From the moment I first stepped into Seoul in April earlier this year, I knew it was where I was meant to be. There’s a lot to be said about the feeling of ‘coming home’ to a foreign country, and while I’ve felt hints of it in Barcelona, New York, and Bangkok, nothing hit me quite like Seoul.
Maybe it’s because I interview K-pop stars for a living and they’ve told me so much about Seoul that arriving there feels so familiar. Or perhaps it’s the Asian connect–the comfort a lot of us feel in other Asian countries that we don’t quite get in Western ones because of our cultural similarities. South Korea is a mirror to us in a lot of ways after all, from the way we greet elders to the (obsessive) discipline we have for our academics… not to mention we share the same Independence Day. But when I really sat down and gave it a thought, I realized it was all about the food and the way in which you experience it.
Korean food is all about high-quality meat, fresh street food, hot soups, rice and vegetables, all in generous swirls of colour. I didn’t get to do too much the first time around during my first time there in April–the last-minute work trip meant scheduling nightmares–so I missed out on a lot.
I spent most of my time in Gangnam (yes, the Gangnam from THAT song) a fancier, business district of Seoul, full of offices, hotels and entertainment companies. But one day after working late, a friend of mine decided to take me out for a drink, insisting that no Korean trip is complete without the ‘chimaek’ (chicken + beer) experience. She introduced me to what would become one of my favourite Korean fried chicken joints, Hanchu. A simple eatery in Garosugil, Hanchu is popular among young locals who head there after work. Loud, crowded but comfortable, the restaurant operates till around 3 am, serving a few variations of crispy fried chicken, deep fried meat-stuffed peppers and other little snacks. You can pair your chicken with beer to partake in Korea’s chimaek culture or go heavier with a bottle of crisp soju–we did both. The entire experience reminded me of hanging out at Mumbai’s dive bars Yacht or Gokul, where most young Mumbaites head for cheap drinks and snacks.
Over the rest of the trip I did get to fit in some Korean-Mexican fusion food at a swanky bar called Coreano’s Kitchen, and a gorgeous seafood platter courtesy of my Korean friends in the popular tourist district Hongdae. After that, I survived mostly on cream buns from Paris Baguette, a bakery franchise on almost every street corner in Seoul and hot instant ramen from 7-Elevens (every mouthful ten times superior to the shitty grocery store cup noodles we get in India.) In fact, a moment I’ll cherish forever– post-concert instant ramen at midnight after meeting my favourite Korean band.
There was tons more to explore but nearly not enough time. So when the Korean Tourism Organisation asked if I’d like to go again, and this time get to relax a little, I decided to prepare myself. Over the next few weeks whenever I interviewed a Korean artist, I’d ask what they recommend I do when I visit Seoul. The set of instructions remained the same and always began with one specific command: eat.
K-pop stars’ top picks included Korean barbqeque, in particular samgyeopsal aka pork belly, our old friend chimaek of course, noodles in black bean sauce (also called jajangmyeon which K-pop superstars BTS gush often about), savoury seafood pancakes, cold noodles or mul naengmyeon and of course the highlight of Korean cuisine: kimchi, present at every single meal in its glorious variatiations.
So obviously when I landed in Seoul the second time around in June, eating took up most of my itinerary. I would often sneak away from the rest of the (vegetarian) Indian tour group to tick off every item on my list. My first bit of advice about eating in a foreign country: be brave. Don’t seek out an Indian restaurant and daal-chawal-naan your way through every single meal. Being vegetarian is not an excuse; there’s tons of options in Korean cuisine if you do a little research before your trip.
If walking into a restaurant with no idea what to order seems a little daunting, I learned that the ideal place to begin your Seoul-food journey is at Myeong-dong shopping district. Packed with dozens of carts offering Korea’s best street food, I was spoilt for choice. For meat lovers there were lamb skewers, jjangmyeon, grilled cheese lobster, several thousand kinds of sausage preparations, fishcakes served with hot broth, saucy fried chicken… its endless! For vegetarians, there’s the iconic Korean snack tteokbokki (rice cake) which you’ll get everywhere, hotteok (Korean pancake), fluffy egg bread, Bungeo-ppang (a popular fish-shaped pastry stuffed with red bean paste or sweet potato which I wanted to eat 100 of), fried potato spirals, red bean mochis, crunchy sugar-coated strawberries and generous oozing blobs of baked cheese. Like I said, no excuses.
If you’re looking for the Korean barbeque experience–grilling your own meat and vegetables–Wangbijib, a restaurant also located in Myeong-dong, is a great option for beginners. In Gangnam head to Mapo Sutbul Galbi, a fantastic little 24-hour Korean barbeque joint famous for its short ribs and celebrity patrons, thanks to its proximity to entertainment companies in the area. Chances are you’ll spot K-pop trainees or a K-drama actor or two while grilling your galbi–my friends and I certainly did. If you’re in another area of Seoul, a Google search can help find more restaurants near your location, although most local mom and pop style restaurants will have what you’re looking for. Wherever you decide to head, make sure to order the grilled pork belly extravaganza that is samgyeopsal or face the wrath of nearly every single Korean celebrity.
Finally, if you’re more of a party animal/pub crawler looking for a break from traditional Korean food, Itaewon is the place for you. Packed full of exclusive night clubs, pubs, bars and restaurants, Itaewon-ro is all about immersing yourself in local urban culture. It’s a little less crowded than the touristy Hongdae and most of its bars and restaurants operate till 6 am. While Itaewon features several popular Korean barbecue chains and smaller more traditional establishments in its by-lanes, the real attraction here is the foriegn food. Full of immigrants settling in to bring their cuisine to Korea, Itaewon is where you need to head for fusion food and the occasional craving for Japanese, Indian or Middle Eastern fare. The pedestrian lanes are filled with rows and rows of pubs, featuring everything from craft beer to pizza, ramen, fried chicken, tacos and hookah. I would walk around Itaewon with friends or my tour group till 3 or 4 am, beer in one hand and shawarma in the other, and watch the throng of tattooed, chic locals and foreigners pass by.
Experiencing Korean food is very closely tied with experiencing the country’s people and its culture. Korea’s cuisine is tied to the evolution of tradition and the way a new generation has interpreted it, and that’s where I see its striking similarity to India.From old favourites that stay the same or new fusion spins that manage to pay respect the right way, Seoul’s food culture reminds me a lot of Mumbai’s. There’s a balance between generations that’s a little hard to achieve, but a task both cities manage to do with finesse, adventure and excitement. There’s something in Seoul for everyone. All you have to do is be brave enough to look for it.