Before I begin this, I will have to admit that before coming to Seoul the extent of my knowledge of Korean food did not go far beyond kim chi. But oh how quickly I found out that there was a lot more to learn. South Korea is teeming with delicious foods in all varieties. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is a gastronomical adventure. You cannot walk down streets in Seoul without smelling delicious delicacies or seeing intriguing foods cooked on the street-side.
On my final night in Korea, I was fortunate enough to join an Urban Adventures tour to further explore the Seoul food scene. After emerging from the rabbit warren of the Seoul subway, I met Jamie. Jamie was going to be my wonderful and knowledgeable guide through the flavours of South Korea.
A Korean BBQ restaurant, where each table is complete with a hotplate and a copper exhaust
It all began in a dimly lit but well-air-conditioned Korean BBQ shop near Gwanghwamun. The smell of flavoursome meats filled the air. We sat in the corner overlooking the rest of the restaurant. Korean BBQ restaurants look incredibly unique. The wooden tables have nestled BBQ grills in the centre, either with hot coals or an electric plate, all with overhanging copper-coloured extraction fans. It looks almost futuristic.
As you enter, the restaurant staff load your table with the delicious parts of the meal. The meat is the main event and there are many options; for this night we decided to have pork. Beef and chicken are also popular options. Also on the table you get sesame leaves, Korean lettuce, paste for the meat, onions, soup, egg, onion, salt, rice, and mung beans. Each restaurant can be slightly different, but the principles remain the same.
Cooking the pork on the hotplate
Despite my horrendous use of chopsticks, I managed to eat a healthy amount. The smell of the meat cooking on the grill is simply irresistible. It is hard to muster the patience and resistant the meaty temptation as you prepare the meal.
This meal is a work of art. It truly is a fun way to eat, coming with many parts that need cooking and constructing. The idea is that once you cook the meat and the garlic on the hotplate, you grab a sesame leaf and/or a lettuce leaf. This will be the wrapping of the scrumptious Korean BBQ parcel.
Place a piece of meat and garlic in the centre of the leaf and then add a hearty amount of paste on top of the meat. What you add next is up to you, but I would recommend adding mung beans, heated kim chi, and onion. Then you wrap it all up like a mini burrito and eat. You’re supposed to fit it all in your mouth in one go but I have no idea how people do this. Maybe I filled mine too much – wouldn’t be surprising.
Filling the sesame leaf -- now to bunch it all up and eat!
PRO TIP cooking kim chi on the hot plate before putting it in the sesame leaf can make it even tastier!
Keep repeating the process until you are positively stuffed with food. All this can be washed down with a cool Korean beer or a bowl full of Korean rice wine (a white fermented and carbonated liquid which is actually quite refreshing).
Once Jamie and I had polished off the Korean BBQ, we kicked our second dessert stomach into gear and went hunting for sweet treats in the suburb of Insadong. Insadong is a traditional area of Seoul with many shops selling Korean trinkets and food. It is a lovely area to stroll around and is a popular walking area in Seoul.
The popular Korean rice drink: Sikhye
Dispensing Sikhye from a road
From an unassuming shop lined with oranges, Jamie indicated to a dispenser filled with a beige-coloured drink. The drink is called Sikhye and is made from rice and malt. With rice floating in the drink, the sensation can be a bit unusual but it is thoroughly enjoyable. Sikhye is sweet but incredibly delicious. It is a valuable weapon against the Seoul summer heat.
Bean Paste Pastry
Comically shaped pastries at Insa-dong
Underneath the floral installation at a popular Insa-dong shopping area there is a shop selling poop-emoji-shaped pastries filled with either bean paste or chocolate. Sounds weird, I know. But trust me they are delicious! I got one of the bean paste ones and it was the perfect dessert.
If you are after more hilariously shaped foods then make sure you go to the very top of the shopping complex where there is a café completely dedicated to all things bathroom-related. Even the lattés are served in small toilet bowls! It is quite a funny concept and bizarre to experience.
Eating my poop shaped pastry under the flowers of Insa-dong
Jogyesa Temple at night, with hundreds of lanterns in the trees
After all the food, it was time to relax and digest with an evening stroll and visit to Jogyesa Temple. This is the largest Buddhist Temple in Seoul and is a haven in the bustling city. Full of wonderful lotus flowers and lanterns, it is spectacularly lit at night. Observing the evening prayers and admiring the paintings depicting the life of Buddha was a serene ending to the night. It was an unexpected, but well-welcomed, ending to the Urban Adventures tour.
Culturally and gastronomically satisfied, it was time to bid farewell to Jamie and head back to the hotel to pack for the flight home.
Some of the beautiful, illuminated streets we walked down
During my trip to Seoul I was a guest of Urban Adventures on their Street Food Seoul Tour but, as always, all opinions are my own. You can book your own Best Day Ever in hundreds of destinations around the world via the Urban Adventures website.
What is the best street food you've ever had? Let me know in the comments below!