Barbecue is always going to be one of those meals you have when you go to Korea. We went for barbecue twice – once at a simple walk-in mum-and-dad joint, and the other in a much fancier part of Seoul. The difference in the two was mainly in the decor and the price – one came in at a comfortable $30 for two people, the other cost us $100. And honestly, I couldn’t see that there was much difference between the two dining experiences, and no distinguishable difference in the quality of the meat either!
We spent one of our days in Seoul at LOTTE World, the world’s largest indoor amusement park. I find it absolutely incredible that LOTTE as a company has such a stranglehold on business in South Korea – from LOTTE supermarkets, candy, fast food chains, amusement parks and more. Such is capitalism! Anyway, no visit to an amusement park is complete without junk food – so Lotteria’s Lotz Burger and Bulgogi Burger it was! The burgers were pretty standard though – and even the bulgogi burger was no different from what McDonald’s Australia might produce as a “limited time Korean special”.
Street-side and alleyway eating is always a highlight of any trip for me, and what I feel to be an excellent way to understand how locals eat. We visited Gwangjung market, one of the famous eating alleys near Dongdaemun Markets for a long multi-stage lunch one day. Made up of over 100 independent stalls all with their own specialty, you can find all kinds of foods here and move from stall to stall trying different dishes.
We start off at a stall where the owner takes one look at me, asks me if I’m Chinese, then proceeds to talk to me in Chinese. She specialises in vegetarian dumplings, and K and I order a bowl to share. Filled with a spicy tofu and pickle mix, the soupy dumplings are filling, hearty, and unsurprisingly delicious considering the number of local workers queued up for a serve.
We watch a lady making mung bean pancakes (Bindaetteok), quickly flipping and frying pancake after pancake with a variety of savoury fillings. K is fascinated by the bean grinder that she works next to, which constantly spins around and produces the batter that she uses as the base of the pancakes.
Some of the Bindaetteok make it onto this cold display, where people can buy to takeaway and eat at home, or buy and have it heated it directly in front of them. Fried food is the order of the day at some of these stalls!
In the mood for something a little healthier, we settle ourselves down at a stall with multiple bowls of heaped ingredients. It’s a “make your own rice salad” stall! Guided by a fellow Australian sitting next to us who’s teaching English in Seoul and helps us translate, we make our own healthy rice salad full of bean shoots and other green goodness. It’s absolutely delicious and suited to our tastes, and a bargain at only $4 AUD.
For our last stop, we sit down at a stall where the owner smiles and nods at us, and doesn’t even bother asking us what we wanted, or how much we wanted. She simply ladles out a cup of hot pork broth each to start, and then starts rolling gimbap for us, one after another. Her gimbap is incredibly simple with just some pickles in it, but when dipped in the hot sauce she provides, becomes something special with the crispy seaweed and bite of sesame seeds. She loves seeing us eating it, and even rolls some special gimbap for us, and pops it directly into our mouths. What service!
We meet up with my friend Tara, who takes us for a simple meal near Noksapyeong that includes the revelation of Maggi 2 minute noodles cooked with Tteokbokki in a spicy kimchi stew. Oh. My. God. Such a simple concept – but such delicious comfort food! We finish by grabbing churros nearby for a sweet dessert.
You don’t visit the border between North and South Korea without taking a selfie right? Seriously though, it was a very surreal experience. As the two countries are still technically in a state of war, the level of military presence and the number of security checks and rules we had to abide by was actually quite alarming. It’s a really unique experience, especially when you get the added excitement of a tour group from North Korea arriving at the border at the same time as you do, and you end up looking at each other but not being able to communicate.
Our DMZ tour also included lunch, where we shared a pot of beef bulgogi – simple but delicious!
You don’t walk around Myeongdong at night without picking up some strange snacks. Who would have thought to curl a potato around a hotdog, then batter and deep fry it? It sounds strange, but it’s strangely more-ish! Just try not to count the kilojoules…
“What exactly does hof mean?” I asked K when we arrived in Seoul. It seemed like every couple of bars we walked past had “hof” printed on their signage. “It’s like a bar that serves mainly beer and fried chicken” he said. For days we kept walking past all the hof bars, until we finally went to one in Myeongdong for a drink and a meal. It was well worth the wait – the chicken was both crispy on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth tender on the inside. The chicken was just as good when coated in a sweet chilli BBQ sauce. It definitely looks like you can count on Hof bars for good nibblies while you’re having a few drinks!
Despite the ridiculous amount of food that we ate at every single meal that we had in Korea, I was always on the look for yummy sweets for dessert afterwards! I found these crostoli-like balls of fried dough, smothered in a layer of hardened glazed icing, from a street stand in Myeongdong. We bought one of the strawberry coated ones, and the lady put it in a paper bag, smashed it with a rolling pin, then handed it to us. Yum, little bits of icing covered fried dough are the BEST!
Again out for a sweet fix when out in Sinsa-dong in the Gangnam region of Seoul, we dropped in La Pomme Dessert & Furniture Cafe. To be honest, the reason was two-fold. I wanted dessert, and as an industrial designer by trade, K is always interested in checking out new designs. I ordered Crepes Suzette thinking that I would get the usual simple crepe with citrus sauce on top. Imagine my surprise when this work of art came out! The crepe was wrapped around a deliciously fluffy citrus tinged meringue which just melted in my mouth. Combined with the two lemon meringue macarons, it was a wonderful sweet and refreshing dessert.
K ordered a Tarte Tatin, which came out as a full tower of crispy cream-filled pastry, poached apples and creamy vanilla bean ice-cream. Again, not what you would normally expect of a tarte tatin – but it all worked really well. Topped off with a crispy apple slice, this dessert just had everything going for it! The only thing I would say is that if you were to visit this dessert cafe, you can probably skip your next meal as the servings are very generous!
One of the final meals was with my friend Chantelle, who took us to the university area of Hongdae at night for a meal. Walking past young street buskers, numerous street stalls, restaurants and karaoke (!!) joints, we went to a little home-style restaurant where we ordered a platter of delicious fried food! From various vegetable fritters to fried frankfurts, it was a real demonstration of the variety of fried foods you could eat in Korea.
And now we come to end of our eating journey overseas! It was an amazing three weeks of eating in Hong Kong, China and Seoul – a much-needed holiday from the Real World of employment, bills and adult responsibilities!