After spending a week in Japan, our next stop was Seoul, South Korea, where we would stay for the next 5 nights. I have broken down this post into several categories, including ‘must try’ places (stuff that is unique), traditional Korean dishes (stuff you can find anywhere so it doesn’t really matter where you go), street food (again, lots of vendors to choose from), and notable mentions (things that make you go hmm).
Must Try Places
Noryangjin Fish Market
Being the largest fish market in Seoul, Noryangjin Fish Market was at the top of my list of places to check out. It is a huge fish market that’s not unlike what you might find in other parts of the world, but what makes this place special is the row of restaurants that occupy the second floor. So the idea is that you pick out your meal downstairs and you bring it upstairs to have it prepared for you. If you want to talk about fresh seafood, it doesn’t get any fresher than this. The daily seafood auctions start as early as 1am, as merchants scramble to get the freshest seafood caught fresh from the ocean. Noryangjin is not only a wholesale outlet, but also a retail market and premier tourist destination. If you like seafood, then I highly recommend that you check it out if you’re ever in Seoul. It is easily accessible as it’s conveniently located right outside the Noryangjin subway station. We decided to head there for lunch and we’re so glad that we did.
With so many vendors to choose from, it’s easy to get overwhelmed once you walk into the market, so I encourage you to walk around to check out the daily catches and selection from several stalls. Prices are always negotiable here, so don’t be afraid to bargain.
As I’ve seen several of my friends (like followmefoodie) eat live octopus via Instagram or YouTube before, this was something that I really wanted to try. So we picked up 2 small sannakji (baby octopus) (above) for roughly $2.50 CDN each. We also picked up a Korean jumbo prawn ($10 CDN) and a flounder ($20 CDN). The vendor was more than happy to prepare half the flounder as sashimi (below). He threw the other half into a bag for us.
A lot of the seafood vendors will try to lure you into their restaurants, but we headed straight upstairs in search of Hwangje Restaurant, which we had heard good things about. Look for the bright blue sign. As it was lunch time, it was quite busy inside, but we were seated right away. It was a comforting sight to see that the restaurant was occupied by mostly Korean customers. The server wasted no time in grabbing our bags of seafood and asked us how we would like our food to be prepared. Of course, I asked for the octopus to be served raw. She recommended that we grill the prawn and prepare the flounder in a stew. It sounded like a pretty solid plan to us!
Soooo…live octopus, definitely not for the faint of heart. When it arrived on the plate, it was all chopped up but it was still moving and squirming around. They served it with soy sauce and sesame oil on the side. They’re tricky to pick up with chopsticks because of their slimy texture. And once you get it on your chopstick, then comes the tricky part of dipping it into the sauce, because it’s still squirming. The squirming seems to intensify once you dip them, so make sure you get a good grip and get it into your mouth quickly. Its suckers stick to your tongue as well, so that’s quite an interesting sensation. Make sure you chew them up well though, as the last thing you want is to have them still moving around inside you or clinging to your guts. To be completely honest, they were rather flavourless, so there’s not much satisfaction to be had there. Would I do it again? Likely not. But at least we can put a ☑ next to ‘eat live octopus’. 🙂
Left: Here’s the spicy fish stew that was made with the other half of our fish. As you can see, they threw the whole thing in (bones and all) to make it more flavourful. This dish was delicious, and its flavour profile immediately reminded me of the one and only Shin Ramyun instant noodles, except of course it was much better. Served with a side of rice, we polished off this entire bowl and were left wanting more.; Right: Grilled Korean jumbo prawn that was perfectly cooked. It was succulent, meaty, and fresh. Everything that you would come to expect from a properly prepared jumbo prawn.
My friend Stephanie, who happened to be traveling in Korea at the same time as us, recommended that we check out Myeongdong Kyoja, a popular noodle house located in the Myeongdong shopping and tourism district and just minutes away from our hotel. Established in 1976 as the original kalguksu restaurant in Seoul, today they have expanded their business to 2 locations (although both locations are on the same street within a stone’s throw of each other). Kalguksu is a Korean noodle dish consisting of handmade, knife-cut wheat flour noodles served in a large bowl with chicken broth and other ingredients. Its history stems from the late 1960’s, during a rice shortage that affected the entire country. The Korean government stepped in and imposed restrictions on restaurants which prevented them from selling rice from 11am to 3pm every Wednesday and Saturday. These were the conditions under which Myeongdong Kyoja developed chicken kalguksu.
Above: The kalguksu was topped with minced pork, chives, chopped mushrooms, and 4 pyramid-shaped pork dumplings called Byeonsi Mandu. You can see from the picture just how thin the wrappers are. The chicken broth was warm, light, and comforting on this cold rainy day.
Above: Served in a plastic steamer tray, this mandu (steamed dumplings) is made from finely minced pork, leeks, and sesame oil. They reminded me a bit of Shanghainese XLB’s, sans jus. Not shown is their fresh and super spicy kimchi, which this place is also famous for. If you’re into noodles and dumplings, then look no further than Myeongdong Kyoja. Four thumbs up from us.
Traditional Korean Dishes
Consistency is the name of the game and pretty well sums up many of the Korean restaurants that we tried in Seoul. Many of the places we dined at share very similar menus consisting of traditional Korean staple dishes. They were all pretty good from a service and food perspective. So here’s a list of dishes that we tried.
Left: Haemul Pajeon (Korean seafood pancake) is a widely loved snack in Korea. It is a savoury pancake that combines seafood, green onions, and a flavourful batter. Because it’s so large, it makes for a great dish to share amongst a small group.; Right: Gogigui (Korean BBQ) is something you have to do when you’re in Korea. A variety of meats and vegetables are grilled and then combined with sauces and side dishes to form perfect bites. Unlike Korean BBQ joints that I’ve been to in Vancouver, over here it’s normal for their staff come by and grill the food for you right at your table. Shown here is the pork belly, with beansprouts and kimchi grilling alongside it. You can’t really tell from this picture, but the grill plate at this restaurant was slanted at an angle, to allow the grease to drip down and collect into a tray. George Foreman would approve of this.
Above: Mul-naengmyeon (chilled buckwheat noodles) is a great dish for hot summer days or for kicking those soju hangovers. Traditionally, it is served in a stainless steel bowl with ice cold tangy chicken broth, and topped with julienned cucumbers, Korean pear slices, and a boiled egg on top. This one came with BBQ sliced pork on the side.
Left: Bibimbap (mixed rice) is a signature Korean dish. It is typically served as a bowl of rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables, gochujang (chili pepper paste), and a raw or fried egg. It is meant to be mixed together thoroughly just before eating and is best served hot.; Right: Jjolmyeon (cold spicy mixed noodles), a spicy dish made with wheat flour noodles, vegetables (carrots, cucumbers, and bean sprouts), gochujang (chili pepper paste), and topped with a boiled egg. It is meant to be mixed up well and is best served cold.
Left: Jeyuk bulgogi (grilled spicy pork) is marinated in chili paste, garlic, and ginger, and served on a hot grill plate. Beef is also commonly used for bulgogi. Right: Jjinmandu (steamed dumplings) can be found at many restaurants. You can often find places that serve seafood, pork, shrimp, or vegetarian dumplings. More often than not though, they are usually of the pork filled variety.
There are all sorts of soups and stews in Korean cuisine. They are typically served in hot, glazed earthenware pots. Jjigae is a thick soup made with fermented soy bean paste (left) or kimchi (right). They are often included in set meals and go great with rice.
Street food is widely available at most of the public markets and streets throughout the city. It’s a pretty good way to eat if you’re out exploring the city and on a budget.
Left: Wander the streets of Seoul and you’ll be sure to find tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) at just about every street corner. The bright spicy red pepper paste sauce is a dead giveaway for this staple snack. Some places will serve a variation of it, in which the rice cakes are stir fried and topped with red chili flakes.; Middle: They love their skewers too. Shown here are hot dogs coated in deep-fried crinkle-cut potatoes. You can also get sausage, chicken, or fish cake skewers.; Right: This ice cream dessert seemed quite popular amongst locals and tourists. The cones are long and spirally and get filled with soft-serve ice cream. That’s pretty cool! (no pun intended)
Above: Chalba is a fried mochi/ddeok that kind of resembles a Hot Pocket. This stand at Namdaemun Market had several flavours like sweet potato and curry, but we opted for the japchae roll. It was a tasty treat, and for $1 CDN, you really can’t go wrong. Surprisingly, japchae isn’t as available in restaurants as I had hoped. Being one of my favourite Korean dishes, I was shocked to see that it was left off of the menu of several of the Korean restaurants that we visited.
Left: Gyeran Ppang (egg bread) is a popular street item in the winter. Basically it’s a piece of bread or baked waffle batter with a whole egg inside or on top. But it’s certainly not on the same level as a Portuguese egg tart from Macau.; Right: This fried fish cake skewer was nothing special as it tasted more starchy than fishy. Perhaps it was just the stand that we purchased it from.
Above: We found a steamed bun vendor right by Gate 5 of the Namdaemun Market. It’s hard to miss, as you’ll get drawn in by the steamy aroma eminating from this shop. Every few minutes, they would come out and replenish several trays of fresh steamed buns. Within minutes, they would be snatched up like hotcakes. They cost around $0.60 CDN each. We bought a pork bun and it was so delicious that we ended up buying 5 more. They were available in spicy and non-spicy variety, and they also had red bean buns. I really enjoyed the spicy version, which had a good amount of heat that wasn’t too mild or too overwhelming. It’s hard to beat a freshly steamed pork bun. Namdaemun Market is a great market with plenty of clothing shops and food stalls. A lot of travel websites seem to recommend this market for its food though, so make sure you check it out.
Looking for a refreshing snack? Go to Paris Baguette and get a patbingsu (shaved ice bowl) (BELOW). It is a Korean shaved ice dessert with sweet toppings like chopped fruit, condensed milk, fruit syrup, and red bean paste. It seems as though every Asian country has their own version of this dessert. We tried something similar in Singapore and also in Taipei.
Left: Koreans are generally notoriously well known to be heavyweight drinkers. At any hour of the day, you can go to 7/11 and buy bottles of soju for $1 and beer for under $2 CDN. They even have lunch-sized nondescript boxed soju, for those who prefer to be a bit more discreet.; Right: The McDonald’s here don’t serve fish, but instead have a Bulgogi Burger, which is a beef patty in bulgogi marinade. It tastes like a regular hamburger with teriyaki sauce. I was not really impressed by it, as Japan’s shrimp and avocado burger (that we tried in Osaka) is a far superior local menu item.
Right: To say that Koreans love their fried chicken and beer is quite an understatement. In Korea, “KFC” stands for Korean Fried Chicken, and there’s no shortage of chicken and beer shops in Seoul. We explored the Hongdae area, which is located right by Hongik University in westside of Seoul. This neighbourhood comes alive at night as it’s a thriving nightlife hotspot for students and tourists. While we were exploring Hongdae, we stumbled upon this fried chicken and beer restaurant. We feasted on a 10-piece platter of fried chicken which was marinated in spicy gochujang and topped with green onions. It was a bit overkill for just the two of us, but nonetheless we managed to turn that mountain of chicken into a pile of bones.
No matter where we travel to, trying local food is always a priority for us. From Korean staples to street food to popular dining gems, we definitely got a good glimpse of Korea’s food scene. There were a lot of dining firsts for us on this leg of our Asia trip, and we’re happy that we had some time to explore Seoul and share with you our culinary adventure. Our next and final stop is Hong Kong!