Saturday, July 26, 2014

Let's Travel through Space and Time - Seoul Edition

I've not lived in Seoul for about 2 years now, but I recall my time living there with great fondness.  I'm happy to share my beauty "cuckoo for coco puffs" with you, so today, I will share another part of something, some place, I am very fond of.  For you, MOOS.

So let's do it.  Let's travel back in time and to the other side of the globe.

Seoul is a modern behemoth.  I've traveled in Asia to other large cities, but Seoul truly impresses me with the glossy veneer of modernization that is completely interwoven with the ancient.  Perhaps you only know of Korea from that unavoidable song Gangnam Style.  While that crazy shiny life is definitely there, I was drawn to the aspects of Seoul life north of the Han River.  As development and commerce grew out of the original city center of Jongno-Gu, it spread south of the Han River.  But regardless of where you are, you can glimpse crazy skyscrapers built overnight (like I've seen this happen in months) adjacent to ancient palaces.
Jongno-Gu, Seoul
For this post, I will put a page break because it will be very picture heavy.  Click on, me matey!

Speaking of the ancient, Seoul has several palaces, but my favorite has to be Changdukgung.  In the spring, this has some of the most picturesque sightseeing.  Tours are conducted in several languages, including English.




The other palace, which is short walk away from Changdukgung is Gyeuongbokgung.

Here is Gyeongbokgung and the palace guards.


"I see you over there."
But come on, get real.  You come here to see me indulge.  Normally I am indulging in makeup, but a lot of other times, I am indulging in food.

Get on with it, eh?  It's very funny that in growing up in NYC, I developed a very myopic view of Korean food.  New York City and its surrounding areas have a large Korean population.  While not as large as Los Angeles, I would probably be the one to vocally declare that New York City has the best Korean food in the world.  Even more than Korea itself, you ask?  I would say YES, and be really really really embarrassingly wrong.

I've learned the error of my ways!  And so sad to not be eating the most delectable Korean food again!  Woe, Belly.  WOE!

Food is everywhere.  And like many other cities of the world, the street food is all over the place and really good.  You can find little street stands that sell tteokbokki (rice cakes stewing in a spicy red pepper paste sauce) all over the place, but when you are wandering the streets very late at night, be on the look out for these outdoor stands.  While I can not personally avow for the sanitation aspects of these stands, most of these places (normally enclosed, with a small seating area of plastic stools and tables) have some delicious inexpensive foods and cheap booze.  Most of these dishes run a few thousand won each in plentiful portion.

Spicy octopus bokkum (stir fry)

I think this was chicken gizzard with onions
This is also one of my favorite street stands, in Nakwon-dong.  She's roasting little potatoes on a grill which become brown and slightly crisp on the outside which she sprinkles with salt.  She also makes fresh cakes with sweet red bean paste inside.
 I love simple foods like these potatoes!
Nakwon-dong is immediately adjacent to tourist destination Insa-dong.  It is a very working-class area.  Nakwon-dong is famous for a few things:

  • Big musical instrument market
  • Basement traditional market immediately underneath it
  • A very gay area - many Koreans-only gay bars
  • Incredible tteok (rice cake) shops
Nakwon Music Instrument Market (blue sign); basement traditional market underneath; tteok shops on the lower right 

Underneath the instrument market is the traditional underground market.  We used to call it the "scary" market because we'd see all sorts of unusual things there (like a butchered pig's head at the butcher stall).  The produce was incomparably fresh and inexpensive (compared to the regular large supermarkets).  The market is underground and very dimly lit.  While the atmosphere is definitely lacking, the variety of goods to purchase there was mind boggling.  A bottle of Johnny Walker Blue?  Yep.  Imitation Oreo cookies?  Sure.  Cutlery and fans and shampoo?  Of course.  Fish monger, yep.  Among the stalls were several very inexpensive food stalls selling limited menus.  This one place only sold janchi gooksu (a wheat noodle in a anchovy broth), kimbap (Korean maki rolls) and ramen noodles.  I think these noodles were 3 or 4000 won.
Janchi Gooksu at the Nakwon Basement Market.
The only con about this particular stall operated by the sweetest granny, is fighting off the locals during lunch time to grab a limited stool at the table.

As I mentioned in nearby Insa-dong, and tucked into a little alleyway is a place called Toetmaru (link to review, map, more pictures here).  They take a take on the bibimbap that is so savory and delicious.  It's the doenjang (fermented soybean paste) bibimbap.  Served with barley rice and various greens.
 All mixed up, with chives, lettuce and green leaf lettuce.  *CRIIIIIES*  I miss Seoul so!
 Also in Seoul, be on the lookout for Korean Chinese restaurants.  This one was a regular joint I frequented with made handout noodles for the jjajangmyun.  I think this place was on Samil Daero (big road).
 A view of Namsan (excellent place for hiking) with Seoul tour perched above it.

For me, a trip to Korea must include a trip to Gwang Jang market.  It is a traditional market, which is an open market with dozens and dozens of individual stalls selling a variety of products.  And not just food.  This market is also famous for traditional Korean silk clothing.

These markets are a treasure, but many are dying out as larger western-type of supermarkets contributing to their decline.  At Gwangjang market, one specialty is nokdu-jun (or bindaeduk).
 Mung beans are soaked and ground up and fried into hearty and savory pancakes and served with a vinegary soy sauce.
 They are inexpensive and so filling!
All the foods shown above are dirt cheap.  Less than 10,000 won will fill your stomach to bursting, which is my preferred resting state, but of course there are many very upscale eating places as well as traditional foods that are really really expensive in the city.

Expensive does not always equate to delicious in my opinion.  For instance, I've never acquired an appreciation for royal court cuisine.  These restaurants serve the elaborate and labor intensive dishes that look really nice, but taste really blahhhhhh.

But for something with flavor up the wazoo, I am a fan of gae-jang.  Gae jang, which is raw crabs that have been pickled can be prepared in a soy sauce with all sorts of aromatic stuffs (yeah, I wouldn't attempt to make this at home, though my mom does) or in a spicy sauce.  A restaurant called Pro Soy Crab makes an incredible version.  It is expensive, 55,000won for a small serving, but well worth it for the flavor.  Here is a link to Korea Times article in English (here) with telephone number and directions.
source: Korea Times
While Pro Soy Crabs has a gleaming new restaurant, just down the road is the old original restaurant with the humble sit on the floor set up and most decidedly down-scale decor.  I've only eaten at the old restaurant.  Go, please, for the love of Belly, go and eat.

After you've stuffed yourself until you can not be stuffed no more, you can enjoy the animals.  Here's Tom's Cat Cafe, near Hong Ik (Hong Dae) University, for the price of admission, you can enjoy beverage and get to hang out with adorable cats!  (It seems like the cafe may have closed down, but here are some alternatives)


Don't like cat hair to go with your tea?  How about a bird cafe in Insa-dong where birds fly around while you drink traditional Korean teas?  Sorry I couldn't capture the birds in this picture.  It does make me wonder why bird droppings do not end up into the open tea cups.  Hmm.. or does it?
As you stumble from place to place with a full stomach, stumble upon Parisian bakeries  eat some more.  Take a walk from Insa-dong to Samcheong-dong, which is a chic walkable area full of beautiful little shops and cafes.
 Walk from Insa-dong gil to Samcheong-dong.
 But wherever you go, don't be afraid to get off the big main roads and into the alleyways.
 Where you can glimpse a little bit of the old Seoul.
 And maybe run into a Belly, when you travel back in time.
Ciao, friends.  Next time a good photo dump of my trip to Sokcho, a resort city on the eastern coast of Korea.  Or maybe not.  As you know, I am a rather undisciplined blogger.  Maybe next time makeup related as the post office notifies me that my red skwerl brush is here!

21 comments:

  1. This was awesome! Bookmarking for a future trip sometime! :) - vp

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    1. K, there is so much to see & eat there and a very short plane ride from Haneda airport in Japan to Gimpo airport in Korea. Best to avoid Narita & Incheon airports which will add hours of additional transit time.

      I love how in the Seoul you can go all luxe and all modern, or really experience the cheap & delicious!

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  2. Thanks for the wonderful tips and pics!! I've never heard of gae-jang, which I would def need to have if I ever visit Seoul again! Having had meal after meal of taste-bud orgasming Korean food during my first trip to Seoul, I can only cry at the abysmal state of Korean offerings in Taipei.. All the decent places costs a fortune...;(

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    1. You are very welcome noodlies! In the US, I've only had the gae-jang with the local blue crabs, which are really hard shelled, but the ones made in Seoul use flower crabs (꽃게) which were softer, plumper with really sweet flesh. I highly recommend checking Pro Soy Crab in Seoul when you get back there. That is a crazy treat. There are other cooked dishes there as well and seem very popular with tourists.

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  3. i LOVED seoul when i went and i wish i could go every year lol its SO vibrant and fun.

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    1. Did you enjoy it, too? Ah! I totally want to go back again soon, but the expense and the LONG flight is very off-putting :(.

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  4. Cat cafeeeeee!!! Not so big on the bird idea though. I don't know birds very well, and I have the same question about droppings :p And now I want Korean food. I know this ONE place in Brussels. I think it's time to go back!

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    1. Sunny, this place has all manner of exotic shorthairs, Maine Coons, Norweigian cats, Himalayans, etc. It's a kitty lover's paradise and completely impeccably clean. And the cats so so friends (most). Sadly, it was there that we realized that my husband & kids have terrible cat allergies. D: *whiiiiine*
      How is Korean food in Brussels? Do you know that it is in the genetic makeup of Koreans (whereever they live), that when they travel, they will go out of their way for Korean food? :) Must try Korean food if I ever make it out to that part of Europe.

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  5. What a fun vacation your post provided! Thanks for the wonderful stories and photos. Now I'm so hungry. ;) I live in the Official Middle of Nowhere, but mercifully so does one (just one) Korean family, who opened a restaurant in town about 20 years ago. Their food is fantastic--by far the best place to eat around here. But they're closed on Sundays! What will I do? After reading your post, I must have Korean food right this minute. Help.

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    1. The Koreans have spread all over the globe, bringing high sodium and delicious foods. I for one welcome our new soy sauce overlords.

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  6. Every time I've been to Korea, I ate my way through it. UGGGGH street vendors, especially in winter! Hoddok! Dukbokee! Chestnuts!

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    1. Larie, my husband wondered a few months after arriving in Seoul why he was gaining all this mystery weight.... realized a hoddeuk a day is really not very conducive to maintaining fighting weight. :D
      So YUMMY though!

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  7. I wanna go to Korea NAO!!! The market, the FOOD!!! I don't think I've ever had korean food per say, in Montreal we have a larger Vietnamese population because we speak French. I'll be asking around this week to see if anyone can recommend a good spot to take Cat. Need to have a taste! Love your pics! Oh and as much as I love birds I'm not sure I'd take the chance... but the Tom's Cat Café? Now that I'd love to see! :)

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    1. I'm sure Montreal has some Korean restaurants. If you are a meat eater, the Korean barbeques are always delicious. grilled marinated meats. You wrap in lettuce and add a dab of the ssamjang (paste), maybe a raw garlic sliver, some marinated scallion. Obviously, eating a lot of pungent Korean foods makes one's breath REEK of garlic. :)

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  8. Seoul looks heavenly, thanks for the ride. The food looks so colourful, hot and spicy and yet with an big side order of stodge - my kinda cooking. And a Kayser bakery to boot? Ooh la la.......

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    1. I loved having traditional French bakery goods, versus the Korean-ized version. Those pains and croissants and little cakes! DELISH!

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  9. Goodness gracious!!!! I would die a happy woman in Seoul. I always think I'm Korean in my past reincarnation, although I've never been there, I can almost taste everything I see on your pictures.
    Here's a problem when I was in Asia: we came across a food stall, giddy and couldn't believe our luck that we found such a GREAT food for such a cheap price, then we devoured all the food and forgot to take pictures. Even the Tod was impatient of tasting everything we saw & ate! Then when we came back home/to hotel we were like, "Didn't we take that picture of such and such we ate on the street?"
    Yep, Seoul is def on my list. Thanks for sharing this virtual journey, Belly!

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    1. :D I think Korean Food is my Spirit Animal... or something like that.
      I would love to have seen what the street foods were like on your big Asia trip! Well, there is always next time and then you will most definitely need to visit Korea. Ah, forget palaces and grand old museums... delicious food forever!

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  10. FOOD COMA BY PROXY *_* *_* *_* *_* This is perfect, dear bellyssima! We must go face-stuffing together at some point in this life -- every single thing you posted is exactly the kind of thing I like to nom! Ahoy carbs <3 Can't wait for my trip.

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    1. :) I thought you would particularly enjoy the carbo-umami fest. Let me know how your trip goes. Pick up some tea at O'Solluc (in Insadong-gil and various department stores). THis is an AmorePacific company and their teas are to DIE FOR.

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  11. Oh Belly why didn't you post this, well, 2 years ago?!??? I was so disappointed in Korea initially when I was there, because everybody I knew went there and shipped back boatloads of skincare and makeup, and I just wasnt *that* interested. But then i stumbled on the food... and gosh..... i'm drooling even at the mention of Korea now. And my loved Insadong, all those galleries and cafes....

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