There’s no point trying to deny it – one of the major perks of tech journalism is the scope for international travel. And after a long day of playing with gadgets or opining on the latest enterprise IT trends, there’s nothing quite like a good bit of nosh to revive the spirit.
Much as I love places like Barcelona and Dublin, the trips that really get me out of bed in the morning are the ventures further afield. Most recently, I was lucky enough to get to spend a week in Seoul, where as well as meeting with a number of exciting startups, I also got to tuck into loads of superb Korean grub.
Unfortunately, Korean food in London didn’t quite take off in 2013 the way some people expected. That said, it’s definitely starting to cause a bit of a stir, and the launch of places like On the Bab and Jubo in the heart of East London could hint that we’re finally approaching the tipping point.
Whether in the UK or abroad, there’s dozens if not hundreds of must-try Korean dishes – check out Seoulistic and Seoul Eats, two superb blogs, for more elaborate guides to eating in and around Seoul – so what follows is a short list based on what I most enjoyed.
I’ve deliberately excluded a few of the best known dishes. Food lovers are likely familiar with kimchi by now, and it was served as a side dish with pretty much every meal in Seoul that I ate. Purists swear by the special fermented variety, but I think it’s debatable whether it’s worth putting in serious leg work seeking out such a ubiquitous dish.
Perhaps more controversially, I’ve also nixed bulgogi, a marinated beef dish that’s a mainstay of Korean restaurants in the West and, as such, also not necessarily worth dwelling on. So what does this self-important, gluttonous hack think is? Let’s take a look – in no particular order, of course.
1) Tteokbokki (rice cakes in spicy sauce)
Tteokbokki is sort of Korea’s answer to French fries, a pervasive snack enjoyed by virtually all Koreans, most typically on the go. It’s sold on almost every street across town, usually out of a truck, via a pavement-based stall, or in a no-frills canteen. In almost all cases, a little old lady is involved in the transaction. With its bright red chilli sauce, tteokbokki is fairly easy to spot, but most importantly, it’s delicious. With a slightly glutinous texture, it reminds a bit of gnocchi – the rice cake definition could easily mislead Western palates – but with a robust chilli kick that’s particularly comforting in the middle of a cold Korean winter.
2) Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles)
Looking to earn the respect of your new Korean friends or colleagues? Then make for a refreshing bowl of naengmyeon, buckwheat noodles served cold in a few different guises but usually coming garnished with radish, cucumber, pear, egg and slices of beef. One popular variation features a chilled broth, but my favourite is inevitably spicy naengmyeon, which swaps in a fiery red sauce. Whatever route you go down, it’s a perfect light lunch in summer and a traditional conclusion to communal Korean BBQ (galbi) meals, the ideal palate cleanser after a couple of hours spent shovelling down juicy grilled meat and copious piles of kimchi.
3) Galbi jjim (spicy braised beef short ribs)
Ah, galbi jjim! Just the mention of it makes me go a bit wobbly in the knees. Chilli-rich and meaty, locals say that the best galbi jjim are the ones that get the right balance of sweet, salty, and spicy flavours. The quality of the meat is obviously also a big factor, and what with the fetish for all things short rib these days, this is an almost guaranteed crowd pleaser if you’re visiting Seoul. You could do some research and try to hunt down a particular establishment, but without a good guide or grasp of Korean, finding specific restaurants can be a struggle for first-time tourists. The best strategy I developed was to aimlessly wander and look for restaurants that were busy, preferably exclusively with Koreans.
4) Raw fish at Noryangjin Fish Market
For a seriously Korean experience, make for the Noryangjin Fish Market, where a dizzying array of the freshest fish – including some frankly bewildering species – awaits the hungry traveller. The procedure is to select the desired produce, then head for one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that line the peripheries of the market, where for a small fee you’ll get knocked up a pretty damn peerless meal combining raw and cooked dishes. Adventurous eaters should note that Noryangjin is the place to try live octopus, a Korean delicacy that comes with a health warning.
A couple of notes on Noryangjin: as a wholesale market, some vendors will want to sell you large quantities of fish, perhaps more than you want or think you are getting. Going with a group of friends helps you easily navigate this situation, as well as inevitably improving your eating experience. Also, Noryangjin is a 24-hour affair, with the mornings largely dominated by Seoul’s restauranteurs. While this makes the atmosphere all the more bustling, those wanting to eat in Noryangjin may find evenings more conducive, as the market is a popular stop-off spot for workers and you can follow the lead of the locals.
Finally, if you happen to meet a restauranteur, waiter, or barkeep with a good grasp of English, see if you can find out what it’s season and get them to write it in Korean for you. Enter the best yellowtail I’ve ever eaten…
Like glabi jjim, bibimbap is one of Korea’s signature dishes and another likely favourite of visitors. Translating to “mixed rice,” bibimbap is a mash up of vegetables, meat, egg and – yes – rice, often coming in a sizzling stone pot for added theatre. The ingredients are initially arranged in separate piles on top of the rice, giving the dish a visual appeal – and making it great fun to mix together. Simply add as much spicy sauce as you and ladle or two of soup (if served), get stirring, and chow down!
7) Hanwoo beef
Korea isn’t as recognised for the quality of its native produce as it should be. In addition to the stunning fish coming out of its waters, it’s also home to a number of carnivorous specialities like Jeju black pork and Hanwoo beef. Heavily marbled like Japan’s famed Kobe beef (not a particularly wise point to make due to lingering bad blood between the two countries), the best Hanwoo (1++ quality) will set you back a fair bit compared to other Korean meals, which often clock in at less than £5. However, it’s well worth treating yourself if you can, as it’s reputed to be more flavourful and nutritious than imported beef, as well as obviously being fresher. Where can you try it? In addition to keeping an eye peeled around Korean restaurants, it’s also worth bearing in mind Isabelle’s Porterhouse, a Western-style steakhouse that serves top notch Hanwoo beef in the purest of forms.
8) Fried chicken
Yes, I’m being a bit of a hypocrite here, poo-pooing bulgogi and kimchi and including fried chicken on my list. But I do so for good reason. Firstly, the famous double or even triple fried cooking method – oft replicated in the US and increasingly popping up across London – makes for a stunning crust that shatters like glass on impact, whilst aggressive seasoning and spicing make it the some of the most flavourful bird outside of the Caribbean. Just as importantly, socialising over a night on the fried chicken and beer is one of Korea’s most popular past-times, even if it’s hardly unheard of elsewhere. Look out for slightly divey joints, as they’ll often subsidise your drinking – 3,000 won per pint, perhaps, compared to 8,000 – if you’re eating.
9) Hotteok (sweet pancakes)
Back to the streets, and the token desert to make my list is hotteok, little pancakes stuffed with a delicious sweet mixture usually featuring honey, nuts, brown sugar, and lashings of cinnamon. Griddled roadside, it’s particularly popular in the winter and – as with tteokbokki – can be found all over town. I particularly liked one of the places next to the Noryangjin Fish Market but keep an eye on where the local workers and students are heading and you surely won’t go far wrong.
10) Soju (Fermented rice liquor)
South Korea is thought to have the largest per capita alcohol consumption in the world, and while beer and cocktails are both immensely popular, the de facto national beverage is soju. Traditionally distilled from rice, soju tastes similar to vodka, though most commercial brands are usually weaker in alcohol, clocking in at around 20% ABV. More artistan soju is also available and can run as high as 40%, while the really cheap and nasty stuff is made from tapioca or potatoes. Knock it back shot-style, sip it throughout your meal, or combine with cheap lager and a thimble of coke for a true Korean classic – soju bombs!