Simply delicious. There is no better way to describe the small piece of Korea that we were lucky enough to see, or taste, as the case mainly was. We already knew we loved Korean food from what we had sampled before at restaurants back home, but trying the authentic versions was something else. And, although we did do a lot of eating, it wasn’t just the food that left our mouths watering for more, with the capital Seoul turning out to be one of the cooler cities we have been to and somewhere we would love to spend more time in. We went to Korea, as Seoul is one of the few places that you can fly directly to from Mongolia. This meant we only treated it as a stopover, but looking back we would have loved to have spent longer to check out more of the country. We were only there for four nights and although we did pack a lot in, we were left with a feeling of wanting more.
We arrived at Incheon Airport at about 4am after only a 3 hour flight, so were definitely a bit on the shattered side, with no sleep happening. But at the airport we were met with the efficiency, cleanliness and organisation that is synonymous with Korea. Although it is one massive airport, finding the bus we needed and generally getting out of the place was just so easy. Arriving at our hostel we were met with some of the excellent customer service that we experienced through our entire stay. We weren’t meant to be able to check in to midday, but when we rocked up at 7am there was a note on the door saying the room was ready and to ring a phone number as the staff member was sleeping near the counter. Within minutes we had a full, although rather sleepy, description of the area and its attractions and were in our room and getting a few hours sleep ourselves.
From the time we woke up just after midday our Korea eating experience started. Being there for such a short time we wanted to get as much in as we could, so we were definitely a bit on the gluttonous side of things. For this first meal we went to one of the cheap eateries that the hostel had recommended and promptly ordered far too much. For about $8 we got two plates of sushi, a spicy pork stir fry and a wanton soup, plus the other five free side dishes that are common with any Korean meal. The food was excellent and we were left patting our bellies and heading home for another lie down.
Well rested, we headed out to drink some Hite, as that is our favourite Korean beer at restaurants back home. We quickly found that Cass is a cheaper and equally tasty equivalent. Jared felt a little “soft” declaring that these are some of his favourite beers in the world, as they are extremely smooth and easy to drink and true beer aficionados would probably say they lack flavour, but they just go down so well. After a few beers we decided we had to frequent one of the many establishments offering fried chicken and beer as their main drawcard. This turned out to be a great idea as we had maybe the best deep fried chicken we have ever had. We chose the boneless pieces, although most locals seemed to go for bones in, and were given a big plate of juicy morsels with an awesome crispy coating.
As an aside this place had maybe one of the best bar snacks we have tried also, deep fried spaghetti noodles. They were coated in salt so the crunchy goodness was very moreish. With a good layering of fried food in us we went out and met some locals and ex-pats in what was a rather lively bar scene for a Thursday evening.
After a few too many samples of the local beers on our night out, a lot of Friday was spent relaxing. We had a food tour booked for that evening so wanted to ensure we were in the best condition for it, as it consisted of a bit of walking to go along with all the eating.
The tour was great fun. Our host Chuck showed us around four different eating establishments, which meant four different styles of Korean eating. For us the highlight was the first stop where we were able to try a traditional Korean style barbeque. Here we grilled fresh pork side(?) meat over hot charcoals until it got a nice crispy BBQ coating. We then learnt how to correctly wrap each piece in either a sesame or lettuce leaf, along with your own selection of soya bean paste, garlic, shallots, salt, and soy sauce. The end product was a mouthful of absolute deliciousness. The second place had a few traditional Korean dishes. With found the rice cakes a bit on the gluggy side, but the Kimchi pancake we had here was the best example we have had of one of our Korean favourites. The third stop was a restaurant that specialised in a chicken dish from the south of the country. Everyone at the restaurant was just getting big shared bowls of this, which was like an Asian chicken stew. The flavour was tasty enough, although as we were starting to get a little on the full side we didn’t eat too much of this one. On our way to the fourth place we happened upon a shop making string honey sweets. We had seen the guys making these before on TV, so knew they had a very theatrical way of making the fine strings of honey coated in flour. They put on a good show as they sing and count in English and the final product is a tasty and interesting sweet. Click here to check out a quick video we made of their show. The final stop of the tour was a huge food market. We had a bit of a look around, with people everywhere eating any and everything.
One area had people eating raw mince, liver and tripe, which we were glad was not the place we were stopping. Another area had 100s of types of Kimchi with all types of vegetable and seafood pickled in the spicy traditional style. Jared tried a Kimchi crab which you ate shell and all, and although a little on the crunchy side, was quite tasty. The place we stopped to eat at specialised in Mung Bean pancakes which are quite a yummy and wholesome fried treat. We also had pigs ear, blood sausage and lung to snack on here and although Jared did give the sausage a try none were as appealing as the pancakes by a long way. All in all the food tour was a great way to experience Korean cuisine and although it was a little on the pricey side for what you get, the fun of being in a group and having an English speaking guide to ask questions to made it an enjoyable and informative evening.
On the Saturday we did one of the few things that didn’t involve filling our bellies, with a tour to the DMZ. This is the DeMilitarized Zone where the Korean peninsula splits between the communist North and the capitalist and flourishing South. The half day tour we did was a bit rushed, but we did get a good feeling for how the South really do want unification (maybe on their terms), while the North is more about protecting what they have (from most reports poverty and propaganda). Some interesting things included the Freedom Bridge which has a lot of messages left by Southern residents for families and friends in the North; the Dorasan Rail Station, which has a closed entry gate for all trains north and is where South Korea hopes it will eventually be able to have trains go through that link it with China, Russia and ultimately Europe;
a lookout point where we were able to see the heavily deforested North Korea, which was due to their fear that if there were trees there this would give people somewhere to sneak through to escape and has now ruined the land; having to stand behind a line to take photos at the lookout, because if we got too close the glare off the camera may be a target, even though there were fixed binoculars to look through that had glass lens and were much closer; and a big North Korean flag that has been part of a tit for tat process with the South as they vie for the world’s biggest flag, although the North Korean’s is based in a fake town that has the shells of houses made to look like a prosperous town, where in all reality there are no people there and there is no way the North would let any of its citizens live that close to the border. Quite an interesting tour, but it didn’t get us much closer to one of the most troubling questions we sometimes ponder: “How would you get the North Koreans, both its leaders and its people, to a position to be able to become part of the global community and not live in the dark, both literally and figuratively, like they currently do?”.
With the political side of our stay over it was now time to get back to eating our way through the rest of Seoul for our remaining days. The night of the tour we went out to a busy local barbeque place and had more great grilled pork. There was no English here but we still managed to get some good pieces of pork shoulder (?) that we cooked ourselves, along with a couple of Cass’s to wash it down. The following day we went on a hop on hop off bus tour to take in a few of the sites. Here we stopped in the ex-pat/tourist mecca of Itaewon, where the streets are dominated by foreigners and the shops sell all labels from Nike to Gucci. We decided seen as we were in a foreign area we would try something a bit different so went for the Korean style burger (and also some tasty spicy fried chicken). The burger had a great sauce on it and the patty was OK, but we have definitely had better burgers on our travels, so decided we should stick to the local specialties. Being our final night we decided we had to give one of the BBQ spots near our hostel a go, so headed out for some more grilled pork which again was absolutely divine.
The cook-it-yourself pork was definitely our favourite, but this was closely followed by the fried chicken, so we headed back to the same place we had been to on the first night for another plate of the deep-fried goodness and weren’t disappointed second time around. After a couple of Hites to wash it down we waddled back to our hotel thinking we could definitely live in this city, but how do the locals manage to stay so skinny? We would be huge with all this great food on offer at reasonable prices.
Although we did spend a lot of our time eating, Seoul does have a lot of other cool stuff to check out too. We did manage to walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream, which goes right through the centre of the city and is quite surreal walking through the picturesque waterways with waterfalls and stepping stones to cross, but with massive skyscrapers towering on either side. There is also a lot of Palaces that are very tranquil places to check out and we managed to get to one of these as well, which was great to walk around the ancient grounds and check out the old buildings that housed royalty in bygone eras. But overall for us this trip was all about the food and it did not disappoint. It is a big call, as there are so many cuisines that we love, beers we have drunken and cities that we have been to, but after being there for only five days we may just have to put Korea up there as having our favourite food, beer and city of the entire world. Well, that was our feeling upon leaving anyway; maybe we will have to head back sometime soon to confirm it.