Last year, I came to Berlin to pursue my education. During the orientation, I met Jeain and Yejun. They came from Seoul. We bonded really quickly and in less than a month, we became really good friends and started hanging out together. One day, we were having dinner at a Korean restaurant when we got to talking about our hometowns. I was awestruck when I looked at beautiful pictures of Seoul on their phone. I was gazing at the pictures when the waiter started serving delicious-looking Bibimbap. I was trying to inspect the dish when Yejun asked if that was my first time at a Korean restaurant. It was actually my first time. Jeain then told me about the Bibimbap Spirit and its roots in the local culture.
Bibimbap translates to ‘cooked rice mixed with meat and veggies’. Created as a solution to the problem of finishing leftover food on the lunar new year’s eve, Bibimbap started to be looked upon as a symbol of harmony in Korean culture with the passage of time. In Korea, when people sought to resolve in-between issues, they eat Bibimbap together to show mutual respect. In 2015, the leaders of South Korea, Japan and China ate Bibimbap together in order to reduce tension amongst them and build harmony.
The inspiring story, delicious Bibimbap, and the beautiful pictures together were so overwhelming that I felt like going to Seoul right away. I started planning a trip to Seoul during the summer break at the end of July 2020. By the end of February, I had already planned most of the trip when the situation became serious all over the world because of COVID-19. I think I jinxed my vacation by telling everyone about it.
Though I can’t travel now, I still want to share everything with you that I planned for this trip. This way, we can explore Korean food and culture together, for now virtually and after the pandemic, with a vacation.
Seoul or as we know it ‘A traveller’s Bliss’
Can you believe that Seoul was the 9th most visited city in the world in 2014 and that it is home to 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites? I was quite surprised when they shared this information with me.
Yejun told me about another speciality of Seoul: The 11km long ‘Cheonggyecheon Stream’, which runs through downtown Seoul. It is unbelievable how an expressway was transformed into an artificial stream. This innovative idea has brought water and greenery into the middle of a densely populated city. It is regarded as a symbol of modern urbanization by many and is also considered as an important element of Seoul.
Not very far from downtown is the 600 years old Bukchon Village. It is a heritage site and quite famous for its Hanok (traditional houses). These houses are also an example of the brilliance of Korean architecture, that is, usage of Ondol. It is a unique heating system, where the heat is transferred into the house through the floors from the burning woods underneath. The last time Jeain went there, she rented a hanbok (traditional costume) for a whole day for her Instagram stories.
We also talked about the world-famous Korean street food in Gwangjang Market and Myeongdong Market.
Gwangjang Market is more than 100 years old and is featured in the 2019 Netflix Series ‘Street Food: Asia’. The vendors call this place a chaotic paradise. People come to this market in large numbers as they know they will get real Korean food.
- Mayak kimbap (rice roll) is a sea-weed wrapped roll and consists of carrots, radish, and rice with seasoned sesame oil. It is easy to get addicted to. It is considered so delicious that if you eat it you will come back to eat it again. Beware, especially if you are pregnant, as addiction is bad for health. Haha, I was just kidding; you can eat as much as your stomach allows.
- Soy marinated crabs are buttery and salty and act as a flavour bomb in our mouth. During the Korean war, it was a really tough time for the people and the priority was to find food. As there were no refrigerators, food was preserved in salt and pickle banchan (side dishes) were very popular. These are still sold in the market; the only difference is that soy-marinated crabs have become more popular.
- Bindaetteok (which is savoury pancake) is made from ground mung beans, vegetables and meat. In the 1970s, the New Village Movement began as Koreans needed a way to improve the quality of life after the war. That’s when women came out to work and started selling home-cooked meals like these pancakes. These are regarded as the classic dish. A fun fact: During the rainy season, these pancakes are regarded as their favourite comfort food and it is served with Makgeolli, a type of rice wine.
Myeongdong Night Market
Myeongdong Night Market can be easily considered as the most happening place in Seoul. The primary reason is a large footfall of tourists. Earlier renowned as the fashion hub of Seoul, Myeongdong is now also known for the wide and unique variety of food it offers.
- Hweori Gamja or as they call it Tornado Potato is such an attractive name for a simple and easy to eat a snack. This is made by mixing spiral-cut potatoes with cheese sauce, honey, and red pepper. It is easy to cook, handy to eat, and uniquely delicious.
- The favourite street food of Yejun is Korean Fried Chicken. He told me that this is very different from the usual American fried chicken. Korean fried chicken is fried twice which makes the outer layer very crispy and less greasy at the same time. The best part is that it is offered in a variety of flavours. We can choose from a range of options such as soy, sweet, spicy, garlic sauce, and so on.
- Ppopgi (traditional sugar candy) requires precession as the most important ingredient. Without the timings and technique, it is not possible to make the perfect Ppopgi. It is made in different shapes and sizes. It was the favourite dessert of Jeain’s father as a child. This is because back then, if kids were able to eat around the pattern without breaking it, then they would get a free Ppopgi.
Chuncheon, the land of Dakgalbi
Chuncheon, the capital of Gangwon province, is at a distance of 60-70 minutes from Seoul and therefore, can be reached easily. Yejun advised me to spend some time in Chuncheon and try the famous Dakgalbi and local noodles Makguska, and visit Nami Island.
Apart from this, a must-visit place in Chuncheon is ‘Cheongpyeongsa Temple’. It is a popular tourist attraction, unlike many religious sites. It is located at a quiet and peaceful location, and the 10-minute ferry ride to the temple is a paradise. Jeain went to the temple every six months with her family to take a break from the busy city life.
Dakgalbi is the most famous cuisine that originated in Chuncheon. It is a spicy barbecued grilled chicken dish. It has become so popular that Myeongdong street is now also known as the Dakgalbi street. If anyone visits the city, then it is an obligation to try Dakgalbi at least once.
All you have to do is sit on a table which has its own grill. A person will then come all the ingredients and cook it in front of you. Not only this, but the person even let Yejun grill the chicken for some time so that he could get a photo of himself. This is so cool.
Makguksa is served in cold chicken broth and sometimes served with sesame oil, mustard, sugar or vinegar. What makes it distinct from other noodle dishes is that the noodles used are made from buckwheat flour. Since buckwheat is unhulled, the dish is known as Rough noodles.
Over the years, Nami Island has attracted thousands of people from all over Asia and therefore, is regarded as a tourist-hub. It became very famous after it was beautifully featured in the Korean drama Winter Sonata (겨울연가). It was the first K-drama that attracted so many people to visit South Korea.
Nami Island is one of a kind as the roads are tree-lined and there are no electric poles as the wiring is completely underground. With a combination of training facilities, a swimming pool and water sports facilities, themed-park playground, and camping sites and lodging facilities, Nami Island is a perfect place to spend a whole day and just release stress.
Jeain and Yejun taught me so much about South Korea, especially about their street food culture. As I was planning this trip, I realized that South Korea is truly a package. Along with offering a typical city experience, it also offers their culture at the heritage sites. Not only this, but it offers natural and man-made beauty at Cheongpyeongsa Temple, Nami Island and Cheonggyecheon Stream.
Not to forget that Korea offers so much to eat as well. If you are trying Korean food for the first time, mix it up with some interesting stories about Korean culture. This is what my friends did when I told them it was my first time. I ended up planning a vacation. You might too.
So we cannot travel to South Korea this year, instead, let’s bring Korea to our doorsteps. Let’s eat some delicious Korean food and learn about Korean culture with EasyCookAsia.
Do you really want to take one step closer to South Korea? Then try our bestsellers from a range of Korean dishes
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