy, yet it is super good and tasty. It may not be a common food choice for you, but I’m highly recommend to you to try at least once. Especially for ladies, pigs feet has lots of healthy gelatine (aka collagen), probably the secret for ever-youth Korean skin.
Jokbal is usually braised in a combination of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and rice wine. Additional ingredients can include onion, leeks, garlic, cinnamon and black pepper. Of course everyone has their own secret recipes and that’s what makes some places stand out from the rest.
If you find the Jokbal too greasy and a bit foreign, you can try Bossam or steamed pork instead. It is usually wrapped with cabbage, a piece of raw garlic, Kimchi, and Ssamjang (brown coloured paste). Since the meat is steamed, it is usually very tender but still retains the pork flavour.
The area around Dongguk University station in Jangchung-dong is known for its numerous Jokbal restaurants. Most of the restaurants have a long history, some have been open for more than 50 years.
Gwangjang Market (광장시장)
There is a saying: “If you wanted to know about a country, then go to their market”. That’s true! If you want to know more about Korean lifestyle, then go to Gwanjang Market. Honestly, our heads spun at the sheer amount of food options in that place! It’s very much alive and buzzing at night, with tourists and locals alike. The Ajuma (i.e. Korean word for middle age aunty) are super friendly and try to rival each other to get attention. So walk around to decide which one tickle your appetite. At the end we practically got drag into one of the Ajuma’s store and tried some specialities:
Seafood pancake is a big dough mixture with all kinds of seafood and egg. Simple and delicious;
Yukhoe is a raw dish in Korean cuisine, usually made from raw beef seasoned with various spices or sauces. If you like Tartare from French cuisine, then Yukhoe is the Korean version of the Tartare, made of the most tender part of the beef seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, spring onion, minced garlic and Julienne Korean pear. A raw egg yolk is usually added as well. “Mmmm… Again…” Yummy and coming for a fair price (see my cheeky face, you know we got a good deal).
Of course, there are way too many choices in the market. We couldn’t help ourselves to stop at another stall taste some more, like Korean Dumplings and Korean Rice Cake, which are traditional Korean family dishes, plain but tasty. What could we ask for more?
Korean Fried Chicken (치킨)
Another phenomenal food in South Korea is the Fried Chicken. Wonder why? Apparently, we heard that you can order fried chicken at any time and the delivery person can find you in any crowd wherever you are. Hence we put it into a test. We went to the Han river bank after our sauna session (which was amazing, read down below) on our last night in Seoul. If what is said about the fried chicken service is true, we should have got our delivery in no time while we were enjoying the night view of Han river and its breeze. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to obtain this legendary service (maybe because we didn’t speak Korea and make ourselves clear). But we did end up having the fried chicken when we got back to our hotel and order it in the conventional way.
Samgye-tang/Ginseng Chicken soup (삼계탕)
Rain visited us on our last day in Seoul, this gave us a reason to have the Ginseng chicken soup. It is said that Ginseng has a warm nature and can keep your body warm, which was perfect for that rainy day. Normally, the soup consists primarily of a whole young chicken, and we ordered one each. It turned out to be a wise choice so that we did not not fight over with each other for it!
Jagalchi market (자갈치시장)
Left Seoul, we travelled to Busan, which is famous for the seafood. Jagalchi market is the largest seafood market in town, a must-visit place. We were so excited to see the fish market and to try some seafood delicacies. The fish was definitely fresh. However, there were no clear price tag for anything and the Ajuma hurried us up (i.e. practically dragged us) to the 3rd floor without informing us that sitting upstairs costed extra 3,000 Won per person. Not only we had to pay for the fish we were eating (I.e. 50,000 Won), but we had to pay and extra for the cooking of the fish/seafood (I.e. another 10,000 Won). Another thing that made us uncomfortable was that they charged our card without telling us how much it was and just took our card away. Maybe they just wanted to save time due to the fact we were not very familiar with the language and customs?
Anyway, we felt tricked by them and in the end we paid almost £80 for a grilled fish, an eel and 2 scallops, plus a bottle of Shojiu. Despite everything, we left with the feeling of being ripped off.
As my Chinese origin, I love all kinds of noodles. We completed the last day of our cuisine trip with a good old bowl of Ramyeon: Korean instant noodles similar to Ramen. It is spicy, bold, deliciousness that no Korean can survive without. It is their Mac and Cheese. It is their peanut butter and jelly. Except it will burn your lips for how spicy it is!
As we wandered around Busan with the intention of having a true local lunch, we found a little Ramyeon shop full of locals. Certainly our appearance caught some attention/staring, like “what are those two doing here?”. We didn’t care though. We sat down, we ordered the most common and most delicious local Ramyeon and we slurped it up, along with fried omelet and some tasty rice. It was a the perfect meal to complete our food tour in South Korea.
Korean Sauna (찜질房)
I hope the all the food talk didn’t overwhelm you. If it did and you need some rest, you definitely need to visit another attraction in South Korea: the traditional Sauna. It is a large public bathhouse, costs 8,000 – 12,000 Won to enter, and you can spend the night there after having the sauna and a shower. There is usually also a TV room, a restaurant and an exercise room. The most amazing thing was that there were many different types of sauna rooms, like ice room, super heated sauna (60° Celsius), heated salt room and so on. It is believed that every type of room has its own use to get rid of different types of toxins.
We decided do go to Silloamsauna, considered the best Sauna in Seoul and spent the night there. The morning afterwards we felt recharged and ready, so the refreshing function did work indeed!
Gamcheon Culture Village (부산 감천문화마을)
Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan is formed by houses with built in staircase, located on the foothill of a coastal mountain, that made this village earn the nickname of “Machu Picchu of Busan”. The many alleys cutting through this community are vibrantly decorated with murals and sculptures by the residents. It is like mini-asian-version of Cinque Terre in Italy. Oh well, not exactly five villages, just one. But the painted buildings and the colours of the village are perfect for pictures, especially if you visit as a couple. There is a lot small and colourful alleys climbing up the mountain, perfect for romantic outing! You can also find many cute Cafe, galleries and gift shops around, really worth a walk around. We fell in love with the place!
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (해동 용궁사)
Do you know that South Korea is one of the most Catholic country in Asia? But here we are not here talking about the Catholic church, instead we’ll mention a particular Buddhist temple in Busan: Headong Yonggungsa Temple. Most of the temples are situated inland, on the mountains, but this specific one is on the north-eastern coast of Busan, and it is a great attraction. Walking along the shoreline towards the temple, feeling with the breeze from the sea is a very enlightening experience. Even we are not Buddhist, but we couldn’t help to pray in this magical place.
The main sanctuary of the temple was reconstructed in 1970 with extreme attention the colours that were traditionally used in such structures. On the right-hand side, inside a cave, there is an uniquely designed Buddhist sanctuary, while in front of the main sanctuary there is a three-storeys pagoda with four lions. The four lions are symbolizing Joy, Anger, Sadness, and Happiness. Other special sites at the temple is the stair with 108 steps and the stone lanterns aligning with the rocky landscape. After going down the 108 steps, we were delighted by the beauty of the temple. Halfway down the 108 steps we took a break and we enjoyed the calming sounds of the waves, and a majestic sunrise.
Another special place in the area is the Post Box: the only post box that does not deliver the regular post. It is said that the post box deliver the wishes and words the people would like to say to the beloved ones who are not in this dimension any more.
Overall, we really enjoyed our trip to South Korea and we definitely recommend it. We hope this guide can be a little help to discover more about the country.