Sunday, July 28, 2013

2013: Seoul Chapter - 5 must-eats in Seoul

As much as I enjoyed picturesque Jeju and its blessed nature, I'm still very much a city person. It's not too difficult to love Seoul, especially when the Koreans know what masshiseoyo (yummy) means.

1. Juk (Congee)

If you're Cantonese, juk should be a familiar favourite, since the cooking style and name bears some resemblance to its Cantonese cousin. The thick consistency derive from long hours of constant cooking and stirring slides comfortably down the throat; it's little wonder how juk is fondly known as the "get-well" food. The Koreans get highly creative with their interpretations - seafood, ginseng and chicken, seaweed, pumpkin - the condiments list goes on. We had seaweed-ginseng chicken juk in a small home-style eatery in Myeong-dong on a rainy day, and it made me feel right at home although I'm miles away.

2. Hotteok (Street-style fried pancakes)

If you're on a calorie-counting diet, skip this oily, crispy goodness. For some reason, there's a snaking line for this stall at the entrance of Namdaemun Market - a weird phenomenon in a land of health-conscious people. This pancake is just flour and sugar put together, with a filling of either sweet sugar/cinnamon or savoury mixed vegetables. There are a few stalls selling this street snack at Namdaemun, but you can never go wrong if you seek out the one with the longest queue. Their winning formula? My wild guess would be the pot of sweet sauce (in above picture) with various fruits and vegetables bobbing in it. The lady who takes your order would brush on a generous portion of the sauce on your piping hot hotteok. This is a delight to wolf down in the middle of winter.

We paid about 1,000 KRW (about S$1.20) per piece. The savoury version comes packed with a mixture of turnip, carrot and spring onions. The sweet version is a sticky mix of cinnamon powder and sugar, and tastes a little like the hum jim phang we get in Singapore.

3. Bulgogi (Seasoned stir-fried meat)

Chicken Bulgogi for 3, KRW23,000
The Koreans love their meat, and know how to identify good beef galbi (grilled beef). Another notable feature about Korean cuisine is their communal approach - the food portions are often catered to twin sharing at the very least.

It's not too difficult to find an eatery that serves good bulgogi - after all, these commercial eateries are pitting themselves against millions of home-cooked recipes passed from generation to generation. Stroll through the streets of Myeongdong and you'll find a good handful of restaurants with bulgogi in their menus.

Some restaurants, like the one we went to, provide an enhancement to your dining experience by introducing the concept of DIY cooking - allowing you to watch the food getting cooked at your table by the staff. Each platter is about 40cm wide and piled with seasoned meat, fresh oyster mushroom, loads of leek, enoki mushroom, shredded carrot, ddeokboki (Korean rice cake) and glass noodles. We did little work with the cooking, thanks to the staff who could detect our tourist-y aura. The final product may look like a mess, but the chicken gave a good smoky-peppery flavour to the vegetables. The glass noodles were exceptional, for they have soaked up all the gravy from the chicken and the vegetables. The best part? Eating directly out of the pan without needing to worry about naggy parents, because the Koreans do it this way too.

4. Bibim naengmyeon (spicy cold noodles)

I'm guessing this is the link to why Koreans stay so slim despite having so much meat and rice in their staple diet. Naengmyeon comes mainly in two forms - mulnaengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in ice broth) and bibim naengmyeon (above). To identify a good naengmyeon, the key lies in the buckwheat noodles, which has to be springy, chewy and doesn't break easily with a tug. The spicy sauce has to be sweet-spicy with a hint of apple vinegar. I enjoyed naengmyeon even in winter, because the spicy sauce kept me going back for more.

5. Korean-style coffee joints

The Koreans love their coffee as much as we Singaporeans do, and they make a mean cuppa too. As much as the Korean Wave has crash-landed into other cultural landscapes, a good fraction of this culture stems from American and Asian roots. This may explain why Western-style coffee joints, big and small, are sprouting all over Seoul. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how well the Koreans interpret coffee - there's little disparity in terms of quality and service between coffee joint giants like Starbucks and homegrown brands like Mango Six, Twosome and the more familiar Paris Baguette.

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