If I asked you to picture Korean cuisine – what enters your mind? Had someone asked me this question a few years ago, I would have thought about rice, chilli, a few spices and soy sauce. D’oh! Now that I’ve traveled through South Korea a few times, I picture sour Kimchi, Bibimbap and traditional Doenjang soup. Oh and the most heavenly pancake filled with seeds, nuts and honey… But more on that later.
I’ve been lucky enough to explore South Korea a small handful of times over the last 3 years and I’m starting to think of Seoul as my soul sister. I really like Korean culture, feeding off the energy there and am constantly surprised (and entertained) by the language barriers that exist when a non-Korean speaking Australian and a Korean-English speaking Korean walk into a karaoke bar. This game of charades actually led to my first experience (and last) with powdered horse bone. Delicious right!? Not so much. Rather a textured mouthful, tasting faintly of earth and fungi. All language barriers aside, I love almost every meal I’ve had in Korea…
Food culture fascinates me and I get a kick out of not knowing what some of the foods on my plate are. A Korean meal is normally served with lots of little side plates featuring mostly plant-based foods, and on this basis alone I often find myself eating 6 or 7 different vegetables in one meal (sweet potato noodles count right?!). Kimchi is definitely the star of these sides and is served with nearly everything. No complaints here. I’ve also noticed when posing for a picture most Koreans have replaced the word cheese with Kimchi (this amuses me a lot), and so far I’ve seen this funky-smelling cabbage appear in stew, fried rice, water, cold soup and pancakes. There’s also no shortage of pickled and preserved foods, especially if you favour vegetables, seaweed, fruit and fish.
Tempura king prawns, fish pancake and grilled squid all feature heavily in the street food scene, along with Buldak (spicy, sweet fried chicken, a delicious and sticky mess covered in sesame seeds), and Hotteok – Korea’s answer to the doughnut. This is my favourite K-sweet of all and is a simple rice flour-based dough fried in butter-infused oil and then filled with an assortment of seeds, nuts and a warm honey drizzle. You can watch the street vendors make it and it must be eaten hot!
One of my favourite Korean dishes is hot stone Bibimbap traditionally made with pork and Gochujang (I love this red pepper paste, it’s fermented, salty and super spicy). After first visiting South Korea, upon returning home to Melbourne, my boyfriend Rob and I found ourselves craving the foods we’d newly discovered while abroad. We did a thorough search for top notch Bibimbap here and are happy to report we found a restaurant on Victoria St in Richmond that serves up great Korean food. It’s called Arisoo. We also enjoy impressing the staff there with our very unimpressive Korean vocabulary. (If you’re unfamiliar with Bibimbap – click on this link!) Another loved K-meal is Bulgogi, traditionally made with pork. Australia provides Korea with a lot of beef, making it a relatively accessible and cheap option when eating out, but I find myself preferring the flavour of pork with the particular flavours of the Bulgogi marinade (soy sauce, garlic and fruits like apple and pear).
I can’t write about Seoul food and not mention Korean BBQ! There seems to be a deep love of do-it-yourself dining as these restaurants are everywhere in South Korea. A large grill or hot-pot sits in the middle of your dining table and with the flick of a burner switch you’re cooking your meal. It’s fun, interactive and while you’re waiting for your food to cook it’s the perfect time to order some Makgeolli (traditional Korean rice wine) or Soju (this spirit is similar to vodka, so it’s popular to order it mixed with something. I had it with plum juice and it was super tasty). Popular meat choices for this style of dining are black pork from nearby Jeju Island, Australian beef or my favourite option of all – chicken marinated in red pepper paste. This particular choice of chicken dish is cooked with an assortment of vegetables, Garaetteok (Korean rice cake) and egg noodles. It’s then served with kimchi water and iced radish soup, and when it’s almost ready to eat, a mixture of mozzarella and tasty cheese is stirred through. I’m still on the hunt for a good Korean BBQ restaurant in Melbourne – if you have one in mind, let me know!
While exploring Seoul it’s definitely hard to ignore the different culinary influences of other cultures. Coffee is very loved, especially Dutch pour-over and cold drip coffee, and I’ve not seen so many cafes in my life! With a population of over 10 million people just in Seoul and growing fast, I’m not surprised every third storefront seems to be a coffee shop. Pizza (especially Gorgonzola), pasta and hamburgers are also really popular, and it’s fun to experience the novelty of these things in a country that heavily relies on rice, vegetables and soy as their main food staples.
So basically I’m just a fool for Korean food. A happy fool though, because the next time somebody mentions it to you’ll have something more than rice and soy sauce to talk about.