“What I put on the plate is not food, but rather my spirit and passion,” declares Lee Jong Guk, a reclusive self-taught chef and fervent champion of authentic Korean cooking.
And judging by the dishes presented, Lee has a profound lust for gastronomy, with his complex culinary creations that could easily be presented as art. There’s a robust fish head porridge with pickles that’s been simmering for five hours, a sweet calamari salad with a 30-year-old soy dressing, steamed beef patty with stir-fried echiura (marine spoon worms), and a rich soy sauce marinated crab with boiled down sea snails. As introductions to Seoul food go, this is about as imaginative as it gets.
I’m at the home and private dining room of chef Lee, among the scenic hills and moneyed abodes of Seoul’s northern Seongbuk-dong neighbourhood. A novice to Korean food, I’ve joined an ‘inspiration-seeking’ expedition with the team at Michelin-starred London restaurant, Galvin at Windows, alongside its founder Chris Galvin and Korean head chef Joo Won. Lee informs me that just two weeks earlier René Redzepi of Noma fame also dined at his table, so I’m certainly in good company for probing the inner workings of Seoul’s cuisine.
Like Redzepi, I find Lee’s standout dish is the two-day aged giant grouper sashimi with turmeric salt, fried fish skin and scales with sesame and oil jang (fermented sauce). It’s a little firmer and satisfyingly chewier than Japanese sashimi, with the turmeric salt adding both earthy and briny notes before a pleasing crunch of crispy skin and sweet jang finish. This is a triumph of a dish, encapsulating many of the core flavours and seasonings of Korean food, particularly the traditional technique of sakhinda or fermentation.
To eat in Seoul is to plunge headfirst into a pungent, vibrant sea of strong and savoury flavours. So much more than merely allowing food to ‘go bad’, Korean fermentation is a learned process of developing deep complex tastes over long periods through careful skill and preparation. Kimchi, the ubiquitous spicy side dish and fermentation poster-food, accompanies virtually every meal here — even breakfast. Locals eat a mammoth 18 kilos of kimchi per person each year.
Made by salting and preserving cabbage, radishes or cucumbers in a mix of brine, garlic, spring onions, ginger, hot pepper flakes and spices, kimchi is often left to ferment in underground jars for months on end; it’s slow aging producing distinct and intense layers of flavour, just like a fine wine.
This appetite for fermentation permeates Seoul culture as powerfully as its food. Located in Yangpyeong at the edge of the city is Sandang (meaning ‘mountain village’), a restaurant where more than 80% of its dishes involve some kind of fermentation process or technique in its modern take on hanjeongsik. This ritual originating in the lavish royal courts of the Joseon dynasty sees a steady stream of intricate side dishes paraded in an endless procession.
Chef and artist Ji-Ho Im grows many of his own ingredients with a philosophy that ‘food is medicine, a science, and an art’. The resultant seasonal dishes are as varied as they are plentiful, from pork cooked in green tea and octopus with ginseng and water ginger, to mushrooms in fermented sep sauce and dramatic flambéed chestnuts in a red wine reduction. Each small course makes way for the next in a reflective succession of contrasting tastes, textures, sights and smells. Every dish is a lesson in local produce, technique and stylish presentation.
I greedily graze from one dish to the next, but I approach the ganjang gejang — fermented raw crab — with some trepidation. Fresh blue crabs are left to age in a carefully balanced stock of soy, ginger, onions, peppers and salt for up to a month. Too much salt and it’s inedible, too little and the crabs rot. As I suck the cold gelatinous slime from its shell, the tangy, bitter flesh is a shock and I wonder if this is perhaps one fermentation step too far.
For many Koreans, particularly Galvin’s Joo, ganjang gejang is the centrepiece of a meal — but for me, it’s definitely not love at first bite. Seeing my wincing, puckered face, Joo suggests adding plain rice to mellow the sharpness, before explaining that hanjeongsik dishes can be overwhelming on their own, and rice balances the seasoning and taste. It works surprisingly well and slowly I begin to appreciate the subtleties of a dish that’s been around since the 1600s — the sweet, savoury flesh oozing a unique richness into the fluffy rice.
The tranquil order and theatre of hanjeongsik couldn’t be further from the dynamic do-it-yourself gogi-jip (literally ‘meat houses’) or Korean barbecues that sit on almost every corner in Seoul, and which form an equally integral and respected part of its dining experience.
An evening walk among the pokey alleys and bustling backstreets of Jongno offers an eye-popping feast of sights, smells and sounds as the city settles into the serious task of eating. At the unassuming street-side tables of galmaegisal (Jongno-3-ga station), generous strips of pork skirt sizzle over searing flames. Tiny tables groan under the weight of banchan (side dishes), laden with kimchi, chilli paste and soya bean powder. Boisterous businessmen loosen their ties to swill on beer and rice liquor soju, while amorous couples sit quietly huddled on plastic stools picking their way through lettuce-wrapped parcels of charred meat.
Seoul might be a frenetically charged and tech-driven metropolis of over 10 million people, but as my culinary guide Inhwan explains, though Koreans will happily adopt the latest trends and fashions, when it comes to food, tradition is king, with whole streets, even neighbourhoods, specialising in single dishes such as jokbal (pig’s trotters) or sundae (blood sausage stuffed with noodles).
“Respect for traditions, customs and the old ways — especially the elders — is very important,” Inhwan explains before intercepting my attempt to pour a glass of soju, instead decanting it for me carefully using both hands as tradition dictates. The flashing, blaring city carries on around us, racing into tomorrow, but here at the rows of simple street tables, Seoul stops to breathe and take in the moment. gokorea.co.uk
Four places for a taste of Seoul
One of Korea’s oldest markets, Gwangjang showcases Seoul’s thriving street food scene with its tightly packed corridors of cooking stations and countertops churning out Korean classics, from bibimbap (mixed rice bowl) to mayak gimbap (literally ‘narcotic gimbap’), seriously addictive crispy seaweed rice rolls served with a sweet and tangy hot mustard. Follow your nose, but don’t leave without feasting on bindaetteok, stoneground crispy mung bean pancakes with a moreish onion and soy dip.
This small basement restaurant in upmarket Gangnam bills itself as new Asian cuisine, adopting Korean, Japanese and European techniques. But don’t let the ‘fusion’ concept fool you as this is contemporary Korean cooking at its finest. With fast rising chef Kang Min-goo, former executive chef at Nobu Atlantis in Dubai, at the helm, the imaginative menu cooks Korean staples in various pan-world styles, with dishes such as charred beef tenderloin with truffle and jang (fermented) sauce, and crème anglaise with rice vinegar.
How much: Set menu from 88,000KRW (£48) per person.
Majang Meat Market
Barbecue is Korea’s best-known dish for good reason. Head to Majang where bring-your-own diners allow you to gorge on higher-grade meat at low prices. Pick up a 600g platter of top-grade marbled Hanwoo beef for around 40,000KRW (£20) before heading to any of the restaurants above to grill it. They’ll typically charge 4,000KRW (£2) per person and provide all the necessary tools and banchan (side dishes).
Sitting in the central Jung-gu district and designed in the style of a Joseon dynasty residence, elegant Korea House offers a great insight into traditional Korean culture. At the Sohwadang pavilion, food is cooked and prepared according to carefully researched ancient records with a steady procession of intricate, seasonal dishes, from grilled grouper and king prawns in a pine nut sauce to braised pork with herbs and abalone (sea snail) in soy sauce.
How much: A 14-course Korean table d’hote menu costs 250,000KRW (£138) per person.
Five Seoul food finds
Short for chicken and maekju (beer), chimaek is a citywide obsession, and despite fierce competition, Gyeyeolsa in Buam-dong offers some of Seoul’s tastiest fried chicken.
Story of the Blue Star
Hidden off a side alley in the northern end of Insadong-gil, this rustic but artsy hangout specialises in makgeolli (fizzy rice wine), pyramid slabs of melt-in-the-mouth tofu and kimchi with a kick.
Head to downtown Jongno for the best pojangmacha — makeshift tarp-covered street restaurants — in Seoul. They typically specialise in a single dish, like dalkbal (chicken feet).
Noryangjin Fish Market
For the freshest fish in town, head for the stalls and tanks of Noryangjin. Just point to what you like the look of and vendors will happily slice it up for you as saengseon hoe, thinly sliced raw fish.
Ask 10 Seoulites where to find the best tteokbokki — unctuous chewy rice cakes drenched in chilli sauce — and you’ll get 10 different answers, but Maboknim in Sindang often comes out on top.
How to do it
Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)