Comfort in Seoul

Backtracking a bit, we can't forget to talk about Seoul. In our original itinerary, we weren't even going to hit Seoul. But once our friend Bremelin got wind of our travel plans, she insisted that we come visit. We were so glad that we had someone who knew the city and people well because it colored our experience so much, as the social aspect is so important to Korean food. When you go out, you're with a group of your coworkers or friends, or else you're with your whole family. It's about eating together and enjoying life. So we counted ourselves lucky that we were able to share our meals in Seoul with so many different people – I don't think our perception of Seoul would have been the same had it just been me and Wayne.

Of course the first thing we did was hit a BBQ joint with Bremelin. If you've never been for Korean BBQ, here's the deal: you sit around a table that has a grill in the center. Ideally the place you've chosen uses real charcoal and not that gas shit. They drop the charcoal into the center and drop a huge vacuum tube over it to suck up the smoke. You order some cuts of meat (usually pork; beef is available but is rather expensive), and they bring it out raw and you stick it onto the grill. While you're waiting, they bring out little plates of pickles and other salty nibbly things. As it's cooking, you cut up the meat with scissors and dish it out. You roll the meat into a piece of lettuce or sesame leaf, some salty bean paste, raw garlic, and super hot peppers. Stuff it in your mouth, repeat. It was delicious. We've gone for Korean BBQ numerous times in NY, but it didn't compare to what we had in Seoul. The pork just tasted so rich and fatty, and the charcoal just gave it that smoky flavor that you can't get from gas. And of course downing soju with a friend completed the experience.

Believe it or not, Korean food is not all about meat. (My waistline would tend to disagree though.) Kihwa, a friend of Bremelin's, took us to a place called Sanchon in the Insadong district. It specializes in vegetarian temple cooking, and has a very refined, beautiful and traditional atmosphere. There's a set menu for both lunch and dinner but there's not much difference, apparently there is a show at night. It's some of the most beautiful food that we've encountered on this trip; each dish had its own set of flavors, textures and colors. Together it was a perfectly composed meal that would  beat the pants off of all the vegetarian places and rate with any top restaurant in New York.

Knowing that we love food, Bremelin got in touch with Daniel Gray, a blogger who specializes in Korean food and runs culinary tours around Seoul. We hit up a traditional market and  poked around some stalls. The lady with the huge of amounts of pickled vegetables was quite sweet and offered us a million samples. We ogled all the different street foods, from pajeon (scallion pancakes) to soup with lots of offal. Many of the customers come here because they get nostalgic about the food they used to eat when they were young; the crowd tended to be older. We finally settled on trying soondae (Korean blood sausage) and something similar to head cheese. It definitely tastes much better than it smells. We also got our first taste of makgeolli, a rice-based alcoholic beverage that has a milky, smooth texture and has a low enough alcohol level that I can drink more than one glass.

Fortunately for us Dan invited some of his friends along, because Korean food is very much about socializing and drinking! We got acquainted over some more Korean BBQ and soju/beer/Coke shots (I had ONE thank you very much), and then made our way over to a bar. We ordered some green makgeolli (green from mulberry leaves), fresh tofu and kimchi. Fresh tofu and kimchi is the best bar food ever, and makgeolli is my new favorite alcoholic beverage. We ended the night with more soju and a rich seafood soup in one of the informal restaurants that sets up on the street. I definitely recommend a tour with Dan because you'll get to try all kinds of food at great places that you'd never be able to find on your own.

We didn't get sick of Korean food, but we also had some excellent Western style food while we were in Seoul. Bremelin's friend, Kihwa, owns a lovely multistory cafe in downtown Seoul called T42 that specializes in tea. Each floor has its own character, and the tea is very high quality. We happily found ourselves in the cafe numerous times, sipping tea and enjoying scones, cookies and other yummy baked goods. I think the most rich item was the Honey Loaf, basically a third of a pullman loaf topped with butter, cream, honey and a scoop of vanilla ice cream served warm. It was like french toast meets bread pudding times five servings. To top it off, we ate the Honey Loaf while we attended a beautiful concert on the top floor of the cafe because Kihwa's also a talented and accomplished harpist! We also had the chance to have some pizza at Kihwa's friend's place called Blacksmith Pizza. He made all the furniture and interior fittings himself (he's a blacksmith), and it has a cozy and welcoming atmosphere. We devoured the pizza, which was thin-crust italian style. It's been months since we've eaten any pizza and we haven't really craved it, but that day we were so glad to eat something familiar in such a friendly place. 

For me, Korean food is about comfort and familiarity. Kihwa and her friend took us to one of the most famous places in Seoul for samgyetang (a soup/stew made from a whole chicken stuffed with rice stuffing and ginseng). It was like pure essence of chicken, it made me think of cozy sweaters and fireplaces and a warm kitchen in winter. Brem took us to a lovely little place in her neighborhood (owned by a Mr. Kim) for bibimbap, pork belly and Korean pancakes. Everything was delicious, but I loved the atmosphere the most. It seemed like people from just down the block took their family out for dinner, and all the kids and grandparents were there sharing the meal and relaxing. For the week we were in Seoul, we found that we had a home away from home.

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