by Sophie Butler, The Telegraph, January 26, 2018
Spicy pork, seaweed salad, grilled mackerel, soya bean soup. By the time the waiter had placed the last plate on the long, low dining table, I’d counted well over 30 different dishes. Among the more unusual were acorn jelly, neutari mushrooms, burdock root salad, barley seeds in syrup and crispy silk worm larvae. I was sitting in a small, rural restaurant in South Korea and I’d never had such a spectacular lunch.
In light of such variety and invention, the recent surge of interest in South Korean cuisine is not surprising. Finally emerging from the shadow of its more gastronomically-established neighbours, Japan and China, 2017 saw the Michelin Guide’s first ever coverage of the capital, Seoul, and in one bound the country’s top-end cookery joined the international elite. This year’s accolades have increased to 24 Michelin-starred restaurants [such as Jungsik, pictured below], including four with two stars and a couple with three.
But I wasn’t here for fine dining. For me, this remarkable haul of Michelin stars points to the roots of Korean cooking - the countless other food outlets: street stalls, cafes, beer houses and small-town restaurants which offer excellent food for every budget. But if truth be told, I wasn’t that confident of exploring it unaided. Outside Seoul, language and cultural differences make it tricky enough to get around, let alone unearth some of the more obscure local eateries. Menus are either in Korean or non-existent, and it’s rare that any English is spoken.
So I had booked onto an eight-day “Real Food Adventure” tour of South Korea. Covering a circular route of some 500 miles or so, it combined the cities of Seoul, Jeonju, Gyeongju and Busan and promised to give a comprehensive insight into Korean cooking of all varieties as well as a glimpse into a country which will be thrust into the international limelight as host to the 2018 Winter Olympics next month.
The tour was well-planned on the food front, but any sightseeing was almost entirely left to us. However, in the brief amount of free time available, I was able to glean a little more about the country than just its cooking - and found that each of the four far-flung cities we visited had its own distinctive and fascinating character.
Firstly, the high-rise capital, Seoul, with its 24-hour streetlife, imposingly large palaces and busy shrines. One highlight was the 78-acre palace garden at Changdeokgung, with its lotus pond, pavilions and ancient woodland, the other was the state-of-the-art National Museum, with its treasure-trove of gold jewellery, Buddhist painting and traditional calligraphy. By contrast, Jeonju, capital of the North Jeolla Province, 120 miles south of Seoul, revealed a very different style of city centre, a peaceful layout of over 800 traditional low-rise buildings housing tourist shops, restaurants and small guesthouses.
In the elegant east coast city of Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla dynasty from 57 BC, I snatched a too-brief hour to see the museum’s dazzling display of crowns, ornaments and weaponry, excavated from the city’s central tomb complex dating from this period, now a Unesco World Heritage site and leafy park. A walk through the ancient grassy mounds which still protect the tombs revealed idyllic groves of ginko, red pine, persimmon, maple, pear, magnolia, maple, Chinese quince and myrtle.
A single night’s stay in chaotic Busan, Korea’s second largest city, which faces Japan across the water from the country’s most southeasterly corner, wasn’t long enough to do the port and its environs justice, but we made time to visit the vast fish markets for an unforgettable glimpse of slippery tentacles, silvery scales, gaping mouths and spiny shells, stretching as far as the eye could see.
Overall, the trip wasn’t exactly luxurious. Accommodation was in a combination of mid-range hotels and traditional hanoks (guesthouses) with bedding spread out on the floor. Travel was by mini-bus, trains and public bus through the peninsular’s mixed interior landscape of idyllic wooded hills, paddy fields and rural villages juxtaposed with the occasional urban high-rise sprawl. But the slight feeling of roughing it, while also being well looked after, made the tour feel satisfyingly closer to the real Korea.
Our guide was Daniel Gray, a food-loving American, who had been adopted from a Korean family aged six. Returning to find his natural parents and to discover more about his roots in 2005, he had become a food blogger, restaurant owner and tour guide. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable and helpful, he proved to be a mine of information.
The group of 12 (mostly Australians plus two Brits, an American and an Egyptian) introduced ourselves over a Korean barbecue at a small city cafe in Seoul, gathered around charcoal-fuelled grills built into circular tables. Dangling tubes like giant, silver slinkies, hung suspended over the grill, piping away the fumes and smoke from the table.
Daniel got stuck in straight away. Picking a succulent piece of beef and one of pork off the grill, he demonstrated how to make “ssam” by wrapping the meat in a single, crispy lettuce leaf with a smear of spicy ssamjang paste, a strip of cucumber and optional garlic clove, eaten as finger food and washed down with a shot of “soju” (the Korean answer to vodka, traditionally made from rice, wheat or barley).
Then he handed around freshly-fried and sugary, cinnamon-flavoured “kkwabaegi” (a kind of long, twisted doughnut) bought from one of Seoul’s busy, evening markets, before suggesting a plate of “chi-maek”, Korean fried chicken, a city speciality and served as spicy as required, alongside cold, local beer. And then, while I was still reeling from this mouthwatering overload, Daniel cheerily announced plans for an early breakfast. Digestive stamina was clearly going to be an essential requirement.
Korean cuisine is built around the key staples of rice (“bap”), fermented vegetable, usually cabbage (“kimchi”) and a stock-based, broth-like soup (“guk”). These elements appear at every meal (including breakfast), accompanied by small, tapas-style side-dishes (“banchan”), which are many and varied.
The rice-based dish, “bipimbap” (literally “mixed rice”) is also a Korean staple and one of the country’s favourite dishes with colours that even have a philosophical significance. One of the tour highlights was a lunch in Jeonju, a town known as the home of bipimbap.
Alongside bowls of rice topped with vegetables (cucumber, mushrooms, courgette, spinach) and egg, came side dishes of mung bean jelly with tumeric, shredded radish kimchi, sweet potato drenched in starch syrup made from boiling pumpkin, pungent “jeotgal” (fermented fish), “mumallaengi” (dried, white radish), turnip with chilli, a seaweed salad with cucumber and seasoned watercress. This came with “moju”, a herbal rice beer, heavily flavoured with cinnamon.
While lunches were undeniably eye-popping, it was Daniel’s breakfast forays which really felt far from the tourist track. Hidden canteens in market back-alleys which looked scruffy and unpromising on the outside, turned out to be spotless and welcoming within. Sitting alongside the wiry market traders and all-night local carousers, slurping “haejang-guk“ (translated as “hangover soup”, a nourishing broth with a spicy kick), required more chutzpah and know-how than independent travel allows. As did ordering fried silk worm larvae in what was essentially a nondescript, family-run restaurant, on a roadside in the middle of nowhere. These dishes were surprisingly delicious, and I would never have tasted them without Daniel’s guidance.
In the gaps between eating, there was time for hands-on cookery sessions which included a demonstration of making “gochujang”, Korea’s popular red chilli paste, used to add flavour to rice, stews and soup. Traditionally made by combining soya bean powder, salt, black bean paste, rice powder and syrup extracted from boiled barley husk, it became far fierier with the relatively more recent addition of red chilli bought to Korea from the Americas by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth-century.
A shady courtyard in the peaceful heart of Jeonju, was the location for a kimchi-making lesson. An elegant Korean lady demonstrated the transformation of chopped onion, leek, shrimp sauce, garlic, chilli powder, red pepper and ginger into thick, gooey paste through determined pounding and stirring in a vast, stone mortar, centuries-old and as almost as large as the chef. Once mixed, she showed the group how to smear the pungent red concoction thickly onto the leaves of a salted cabbage head, back and front, to create the nation’s ubiquitous dish.
I found it something of a relief from over-indulgence, but for the most dedicated gourmands in the group, the 24-hour stay in the Bulguksa Monastery near Gyeongju on day four was the least enjoyable aspect of the itinerary. Allocated monastic clothing of unisex baggy linen trousers and loose waistcoats, and accommodated in austere, unfurnished rooms, there was a timetabled regime of yoga and meditation, with a martial arts demonstration and a 4am wake-up call for Buddhist chanting and prayer. Men and women were segregated for the simple vegan meals which were eaten in silence and washed down with plain water.
Before leaving, we were granted a hushed audience with the monastery’s Grand Master, an hour of sitting cross-legged while sipping a cleansing brew of delicately-flavoured tea. At the end, the elderly monk turned to give the group some parting wisdom. “My final advice to you” he urged, “is to turn away from greed”. But his words fell on deaf ears and rumbling stomachs. Nodding solemnly, we finished our tea then headed off to Korea’s top seafood city, Busan, for a a beer-tasting tour and a slap-up clam bake.
Intrepid Travel’s eight-day Real Food Adventure to South Korea ( intrepidtravel.com ) costs from £1,715 per person, including accommodation, activities, ground transport, selected meals and the services of a local guide. Among the included activities are a kimchi cooking class in Jeonju, a martial arts demo at a monastery and a craft brewery tour in Busan”.