I am still dreaming about the food markets in Seoul. The above is Gwangjang Market in the Jongno-gu neighborhood. I loved the food in Korea more than Japan so it obviously deserved it’s own dedicated post. We didn’t have any well-charted food plan for either country (shocking, right?!). We just showed up and ate like locals from food stalls/carts and stopped into any inviting looking restaurants that were in our path. Here’s a breakdown of the best places and things we ate while in Seoul.
Street Cart Breakfast
There was a tiny stall next to our Airbnb in Seoul that served these egg custard things and airy cinnamon sugar pancake-like flatbreads. The egg custards were cooked on a hot griddle inside cast iron cups and had a sweet kick to the breading that surrounded the egg. Each cup was filled with the sweet batter and an egg cracked right in the middle. It then cooked in it’s cast iron cup on top of the griddle until it was golden around the edges and the egg whites cooked through. It was eggy, chewy, savory, and sweet all at once; what a perfect breakfast item. The pancakes were made in a waffle iron like press. They puffed up like pita bread and were hollow inside, yielding an amazingly light and almost dessert quality item. We went back for both of these more than once on our way to daily activities. Each of these cost under $1.00.
Gwangjang Market was a bustling market full of stall after stall of anything you could possibly want. There were mung bean pancakes, bi bim bap bowls, spicy stews, gimbap stacked ten high, kimchi in droves, mandoo (dumplings), blood sausage, live baby octopus, and fruit juice stalls, just to name a few. It was easy to eat vegetarian in these markets as well (my sister is a vegetarian) since you could see and pick whatever you wanted. This was the place of 1,000 smells and colors. We wanted to try everything. The air was thick with steam and smoke from oil covered woks and rice cookers. The smells hung to our clothes and skin and we carried them with us long after we’d left the market. This was one of my favorite places of the trip.
The people operating the stalls were aggressive, very aggressive. If you made eye contact with a stall owner they would furiously motion for you to sit down, start setting a place for you, and start showing off all their offerings. They even handled their food aggressively, slinging things from side to side, chopping off the legs of live octopus without even looking down, throwing servings of hot stew into bowls while simultaneously flipping fish on a grill and filling up rice water cups – it was such brilliant madness. My sister, brother in law, and I went through this market on our own first. Aggression aside, we came back for more with the rest of the family unit the next day.
The best part about eating in Korea is that you get banchan with every meal no matter how big or small that meal is. Banchan in English translates to “side dish”. So these are those little side dishes you always get when you go to a Korean BBQ place. They consist of small portions of various Korean staple dishes like kimchi, sesame marinated bean sprouts, fish broth soup, pickled daikon radish, potato salad, fish cakes, and seaweed salad (among so many others). The point is, your meal always ends up being 4x the size of your original order with all these extras; it’s glorious.The first items we tried were kimchi and pork mandoo (dumplings). We sat down at a stall and were immediately given rice water to drink (such a good twist on straight up tap water) along with some kimchi and other banchan items. We ordered three kimchi mandoo thinking we were getting three individual dumplings since the prices indicated on the sign were really quite low (around $2). What an amateur move on our part. We were ordering three orders of mandoo, not just three individual pieces. When they arrived, each of us had around eight pieces, each. So as not to be rude, we had to down all of them leaving next to no room to try other things. However, to be clear, this wasn’t hard at all because they were damn good.
Since we were so stuffed we had to come back the next day to try out everything we’d missed. We did better with our ordering having learned our lesson from the day prior. We tried the bi bim bap bowls (which were a dad and stepmom favorite for our entire trip), chicken feet (so crunchy), rice cakes in fiery red sauce, mung bean pancakes (also a big hit with the folks), gimbap rolls (which we stocked up on as snacks for our day), and of course, tons of kimchi.
Something that I was really surprised about was how insanely good the fruit is. The strawberries, in particular, were far and away the best strawberries I have had in my lifetime. We went to a few different fruit juice stands and asked to purchase just the strawberries by themselves. We got some funny looks as these stands are meant to blend the fruit up for you in a smoothie like fashion but we didn’t care. They were so outrageously good. We got them multiple days in a row as a midday snack.
The other highlight for me was the gimbap (or kimbap). These are pretty much like sushi but without any of the fish. There’s typically steamed white rice, pickled daikon, carrots, and egg wrapped up in paper-thin pieces of dried seaweed. These rolls are then cut into bite-size pieces (just like any roll at your local sushi joint), brushed with sesame oil, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Other variations can include seasoned beef or squid as well as a myriad of other ingredients but this is the most common. These were largely vegetarian and such a good picnic style snack. You can dip them in soy sauce or a really spicy mustard that often came in little packets (this stuff packs a serious punch in a “hurts so good” way) with your purchase. So simple but so very good.
Check out some of the other photos from the market below including a stand that sold only various kinds of kimchi. It was absolute bliss. I’d like to move in permanently.
Pastries & Desserts
Koreans love their pastries. There are coffee and pastry shops absolutely everywhere. We sampled various things from green tea cream filled buns (yeah, insert dirty joke here…) to matcha cakes to cheese croissants. Soft serve ice cream is also very popular. It’s served in various flavors in a traditional cone or in what they call a “J” cone. This is literally a cone shaped like the letter “J” that they fill the inside with soft serve. It goes all the way through the cone and comes out both ends (yeah, insert another dirty joke here…). This was something we were seeking out as we traveled around the city. We actually wouldn’t end up landing one of these coveted treats until we reached Gyeongju (post pending). The Chou Cream puff above was a fan favorite. Everything is cute in Asia (as supported by the above animal desserts) and some things look too cute to eat. The attention to detail when it comes to food in this city was out of control.
Mall Food Courts
Even food in mall food courts, which we tend to regard and kinda shitty in the US, was very impressive and handled with the utmost care. I would go and eat in a mall food court in Seoul again any day. Seriously, look at this spread:Each of these trays is for one person. That’s right, ONE person. The tray on the left has some sausage patties with cheese and some spicy soba. The red liquid (kind of like chilled kimchi soup) got poured into the noodles for a cold spicy noodle soup. The right side tray has bulgogi pork with cheese on top. There’s also a miso-style soup, rice, and various banchan on the side.
Yeong Gye Baeksuk (Chicken Soup)
While floating around the Dongdaemun neighborhood several times looking for that damn clothing market, we ended up eating there quite a few times. There was a nice little food alley down one of the side streets that we ate at twice. The second time we ate there, we wandered into a Korean chicken soup restaurant. This place only sold one thing: Korean chicken soup. They made it right in front of you in a big pot. One whole chicken went into each pot along with rice cakes, scallions, and enokitake mushrooms. The ladies working there broke down the chicken pieces with shears. While we waited we mixed together some oil, soy sauce, and gochujang (that firey Korean red paste/sauce, think sriracha but better) to serve as our dipping sauce and munched on some kimchi.
When it was done, we scooped the soup into our bowls and picked apart the chicken. It wasn’t anything that blew your mind but it was very comforting. Once we finished our chicken, they brought over some thick round rice flour noodles and dropped them into the pots. These. Were. Freaking. Amazing. I could have had a bowl of just the noodles and left the chicken out completely. Paired with the spicy slurry of soy sauce and gochujang, these noodles were off the charts good. They absorbed all the flavor from the soup broth along with the dipping sauce. We ate absolutely all of them.As we were finishing up our meals, we witnessed a couple of men in an altercation with the restaurant staff. This was one of those times where we were drawn out of our tourism lull. Traditional gender roles are still in practice in a way that we’re not used to seeing on a daily basis. We feel this type of inequality in the US as well but here, it’s displayed much more in your face. Even in a city as progressive as Seoul, here we were, witnessing blatant disrespect of gender roles over dinner.
The two men (from what we could tell not being able to fully understand what they were saying) were noticeably upset about their bill. One of the men started slamming the bill (which was attached to a small clipboard) down on the counter over and over again. The woman at the register seemed to be telling him that he did have to pay the amount on the bill. This continued for a few minutes with both men chiming in and their voices getting gradually louder. You could tell they had likely had quite a bit to drink prior to and during their meal which I am sure fueled the fire here a bit. It escalated to the point where one of the men started shoving the woman at the register quite hard and more than once.
We were extremely uncomfortable witnessing this. Several of us were actually on the edge of getting up and saying something when many of the other patrons in the restaurant started yelling back at the men. They pointed over and over to a menu that was posted on one of the walls seemingly to show that there was a very clear outline of what the costs were for the meal. When that didn’t seem to work, they started saying “annyong ha sae yo” (which doubles for hello and goodbye in Korean) over and over and pointing to the door. I took this to mean “girl, bye!” if translated into American English. They were fed up with these men and wanted them out.
Eventually, the men gave up and left to a round of scattered applause but the experience in itself kind of brought us back down to earth. Even though the patrons in the restaurant rallied behind the woman at the register, this is still behavior that isn’t terribly out of the ordinary. It was a reminder that we were truly just guests in this country. Everything we had experienced up until that point had been relatively surface level and through the lens of a tourist just excited to get their kimchi fix. This is a country that has been hit hard over the last century with the Japanese occupation, war, and so much civil unrest. So many people in Seoul still have families in North Korea that they can’t get out. They visit the DMZ (demilitarized zone, which divides North and South Korea) regularly and leave trinkets or well wishes on paper tied to fences in hopes that one day, they will be reunited. As good as it felt to learn about the city we came from, this single incident was a window into how very different our lives would have been had we lived out our years in that orphanage or been adopted domestically.
But in conclusion, the food in Seoul was fabulous. We didn’t have a single meal that was bad or unsettling. Again, I am still dreaming about everything we ate and everything we weren’t able to try. Someday I’ll have to go back for the rest.
In case you missed it:
On deck: Old Seoul, Andong, Gyeongju, Busan, Kyoto, and Tokyo.