K-pop and great shopping aside, Seoul should be on every gastro tourist’s list of culinary destinations. Here’s why.
Seoul searching in South Korea’s effervescent capital
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 makgeolli 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 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 capita, with more than 1,000 branches nationwide. 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, Hapjeonghongdae, while the local artsy crowd heads for the cafe street in Samcheondong. For something different, there’s a raccoon café in Yongsan 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 Ryunique, in Apgujeong.
When it comes to street food, Korea’s first permanent market, Gwangjang, is a great place to start. It overwhelms the senses, with mung bean pancakes sizzling on a grill, customers shouting their orders, and ganjang-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, Kyochon – 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 few 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 ziploc 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 jjimjilbang, 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 Jazz 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.