Growing up, my family hosted home-stay students from around the world who were studying English in Vancouver. Soo Yeong lived with my family in 2002. Years later we reconnected through Facebook (the magic of social media!) and I reached out when we were travelling through Asia. Dan and I were unsure if or for how long we wanted to visit South Korea for but shortly after talking with Soo, we booked our flights to Seoul. Having her as our personal tour guide and local friend was probably one of the main reasons that our stay in Seoul was so fantastic! No matter how many “travel like a local” blogs you read, you never really experience a city ‘like a local’ unless you are with one.
After picking us up from the airport – where we both freaked out at how cool it was we were together in Seoul after not seeing each other for well over a decade – we drove to dinner. Soo’s sister met us at the restaurant (Baekje Won) where we were treated to our first Korean meal. The meal was an experience to say the least. Unlike in Western culture where it’s fairly typical for each person to order their own main dish, Asian food is much more about sharing and this is extremely prevalent in Korean food. The other thing I immediately noticed about Korean food was that everything comes with side dishes; for every dish you order, four dishes are served to you! It was a good thing Dan and I were quite hungry after the flight as more courses than I can remember were brought out! Each time another course was brought out we were surprised, and near the fifth or six dish we began to understand why Soo and her sister had eaten so little of the previous courses, having full knowledge more was coming.
I love food, and I love learning about new foods. In Korea I experienced and tried an incredible amount of new flavours, types of fish, meat and vegetables as well as unfamiliar cooking methods. Here’s a sample of the dishes that we tried at our first meal.
*If you’re not a total foodie, skip down about 10 photos and we’ll get back to talking about the city!!
Korea is the only country in the world to use metal chopsticks. I found the pointed, slippery metal chopsticks more difficult to use but they definitely look sleek. Interested, I read about the theory on the origin of metal chopsticks and supposedly thousands of years ago the royal family used silver chopsticks to detect poison in their food as silver changes color when it comes into contact with a poisonous chemical. Another theory is that since Koreans use a spoon to eat their rice, wooden chopsticks were not required (wooden and bamboo chopsticks make stickier objects easier to pick up).
One of many side dishes to be served.
A lot of the food we tried was something I would have never considered eating (turns out you can eat a lot more than we typically consider ‘edible’ in North America). This next salad was something I considered exotic and strange but supposedly it’s nothing out of the ordinary: cold, raw jellyfish cut into noodle like strips (‘shredded’).
Notice the server cutting up the salad with scissors – it’s extremely rare to see a knife used in Korean cuisine and we quickly learned, they cut everything with scissors!
Supposedly most foreigners love this next dish. And I have to agree, it’s very tasty and the flavours are more subtle and familiar. The name, Haemul Pajeon, literally translates to “Seafood Pancake;” however, in my opinion, it tastes nothing like a pancake …. maybe it’s more a ‘Korean Omelette’ (except there’s more flour than egg…).
The sashimi was superb and showcased that Koreans eat more than just fish raw. In the centre is a beautiful small abalone, served raw, and on the end is beef sashimi (i.e. raw beef).
Each side dish had it’s own unique flavour and it was exciting to have so many to try!
We were told the dish in the middle (the long dark green leaves and small vegetables) is a rare, special dish as the vegetables come all the way from Ulleungdo Island.
One of the most famous Korean dishes is Kalbi/Galbi: barbecued, marinated beef short ribs. Again, the server used scissors to cut up the pieces instead of a knife!
At the very end of the lengthy meal, we each had a piece of fresh ginseng (you eat the leaves, root and all) dipped in honey to cut the bitter taste – “it’s for health” (not taste).
After dinner, we returned to Soo’s apartment in Bucheon – a city about half way between the airport and Seoul. She lives with her parents and brother and her sister has a place a few stories up. Very kindly, her sister offered for us to stay our first night in her apartment. I had assumed we would have the couch (and would have been more than happy with that) but her sister left for the evening to stay with her boyfriend and we had the entire place to ourselves! The two sisters showed us around the place and kindly pointed out the kitchen counter which was full of treats for us – specialty Korean desserts, chips, instant noodles, etc. Dan and I were in shock! Soo laughed and tried to explain the prevalent “Treat Culture” in Korea. Over the next few days we experienced it again and again – like when her mother treated us to lunch (and wasn’t even with us!) Our entire time in Korea we were pleased to experience the wonderful hospitality and kindness of Koreans.
Dan and I wanted to visit the JSA – the closet you can get to North Korea without actually going there – but when we checked tours (you have to do an organized tour) nothing was available during our week in Seoul. As an alternative, Soo offered to drive us to Imjingak, a park located on the banks of the Imjin River near the North Korean border. The park is filled with various relics and monuments of the Korean War and visitors “can experience the grief of the national conflict”. The park was built to console those from both sides who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families because of the division of Korea.
Ribbons praying for the reunification of Korea.
“After 36 years of Japanese colonial rule, our country was liberated on August 15, 1945, thanks to the sacrifices of service personnel who fought for the nation’s independence and for an end to the Second World War. Before celebration could break, however, Korea was arbitrarily divided into north and south according to a unilateral decision on part of larger powers, regardless of the desire of our people. Korea, which had been a unified nation for thousands of years, was faced with the division of Korea into north and south. Mangbaedan Memorial Altar is a permanent alter established by the government at a cost of 500 million won, at Imjingak, overlooking the lands of North Korea ….”
Just across the parking lot is Pyeonghwa Park where dozens of kites dotted the sky!
On the way back to Seoul we visited the enchanting Heyri Art Village, home to over 370 painters, potters, photographers, musicians, architects, and writers as well as dozens of cafes.
That evening, we met with Soo’s friend, Dae Sun Yoo, and dined on another delicious Korean meal. This time we had grilled beef ribs followed by marinated spare ribs and beef radish soup. The leaves on each of our plates are for placing a piece of meat (and kimchi) in and wrapping – it adds a tasty and unique flavour, although I noticed I was the only one to finish all the leaves on my plate! The hanging vents to suck up the smoke from open grilling were a common site in Korean restaurants.
On the side, we had a bowl of Bibimbap, a signature Korean dish that ended up being one of our favourites. The word literally means “mixed rice” and toppings varied from place to place. This one had pickled vegetables, seaweed and little sauce.
By this point, maybe you’re thinking that this post is overly focused on food, but in my defense, I think it’s Seoul that is overly focused on food. Restaurants and cafes are a huge part of Korean culture. Koreans always seem to be eating or drinking – you literally never had to walk further than 50 metres to find the next place to eat in Seoul and every place had customers! It was insane, although when I pointed this out to Soo she just laughed and shrugged. As you can imagine, our five days in Seoul revolved around food as much as anything else (and I loved every second of it, and almost all the dishes we tried!)
To back up my theory I checked TripAdvisor, which lists the number of listed restaurants/cafes in each city; here’s what I found:
|Rio de Janerio||12,722|
Walking around Hongdae after dinner we got a true taste of the neighbourhood’s urban arts and indie music culture in the Hongdae Playground where we watched young Korean rappers battling it out. It was pretty epic!
The public transit system in Seoul is incredibly easy to use and quite cheap which made it easy to see lots in a single day. After resting the previous day (I picked up a cold somewhere – maybe the plane, or just the shock from the temperature change) we headed to Gyeongbokgung Palace. On the way we stopped at Gwanghwamun Square and saw the Statue of Sejong the Great.
Gyeongbokgung was built in 1395, the largest of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty. The premises were destroyed by fire during the Imjin War and abandoned for two centuries. In the 19th century, all of the palace’s 7,700 rooms were restored. However, it wasn’t long until the palace was destroyed again – this time by Imperial Japan. Since then, it has been restored again and is regarded as being the most beautiful and grandest of all five palaces. I loved the vibrant painted colours and gorgeous detail put into the restoration. While I understand why some restoration projects are only partial and leave more to the imagination; it was wonderful to see the palace as it may have looked in all it’s glory thousands of years ago.
Obviously, we tried more food that afternoon. This time we went with Tteokbokki, a popular Korean food made from soft rice cake, fish cake, and the sweet red chili sauce called gochujang. It was so spicy we could barely eat it, even after we ordered rice to absorb some of the heat!! We also tried our first gimbap, which basically looked like a Japanese sushi roll (but don’t call it that in Korea~). Gimbap is usually filled with pickled vegetables – which Koreans put in/with absolutely everything and in this case it also came with fried shrimp. We saw Gimbap for sale everywhere and were told it is often eaten during picnics or outdoor events.
After a couple of days in Seoul, I was blown away – it was so much more than I expected. Not only was there a seemingly never-ending amount of new food to try but there was a unique culture. There was this amazing city absolutely covered with free WiFi hotspots boasting the fastest internet speeds in the world, a crazy night culture scene and the trendiest of trends in every direction, not to mention the insane “cute” factor added to so much. I expected to like Korea but I didn’t expect anything too spectacular; it’s not really one of those countries you hear travellers raving about. I guess in many ways, I didn’t really know what to except. Compared to my knowledge of Japanese cuisine and culture, I knew practically nothing about Korea (other than they eat Kimchi – but even there it turns out I didn’t know much!) Sometimes it’s fun to go somewhere expecting nothing and getting wonderfully surprised.
The War Memorial of Korea opened in 1994 on the former site of the army headquarters to exhibit and memorialize the military history of Korea. We started our visit in the outdoor exhibition section where about a 100 large weapons are displayed on the lawns around the building. After spending longer than expected there (you can walk right up to, underneath and even into some of the equipment), we skipped the indoor exhibition which displays another 13,000 or so war memorabilia and military equipment!
Myeongdong Kyoja restaurant was recommended to us by Soo and I’m so glad we hunted it down for lunch. Their steamed Mandu (Korea’s term for ‘dumplings’) were probably the best dumplings I have ever had (and I’ve had a lot of dumplings). These particular ones were stuffed with “top-class female pig pork, vegetables, leek, and fresh sesame oil” and “wrapped by skin that is nearly transparent.” Given there are only four things on the menu it’s pretty easy to pick and the service is fast and efficient (like just about everything in Korea!) The second dish we ordered was their signature Kalguksu, “a fantastic combination of pleasant tasting thick chicken broth, soft noodle, and garnish.” Served with a side dish of kimchi.
After exploring yet another neighbourhood (there are so many different areas to Seoul!) and eating a small dinner, we went back to our Airbnb. We were sitting on the floor (typical old-fashioned Korean style floor seating) drinking a glass of wine and working on our computers when I saw our host preparing food and dishes – I noticed he had three plates as if he was being joined by two people. I gave Dan a look and before we knew it our host had joined us and brought over a massive plate of fresh tuna sashimi and giant pot of cooked mussels along with two bottles of rice wine. South Korea has a fairly popular midnight snack culture known as yasik and we were about to experience it!
Korean rice wine, Makgeolli, is a slightly sweet alcoholic beverage (6-8% ABV) made from rice and I can testify that it goes down very smoothly. The wine is often drank from small bowls and it wasn’t long at all before the two 1 L bottles and all of our bowls were empty. At which point our host went running, literally sprinting, out of the house and brought back another four bottles. We ran out of wine again a couple hours later and he sprinted back to the store again. He explained he was celebrating – he had run a marathon earlier that day! His English was not very good but it was fun trying to figure out what he was saying. He was a middle-aged man who used to work on ships around the world and is now semi-retired.
About half way through the evening our host brought out another dish. He only told us that this was a ‘special dish’ and that he really loved it. I can’t say how happy I am that I was full at that moment and Dan tried the fish first and then gave me a “omg don’t touch the fish” look that kept me saying I was full for the rest of the night! As it turns out, we were served “Hongoehoe” – sliced raw skate (which belongs to the ray family – think stingray). The raw fish is known for the very strong, characteristic ammonia-like odor that it emits, lovely.
Our last full day in Seoul, Soo picked us up again and we drove around hitting up as many of the spots we had yet to cover. We started with lunch (see what I mean about everything revolving around food!) We had Bulgogi, sliced (almost ground) and seasoned barbecued beef. Dan may have had a little too much rice wine and wasn’t feeling the lunch, but I found it delicious!
We then checked out a couple cafes (this one is famous for their rainbow cake and rainbow bagels) where another friend of Soo’s met us. Soo explained that her friend knew more of the areas “foreigners like to go” and would help show us around. It always amuses me that locals try and please foreigners by taking them places other foreigners go instead of where locals go!
They took us to Bukchon Hanok Village, a Korean traditional village composed of lots of alleys and hanoks, traditional Korean houses. The village, located in the middle of the city, has been preserved to show a 600-year-old urban environment. It’s definitely a place tourists flock to (for good reason) and ‘keep the noise down’ signs are posted on many of the doors of houses where people actually still live.
Next we went to Bugak Palgakjeong (Bugak skyway Octagonal Pavilion) to look down on the beautiful scenery of Seoul from the top of the mountain (without having to hike, climb or pay). The panoramic views and scenic drive make it a great place to visit but it’s almost impossible to access without a car as there is no public transportation. Another reason we were so happy to have our local tour guide/driver Soo!
For dinner we headed to Gwangjang Market, one of the oldest and largest traditional markets in South Korea with more than 5000 shops in an area of 42,000 square metres. Approximately 65,000 people visit the market each day! Soo and her friend navigated through the stalls stopping here and there to buy us an assortment of yummy food to sample for dinner! Again, I was shocked by the vast assortment of Korean foods! Below is a table covered in various types of salted seafood.
Pan-fried vegetable pancakes are a popular staple (similar to the Haemul Pajeon – Seafood Pancake – we had our first night). They make everything from scratch on site and it’s non-stop action.
We finished off the evening walking along Cheonggycheon Stream heading to Dongdaemun Shopping Centre which is open all night long! You know, just in case you wanted to buy some new clothes at 3AM.
On the morning of our last day, Soo came and picked us up at our Airbnb where our host had a box of Hanbok Korean Traditional Clothes. With the help of Soo and our host we got dressed, braided my hair and were shown some of the ‘traditional’ poses that couples do for photos while in costume!
If you can believe it, we did even more than I’ve written about but that’s all for now! To view the rest of our photos, check out our Flickr album: Seoul, South Korea.