When it comes to cre­ative cui­sine, there’s a new star in Asia, finds So­phie But­ler

Sunday Times - - Artisan - © The Sun­day Tele­graph

Spicy pork, sea­weed salad, grilled mack­erel, soya bean soup. By the time the waiter had placed the last plate on the long, low din­ing ta­ble, I’d counted more than 30 dishes. Among the more un­usual were acorn jelly, bur­dock root salad, neu­tari mush­rooms, bar­ley seeds in syrup and crispy silkworm larvae. I was sit­ting in a small, ru­ral res­tau­rant in South Korea and I’d never had such a spec­tac­u­lar lunch. Fi­nally emerg­ing from the shadow of its more gas­tro­nom­i­cally es­tab­lished neigh­bours, Ja­pan and China, 2017 saw the Miche­lin Guide’s first cov­er­age of the cap­i­tal, Seoul, and in one bound the coun­try’s topend cook­ery joined the in­ter­na­tional elite.

For me, this points to the roots of Korean cook­ing — the count­less food out­lets: street stalls, cafés, beer houses and small-town restau­rants, which of­fer ex­cel­lent food for ev­ery bud­get.

I wasn’t that con­fi­dent of ex­plor­ing it un­aided. Out­side Seoul, lan­guage and cul­tural dif­fer­ences make it tricky to un­earth some of the more ob­scure lo­cal ea­ter­ies. Menus are ei­ther in Korean or non-ex­is­tent, and it’s rare that any English is spo­ken.


So I had booked an eight-day “Real Food Ad­ven­ture” tour of South Korea. Cover­ing a cir­cu­lar route of 800km or so, it com­bined the ci­ties of

Seoul, Jeonju, Gyeongju and Bu­san and promised to give a com­pre­hen­sive in­sight into Korean cook­ing of all va­ri­eties.

In Bu­san, Korea’s sec­ond- largest city, we made time to visit the vast fish mar­kets for an un­for­get­table glimpse of slip­pery ten­ta­cles, sil­very scales, gap­ing mouths and spiny shells, stretch­ing as far as the eye could see.

Our guide was Daniel Gray, a foodlov­ing Amer­i­can, who had been adopted from a Korean fam­ily at the age of six who had be­come a food blog­ger, res­tau­rant owner and tour guide. Our group of 12 in­tro­duced our­selves over a Korean bar­be­cue at a small city café in Seoul, gath­ered around char­coal-fu­elled grills built into cir­cu­lar ta­bles.


Pick­ing a suc­cu­lent piece of beef and one of pork off the grill, Daniel demon­strated how to make ssam by wrap­ping the meat in a sin­gle, crispy let­tuce leaf with a smear of spicy ssamjang paste, a strip of cu­cum­ber and an op­tional gar­lic clove, eaten as finger food and washed down with a shot of soju (the Korean an­swer to vodka, tra­di­tion­ally made from rice, wheat or bar­ley). Then he handed around freshly fried and sug­ary, cin­na­mon-flavoured kkwabaegi (a kind of long, twisted dough­nut) bought from one of Seoul’s busy evening mar­kets, be­fore sug­gest­ing a plate of chi­maek, Korean fried chicken, a city spe­cial­ity and served as spicy as re­quired, along­side cold, lo­cal beer.

While I was still reel­ing from this mouth­wa­ter­ing over­load, Daniel cheer­ily an­nounced plans for an early break­fast. Di­ges­tive stamina was go­ing to be an es­sen­tial re­quire­ment.


Korean cui­sine is built around the key sta­ples of white, sticky rice (bap), fer­mented veg­etable, usu­ally cab­bage (kim­chi) and a stock-based, broth-like soup (guk).

Along­side bowls of rice topped with veg­eta­bles (cu­cum­ber, mush­rooms, cour­gette, spinach) and egg, came side dishes of mung bean jelly with turmeric, shred­ded radish kim­chi, sweet potato drenched in starch syrup made from boil­ing pump­kin, pun­gent jeot­gal (fer­mented fish), mu­mal­laengi (dried, white radish), turnip with chilli, a sea­weed salad with cu­cum­ber and wa­ter­cress. This came with moju, a herbal rice beer, flavoured with cin­na­mon.

Daniel’s break­fast for­ays re­ally felt far from the tourist track. Hid­den can­teens in mar­ket back-al­leys, which looked scruffy and un­promis­ing on the out­side, turned out to be spot­less and wel­com­ing within.

Sit­ting along­side the wiry mar­ket traders and all-night lo­cal carousers, slurp­ing hae­jang-guk (“hang­over soup”, a nour­ish­ing broth with a spicy kick), re­quired more chutz­pah and know-how than in­de­pen­dent travel al­lows. As did or­der­ing fried silkworm larvae in a fam­ily-run res­tau­rant, on a road­side in the mid­dle of nowhere. These dishes were de­li­cious, and I would never have tasted them with­out Daniel’s guid­ance.


In the gaps be­tween eat­ing, there was time for hands-on cook­ery ses­sions. A shady court­yard in the peace­ful heart of Jeonju was the lo­ca­tion for a kim­chi-mak­ing les­son. An el­e­gant Korean lady demon­strated the trans­for­ma­tion of chopped onion, leek, shrimp sauce, gar­lic, chilli pow­der, red pep­per and gin­ger into thick, gooey paste through de­ter­mined pound­ing and stir­ring in a vast, stone mor­tar, cen­turies-old and as al­most as large as the chef.

Once it was mixed, she showed the group how to smear the pun­gent red con­coc­tion thickly on to the leaves of a salted cab­bage head, back and front, to cre­ate the na­tion’s ubiq­ui­tous dish.

In­trepid’s (in­trepid eight-day Real Food Ad­ven­ture to South Korea costs from £1 715 per per­son.



GLIT­TER­ING WITH PROM­ISE Han River and Seoul at night.



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