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.
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.
Here is Gyeongbokgung and the palace guards.
|"I see you over there."|
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|
- 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.
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.
Gwangjang market, one specialty is nokdu-jun (or bindaeduk).
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|
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)
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.