Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Of Cabbage and Kimchai

Trip to Korea
5th to 16th February 2008

For the Chinese New Year holiday Naomi and headed across to Korea. We spent our first week exploring Seoul's historical palaces, temples, markets, ice skating rink and bars, with day trips to the menacing DMZ and the more jovial Korean Folk Village. The second week was spent at the world class ski resort of YongPyong, where the skiing was certainly superb, but the food tumbled towards average. It was freezing the whole time and one morning while we were skiing it got down to about minue eighteen. The Meal is Tradition
Koreans rigidly stick to a defined national cuisine, unlike other countries which have 'favourite' or 'traditional' dishes. Amongst the bibimbap, bulgogi and juk perhaps the one true Korean national dish is
kimchi. Usually pickled and spiced cabbage, kimchi is often translated as any preserved vegetable that is served as an accompaniment to a meal. People are addicted to the stuff and apart from continually touting its health benefits they eat it religiously with every meal. The usual Korean restaurant always serves a variety of banchan or side dishes that include eggs, water spinach, acorn jelly, lettuce, octopus, white bait and buckets of kimchi. I enjoyed many of these but was quickly warn down by kimchi's never ending presence and also worried about the waste of the vast uneaten quantities of banchan that must be thrown away each day.

Cooking at your own table is almost a Korean right and certainly the local idea of a good time. In Seoul's Sogong-dong district we enjoyed the famous dish
bulgogi. Cooked on a circular hotplate with enoki mushrooms and spring onions the sweetly marinated beef was dipped in sauce and then wrapped in lettuce to eat. This routine of cook, dip and wrap was the same for the barbeque restaurants we tried. We grilled delicious local beef in the small town near YongPyong and had fantastic barbequed pork in a bubbling student restaurant in the Hongik University area. I'm a fan of these style restaurants and really enjoy the relaxed vibe of cook, dip, wrap, eat, drink, repeat.
Other Korean meals we enjoyed included a interesting feed of Korean Chinese fusion in a strange restaurant devoid of all English near Hongik University; a spicy but satisfying lunch of wok fried chicken in a backstreet near the Insadonggil market and a huge pan of chicken rice, again cooked 'Korean style' at the table. All, of course, were accompanied by kimchi. A special mention must go to the Korean restaurant in the
Dragon Valley Hotel at YongPyong for being overpriced and easily the worst meal we had.

Koreans love to snack and the street food available on every corner was fantastic. Winter dishes were in an we munched on chestnuts, sweet potato, grilled dried squid, dumplings, warm hazelnut biscuits and fried rice cakes stuffed with red bean paste and peanuts. I couldn't bring myself to try a hot cup of silkworm lave as the smell was too off putting, but this little critters were immensely popular and even came canned at the super market.

Escaping the Kimchi
Korean restaurants only seem to offer about six different dishes, three of which were too spicy for Naomi, so we were soon looking for a change. The Korean take on foreign food ranged from terrible to good; though apart from the expected sushi and fast food chains there were very few options about. We had serviceable pizza at the YongPyong ski resort, but easily the best 'foreign' food we had in Korea was at
Terarosa Coffee in the city of Gangneung. This tasteful 'tea room' served delicious pasta, fresh bread, wine by the glass and good coffee; it was worth visiting Gangneung for lunch alone.

Something to Drink
For a country of tea
drinkers Koreans like coffee and that makes them OK with me. Getting a morning fix of caffeine was never a problem and we even managed to escape the big chains and find a couple of lively local cafes. One in the popular shopping area of Myeong-dong was a favourite especially because of the huge serve of cream covered French toast that Naomi rather enjoyed for breakfast.

Koreans don't seem to mind a drink, but import taxes make buying foreign booze stupidly expensive so we tried to stick to local options. The beers were all pretty average, but Naomi started to develop a taste for Soju. This dirt cheap Korean spirit resembles vodka, though she preferred to drink it mixed rather than thrown straight down as is the local fashion. There were also a few bottles of Korean wine floating around and I've got one to review soon. Bars were common place in Seoul and are favourites were in the lively area around Hongik University. This student hub was packed with locals and had a fun vibe; from the free cocktail Naomi was given in one pub to the huge group gleefully sculling their way through a blind speed date in the next bar.

No comments: