K-pop and great shop­ping aside, Seoul should be on ev­ery gas­tro tourist’s list of culi­nary des­ti­na­tions. Here’s why.

Crave - - CONTENTS - Words and Pho­tos Iris Wong Il­lus­tra­tions Tim Cheng

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.

Iris Wong

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.