April 2014: Eating in Seoul #1

After a week in Hong Kong and another week in China, both with a long series of family catchups and various obligations, K and I really needed a proper holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my family and all their foibles and quirks. However, there’s only so many times that I can handle my older relatives giving me flack about my weight (I’m really trying okay?! I’m already 15kg down!), or the fact that I don’t work at a better paying job. Sometimes, money isn’t all there is to life.

I really needed to take some time just for the two of us doing what we like best – exploring new places and trying new things to eat. Given that I’d never been to Korea before, and that the last time K went, he spent 90% of his time playing video games in his friend’s apartment (19-year-old boys…), we decided that we would spend a week in Seoul before flying back to Sydney and the Real World of Not Holidays.

This is going to be Part One of Two of our eating adventures in Seoul…we just ate so much!

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The very first meal that we had after checking into our Airbnb apartment in Seoul was at a cute “Art Cafe” downstairs from our apartment, directly opposite Seoul Station. The cafe specialised in both selling the various pieces of art nouveau paintings that decorated the walls, and offering coffee brewed in various ways – from French presses to percolators. Their food menu was small but satisfying – after two weeks of relatively heavy meals, it was nice just to have a simple grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a pickle on the side.

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Our apartment was in very close walking distance of LOTTE Mart and LOTTE Outlets as well. One of my favourite things to do in a new country is to walk through supermarkets and simply see what they have on offer, and LOTTE Mart simply blew my mind! We start with bowls and bowls of different types of kimchi and pickles on display that you can buy by weight.

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And given that ginseng is a major export item for Korea, of course you’ll find some in the supermarket.

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Just in case you get tired and hungry in the middle of your shopping trip, you can always order some food from a machine, and then sit down and wait for it to be delivered to you. Nothing like having a second lunch while you do your grocery shopping!

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But actually…why would you bother having a second lunch, when there’s staff at the end of every aisle cooking samples for you to try? From sampling different instant noodle brands, to cereals, yoghurts, dumplings, and more, you could quite easily have a full meal just by trying a bit at every single stop.

Other things I loved in the supermarket that I didn’t take photos of:

  1. An entire fridge section dedicated to potential hot pot ingredients. Simply pick and choose what you want and buy based on weight!
  2. The buckets and buckets of fried chicken available in the deli section. I had to refrain from buying a bucket of a dozen pieces and taking it home for a midnight snack!
  3. The pizza stall in the middle of the supermarket – just order your pizza and they’ll make it fresh in front of you!

What I didn’t love – the number of Chinese tourists buying up everything they could in LOTTE Mart. The recent explosion in popularity of Korean TV dramas in Hong Kong and China means that a lot of people (mainly women) in the key demographics of 20-45 book “girls trips” to Seoul where they go on guided tours of TV drama filming locations, and then spend literally hundreds or thousands of dollars in buying cartloads of Korean snacks which they then ship back to Hong Kong. There’s actually a shipping counter located outside of LOTTE Mart, where you can box everything you buy up, and mail it off straight away.

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The language barrier really worried me before we left for Seoul. I’ve never been in a country where I couldn’t speak at least a few common phrases in the language of the country (I speak English, Cantonese, Mandarin, a smattering of French, and enough phrases in Spanish and Vietnamese to get by!), but Korean has never been a language I’ve learned to speak…other than “Anyong haseyo!”. The language issues reared its ugly head on the very first night that we were in Korea and in a tiny family-run restaurant with no English menus. Referring at pictures on the wall, we decided to order what looked like a octopus and vegetable hotpot.

Looking back, we should have known something was wrong when the owner kept asking us something in Korean, and continually pointing at the picture. Completely confused, we just kept nodding and saying “yes, yes”. Well. When the dish came out, it was clearly meant for four or more people and there was also the questionable addition of lots of beef tripe…yes, it was an octopus and tripe hotpot. Not quite what I was envisioning for our first proper meal in Seoul! At least we managed to finish most of the dish which impressed the owners to no end – they must have thought that we had bottomless appetites!

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After a less than inspiring first dinner of octopus and tripe hotpot, we needed something sweet and dependable to sweeten our evenings. Enter, snacks bought from LOTTE Mart! We honestly thought this haul would last us for the week, but we found ourselves going back every two nights to buy and try something new…with the range of candy, chocolates and treats available, we just couldn’t stop ourselves from wanting to try more and more!

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Street food is literally the best reason for travelling within Asia. We visited the tourist-y district of Insadong which is rife with antique stores, art galleries and market stalls with lots of food! We tried this fried pastry ($1 AUD) from a stall run by two middle-aged ladies who had a real system going and a long line of patient customers. Filled with a sweet peanut and sesame paste that went gooey post-frying, it was both sweet and savoury, and utterly satisfying.

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Given I’m still in a stage of having no alcohol, these street-side cocktails weren’t terribly enticing. A younger and infinitely less sensible version of myself would love the concept of just buying alcohol drinks from a random guy on the street before 12pm though!

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As we walked along the main street of Insadong, I saw a number of people walking past holding a curiously shaped cone. Being eternally green-eyed with jealousy of what others are eating, I was determined to have one. This is actually a soft-serve cone, and the special thing is that you can actually choose two different flavours because of the curious double-ended shape. I chose a traditional vanilla and chocolate, but they do have more adventurous flavours as well if you’re game!

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I’m incredibly juvenile – a red bean pastry shaped like a Japanese-style cartoon poo really tickled my funny bone!

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My first bibimbap in Seoul! I actually found this a lot plainer than some of the versions I’ve had here in Sydney in terms of the fact that it didn’t really use too many different sauces or spices and really relied on the freshness and inherent flavours of the various ingredients to make the dish complete. It just goes to show – freshness and the best ingredients really negate the need for fancy sauces and flavourings!

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At the Namdaemun markets, there are about a million shops, 50% of which display advanced specimens of ginseng to draw in the tourists. Ginseng really doesn’t interest me from a culinary perspective – what did interest me though, was the fact that these reminded me of the Mandrakes from the Harry Potter movies!

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Namdaemun markets was a mix of established stallholders selling cheap clothing and undergarments, to old ladies selling fresh produce, and other stalls doing fried foods and noodles on demand. I wasn’t in the mood for fried food that night though.

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What I was in the mood for was sushi! As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m a real sushi lover, and have sushi at least once a week to satiate my craving. Having not had sushi in Hong Kong or China, I really needed some sushi to satisfy me and keep me going. I found my sushi set (with a mini-udon bowl) extremely satisfying and fresh – just what I needed!

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This isn’t a very exciting photo, but it is an accurate depiction of some of my preferred eating habits when I’m on holiday. When you’re going out for your meals, sometimes all you want is a simple start to the morning that’s a little lighter in kilojoules and marginally healthier too! A bowl of cereal makes all the difference in starting your day right. You couldn’t really do this regularly in a hotel room though – our Airbnb apartment was equipped with a kitchenette so we had a lot more options. We could have made toasties!

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So I’ve mentioned that I love supermarkets in other countries – have I ever talked about how I love convenience stores as well? Sometimes you just need a quick drink after exploring a neighborhood for a few hours – the “Denmark Milk” products caught my eye for their beautiful packaging with gorgeous works of art.

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Convenience stores are also great for snacks on the go – especially if you’re after SPICED HAM onigiri! I really like the convenience store culture in Korea as well – almost all of them are stocked with a row of microwaves where people can buy frozen meals and heat them up immediately in store. Can you imagine how much healthier our population could be if people went into 7/11, bought and heated up a Lean Cuisine meal, instead of popping into McDonald’s for a Big Mac?

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I absolutely fell in love with Brickpop which I found when walking around the large Times Square shopping mall. Since I’ve been trying to move to a no/low-dairy diet, the most challenging part I’ve found has been desserts. Out of every ten desserts available, only one would be dairy-free. You can imagine my excitement then, when I found these dairy-free, 100% fruit popsicles. I may have had three in a single afternoon…going back continually to get my next fix!

Stay tuned for Part Two of our Seoul eating adventures!

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