Friday, December 30, 2011

Post 73: 48 Hours of Seoul Food

I flew Asiana Airlines to Taipei this time, which called for a stopover at Incheon Airport on the way to/from LAX.  I took this opportunity to hop outside of Incheon Airport for a quick 48 hours to take a first glimpse at Seoul and spend some time with old schoolmates Rina and Myung who now live and work in Korea.  Here is a look at my 48 hour whirlwind in the capital city of South Korea.

My first bite of food in Korea (not counting the donuts I scarfed down at Incheon Airport) was from this harmonious plate of kimchi tofu.  Kimchi tofu is a type of anju, or Korean drinking snack, that pairs two major Korean staples together onto one plate.  When the tofu and kimchi meet in your mouth, the smooth, velvety, mild flavor of soft tofu engulfs the crunchy, tangy, spicy bite of stir-fried kimchi in a way that I can only parallel with my exhausted body collapsing into my pillows and comforters at the end of a long day.  Kimchi and tofu together makes as much sense as mashed potatoes and gravy, and it brings the same kind of soothing comfort to your soul.  I chased my first bite of dubu kimchi with a refreshing shot of Chamisul.  Ahhh... my first taste of Korea.

It didn't take long for the highly anticipated haemul pajeon to arrive.  This crackling seafood pancake is one of my favorite foods of all time, and to have the opportunity to enjoy it as part of my first meal in Seoul was just so insanely satisfying.  Various bits of seafood are mixed into the thinly grilled batter, which means that each piece varies from bite to bite.  The first bite might contain tender calamari... the next bite might contain a smidget of succulent shrimp... and the subsequent bite might contain clam meat or a jiggly octopus tentacle.  But no matter what sea creature you discover in your piece of pajeon, every bite contains a web of sliced green onion, which not only provides sweetness but holds the entire pajeon structure together.  Dipping it in a soy sauce mixture (sometimes simply called pajeon sauce) and then chasing it with more alcohol made the pancake taste better with every subsequent bite.

There was no way the meal was complete without more soju and tteokbukki (stir-fried rice cake).  But by this point in the meal, I wasn't sure if I was more drunk from the dozen shots of soju and many sips of makgeolli or from the cyclone of spiciness of the rice cake.  But to make certain it was the former and not the latter, we paid the bill and made our way through the streets of Seoul to a hof, a Korean style pub where the many more shots of soju confirmed that... yes, I was drunk from alcohol and not from spicy food.

In the midst of all this food talk, I have neglected to say that my newly assimilated Korean pal Rina had led me down some narrow, dark alley in Insadong for this first meal of various anju.  But a single file trek through an unfamiliar territory is just mind over matter if there is hope of good food and chilled soju at the end of it.  Dangle some seafood pancake at the end of a dark tunnel, and I can almost guarantee you that I'll walk down that path.

After a dozen blocks through Seoul's spirited streets and a couple of pit-stops at the batting cages and local arcade, we made our way up a few flights of stairs to the hof of choice.  Rows of wooden tables in dim lighting with second hand cigarette smoke drifting through the rafters, intermittent roars of laughter and high pitched feminine squeals broke the constant drone of K-pop over the restaurant's loudspeakers.  The most prominent noise that truly broke the muffled off-key karaoke was the clack of the soju glass as it was pounded on the wooden tables by hof's many night owls.  The feel was similar to the environment in Korean bars like Crazy Hook in LA or Min Sok Chon in San Diego.

The first item we were served was a complimentary bowl of fried macaroni chips.  Okay, so I made that name up, but I have no idea what they are actually called.  The crunchy, edible Styrofoam peanuts got dropped on the table immediately upon arrival, and shortly after the little hollow chips were plopped down, everything became a blur... really.  Other than the preliminary rounds of soju and beer, the remainder of the night was a complete haze... and it didn't help that no one else could piece the night together.  So if I didn't actually remember anything, did it still count as a memorable first hof experience in Seoul?

When I woke up, I was enshrouded in bedsheets, and my left elbow was supporting my bruised face on a strangely warm tile floor.  A couch or perhaps just some pillows would have been nice, but I was just thankful that the floors were heated and that I didn't wake up on the streets of Seoul like these other party animals.  

Luckily, Seoul has many options for curing hangovers.  Rina led the way down some alleys in a neighborhood near Hanyang University to a restaurant that requires its guests to slip off their shoes before stepping inside.  After walking in I saw the many low sitting tables with individual cushions placed where the chairs would typically be.  Sitting crossed-legged on the wooden floors sounded like fun.  And just in case I keeled over from my hangover sweats, I'd already be closer to the floor.  Nice.

The hangover remedy placed in front of me was yukgaejang, a spicy beef soup simmered in red pepper, green onions, and bracken fern.  I didn't realize there was a fern in my soup until I researched it later.  I thought it was a token leaf that fell in from one of the banchan on the table.  But never mind that.  The spicy and fiery yukgaejang did a good job battling the burning residual alcohol that engulfed my head and stomach.

When I was finally ready for some solid food, I jumped in on the ojingeo bokkeum, squid stir-fried with vegetables and spicy red pepper paste (gochujang).  The sauce in the dish, made of spicy yet sweet gochujang, paired beautifully on top of steamed white rice.  The meaty squid, crunchy onions, and tingly green onion were cut to the similar length and size, and the red sauce that was drenched all over made my mouth water.  The radish kimchi was crisp and refreshing.  Its inner juices that burst with each bite were cool and sweet, and it helped clear any lingering spice on my tongue.  I completely forgot about my hangover by then.  It looked like Rina picked the right place for breakfast.

But what was for lunch? After an obligatory touristy stop at Gwanghwamun gate and Gwanghwamun Square, we strolled through the hip streets of Samjeong-dong and stopped at a chocolate shop before we taking respite at a hole-in-the-wall kimbap store.  If you don't already know what kimbap is, the best way I can describe it is the Korean version of sushi.  Whereas Japanese sushi is mostly rice and raw fish, Korean kimbap focuses more on the vegetables.  Another difference between kimbap and sushi is that meat is second in importance to the veggies, and the meat is almost always cooked.

The two types of pickled daikon, carrots, spinach, beef, and imitation crab meat rolled into this kimbap made for a perfect ten tummy tickling pieces of bite-sized heaven.  Yum.

Where there's rice, there's also noodles.  And I love noodles.  So I ordered a big bowl (big bowl is a bit of an understatement) of kimchi ramen.  The wavy strands of fried instant noodles dripping with kimchi broth led to a symphony of euphonious slurping noises... euphonious for me but more likely cacophonous for Rina and her good friend Hannah.  Granted, this was packaged ramen... the same packaged Shin Ramyun that we can get in the States.  But it was good.  And I became quite the chipper fellow.

Breakfast was soothing, and lunch was pleasing... but dinner was just plain magnificent.  No one comes to Korea without having its world famous barbecue.  And no one leaves without a taste of its amazing pork belly.  Don't get me wrong... kalbi and bulgogi are great, but springy little pieces of pork and its fat never tasted so good.  The sight of that gorgeous pork belly still raw sprinkled with just a touch of sea salt got my juices flowing.  It made for a great starting point for a night of memorable KBBQ.

If a piece of raw pork could make my mouth water like that, imagine what the cooked version of it with grill marks and crackling bubbles of oil could do.  Add a side of grilled onions, roasted garlic, and salt and peppered sesame oil for dip... and you can forget about all the beef on the table.  Really, forget beef.  Pork belly can solve the Korean's aversion to imported American beef.  You heard it here first.

Stuffed to the brim with barbecue pork belly, we made our way through the streets of Seoul (yet again, this seems to be a recurring theme) to Hongdae Park, which is where I had one of the most interesting people watching experiences of my life.  On this warm but breezy Saturday night, Hongdae Park was packed with college age young'uns in hoodies and baggy jeans rapping freestyle (in Korean, might I add) around a boombox.  There were girls with primped outfits and pressed hair sipping beer through straws (while their boyfriends held onto the cans and their designer hangbags).  But of all sights to see, what most surprised me was a throng of music fanatics jumping and dancing silently in front of a DJ booth wearing massive headphones... Hongdae Park gave me a first hand look at a silent disco.

In the video posted above, the first section is a group of young rappers (both aspiring and recreational) passionately practicing the love for their music.  Further back toward the right side of the shot is the silent disco.  Music lovers listen to the DJ's tracks with their own individual headphones.  The rhythmic music is a mix of the beats from the boombox and the music playing across the park, but it is not the same music that the DJ is spinning.  Music from the silent disco can't be heard until a set of your own headphones are put on.  I was quite intrigued to see a mass of people jumping up and down to silence and screaming, oohing and aahing whenever the DJ spun a fan favorite.

Fast forward through alcohol in plastic bags, shots with 151 set on fire, and beer galore to... midnight munchies! The kids in Korea were craving Taco Bell (and yes, there is a Taco Bell in Seoul), but Taco Bell had closed by the time we left the bar and lounges.  Lucky for me, we found a Korean shop that was open late.  This was my chance to dig into some famous Korean dishes... a hearty tofu stew (soon dubu), rice cake soup (tteokguk), and bibimbap, which I employed as my alcohol sponge for the night.

The next morning I was awakened by an earth shattering phone call from Myung, a roommate from college who had relocated to his motherland for work.  He treated me to what I can only describe as the cleanest, purest and most cleansing morning meal I've had in a long time.  It was a simple bowl of udon paired with a delicately formed onigiri... nothing spicy, nothing red, nothing oily or greasy... just Japanese influenced, petite culinary detox.

After a short visit with Myung, Rina and I visited Myeongdong for some dak galbi and a few final shots of soju.  The chicken was barbecued on a large round griddle along with onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, green onions, cabbage, and gochujang... all of which became folded with rice, eggs and sesame oil into an avalanche of fried rice at the very end of the meal.

Soju was brought back into my system as quickly as the clear udon broth flushed the alcohol out of my body from earlier that morning.  My final meal of my 48 hours in Korea completely negated the cleansing detoxifying meal from earlier in the morning.  But go big or go home, right? Or... go big, and then go home and rest.

48 hours in Seoul (half of which was blurred by soju-toxication) was truly not enough time to experience the sights and sounds of everything Korea had to offer.  I resorted to eating famous noodle dishes such as jjajangmyeon and naengmyeon at Incheon Airport while waiting for my transfer and home bound flights.  I will be back, Korea... there is much more pajeon to be had.  Until next time, let's all get S.O.F.A.T.

ML - 20110916-18


  1. I'm really impressed with your knowledge of Korean cuisine. There's still more to discover to my people's food, lol.

    Great post and as always, great pictures! :)