{Travel} Chapter 1 Seoul: Food for the soul

As promised, a brief recollection of my ten days in Korea. I had an awesome trip with great company and a terrific local guide buddy. Free Singapore Airlines return flights from Adelaide to Incheon and a thousand dollars’ worth of spending money was certainly a perk. I am a lucky girl indeed.

After a sixteen hours of flights and transits, I arrived in South Korea on the coldest winter day in many years. Piling on thermals and fluffy jackets, the five friends which made up the travel group and I ventured onto the 6011 bus bound for Seoul. And our eating spree begins.

We were all students/ fresh grads with tight purses so the best way to safe money but still feast on local culture was to try the street stalls and patronize the many local establishments which serve great traditional food without busting the bank.

One such street favourite was the Eomuk Guk – Korean fish cake soup. A steaming hot bowl of clear broth populated by large slices of fried fish cake. Salty and slightly sweet. Cheap yet satisfying on a cold winter’s day.

The Korean Sundae was not your average soft serve on a cup drizzled with chocolate sauce topped with a bright red cherry. Pronounced as Soon-Day, Sundae was actually a blood sausage of pork intestine stuffed with cellophane noodles and held together with coagulated blood. An acquired taste but yum! The dish came with sides of fried kidney and liver. Offal galore!

Throwing in a touristy look-see was Changyeonggung. The palace was a sight to behold with its intricate carvings and colourful tiles. We were running short of time on the first day so we skipped a visit into the compound. Fear not for a tour of the actual traditional palace was scheduled for a latter day. In the mean time, we had rice cakes to make!

At two Australian dollars a pop, entry into the Tteok Museum allows visitors to learn about the wide array of tteok (rice cake), the traditions and their purposes. There were rice cakes for weddings, funerals, new births. There were rice cakes of all shapes, sizes and colours as well. A truly interesting experience. We also arranged for a tteok-making class where we learnt how to make tteok with traditional stamps. I was pretty pleased with my results but did not eat any of them. Issues with lukewarm gluey sticky stuff.

The ground floor of the museum boasted a little cafe specialising in, of course, tteok. We made a small selection and shared the goodies along with some truly delicious green tea latte. I had to slap myself to believe how truly cheap everything was.

A late afternoon stroll around the touristy Insadong brought us to O’sulloc Tea House, reknowned for their green tea. There were also plenty of stalls demonstrating the making of ‘dragon whiskers candy’. An amazing feat it was to witness the formation of thousands of strands of spun sugar which originated from one single large strand.

After too much walking and some trinket shopping, we wrapped up Insadong with a taste of the local favourite – Hotteok. It was a delicious local fried pancake stuffed with dark sugar syrup and chopped pine nuts and peanuts. Happiness at the price of one dollar.

Dinner was at my friend’s family restaurant. It was a cozy little place which used to be her dad’s childhood home. Patrons had the luxury of privacy behind Korean papered sliding doors and best of all, the floor was heated to warm up our frozen bums from walking in the cold.

Before long, the customary banchan – side dishes – were served in flat dishes. The kimchi was spicy and fresh – a fact as I witnessed the cooks grinding about five kilo’s worth each of chili and garlic outside the kitchen with a retro-looking food processor. Upon further confirmation, the ground chili and garlic were indeed used for making their own kimchi. The friend also shared that they use up about 20 kilos of kimchi a day. That was a lot of fermented cabbage yo!

We had Haemil Pajeon – seafood pancake – and Hobakjeon – pumpkin pancake. Unlike the flat as a disc Korean pancakes I’ve tried, these ones were fluffy yet crispy and chuck-a-block full of either seafood or pumpkin pieces. Dipped slightly in a concoction of soy sauce and chili flakes, the pancake was out of this world.

There was also a fish pancake. Though called a ‘pancake’, it was actually chunks of fish fried in pancake batter. Savoury, fresh and satisfying. Wash it all down with great Makgeoli, a type of rice wine packing a punch of earthy flavour.

Then, to our mixed horror and awe, came two bubbling pans of hotpot full of giant mandoo vegetables, kimchi and fresh mushrooms.

I must rave about the terrific mandoo. Completely filling up the dish, the dumpling was easily the size of my palm. With fillings of seasoned minced pork, tofu and chive dumplings, each bite was juicy and flavourful. Three dumplings each was enough to keel us over, let alone the rest of the food.

After under two hours of food and conversation, we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant, bade our goodbyes to the friendly owners and rounded up our first day in Seoul by walking off the binging at the local supermarket.

And that was Day 1.