SOMETIME after midnight on a Sunday, the streets of the Myeongdong neighborhood in Seoul were quiet and cold. The young shoppers who flit from Adidas to Tommy Hilfiger to Club Monaco had gone home to study for December exams, and restaurant workers were setting barrels full of leftovers onto the curb to be picked up by early-morning garbage trucks. The city was going to sleep.
But over near the subway station, in a little orange tent, or pojangmacha, a good night’s rest was on no one’s mind, least of all mine. Inside, a semipermanent kitchen was working overtime, cranking out hearty, salty, spicy dishes to warm the air and fill the bellies of the drinkers around plastic tables.
Behind me sat a pair of university students practicing Mandarin; to my left were hip-hop hipsters in knee-length Nike parkas discussing, partly in English, how to pick up girls in Tokyo; before me, a man in late middle age regaled a group of 20-somethings with stories and jokes. On every table stood bottles, tall ones for beer and petite emerald ones for soju, the Korean spirit made from sweet potatoes.
Suddenly, from one corner of the tent came a crash! Bodies and bottles tumbled to the ground, and for a moment all conversation halted. One fallen tippler pulled himself back onto his stool, and a grim-faced waitress rushed over to wipe the blood from his head and bandage the wound. Then it was back to normal. I sipped my beer and plunged my spoon into a bowl of kimchi jigae, a rich stew of pork, tofu and kimchi, the pickled cabbage that is Korea’s national dish. I had been in Seoul 30 minutes, with plans to eat my way through the city, and already, I felt, I was getting to the heart of things.
It was easier than I’d expected, but I’d been well-prepared, thanks to Korean cuisine’s ascendancy in the United States. In Los Angeles and New York City, Korean barbecue has become an urbanite comfort food on a level with dim sum and falafel.
In the last two years, South Korea has spawned one major trend overseas — Pinkberry, Red Mango and other cheery frozen-yogurt parlors — and at least one minor one: the fried-chicken joint Bon Chon Chicken, which arrived in Manhattan last year to much acclaim. Meanwhile, Momofuku’s David Chang has rocketed to the top of best-chef lists, thanks in part to his clever reinterpretation of traditional Korean dishes and ingredients.
To understand where these trends were coming from — and, I hoped, to discover the next ones — I spent a week eating the weird and the wild, the tasty and the comforting, and, more than once, the sublime. Oh, I also ate lots and lots of kimchi.
(If you don’t like kimchi, you might as well stop here. Everything comes with kimchi: spicy or mild, salty or sour, crisp or soft, with mineral notes or the briny aroma of dried shrimp. The variations are endless, but all have one thing in common: ubiquity.)
Let’s begin with the familiar: barbecue. There is perhaps no food more accessible, in any culture, than meat grilled over an open flame, and in Seoul you can’t walk down a street, whether in the über-trendy Apgujeong neighborhood or a grayer district like Dongdaemun, without inhaling the invigorating fumes of charcoal fires.
Actually, those fumes can be a bit much — who wants to leave dinner smelling like arson? Thankfully, there are solutions. When four friends and I arrived at Hongik Sootbul Kalbi, a barbecue spot in the frantic dining-and-night-life zone near Hongik University (“Meat Street,” one friend called it), the first thing our waitress did was hand over a huge garbage bag — for our coats, to protect them from the smoke.
And boy was there smoke! It wafted up from dozens of small, round metal barbecue tables, turning the air so opaque I could barely make out the enormous wall mural featuring caricatures of Korean celebrities — and Michael Jackson. We clustered around a table, and soon the house specialty arrived: chunks of well-marbled pork neck. (The restaurant’s owner was previously a butcher, a good sign.) The meat came pargrilled, to cook faster, and my friends spread kimchi around the base of the grill, where it slowly fried in the rendered pork fat.
Soon we were wrapping pork chunks in red-leaf lettuce leaves — along with spicy bean paste, shaved scallions and kkaennip, an anise-flavored leaf, similar to Japanese shiso, that I found addictive. A typically gleeful night out in Seoul, and we left with laundry-fresh outerwear.
This city, however, is home to electronics giants like Samsung and LG, so the same brilliant engineering that goes into your 50-inch plasma TV and microscopic 3G cellphone is also directed at the problem of barbecue smoke. Sariwon, a calm, family-friendly restaurant, employs special extractors on its grills to keep the air perfectly clear. And yet high technology does not trump high taste: Sariwon’s kalbi, or beef short ribs, were the most tender and succulent I ate in Seoul. Better yet, Sariwon offered a lengthy wine list that mixed New and Old World bottles, and at reasonable prices (a Gigondas cost 42,000 won, $41, at 1,050 won to the dollar.).
Wine, in fact, was Seoul’s trend du jour when I visited. Wine bars were popping up all over the city, with some selling rare bottles, like the 1996 Romanée-Conti at Kabinett, in the expatriate-friendly Itaewon neighborhood. It cost 4.5 million won.
The best place for serious pairings might be the Gaon, the city’s most refined Korean restaurant. Unlike the barbecue pits and soju tents, the Gaon is studiously designed (by the Japanese architects Super Potato), with one wall built from stacks of old newspapers, another of clear plastic cases holding dried beans, and another that was a frenzy of glowing color bars.
The menu consisted of Korean classics, gussied up with premium ingredients and presented on stunning custom ceramics. A tangle of radish kimchi came larded with fresh oysters. The haemool pajun, one of my favorite Korean dishes, was a thicker-than-usual pancake chock-full of squid, scallops and octopus. And the Gaon’s kimchi jigae put the pojangmacha version to shame. The flavor was so pure and intense, the crimson broth so creamy, it reminded me of tomato soup (albeit one whose depths hid rich, gelatinous nuggets of pig’s feet). For a moment, I wanted to ask the kitchen for a grilled cheese sandwich.
This kitchen was traditionalist at heart, and such conservatism was common throughout Seoul, despite the city’s self-styled sophistication. Restaurants advertised fusion cuisine, but simply served two different kinds of food on a single plate. The phrase “well-being” had caught on as a trend, but it simply meant adding green-tea powder to everything. Where were the kalbi hash and the kimchi huevos rancheros? (Note to David Chang: Seoul needs Momofuku.)
For revolutionary food, one must hit the streets. At a stand in busy Myeongdong, I tried the tornado potato, a single spud carved into a helix of starch, then skewered, deep-fried and sprinkled with salt and powdered cheese — an Iron Chef-worthy innovation.
Just down the road was Balena, a storefront that whips up spaghetti with spicy chicken and steak-studded penne, and crams them into ice cream cones, to be eaten on the run with a fork. Balena might not replace McDonald’s as a planet-dominating chain (indeed, the Myeongdong Balena has since closed, though three other branches remain in Seoul), but I could easily imagine an outpost on St. Marks Place, in Manhattan’s East Village, where it would nourish ravenous bar-hoppers.
The strangest thing I ate, however, was far from newfangled. It was at Noryangjin, a cavernous marketplace that stocks virtually every creature in the oceans: stingrays, squids, oysters, snails, crabs and a host of scaly, slimy organisms that I had no name for.
But at Jinnam, one of several restaurants on the market’s second floor, I knew the name of my lunch: sannakji. Commonly referred to as live octopus, sannakji isn’t really alive, but the raw tentacles writhing on the platter might lead you to think otherwise. Rather, it’s just some lingering electrochemical reaction that causes those thin strands to curl, stretch and attach their suction cups to your lips and gums as you try to ingest them. Rumor has it that people occasionally choke to death on sannakji, but a quick dip in sesame oil keeps the suckers from adhering too tightly.
The most surprising thing about sannakji? It tasted good — clean and meaty — and once I’d gotten over the discombobulation that comes from eating something that most definitely does not want to be eaten, I was chopsticking tentacles into my mouth as if they were octo-popcorn.
But such extreme dining is mostly a sideline. More commonly, I ate at restaurants like New Andong Zzimdak, which serves a single dish: boneless chicken pieces sautéed at your table with mung-bean noodles, vegetables, and gochujang, a red-pepper paste that is to Korean cuisine what butter is to French. This is easy food, slightly spicy, with an unexpected sweetness from caramelized gochujang. Like most Korean food, it comes in massive quantities and is meant to be eaten by large groups of friends (mine included Joe McPherson, who blogs about food at ZenKimchi.com), who pour one another beer and soju and snip the long noodles with scissors.
Likewise, Myeongdong Kyoja is a no-brainer. Kalguksu is the primary delight here, a noodle soup topped with ground chicken and pork wontons. So tender are the hand-cut noodles, so rich the chicken-bone broth, I could eat it every day for the rest of my life, as long as I could also have an order of mandoo, steamed pork dumplings that taste like a leaner version of Shanghai soup dumplings.
Promiscuous eaters should wander around Kwangchang Market, a covered zone of stalls serving everything from bibimbap, the hot mix of rice and vegetables, to soondae, a blood sausage, to latke-like pancakes fried up before your eyes. Kimchi stalls offer samples of myriad chili-flecked varieties, including one of kkaennip, the shiso-like leaf that was part of almost every meal, wrapped around grilled meat or embedded in silver-dollar-size pajun.
For me, herbaceous, anise-y kkaennip came to symbolize authentic Korean flavor, and weeks later, when I’d returned to New York, I asked for some one night at Kunjip, currently my favorite restaurant in Koreatown. The waitress looked at me oddly, then shook her head. Then she smiled and ran to the kitchen, returning with a “special kimchi” of crisp, juicy baby daikon. As I gobbled them up, I marveled again at just how easy this was.
“Kkaennip” was a shibboleth, a password into the world of heretofore unknown herbs and nameless crustaceans, of kimchi fried in pork fat, of hours-long meals with newfound friends — of all the gustatory pleasures of Seoul.
Eating in Seoul is always a social event, so the prices below are based on tables of at least four, drinks not included. Street addresses are rarely used; consult the restaurants’ Web sites, if available, for maps or call for exact directions.
Balena, many locations around the city.
The Gaon, 631-23 Shinsa-dong, 82-2-3446-8411; www.aolda.com; 60,000 won a person, about $58, at 1,050 won to the dollar.
Hongik Sootbul Kalbi, near Hongik University, 82-2-322-4487; 15,000 won a person.
Jinnam Sushi Restaurant, Noryangjin seafood market, 82-2-815-2732; 25,000 won a person.
Kabinett, 737-24 Hannam-dong, 82-2-790-7034, www.kabinett.co.kr.
Kwangchang Market is on Jongro-5, near the Cheonggycheon River. Snacks at the stalls there rarely cost more than 10,000 won.
Myeongdong Kyoja, 25-2 Myeongdong-2, 82-2-776-5348, www.mdkj.co.kr; 6,000 won for kalguksu, 6,000 for mandoo.
New Andong Zzimdak, 24-17 Chongmoo-ro 1, 82-2-3789-6841; 10,000 won a person.
Sariwon, 1321-7 Seocho-dong, 82-2-3474-5005, www.sariwon.co.kr; 35,000 won a person.