Some of South Korea’s best loved dishes are sold from giant iron woks at open-air stalls or the front of carts, with people standing about and huddling around to order and eat. Today, I’ll be sharing with you about a few of these, and what to look out for in your hunt for great street food, so let’s begin! #1 Odeng 오뎅 Also known to many of us as fish cake, these are the cheapest street food and stalls dishing out sticks from a rolling boil are a dime a dozen. In general, there’s no need to be too picky about odeng since it is a fuss-free type of food and does not vary spectacularly in quality, but join in and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals for a truly authentic experience (and also because they know where the broth is better). #2 Tteokbokki 떡볶이 Probably the number 1 export to Korean restaurants around the world, Tteokbokki is famed as one of the “must-tries” when in Korea. Tteokbokki is a springy, chewy and dense rice cake that comes drenched in a spicy red pepper paste sauce that you will find so “Korean” (they love this sauce and use it on many things). And yes, it can look rather messy, but don’t let that deter you! Again, it’s all in the sauce so go where the locals go. #3 Hotteok 호떡 I could eat 10 of these in one sitting. Hotteok is a sweet Korean Pancake that is fried then cut open and filled with a mixture of sunflower seeds and brown sugar, and often folded and then squeezed into a paper cup for easier handling. Always go to those where they’re frying them fresh (i.e. avoid those that have been pre-fried and left to sit), because that way the batter is tasty and with the slightest bit of crust, and the brown sugar caramelises between. You will smile, and so will the kids. A lot of the places pre-fry but there’s a great one just across the road from the Haeundae market along Jungdong 1-ro; a small shop about in a row of shophouses. #4 Mandu 만두 Freshly fried and off the grill, these are basically a sort of dumpling and can be either filled with meat or vegetables or both. This one at Nampodong near the Jagalchi Market in Busan came with a side of finely sliced and crisp cabbage in a tasty spicy (note the expression of the guy in green) sauce. On a cold day, this is just heavenly heat in the tummy, and is definitely something you have to try. The key to mandu as well as a lot of the other street food, is to make sure they have a busy business and are making it fresh – otherwise they’ll just be doughy and chewy. So now I know what I need to try, but where do I go to get them? They’re all over Korea, but if you want to try multiple of these in a single place, Nampodong and Gwangbokdong in Busan are great. In Seoul, head to Namdaemun which opens till the wee hours. Namdaemun is also a great place to do souvenir shopping because prices are easily 1/5 or less of the price you’d pay at the airport duty free! 😮
So many; Love locks hanging in the waning light
Yet none of them are really quite alike
Some are big and some are small,
Some have been weathered; rust and all
For one out of naivety, another perhaps assured,
But neither promise could be insured
For you and I, we are individuals all
Sometimes we just cannot predict a fall
But those who keep strong in the rain,
May find their love holds through the strain
And at the end of a time of trial –
Their love locks fused, never to exile
Some forlornly looking in quiet haste,
Others holding hands in rapid chase
Fingers are traced around an etch
While toes are tipped to peer past the hedge
Love locked lovers in embrace,
Navigating through life’s intricate maze.
April 2015, Sunset at Namsan Peak, Seoul, South Korea
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Intricate.”
Category: Korean – Casual – Gukbap (Pork and Rice Soup)
Dwaeji Gukbap is a specialty of the Gyeongsangnam province, which the Southeastern part of South Korea. It’s a very very simple, unpretentious dish, and a comfort food in all aspects – I can’t tell you how good this tastes especially when you’ve been out in the cold! Since Busan is supposed to have some of the best renditions of this dish, I stalked out what was considered to be the best one, and made sure we stopped over for dinner right after our visit to Busan museum.
887-1, Daeyeon1-dong or 35-1 UN Pyeonghwa-ro, Nam-gu, Busan, South Korea, Tel: 051-628-7020
It’s right within walking distance from Busan museum, and better still, right along the straight route back to the metro station. I was obediently going in the direction of the red pin in Google maps until we chanced upon the store front at 35-1 UN Pyeonghwa-ro from which I immediately recognised the logo of the two pigs with red chef hats. A row of flower arrangements and wreaths lined its entrance, and the interior was clean and spacious – nothing like what other reviews had said to be “extremely crowded” and having “a long queue even at 3pm”. As it turns out Ssangdoongi Dwaeji Gukbap is so popular that this was its newly-opened 2nd store.
So inexpensive! They had a sort of hotpot version with vegetable wraps but we went with what Ssangdoongi was famous for – the original gukbap at 6000KRW. Since this was Korea, we did it K-style and called for a makgeolli at 3000KRW to go with.
To Go: Yes you should, and go to the newer restaurant if you want to skip the queue
Food is fuss-free, very affordable, and great in the tummy on a cold day. With rigid-looking wooden tables and chairs and a metal-sheet counter top at the far end, ambience is obviously not their forte – but then again, who cares? The original restaurant (nearer the metro and about 5 mins from the newer one) is more compact with a more old-school feel, but really, walk that extra 5 mins if you want to skip the queue.
Like well-behaved pupils, we eagerly flavoured the dish with the garlic chives, tiny salty shrimp (which we happily called out as cincalok) and the red pepper paste as instructed by the waitress. The serving of pork is generous for the price – we kept magically unearthing pork from below the rice – and tender, with fats I’d imagine contains collagen which is all the Asian rage about being good for the skin right now. The broth was light, very tasty and when had together with the rice, reminded me of teochew porridge back at home.
We took a 3.5hr ride on the KTX to Busan, a busy port city on the Southern coast of South Korea, where we were to spend the next 4 nights. If you were to look at the map, Busan has 3 parts of its coast that juts out a little into the ocean – that’s also where most of the attractions are concentrated. The Busan museum (부산시립박물관) in Namgu, on the middle jutter-outer, has 3 levels of sprawling exhibitions from displays of artefacts – anything from bowls to tools to rust-eaten swords to life-sized mock-ups of blacksmith shops and fishmonger stalls.
I personally am not really a history buff, so these didn’t interest me at all (unless we’re talking about European palaces, which is a different story). Rather, we were there because the museum has a Cultural Experience hall at which you could try on traditional outfits like hanbok, Gonryongpo, Ikseongwan, Wosam, etc. And also had a Tea ceremony where we could try our hand at making tea – which, might I add, is a very intentional, delicate and lengthy process full of repetition and small hand gestures and placements, but constituted a whole lot of fun learning.
What most people might not know is that in the right season, Busan Museum has a gorgeous outdoor garden which you can slip into from the path on the right. We chanced upon it because we were killing some time before the tea ceremony at 4.30pm. I remember the scene unfolding before my eyes – cherry blossom trees in full bloom, lined up along the broad stone pathway all the way to the top of the hill, a heavy sprinkling of pale pink ‘snow’ strewn underfoot – to which I found that I could not resist staring at the ground.
948-1 Daeyeon 4(sa)-dong, Nam-gu, Busan, South Korea
Opens from 9am to 8pm daily (Closed on Mondays); Tea Ceremony Timings 10.30am, 1.30pm, 3pm and 4.30pm (Please note that you have to be there in person to book the slot).
Category: Korean – Barbecue
Anyone who’s been to Korea or has watched any K-drama would know how much the Koreans love their barbecue. While I was in Korea, we had barbecue at least 5 times in 11 days, and man, that is A LOT of barbecue. When we first arrived in Seoul, we stayed in Gangnam-gu, and so I’d planned out an entire list of food places to go in Gangnam a week ahead. No. 813 BBQ Restaurant had been on Lady Iron Chef’s list of 17 Best Restaurants and Local Eateries to Eat in Seoul, and so was assigned as dinner stop for day 1.
Gangnam-daero 152-gil, opens from 5pm for dinner
Contrary to what was said online, it wasn’t all that hard to find, especially since No.813 has 2 units next door to each other – the larger one being to the right of the original one, with a slightly more modern (and less authentic) feel to it and also twice the size of the other. Since it was already the late afternoon, we ambled around Gangnam for a bit until 5pm when they re-opened for dinner.
No.813 BBQ Restaurant has reasonable value with decent portion sizes, and we left reasonably full after spending about $20 each on a set selection of meats and some kimchi stew, but keep reading…
To Go: It’s okay, but it isn’t a must-try
It’s decent barbecue, but that’s all there is to it. This was the first barbecue we tried in Korea, and while the cuts of meat I thought were pretty average (and some of the meat was practically served just out of the freezer and had to be left defrosting at the table), we thought that all in all it offered good value… until we tried barbecue at like 4 other places, including one more in Seoul.
The kimchi stew here paled miserably to the one we had at Heukdonga on Jeju-do, and the side dishes were very average and limited (as compared to every other place we dined at while in Korea). Service was terrible; although we were only one of the two groups of guests, we had to wave several times just to get the attention of wait staff who were too busy chatting with each other over the counter just 3m away, and had to request multiple times for another serving of kimchi stew and kimchi which never arrived.
There we stood- in quiet anticipation, watching as the waves lapped against and over the smoothened boulders leaving trails of white foam, while Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak) rose up with its formidable rock face, basking in the sun. The water was a rich shade of teal, washing over the rocks tauntingly, challenging us to come closer. It looked cold. Really cold. For a moment I imagined falling into the strangely blue water, and shuddered at the thought of sinking into the sea and the things that might greet me beneath. To my right, a rugged-looking american photographer rubbed his hands together and stuffed them into the pockets of his grey windbreaker.
A moment ago, Jeju’s Haenyeo (also known as “women divers”) having suited up in black wet suits, singing with fishing nets slung over their shoulders, vanished into the embrace of the sea. I shifted around on my feet, feeling around the rock with the toe of my boot, careful to stay away from the water spray, and wondered how in the world these women could be so strong, so brave, and why they would choose such a challenging occupation or if it was even a choice at all.
A sharp whistle pierced the air, jolting me from my thoughts. Everyone’s gaze was transfixed upon the waters now. Sure enough, the Haenyeo were resurfacing. They were making some sort of whistling exhalation; a sound of victory as they resurfaced, bringing harvest from the sea. Even before they came close, I could see that they were smiling. It was something about the way they moved, the way they approached the shore, or maybe it was the deep pink flush of their cheeks that showed a surprising youthfulness.
What originally started out due to a need to survive, was no longer just that- and it occurred to me that perhaps these seemingly simple women had a wisdom after all. A wisdom that a large number of people in the world didn’t have – people who I knew were at this moment sitting in office cubicles, staring blankly at computer screens and dying to get out, when they could be doing something else. Something better.
A Haenyeo came by the spot where I stood and she looked up from her basket, at me. She smiled, as if knowing that I now understood that the message was as simple as this. Don’t let fear stop you like it’s stopping others from doing what they love, and you will be the early bird which finds its rewards.
Seongsan Ilchulbong or “Sunrise Peak”, Jeju Island, South Korea, April 2015
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Early Bird.”
Category: Korean – Desserts – Bingsu (Ice shavings)
So apparently the Koreans are crazy about their bingsu, a dessert made from ice shavings, and topped with fruits or red bean, etc. (there being many renditions). Meal Top (밀탑) is one of the more famous ones and comes very highly rated at 4.5/5 on Tripadvisor, and is particularly famous for the ones with red bean topping.
165, Apgujeong-ro, Hyundai Department Store 5F, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 강남구 압구정로 165 (압구정동)
The Hyundai Department Store is right at Apgujeong metro station, and taking the escalators up to the fifth floor, you’ll be delivered right to the doorstep of Meal Top. You’ll hear it before you even see it – the clatter of cutlery and dishes and a busy chatter comes as a bit of a surprise as you navigate the escalators up past floors 3 and 4 which are full of luxury label shops and also extremely quiet.
Each bingsu is about 8,000 KRW (~$10), which I find mighty expensive for something that comprises largely of shaved ice. Bingsu in Korea is pretty much one of the best ways to blow your money in a wink because they’re all about $10 (the cheapest one I came across was about $9). I had bingsu at 4 places around Seoul and Busan while I was there, and not once ever really left the shop feeling like it was worth the money. Nonetheless, it is a very Korean dessert, so you should probably try it at least once.
To Go: Maybe once (whether here or elsewhere, it doesn’t really matter)
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the profit margin on the bingsu is probably somewhere close to 90%, before the utilities and wages of course. The red bean, whilst wholesome and generous, could not divorce from the fact that it was still just a red bean paste, simply dolloped on top of shaved ice drizzled over with some condensed milk. The dessert was simple, good and tasty, especially if you’re having it on a warm day, but the thing that I found most spectacular, was oddly nothing to do with the dessert at all.
The service was impeccable from start to finish. Meal Top is an open-concept cafe, and the moment I stepped in from the ‘wrong’ side, the manager immediately spotted me, graciously ushered me to the seating area on the other side and pulled a waiting number from the machine for me. It was running at full house and there were several people ahead of us in the queue, but the wait wasn’t long. I watched, fascinated, as waiters transported trays of dessert barely 2 minutes after it was ordered, and as they swooped in on tables the moment guests departed, readying it within seconds for the next guests to be seated.