Monday, March 25, 2013

What to eat in South Korea

I'm fresh off a trip to Seoul, and as usual when I go to a new place, I think I gained 20 pounds. It was well worth it, though.

Besides the main dishes, there are two things I like about restaurants in Korea: there's no tipping culture and every table is equipped with several little side-dishes (including kimchi, of course)! Plus, the food is generally pretty healthy.

Typical side dishes (kimchi in the center)

Here are the things you can't leave Korea without trying:

Bulgogi
Many restaurants in Seoul have tubes at each table to suck up the smoke from barbecues installed right in the tables. Our first meal in Seoul was actually at Starbucks (such American tourists!) but our first real Korean meal was beef bulgogi that was cooked with mushrooms and onions. Bulgogi can be beef, chicken, or pork, but it's always grilled right at the table. The first time we tried it, our server cooked it for us. (This may have been because we were in the 'foreigner' area of Seoul, Itaewon). But when we ordered the spicy pork version at a local haunt, we realized (after our meat got pretty charred) that local Koreans cook it themselves.

If you're on the go, we also noticed that local fast food restaurants and even McDonald's carry bulgogi burgers.




Bibimbap
Although it's simple, bibimbap is one of my favorite dishes. It has many variations, but my favorite way to get it is in a hot stone bowl, or dolsot - hence its name, dolsot bibimbap. The dish consists of rice with various veggies, sometimes tofu, sometimes meat, and always a raw egg and some chili paste on top. The bowl comes to the table sizzling, and you stir to combine everything yourself. Because the bowl is so hot, the layer of rice touching the sides gets nice and crispy. (And, if you're wary of bacteria, the egg gets cooked.) It's the ultimate comfort food.




Makgeolli 
Most people have heard of soju, but our friends in Seoul took us out to get this traditional rice wine. It's milky white, and tastes kind of creamy but crisp at the same time. They explained it was originally made and consumed by farmers, but these days you can find some higher-end bars or restaurants boasting makgeolli on their menus. It reminds me of beer in the United States - traditionally cheap and unsophisticated, but a plethora of microbreweries have heightened its reputation. You can buy the drink at grocery or corner stores for a very small price - we paid under $2 for a bottle. But, like a good craft beer, better makgeolli comes in a pricier bottle.




Street food 
The street food in Seoul doesn't disappoint, either. Our favorite was a stall in Insa-dong that sold hotteok. It's a fried dough stuffed with sesame seeds and peanuts and is completely delicious.

A few steps from the hotteok stall in Insa-dong, you can find 16,000 strand candy. If you look like a tourist, these vendors will call you over and demonstrate how it's made - they even have a little song routine that goes along with it. "Oh Em Gee!" (Here is someone else's video). We didn't particularly like the taste, but a box costs 5,000 won (about $5) and I think it's worth watching and trying.

Tteokbokki is tender rice cakes in a spicy sauce. My friend said it's a common after-school snack for Korean kids, but I think it would also make a great snack after a night out.

I don't know what they're called, but in Gangnam we found these little walnut and peanut shaped cakes. The walnut ones had walnuts in them, and the peanut ones had peanuts. Yummy.

If you won't be travelling to South Korea any time soon, you can find most of these dishes in Korean restaurants in the U.S. 

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