When in Korea, eat like a local
The door to my interest in Korean cuisine was opened by K-dramas.
There are many scenes depicting the simple ramyeon, mouthwatering and interesting street food, and also traditional meals. I also learned that cooking while eating is a big part of their dining culture, aside from the predominance of rice and many side dishes.
In my pre-K-drama life, all I knew about the country’s food was kimchi, bulgogi, and their own version of barbecue. So it was a delight that the Korean Tourism Organization Manila (KTO) helped my culinary curiosity, and arranged that I personally experience various Han-Guk dishes during a recent trip.
The famous Korean pork barbecue or galbi (ribs) is popular and a favorite of mine. Wrap it in various lettuce leaves, add your preferred side dish and sauce then put it straight into your mouth. It is not to be eaten demurely in small bites. The lettuce-enclosed meat is supposed to be taken in its entirety, so I put everything in my mouth in one go. I enjoyed this galbi in Gang Hwa Moon located in Jamsil, with a beautiful view of the Seokchon Lake and the Lotte World Tower.
At the Myeongdongjeong Restaurant in Jung-gu, I got to try Han Jeong Sik, which is Korean traditional royal cuisine. It is a meal consisting of many small dishes called banchan, and reminded me of a grand lauriat. Each serving was a culinary masterpiece, visually and flavor-wise.
Another interesting dish is the chicken pan barbecue or dak-galbi. Diced marinated chicken is stir-fried on a flat pan with Gochujang sauce. It is the specialty of Maple Garden, a modern yet traditional glass-and-wood restaurant in Chuncheon. At the end, they add mozzarella cheese (yes, cheese), and mix it up with rice and the remaining chicken in the pan.
Everyone loves bulgogi, but bulgogi Jeongol is a bit different. It is a hotpot version that includes lots of veggies. At Solhyang Hanuchon located in Gangneung City, it is just as delicious. By the way, Gangneung City is also known for their coffee. Coffeehouses are found everywhere, and it is said that they had the very first barista in the country.
At the Chodang Soft Tofu Village Restaurant in Gangneum City, they serve Sundubu Jjigae, a wonderful spicy soft tofu stew. This was an unforgettable meal for me. For dessert, I went to Chodang Tart and tried their tofu ice- cream. It might seem an unusual flavor, but it was surprisingly good.
Ssambap is Korean lettuce wraps, or literally rice wrapped in leaves. In Hyewon Garden in Jeongseon, Gangwon, we wrapped meat with rice in many different edible leaves and seaweed — very traditional and delicious.
A standout classic dish is Ginseng chicken soup. In the summer, Koreans have this piping-hot soup during the three hottest days. This year it will be on July 16, 26, and Aug. 15. It is believed that chicken provides yang energy, as the heat can make one listless and weak. At the Cheongdamyeongyang Center in Gangnam, I had this summer soup, which was filled with sticky rice.
At the Maple Tree House in Samcheong-dong in Seoul, I had the popular samgyeopsal, which is grilled pork belly that you wrap in lettuce, and add from the many side dishes. Hollywood celebrities have eaten in this restaurant with their photos proudly displayed, including Angelina Jolie and Katy Perry. It was a great-quality samgyeopsal, and I really stuffed myself.
A different sort of buffet is offered by the Shabu Shabu Buffet at the Shabu Shabu Salad Bar located near Hongdae Station Exit 1. Aside from a choice of broths, meats and veggies for your shabu-shabu, you can grill beef at your table as well. There is a seemingly endless variety of side dishes to choose from.
Pretending to be Song Hye-kyo with Park Bo-gum in Encounter, I tried eating Korean snacks at a rest stop. I had fried sweet potato on a stick, very similar to kamote-cue.
Pretending to be Song Hye-kyo with Park Bo-gum in Encounter, I tried eating Korean snacks at a rest stop. I had fried sweet potato on a stick, very similar to kamote-cue, but cut thinly in a swirl with no sugar. Inspired by the K-drama Start-Up, I tried a corndog with chunks of mozzarella on it. The best for me, though, was sotteok, which is Korean sausages and rice cakes on a skewer.
As I was walking in the tourist area of Myeongdong, I stopped by street stalls and devoured gyeran-ppang, egg bread with the consistency of a pancake, topped by an egg and melting cheese. It is a filling snack, and could even be a meal. And, like in countless dramas, I finally got to try a steaming-hot bungeoppang, a fish-shaped pastry filled with red bean.
I immensely enjoyed this mini-Korean food journey of mostly traditional favorites. I want to come back and explore more, this time with food as the star and main attraction. You can say that this culinary door has opened —and will not be closed.