I was recently lucky enough to spend almost a week in South Korea and let me tell you, if it's not on your list of places to visit it should be! The people, the culture, the food...all of it was amazing and I barely scratched the surface. I spent most of my time in Seoul but also made it down to the ancient Silla capital of Gyeongju and up to the Demilitarized Zone at the border of North Korea. You can see my foodie itinerary here that I created before going but now I want to share a photo journey through some of my self-created favorite food adventures. I say "self-created" food adventures because I also took an amazing guided food tour while in Seoul which you can see here. I also shared a video you can view here from the Noryangjin Fish Market where you'll get to see us eat live baby octopus among other amazing treats fresh from the sea!
If this all tickles your appetite or curiosity about this amazing country then make sure to check out all of my South Korea photos here. Happy visual feasting!
First up, a late night binge on Seoul street food just steps from my hotel! Clock-wise from the top left...squid chips, egg bread, me slurping on the bright red Tteokbokki, the stall selling Tteokbokki and Fish Cake Skewers (in a most delicious broth!) and a pork dumpling. If you've never had Tteokbokki this bright red one is the street food version that is super popular with locals...basically a super thick rice noodle chopped into bite-size pieces and slathered in a bright red spicy-sweet sauce. Super yummy...so much so I brought a bag home of the chip-like junk food version of it! One other must-try that's not pictured here (and is perfect for street food dessert!) are Hotteok...little fried, filled pancakes. The Honey Hotteok was my favorite. So yummy.
My first breakfast in Seoul...Haejangguk, better known as Hangover Stew. This is a rich, hearty stew made of beef broth, cabbage, bean sprouts, tripe and chunks of congealed ox blood. It's served with scallions, kkakduji (radish kimchi - one of my favorites) and rice. First, let me say, I was definitely the only non-local at one of the more well-known spots, Cheongjinok (19, Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul) that I had to really go out of my way to find and most locals I asked about this or told I tried this almost fell off their chairs. This is legit...so much so that they are not expecting some petite American girl to be interested in it, apparently! It seems, even that most of the younger generation is barely familiar with it anymore. Honestly, though, I understand why. Even for SavoryGirl this was a bit much...very rich with the dirt-like, intestinal undertones that can sometimes accompany dishes like this. Definitely good and interesting and I'm glad I tried it (and would encourage you to as well - it's a cultural tradition that appears to be slowly dying out!) but if I truly was hungover this definitely would not have been my go-to meal to make me feel better.
Oh, this next one I'm excited about. The Noryangjin Fish Market...one of the largest, active, 24 hour fish markets in the world! I had heard that you could buy fresh seafood here and then have someone right nearby cook it all up fresh for you, so our sole purpose while checking Noryangjin out was to buy our lunch. Honestly, it was super overwhelming...so many good things to choose from, but since it was Katherine's last meal before flying home we definitely went a bit overboard. You can see some of the amazing market views above, and I'll talk you through our lunch next...
So, what did we get for lunch?! Huge scallops, a whole fresh fish, abalone, sea urchin, fermented squid (kimchi style...that's the red stuff in the little dish I'm holding up in the bottom left photo, so yummy!), clams, and last but certainly not least live baby octopus (Sannakji). We put ourselves in the restaurant owners hands, handed over our still squirming booty and feasted on grilled scallops (I'd suggest asking for sashimi for you...a bit overdone since they sliced them thin then grilled them which was such a shame), steamed clams, steamed abalone, fresh sea urchin, sashimi slices of our fish (and the bones were also made into that amazing, spicy soup you see above) and roughly chopped live octopus.
Yes...I said live baby octopus. Still squirming on the plate when it arrived (and honestly throughout our entire hour-long meal) but legitimately delicious. The tentacles were so tender and tasty and when dipped quickly in their homemade sesame oil it was like a little bite of heaven. A bit weird when they suctioned to the plate or your lip as you were trying to eat them, but so worth it. The heads/bodies on the other hand, I would advise against. I tried one after being thoroughly freaked out about it's eyes staring at me through the whole meal (I had to conquer my fear!) but it was such a big bite and so tough and chewy that it took forever to get down and honestly didn't taste like much. The tentacles though? We finished every last one (16 in all)! As I mentioned earlier you can view the full video of us at the Noryangjin Fish Market here and you'll get to see Katherine eating the live baby octopus as part of it!
With Katherine now on her way home, it was time for me to transition to my solo vacation week. What better way to do that, then to go spend some quiet time at an ancient tea house and think about the amazing last week I just had in Vietnam and plan for my week ahead in South Korea? Enter Shin's Old Tea House in Insadong. Quiet, serene, and feels like a step back in time right within bustling Seoul. The photo above is a perfect snapshot of the atmosphere of this place. The rustic, worn menu, crispy little tea snacks and my cup of cold spiced tea with stewed prunes and pine nuts. Perfect transition point for me and I would highly recommend it as a traditionally Korean respite if you're in Seoul.
Now it's time to leave Seoul for just a minute and head down to Gyeongju....the ancient Silla capital that has so many royal tombs and palaces that it is known as a museum without walls. While I had a few meals there, the one standout was the Yukbuchon Yukgaejang (Six Tribal Village Hot Shredded Beef Soup) and the assorted banchan shown above. This is supposedly a royal dish made up of six main ingredients including Gyeongju Millenium Hanwoo (Korean beef), brackens fern, gondaibi (ligularia stenocephala) and beef intestines from Gyeongju raised animals. Honestly, this was the perfect dinner after a long day of touring the city...rich, comforting but at the same time not heavy. A good place to go for this is Byeolchaeban Gyodong Ssambap (328-1, Hwangnam-dong, Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do,South Korea). Their Ssambap looked amazing too, but it's a bit hard to pull that off for just one so I had to pass on that experience.
Back to Seoul and I realize I only have two nights left and haven't had any Bibimbap yet! So I do a little research and set out on a mission to have just that. I found this great spot, Gogung, that is so highly regarded Korean officials bring visiting dignitaries to try authentic but slightly more casual Korean food. The bibimbap was delicious, as was the assorted banchan (some of the best I had, actually), and...they had my beloved makgeolli! Funny thing is I ordered it and it came out in a big vat with a ladle and a cup, so even though it was only $5 I think it was yet another one of those Korean specialties meant for sharing!
Last night of vacation and I was lucky enough to get to spend it with a friend I went to business school with who has been living in Seoul for the past year. So while typically I am all about the traditional, cultural experiences this night was all about the expat experience! She took me to her favorite Korean inspired Mexican spot, Vatos Urban Tacos in the Itaewon neighborhood that seems to be the favorite of expats. Think kimchi fries and Korean-inspired chicken wings. My favorite foodie part of the night though? The makgeolli-ritas! That's right, giant "margaritas" made with makgeolli instead of tequila as their base. So delicious and fun.
So there you have it! Some of my favorite SavoryGirl food moments in South Korea. Make sure to check back soon for my Seoul Guided Food Tour and my Noryangjin Fish Market video post, both coming soon. If South Korea isn't already on your list of places to visit I hope this and my upcoming posts inspires you to add it...while I know the focus here was food the history, culture and people components of my trip were equally as amazing and engaging. You can see a glimpse of that in my full South Korea photo album here.