Taking a cue once again from my colleague aka the Foodosopher, I thought I’d jot down some random thoughts from my past two weeks of eating in South Korea, as I slowly begin the process of recovering from the time zone switch as I’ve landed back on North American soil.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel throughout the country this time (and not just bogged down in Seoul), hitting the metropolitan area of Seoul and neighboring province of Gyeonggi-do, as well as venturing through the central parts of the country (Chungcheongbuk-do), and the eastern province of Gyeongsangbuk-do. Almost made it down to the major southern city of Busan, but with the havoc being raged by Typhoon Dianmu, we elected to retreat northward.
– Despite it being a small country in geographical terms, the diversity by region is clear and distinct. In many ways, it reminds me of Japan and how despite the physical closeness of regions/provinces, as a result of the long history and regionalness that was built up through time, these distrinct area-based traditions remain intact today in their culture and therefore food.
– Tied to the above, many of these regional specialities or traits are well known at a national level. So when you tell someone say in the capital of Seoul that you’re going somewhere like another province and ask their thoughts on what to eat/check out, they will instantly blurt out a few of the top local delicacies.
– Try out as many of these regional delights as you can. I regret now not partaking in a few since we weren’t particularly hungry at the time, but in hindsight, wish we had, even at the expense of upset stomachs or overindulgence.
– Prices for similar dishes compared to what you find in North America are relatively cheaper. I know a common complaint that is voiced by bloggers about Korean food in Canada is how “expensive” it is, but I think that mainly stems from the fact that everyone is just eating barbecue, which can skew things. In general, I tend to eat non-barbecue dishes in North America and find them priced in the $7-$10 range, but in Korea, the equivalents could be found for as low as $4-$6. However, get into the major city core or tourist-frequented areas, and the prices do jump upward as expected.
– The immense fresh markets are amazing, especially for seafood. Unlike other countries where the larger ones seemed to be more geared towards the retail trade and assorted wholesalers, individual citizens can frequent these are welcomed as if they are local supermarkets. Prices are negotiable and vendors are vocal and boisterous in their attempts to attract shoppers amid all the competing booths, often selling similar product.
– A benefit of buying in a fresh market is you can actualy have a meal of it served and prepared in a nearby restaurant, thus keeping the ingredients as fresh as possible for the cooking stage. I’ll do a post of one such experience, stay tuned.
– Its all about specializing. Restaurants would general feature on their signage and business name, one or perhaps two dishes or styles that they offer. The simple is best philosophy holds true here. The only downside is that if there are conflicting tastes/preferences, it makes dining together harder as everyone has to basically agree to eat the same food.
– The variety of side dishes (banchan) served with meals, is larger and more varied than what appears on tables at Korean restaurants in North America. I’d say partly due to native tastes as well as availability of ingredients plays a role in this difference.
– Eating is very communal. Throw in the sharing of all the banchan and even the eating out of one single pot of stew by everyone at the table (no real need for separate serving bowls), and you get a very familial affair.
– Decor and setup in most local restaurants away from the major city centers and touristy areas is fairly spartan and basic, and seating tends to be on the floor (with cushioned mats, no chairs). Overall, I would say the appearances are not wildly different from what you see in North America, aside from the less chairs/tables setups.
– Beef, as one might expect, is pretty amazing here. I was especially pleased with the native Korean meat, though some menus and supermarkets did highlight and were labeled as being imports (mainly from Australia). Even when it didn’t look incredibly marbled, Korean beef was insanely tender and flavorful.
– Associated with the above, charcoal grilling is the preferred method of eating barbecue, and I didn’t see any gas-fueled tabletops in the stops I made. Thankfully its my preferred method of grilling too.
– The variety with meals really helps one get their full intact of nutrients and vitamins. With all the vegetarian dishes, you don’t even realize you are eating so healthy. I actually lost some weight while in Korea, despite increasing my food intake. Perhaps some of it due to the heat and humidity, and all the walking around I did.
– Getting to see firsthand how kimchi is made by a local household was incredible. The number of ingredients that goes into it and the tedious handwork that is involved makes me appreciate the big pots of it you can buy in a store, granted it won’t taste as good. Again, the wide variety of types and distinctions by household was eye opening.
– Korean-style fried chicken was even better than what I have had in the places that offer it here in Canada. Something about the crispness of the fried skin.
– Pizza seemed to be the one ubiquitous foreign fast food that appeared to be popular in Seoul. Local and international chains could be spotted everywhere. I tried one native restaurant (Mr. Pizza) on a whim and wasn’t too impressed.
– The highway service areas that are spread out along major interstate roads are stocked with many different snack foods, cafeterias/food courts and proper restaurants, which puts any rest stop in North America to shame. They are also a popular place to pick up local foodie souvenirs.
– Similarly, the food courts in shopping malls in the major cities are unique and incredibly efficient. Instead of paying at each stand, you buy your meal from a centralized booth and numbers flash above each food stand when your meal is ready for pickup. No need to stand idly in front of each waiting, as you can just go find a seat and when its ready, you can go get it. I really liked this system, but wondered how it might be pulled off in a larger space like say the food court at Metrotown mall in Burnaby.
– If you stray off the beaten path, it really helps to have a Korean speaker with you, for both ordering and even just reading the menu (that won’t have English on it). Some menus had photos that you could point to if you were in a jam.
– I found that Makgeolli or Korean Rice Wine is going through a mainstream boom right now, much in the way Shochu has in Japan these past few years. When once considered an alcoholic beverage for older men, its now appreciated by young and females alike. The various brands I tasted in Korea were much more bright and I would say had a higher carbonation level than the varieties I have had in Korean restaurants in North America. Therefore they tasted much more refreshing.
– On another alcohol front, I discovered that a brand called Max is seemingly growing share in the Korean beer scene, and is often recommended by restaurants when I ordered a brewskie. I still prefer my Hite though.
All in all, it was a fantastic visit filled with a plethora of eating experiences that have me craving for something this good on the home front. Alas, I’ll have to make due with what we can get here until the next time I venture across the pond, which hopefully won’t be that far away…