I’ve just checked into my room at the Conrad Seoul, and there is a curious button labelled ‘magic glass’ on my wall. I look around trying to figure out what its purpose is, before eagerly pressing the button. And, in a true James Bond fashion, the window overlooking the bedroom immediately fogs up for privacy. Pretty cool stuff, but what else should I expect? I’m in Korea.
Seoul is a bustling city with shiny skyscrapers soaring into the clouds and an impressive high tech subway system roaring below your feet (free WIFI and 4K service onboard, of course). I am continuously amazed by how modern this city has become in the past decade, and the food scene has surely followed to beat.
Korean culture has been going global, so much so that it’s been dubbed the ‘Korean Wave’. Korean dramas, K-Pop (think One Direction), beauty products and cuisine are breaking through borders with impact. Korean cooking, in particular, from the famed food trucks of K-town in LA to the two-Michelin-starred Jungsik in New York, has earned an enthusiastic audience and its unique spices are jazzing up menus worldwide.
Korean flavours are truly addictive. They’re punchy, lively and full of deep aromas. Many of Korea’s pantry staples are fermented and that means serious umami. Fermentation also fortifies with good bacteria, making it super healthy for digestion. That combined with other flavoursome antioxidant ingredients, such as fiery chillies, piquant garlic and fragrant ginger, means for a pretty healthy diet.
Koreans view food as medicine, and balance is essential. Diversity of dishes and sharing plates reinforce this harmonious gastronomic mantra, and are an integral part of the cuisine. Every main dish brings forth a full entourage of side dishes called banchan. Dozens of small plates full of colourful vegetables, roots and pickles of every kind grace the traditional Korean hansik table.
London has been the latest city to feel the flow of the Korean wave, with its street carts toting twists on classics cutely coined Bulgogi burgers (Korean American hamburgers) and Ko-rittos (Korean-Mexican burritos). The cuisine is still new on the scene, but it’s created a splash, and even renowned chefs are catching on.
Korea is considered Asia’s most trendy country, but thankfully, tradition also still holds a sacred role. In Korea, old and new buildings stand side by side, symbolically mirroring the mind-set of the country and its duplicitous tastes. Despite all of the new food movements, you can still find hundreds of cheap and cheerful roadside stalls selling the most loved of Korea’s street eats. I always pick up a hotteok, an old school favourite that resembles a flat donut. Whenever I buy one, I think of the first time my grandmother lovingly placed one in my eager hand, and then having to painfully wait until it was cool enough to eat. “Is it ready now?” Finally, after staring wantonly for seemingly hours, I was able to bite into the soft chewy dough. The result was a delightful gooeyness of sweet molasses specked with crunchy nuts, and a big sugary smile on my face.
Eomuk, another one of my cherished snacks, is a satiating skewer sporting a fold of soft savoury fish cakes boiled in an umami rich seafood stock. It’s comfortingly filling, and a great power lunch on the go. You’ll often see businessmen rushing hurriedly with a briefcase in one hand and an eomuk brochette in the other. I especially like to eat them during Korea’s snowy winter months, when the hot broth provides a much welcomed gratifying warmth.
Although street food is undeniably popular, formal restaurants also spread out the white tablecloths with grandeur. Korea’s high-end culinary scene is dynamic and noteworthy. Young brazen chefs are at the forefront of the scene, with Tae Hwan Ryu leading the pack. His restaurant Ryunique has garnered considerable praise just shy of their four-year anniversary. I met chef Ryu many years ago in the kitchen of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, when he first moved to England in an ambitious quest to learn from the best abroad.
He has a rather shy demeanour at first, but soon breaks the ice with a warm sincere laugh while explaining his restaurant’s logo. “Ryunique is a circus… and I am the clown,” he chuckles happily, but I am acutely aware of his deep passion and fastidious work ethic. You don’t get ranked No27 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list by clowning around (79th on the World’s Best Restaurants list). It is wonderfully apparent though, that he does like to have fun with his food. His menu is playful with a stroke of wit, presented with the panache of a ringmaster. I particularly enjoyed his Hide and Seek dish of walnuts and dried potatoes. Both elements imitating each other in texture and appearance, yet revealing themselves only upon first bite. Another starring dish was his fizzy melon soup, made with chamoe (Korean yellow melons) and studded delicately with cured Norwegian salmon and sweet ambrosial micro tomatoes. It’s served with pomp in a gorgeous glass bowl housing a winding ivy vine and a dropper bottle of fragrant lemon verbena on the side. It’s a meal full of surprises with Korean ingredients dancing gracefully with French and Japanese technique.
Another young gun on the scene is Hwan Eui Lee of the famed Congdu restaurant. It takes a bit of effort to find this jewel nuzzled in a nondescript side street, on a hilltop among the many embassies. Here, traditional dishes enjoy more of a central role, finished with modern sophistication. In business for nearly 14 years, Congdu has become a Seoul stalwart with two sassy women, Vivian Han and Kay Kang, at the helm. Everyone comes to Congdu for the ganjang gejang (soy sauce crab). It is a common classic dish, but Congdu’s version is hardly ordinary. Even though simple, every ingredient is carefully sourced. The Korean crabs are caught on the West coast and marinated in coveted five-year-aged soy sauce, served with steaming select white rice and thin sheets of gourmet dried seaweed. Their recipe is historic and based on an old Korean scholar’s from the Lee Dynasty. Next comes a bucket of steaming prawns, again with the same underlying modesty, but hidden richness. These large crustaceans, locally known as dohwa saewoo, literally meaning peach flower prawns, hail from Dokdo and are considered the sweetest and juiciest in the country. They are placed over hot stones covered with pine needles and then generously doused in premium Hwayo soju, allowing them to steam gently and infuse with the evergreen leaves. Even the salt is extraordinary, and three rare varieties of cheonilyeom solar salt, of different ages and sized crystals, adorn the table. It’s a true epicurean experience, yet feels remarkably unimposing; simple food executed with panache.
Another chef promoting Korea’s bounty is Sung Il Kim, who leads the brigade behind La Yeon in the swanky Shilla Hotel. Royal cuisine has a visible influence here with many of the dishes served majestically in bespoke traditional silver and brassware of the dynastic regimes. It is high class dining from start to finish, and you can easily see why La Yeon is ranked 38th on Asia’s 50 Best list. Gujeolpan, a signature dish, is a plate of multi-coloured vegetables mimicking an artist’s palate. The name means nine delicacies, and each element represents a different area of Korea, all to be rolled up in thin soft tea infused pancakes, and then dipped in a light mustard dressing. The banchan dishes are also incredible and change seasonally. Marinated mountain roots, sautéed foraged field greens, dried sea vegetables, soy sauce infused meats and versions of kimchi all taste ambrosial and feel and taste exquisitely special.
It’s impossible to talk about Korean food without mentioning kimchi. A fermented spicy side usually made of cabbage, kimchi is eaten with every meal. It has a strong funky smell, and despite its odorous characteristics, it is hugely addictive and the hot new ingredient globally. It is a cornerstone of Korean cuisine and historically it was even shipped out to troops abroad, citing it as integral to troop morale.
Another loved dish is Korean barbecue, usually served DIY right on your tabletop over a coal fire. Kalbi (BBQ beef short ribs), cut thinly on the bone, has a sweet and savoury lip-smacking quality that it owes its fame to. It is always a crowd pleaser and one my mom used to use to lure the whole family to the table, with just the fragrant smoke coming off her mini grill. Hanwoo (Korean beef) rivals Kobe with its indulgent marbling and amazingly rich flavour. It is perfectly balanced in fattiness and taste, and because of this, it is highly prized with a price tag to match. And, it’s not exported, so all the more reason to seek it out.
If meat isn’t your thing, seafood is also big on menus. Korea is a peninsula and the locals harvest everything from the sea. Busan, a south-eastern city, is a major fishing port, and the dishes here let seafood shine. Jampoong, a spicy noodle soup, is a local specialty and signature dish at Nampoong restaurant. A unique Korean-Chinese fusion, it is a luxurious bowl showcasing the best from the sea. Abalone, baby squid, clams, and prawns in a decadently complex seafood broth make for a lavish dinner. Another beloved dish, usually reserved for a cheap delivery meal, is the humble jajangmyung noodles. Here though, this popular plate gets a makeover with jewels from the sea. Every bite contains a cherished nugget of today’s catch.
Korea remains steadfastly one of my favourite cities to eat in. I am always discovering something new (salt coffee, anyone?), while still surely satisfying my nostalgic cravings with time-honoured dishes. Its offerings are never ending and no matter what you fancy, there is so much to be explored. Koreans are indeed somewhat food-obsessed, because food is a language of love. Every meal possesses that memorable ‘sohn mat’ (meaning the taste of the hand), that makes dining in Korea so special.