It was barely nine o’clock in the morning and I have already tasted two different kinds of kimchi for breakfast. There was a small eatery that was walking distance from our hotel, which happened to be the only one open on the morning my mother and I arrived in Seoul—our first trip to this side of East Asia.
Not really familiar with the Korean language, we depended on the artificial food displays with corresponding English names outside the restaurant. The vibrant plastic rice bowls and noodle dishes seemed so real—and mouthwatering—that we did not hesitate to enter the establishment. There were no other foreigners, just us, who looked like locals at first glance.
My first meal there was dolsot bibimbab, which was a rice dish topped with vegetables that was served in a hot stone pot. It came with a couple of side dishes, which were vegetable variants as well. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I am no vegetarian. I noticed, though, that there did not seem to be any distinction with their breakfast meals from their other main meals throughout the day; not like Europeans who enjoy Continental breakfast, or Filipinos who normally eat fried rice with fried egg and a viand as their first meal for the day.
A taste of true Seoul food
Fortunately, our hotel was in the heart of Myung-dong where the big-name Western brands and the local stores collide. I spied a Burger King, Krispy Kreme, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and other familiar names, but I veered away from such international franchises to sample some native flavors.
It was easy to spot Korean food joints—just follow where the locals go. There were a variety of eateries in that area—from transient food stalls to the more established restaurants. I am no stranger to Korean food, as I have tried it many times back home, but was still curious about the country’s food culture.
Koreans are fond of side dishes.
Diners are automatically given complimentary servings of small vegetable plates in every restaurant. In different instances, I had a chance to taste the non-spicy version of kimchi, pickled radish slices, and steamed seaweed. Restaurant-goers could even ask for a double serving of a particular side dish, if they wish.
While there, I had gotten used to eating bites of kimchi in between my main entrée. I am proud to say that I can stand spicy foods but the heat that coursed through my tongue and down my throat was almost intolerable. I could barely taste the flavors of my meal after having some kimchi.
I could barely believe it when my 20-something acquaintance from Korea, Sukyung Baek, whose English name is Wendy, shared that even young Korean children are accustomed to that spicy taste. “A lot of Koreans like spicy food. So, if you’re not used to it, you should ask the restaurant to make it less spicy. I have seen some foreigners who didn’t handle spicy food well.”
Wendy has been to the Philippines and is rather familiar with Filipino food, but not really with other Asian cuisines. “I think Korean food has less fat and more nutritional value,” she candidly shares. “For example, there are lots of fried foods in Chinese cuisine, and although we have fried food, we have more that are steamed, roasted, and boiled. There are also many nutritional constituents in our style of cooking. We use plenty of garlic, ginger, chili, and onion.”
During our city tour, Wendy toured us around Insadong, which is a popular attraction in Seoul. The place is peppered with souvenir shops that offer local products such as hanbok (traditional Korean dress), and other little mementos. Aside from shopping, there was one other thing that visitors should do in Insadong—sample Kkultarae, a sweet delicacy made out of honey strands with nut fillings. The vendors put on quite a show to lure the customer, and we were amazed at how they pulled a block of honey by hand, mixed it with cornstarch, and turned it into a dessert that’s fit for a king. In fact, only the royalty supposedly enjoyed this treat during the time of kings and queens.
The street food culture
My culinary adventure in Seoul would not be complete without getting a taste of the local street food. The ubiquitous stalls along the sidewalks offered various treats that range from savory sausages to sweet snacks. Some of the items were identifiable, but the others seemed quite foreign to me.
There were a number of seafood snacks such as fish on sticks and octopus strips. There were also roasted corn, chestnuts, and skewered fruits. But what tempted me were the meat skewers that looked like corn dogs. I shelled out a couple of thousand Won to finally satisfy my curiosity and savor the street food flavors.
Wendy mentioned that, “There is a wide variety of Korean food because the country is surrounded by three seas and there are lots of mountains. The climate is ideal for growing seafood and agricultural produce.”
I found out that Wendy was still in college and has a part-time job at a popular international fast-food chain, but she admitted that she hardly ate there since she was conscious of her health. It boggled my mind that someone her age would worry about something like that.
If she is any example, Koreans are mindful of the food they eat. Even the ones I have met in the Philippines still uphold their food culture and continue to nourish their body with their traditional Korean cuisine despite being thousands of miles away from their homeland. This is probably part of the allure of Korean cuisine, I would say.
What to expect when dining in Korean restaurants:
Most menus have pictures with English translations.
The customary utensils are chopsticks and a spoon. (You may ask for a fork, if you wish.)
A couple of side dishes will be served with your meal.
Most of the dishes are spicy so it’s better to ask first, and specify if you want it less hot.
No need to leave a tip for service charge, just pay for the exact amount.
“Doggie bags” do not seem to be so popular in Seoul (writer’s observation only).
Learn the street food language:
Hoddeok – A fried Korean pancake that is usually stuffed with cinnamon and sugar.
Dakkochi – Grilled chicken skewers.
Ddeokbokki – May look like penne in red sauce but is actually a spicy mix of cylindrical rice cakes with some slices of fish cake.
Mandu – Korea’s version of a dumpling, which may be steamed or fried.
Tornado potato – Best described as potato chips on a stick.
When in Seoul, book a seat to the non-verbal musical performance called “Nanta”. The show is about four chefs who are tasked to prepare for a wedding banquet. The characters make use of various kitchen utensils and the sounds of samullori (traditional Korean percussions) during the performance. The show engages viewers with its comedy, acrobatics, other tricks, and involves audience participation as well. It has been entertaining audiences since its debut in October 1997, and has earned the distinction of being the first Asian show to be seen in off Broadway.