Quick, cheap, savory
Thick strips of pork belly sizzled on a charcoal grill built into the table. A small mountain of garlic drenched in sesame oil simmered in a metal bowl next to the meat, a few cloves turning a golden brown. The rest of the table was packed with small dishes filled with accompaniments: perilla leaves, two types of kimchi, potato salad, lettuce, red bean paste, shredded cabbage and peppers, something resembling molten scrambled eggs, and various dipping sauces.
Savory aromas wafted from the grill, mingling with the sharp smell of the kimchi, a spicy, pickled cabbage condiment. The mental fog that had dulled my senses since I stepped off a trans-Pacific flight earlier in the afternoon was pierced by a mouthwatering thought: I had come here to eat as much as possible in a week.
There would be other times to try a formal “hanjeongsik’’ meal — with half a dozen traditional dishes coming in series, and a table jammed with “panchan,’’ or small side dishes. This culinary quest would be devoted to the quick, cheap, savory foods enjoyed all over the city: Seoul food, if you will, of which the Korean barbecue of “samgyeopsal’’ pork sitting before me was probably the most well known example.
“Here’s how you do it,’’ said Jon Park, a Korean-American living here. “Take a piece of lettuce in your hand, add a piece of meat, put on whatever else you want, fold it up, and jam the whole thing in your mouth.’’
“In one bite?’’ I said.
“There’s no wrong way,’’ said my friend Paul Yi, who was eating with us. “Try it with kimchi, or try grilling the kimchi first. And don’t forget to try the sesame leaf [the translation of ‘perilla,’ which isn’t sesame], the red bean paste, or the garlic.’’
This first meal revealed a few truths that would apply to most of the meals to come: Many restaurants don’t offer portions smaller than “for two.’’ Scissors are commonly placed on the table to cut offerings into chopstick-ready bites. And there’s a good chance the food will be cooked or prepared at the table.
Early the next morning, we hiked up Namsan Mountain to Seoul Tower, a building that looks like the love child of Munich’s Olympic Tower and Seattle’s Space Needle. On the way down, Paul suggested we try “the garbage plate,’’ a meal whose actual name translates to “army base stew.’’
“Budae jjigae,’’ as it’s called, was invented during the Korean War, when meat was in short supply but people had access to surplus from nearby US Army bases: hot dogs, Spam, and leftover vegetables.
The place Paul chose looked like a spare room, or empty garage, converted to a kitchen. The customers, sitting on the floor at a few low tables and wearing orange aprons provided by the staff, were spooning a bright red soup into their bowls. We sat at a table and into a shallow wok that resembled the lid of a garbage can, our waitress poured water from a tea kettle, uncooked ramen, cellophane noodles, chopped hot dogs, canned ham, rice cakes, tofu, garlic, sliced green onion, bean paste, and piles of kimchi. When the noodles were cooked, the food was ready.
For about $15 total, the dish sated our appetites and was surprisingly tasty. The heat of the kimchi balanced the cooling flavors of tofu and rice cake.
Next, Paul led us to a traditional teahouse in the Insadong neighborhood, an area distinguished by a hip main drag intersected by a network of small alleyways. Here, an older architectural style and hints of traditional life are still preserved.
Our table in the rustic teahouse was a single block of wood propped up on either side by two smaller blocks. Old farm implements hung on the wall. I ordered iced “omija cha,’’ an herbal tea made from “schisandra chinensis’’ fruit, also known as “five-flavor berry.’’ The flavor was a mixture of sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty. Paul had “sujeonggwa,’’ a sweet drink made from cinnamon, dried persimmon, and ginger.
With no room for another sizable meal, I spent the rest of the day sampling Seoul’s ubiquitous street food. There were bean cakes, rice cakes in hot sauce, beef and tuna hand-rolls called “gimbap,’’ and my personal favorite, a seafood “pancake’’ called “haemul pajeon,’’ made from flour, egg, and green onions, and usually accompanied by a bowl of “makgeolli,’’ a creamy liquor. On the next trip, I promised myself, I would try the corndog with chunks of french fries in the batter, the steamed silkworm chrysalis, and the pig knuckles.
A few days later, Paul and I met up with Juanita Chisler, an English teacher, who had a great tip on a place to eat Andong-style “jjimdak,’’ a simmered chicken dish with cellophane noodles, vegetables, and Korean soy and pepper sauces, cooked over high heat. As usual, the food came in a large communal dish, and was accompanied by a pair of scissors, which Juanita used to cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces.
The jjimdak had an herbal, ginger taste, with a savory, spicy finish. Partway through the meal, the waiter delivered a couple of tea saucer-sized discs of crispy, golden brown rice. “This is my favorite part,’’ said Juanita, as she took a large spoon and kneaded the rice into what was left of the chicken sauce.
Although the list of Seoul’s hearty, wallet-friendly eats was too extensive for me to do more than sample, there was one thing I knew I must try: KFC.
Korean fried chicken, that is. And it’s ubiquitous in Seoul. Spend a few minutes on any main road and you see fried chicken deliverymen zipping through red lights on their Daelim Citi motorbikes. (“They really do deliver anywhere,’’ said Paul a few days later, as we watched a Korean film in which a dogged delivery man uses a rowboat to reach a small island in the Han River.)
As in the United States, fried chicken in Korea goes best with beer (Cass, Hite, or OB — the main brands are interchangeable, mediocre lagers). But unlike at home, the chicken is served with white chunks of pickled radish as a side. The legs and wings were smaller than I was used to, and the light, super-crisp batter was a lesson in culinary perfection. The secret is frying the chicken twice, once to cook the meat, another time to crisp the batter. Each restaurant uses a slightly different recipe. A good place to use as a benchmark is the popular franchise Kyochon, which you shouldn’t skip if fried chicken is your thing.
The best part about eating the quick, cheap, and savory in Seoul is that there’s something for everybody, and if you follow a few rules you’re bound to end the day satisfied: Don’t fear the kimchi, don’t eat alone, and remember that it doesn’t have to be exotic to blow your mind.
Russ Juskalian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.