One final post on South Korea.
We haven’t previously dedicated a whole post to food, but Korean is not as well known as other Asian cuisines in our part of the world. Our trip around the country really was a new food adventure, so we thought we’d share a few of the more unusual ones.
Tteokbokki is pieces of rice cake simmered in a sweet, spicy sauce. Koreans eat lots of this stuff. It’s on street stalls and in markets everywhere. Eaten standing up, skewering the rice cakes with a toothpick, they are the go-to snack between meals. Looks like heartburn in a bowl, but actually it’s not particularly hot.
Koreans also love eomuk. Sticks of fish cake sit simmering in stock on little stands in every market and in lanes throughout most of the cities we visited. You take a cup and serve yourself a little dipping sauce of fish sauce, shallots and chopped chilli, then grab a stick from the pot and dip. When you’ve finished, you top up your cup with a scoop of stock and drink. Then show the vendor how many sticks you’ve had and pay, usually about the equivalent of $A1.00 per stick. They’re the perfect breakfast on the run. We ended up quite addicted.
A few years ago, the Netflix series Streetfood Asia featured Cho Yonsoon, a vendor at Gwangjang Market in Seoul who’s been handmaking noodles for over 30 years. She was such a character, people flock to the market to see her and in her signature pink and purple, she’s become known as ‘the Netflix Lady of Gwangjang Market’. She’s still running the same little stand, although judging by the popularity, she could move to a proper restaurant and fill tables all day and all night.
And rightly so. Her bibim naengmyeon was the standout meal of our trip. Cold rice noodles are heaped in a bowl of broth that’s been frozen to the consistency of a melting slushy. Spicy sauce is spooned on top, then a pile of shredded cucumber and Korean pear is added, with a boiled egg and a dab of minced blow-your-sinuses-out horseradish on the side. You mix it all together and it’s utterly delicious. Cold, chewy, spicy noodles. We had it in other markets but hers was in a class of its own. We went back a few times and it was so good, we were always half way through before Julie remembered to take a photo.
South Korea has many delicious soups. Hangover soup is traditionally served in the morning to deal with the after effects of a night of drinking soju. We didn’t have a hangover when we tried it, so we can’t comment on its medicinal qualities, but we can confirm it’s very tasty. It’s basically a hearty beef broth flavoured with soybean paste and filled with chunks of beef backbone and vegetables.
The adventurous can order the soup with chunks of beef blood. Not sure that’s the best option for a hangover, though.
Another fantastic soup was samgyetang, ginseng chicken soup, a local delicacy on Jeju Island. A small chicken stuffed with rice and a whole ginseng root, is slow simmered in stock and brought to the table boiling. It may sound boring but it was the tastiest chicken soup we’ve ever had. And how decadent is it to get a whole chicken each!
In Andong, the specialties included salted mackerel, steamed and smothered in spicy sauce, with the usual array of side dishes of fresh and pickled vegetables and, in this case, tiny sticky shrimp.
And of course there were the pork dishes. We’ve already mentioned pork belly BBQ.
There’s also bossam. Take a piece of boiled pork belly, top it with a dab of soybean and hot pepper sauce and some kimchi, a raw garlic clove and a piece of fresh chilli. At a tiny place in Seoul with just four tables and no English written or spoken, we had an amazing one, thanks to the owner’s luscious home made kimchi. We didn’t need language as she only does one thing.
A cold salad of sliced pigs trotter in a wasabi-like mustard and vinegar dressing had our noses running.
Spicy pigs trotter on a sizzling plate. Delicious, although the grated cheese on top was unexpected.
Good old fashioned braised pork hocks.
Spicy, braised pig skin.
Soondae is a sausage made from pork blood, glutinous rice and mung bean noodles. It’s steamed and served cut into slices with dipping salt and sliced pig’s lung and/or liver alongside. Argentinian blood sausage is much tastier and the soondae we tried came with slices of what tasted a lot like dried liver. Not our favourite.
And then we come to the weird stuff.
There’s probably a reason beondegi – steamed silk worm pupae – haven’t achieved international popularity as a bar snack like peanuts or pork crackling. Starting with … it looks like a cup of bugs.
Sannakji is ‘live’ octopus tentacles. On our first night in the country we saw lots of it being served in the Gwangjang Market.
The tentacles of small octopus are served up, still wriggling on the plate, sprinkled with salt, sesame oil and sesame seeds.
Of course, the tentacles aren’t ‘alive’, just severed so recently that the nerve response is still firing. Nevertheless, we were absolutely not going to try them, and didn’t. A week later, there was a report in the New York Times that a South Korean man had died here while eating sannakji. He choked on the writhing tentacles, inducing a cardiac arrest.
About six people per year die from them. Fans of the late Anthony Bourdain might recall a scene from his series Parts Unknown where he had to yank really hard to get an octopus tentacle to release its grip on his plate. Well, that instinct to cling remains strong and if they aren’t chewed to a pulp, the octopus’ sucker can latch onto the diner’s oesophagus on the way down, causing him/her to suffocate. Seems like karma, really.
And there’s hagfish.
Hagfish look like eels. Our understanding is that they were originally caught for their skin, which was used for leather. The flesh was thrown away as it wasn’t considered good eating. But people started eating them out of necessity during a time of famine and somehow developed a taste for them.
Watching a plate of hagfish being prepared in the street market in Busan firmly eliminated any thoughts we might have had about trying it.
Trigger warning: don’t read this next section while eating.
First, a man pulled a live one from the tank and pinned it to a chopping block with a spike through the head. In two swift movements, he skinned it alive.
Removing the spike, he tossed the skinless creature onto a tray. It was still wriggling. Then a woman piled several of them on a grill rack. They were still wriggling.
And placed it on a coal burner.
Let’s just put it this way – the wriggling goes on for an unpleasantly long time. The end result is a plate of char-grilled eel-like flesh. Ok, we know the fish isn’t still ‘alive’ while it’s cooking. We know it’s a nerve thing. But it’s also something you cannot un-see. And definitely killed any desire to try them.
Moving on. There’s fusion cuisine and then there are the bizarre creations that emerge when east meets west. Mostly, we blame the Americans.
We’re talking about banana flavoured potato crisps.
And roasted almonds in flavours such as garlic bread, cookies and cream, and tiramisu. In the same pack.
Twigim is a traditional Korean snack similar to Japanese tempura. Basically, it’s any kind of vegetable, seafood or other protein dipped in a light batter and fried. Quite tasty, but since the arrival of the Americans, on any plate of mixed twigim, you can usually be confident of finding a pile of battered Spam. Seriously? As if Spam wasn’t fatty enough already!
When the yanks brought cheddar cheese to the Phillipines after WWII, cheddar ice-cream studded with bits of corn was born. Inexplicably, it’s still popular. It makes South Korea’s cheese flavoured ice-cream seem rather tame, but we had to try it. Despite the yellow colour, the flavour was more like cream cheese blended with full cream. Actually, quite nice.
And then there’s dogs. No, not the four legged variety, thank goodness. Although dog meat is a traditional food in Korea, to our great relief we did not see any. In fact, the South Korean government has just announced it will introduce legislation by the end of this year which will phase out dog meat over the next three years, with a total ban on consumption taking effect in 2027.
This is a travelling companion not a take-away meal.
Cats get treated well in the markets, too, by the way.
Now, we’re talking about corn dogs.
Most people will have heard of Korean corn dogs. The standard one is a frankfurter sausage on a stick, dipped in batter, rolled in panko crumbs and deep fried. For Brisbane readers – it’s like an Ekka Dagwood dog with crumbs, but nowhere near as tasty.
Inexplicably popular is the gamja hot dog. Sausage on a stick, dipped in batter, rolled in diced potato, then rolled in panko crumbs and deep fried. Some even have a layer of cheese wrapped around the sausage before battering. At least it eliminates any argument about whether to eat your French fries with your meal or on the side.
We thought it needed more zing, maybe a spicy sausage like a chorizo to balance the thick potato coating, but if you love chips, this could be your snack of choice.
And then there’s this alarming variant – sausage on a stick, dipped in a thick, sweet, fluffy, doughnut-like batter, deep fried and rolled in sugar crystals, served drizzled with tomato sauce. It looked so awful, we had to try it. John declared it ‘weirdly tasty’.
So there it is. Korean food spans the spectrum from delicious noodles and pork to homicidal octopus to hot dogs that don’t know if they are a meal or a dessert. For the adventurous foodie, it’s a perfect destination.