Seaweed salad, grilled mackerel, soya bean soup. By the time the waiter had placed the last plate on the long, low dining table, I’d counted more than 30 dishes. Among the more unusual were acorn jelly, burdock root salad, neutari mushrooms, barley seeds in syrup and crispy silk worm larvae.
I was sitting in a small, rural restaurant in South Korea and I’d never had such a spectacular lunch. In light of such variety and invention, the recent surge of interest in South Korean cuisine is not surprising. Finally emerging from the shadow of its more gastronomically established neighbours, Japan and China, 2017 saw the Michelin Guide’s first coverage of the capital, Seoul, and in one bound the country’s top-end cookery joined the international elite. This year’s accolades have increased to 24 Michelin-starred restaurants, including four with two stars and a couple with three.
But I wasn’t here for fine dining. For me, this remarkable haul of Michelin stars points to the roots of Korean cooking – the countless other food outlets: Street stalls, cafes, beer houses and small-town restaurants, which offer excellent food for every budget. But if truth be told, I wasn’t that confident of exploring it unaided. Outside Seoul, language and cultural differences make it tricky enough to get around, let alone unearth some of the more obscure local eateries. Menus are either in Korean or non-existent, and it’s rare that any English is spoken.
So I had booked on to an eight-day “Real Food Adventure” tour of South Korea. Covering a circular route of 800km or so, it combined the cities of Seoul, Jeonju, Gyeongju and Busan and promised to give a comprehensive insight into Korean cooking of all varieties, as well as a glimpse of a country that will be thrust into the international limelight next month as it hosts the Winter Olympics.
The tour was well-planned on the food front, but any sightseeing was left almost entirely to us. However, in the brief amount of free time available, I was able to glean a little more about the country than just its cooking – and found that each of the four far-flung cities we visited had its own distinctive and fascinating character. Firstly, the high-rise capital, Seoul, with its 24-hour streetlife, imposingly large palaces and busy shrines.
One highlight was the 78-acre palace garden at Changdeokgung, with lotus pond, pavilions and ancient woodland, the other was the state-of-the-art National Museum, with its treasure-trove of gold jewellery, Buddhist painting and traditional calligraphy. By contrast, Jeonju, the capital of North Jeolla Province, 120 miles south of Seoul, revealed a very different style of city centre, a peaceful layout of more than 800 traditional low-rise buildings housing tourist shops, restaurants and small guesthouses.
In the elegant east coast city of Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla kingdom from 57BC, I snatched an hour to see the museum’s dazzling display of crowns, ornaments and weaponry, excavated from the city’s central tomb complex dating from this period, now a Unesco World Heritage Site and leafy park. A walk through the ancient grassy mounds that still protect the tombs revealed idyllic groves of ginkgo, red pine, persimmon, maple, pear, magnolia, maple, Chinese quince and myrtle.
A single night’s stay in chaotic Busan, Korea’s second-largest city, which faces Japan across the water from the country’s most south-easterly corner, wasn’t long enough to do the port and its environs justice, but we made time to visit the vast fish markets for an unforgettable glimpse of slippery tentacles, silvery scales, gaping mouths and spiny shells, stretching as far as the eye could see.
Overall, the trip wasn’t exactly luxurious. Accommodation was in a combination of mid-range hotels and traditional hanoks (guesthouses) with bedding spread out on the floor. Travel was by minibus, trains and public bus through the peninsula’s mixed landscape of idyllic wooded hills, paddy fields and rural villages juxtaposed with the occasional urban high-rise sprawl. But the slight feeling of roughing it, while also being well looked-after, made the tour feel satisfyingly closer to the real Korea.
Our guide was Daniel Gray, a food-loving American, who had been adopted from a Korean family at the age of six. Returning to find his biological parents and to discover more about his roots in 2005, he had become a food blogger, restaurant owner and tour guide. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable and helpful, he proved to be a mine of information. Our group of 12 (mostly Australians plus two Britons, an American and an Egyptian) introduced ourselves over a Korean barbecue at a small city cafe in Seoul, gathered around charcoal-fuelled grills built into circular tables.
Picking a succulent piece of beef off the grill, Daniel demonstrated how to make ssam by wrapping the meat in a single, crispy lettuce leaf with a smear of spicy ssamjang paste, a strip of cucumber and an optional garlic clove, eaten as finger food. Then he handed around freshly fried and sugary, cinnamon-flavoured kkwabaegi (a kind of long, twisted doughnut) bought from one of Seoul’s busy evening markets, before suggesting a plate of chimaek, Korean fried chicken, a city speciality and served as spicy as required.
While I was still reeling from this mouth-watering overload, Daniel cheerily announced plans for an early breakfast. Digestive stamina was going to be an essential requirement. Korean cuisine is built around the key staples of white, sticky rice (bap), fermented vegetable, usually cabbage (kimchi) and a stock-based, broth-like soup (guk).
These elements appear at every meal, accompanied by small, tapas-style side-dishes (banchan), which are many and varied. The rice-based dish bibimbap (literally “mixed rice”) is also a staple and one of the country’s favourite dishes, with colours that even have a philosophical significance. One of the tour highlights was a lunch in Jeonju, a town known as the home of bibimbap.
Alongside bowls of rice topped with vegetables (cucumber, mushrooms, courgette, spinach) and egg, came side dishes of mung bean jelly with turmeric, shredded radish kimchi, sweet potato drenched in starch syrup made from boiling pumpkin, pungent jeotgal (fermented fish), mumallaengi (dried, white radish), turnip with chilli, a seaweed salad with cucumber and watercress.
While lunches were undeniably eye-popping, it was Daniel’s breakfast forays that really felt far from the tourist track. Hidden canteens in market back-alleys, which looked scruffy and unpromising on the outside, turned out to be spotless and welcoming within. Sitting alongside the wiry market traders and all-night local carousers, slurping haejang-guk (“hangover soup”, a nourishing broth with a spicy kick), required more chutzpah and know-how than independent travel allows. As did ordering fried silk worm larvae in a nondescript, family-run restaurant, on a roadside in the middle of nowhere. These dishes were delicious, and I would never have tasted them without Daniel’s guidance.
In the gaps between eating, there was time for hands-on cookery sessions. A shady courtyard in the peaceful heart of Jeonju was the location for a kimchi-making lesson. An elegant Korean lady demonstrated the transformation of chopped onion, leek, shrimp sauce, garlic, chilli powder, red pepper and ginger into thick, gooey paste through determined pounding and stirring in a vast, stone mortar, centuries-old and as almost as large as the chef. Once it was mixed, she showed the group how to smear the pungent red concoction thickly on to the leaves of a salted cabbage head, back and front, to create the nation’s ubiquitous dish.
I found it a relief from over-indulgence, but for the most dedicated gourmands in the group, the 24-hour stay in the Bulguksa monastery near Gyeongju was the least enjoyable aspect of the itinerary. Allocated monastic clothing of unisex baggy linen trousers and loose waistcoats, and accommodated in austere rooms, we followed a timetabled regime of yoga and meditation, with a martial arts demonstration and a 4am wake-up call for Buddhist chanting and prayer. Men and women were segregated for the simple vegan meals, which were eaten in silence and washed down with plain water.
Before leaving, we were granted a hushed audience with the monastery’s Grandmaster, an hour of sitting cross-legged while sipping a cleansing brew of delicately flavoured tea. At the end, the elderly monk turned to give the group some parting wisdom. “My final advice to you,” he urged, “is to turn away from greed”. Nodding solemnly, we finished our tea then headed off to Korea’s top seafood city, Busan, for a slap-up clam bake.
Intrepid (intrepid travel.com) eight-day Real Food Adventure to South Korea costs from Dh8,800 per person, including accommodation, activities, ground transport, selected meals and the services of a local guide. Among the included activities are a kimchi cooking class in Jeonju, a martial arts demo at a monastery and a craft brewery tour in Busan.
Soo Kim, South Korea expert shares Korean dining dos and don’ts
1. When eating in the traditional way with floor seating, take off your shoes at the door.
2. Wait until the oldest diner picks up their chopsticks before starting to eat.
3. Don’t pour your own drinks, wait to be served by your fellow diners.
4. Blowing your nose at the table is considered disrespectful.
5. Don’t use your fingers unless you are eating ssam.
6. Don’t let your chopsticks or spoon stick out of your rice bowl, this is taboo as it’s only done for food offered to deceased relatives.
7. It’s polite to use both hands when you are pouring or receiving a drink.
8. Tipping in restaurants is not expected.
9. Don’t worry about not finishing your food, you are not expected to eat everything.
Decoding a Korean menu
Korean dishes are many and varied but these are some of the most ubiquitous:
Kimchi – side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, usually cabbage
Bap – plain rice
Bibimbap – literally “mixed rice”, served with meat, vegetables and eggs
Guk – general word for soup, often a watery stock
Haejang-guk – literally “hangover soup”, a hearty, bone-based broth, served for breakfast
Banchan – small, tapas-style dishes of food served alongside rice
Chimaek – slang for fried chicken (chi) served with beer (maek)
Gochujang – red chilli paste that is used to spice up soups, stews and rice
Bulgogi – literally “fire meat”, marinated beef cooked on a barbecue
Ssam – meat wrapped in a leafy vegetable, usually lettuce.
The Telegraph Group London Ltd 2018