Just hours after arriving we ran out to a street so clogged with shop fronts that they’re stacked one atop another, each marked with a brightly lighted sign. Here, my brother-in-law Gregory whispered the three favorite words I’d hear in my whole time in Seoul: “It’s all food.”
My wife, Elisabeth, and I spent a week in South Korea’s capital, where Gregory and his girlfriend, SaeEun, live. Those three were excited about royal palaces and art. I had other thoughts. Korean food is having its international moment, particularly in the United States, so I planned as many meals as I could at the cuisine’s source.
My appreciation for Korean food didn’t start in this country or the United States. It began years ago in a family-run restaurant on the tiny Rue Letellier in Paris.
There, I tried what’s become one of my favorite dishes, a classic bibimbap, with vegetables arranged in neat stacks around bits of beef crowned with an egg yolk. It arrived in a blistering-hot stone bowl that gave the rice underneath it a crisp, sticky-crunchy coating that crackled in my mouth. I loved the firm snap of the head of the bean sprout (of all things!), the crunch of the vegetables, the deep beef flavor, and the slippery yolk.
That first Korean meal in Paris was a lot for my Western-born self to take in. The food arrived all at once, surrounded by a scattering of side dishes known as banchan. I liked the primacy of texture, the way you could mix and match elements of the dish and the juxtaposition of hot and cold, but I was hooked in a bite.
In Seoul, it only got better. For our first full meal, Gregory took Elisabeth and me to a rustic spot in the tourist-friendly Insadong neighborhood. Elisabeth ordered jeon — a.k.a. pajeon, what we’d call a Korean pancake — that arrived sizzling on an iron platter. It was super crisp on the outside, light and laced with green onion within, and surrounded by banchan, which can be anything from the spicy, fermented vegetables (usually cabbage) called kimchi to cold bean sprouts with sesame oil or even tiny dried anchovies coated in chili pepper paste.
I ordered kimchigae, kimchi stew, which I expected to be a whopping set of weird fermented flavors. Instead it was bold, with slices of tender pork inside, providing contrasting crunchy and melting textures and meaty flavor.
“Western style means each course has a job. For example, an appetizer opens your palate for the meal to come. Here, everything arrives at once and you can try different combinations to create that pacing for yourself,” said MinGoo Choi, who cooked in the United States at such restaurants as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and The Willows Inn on Washington State’s Lummi Island. He returned to Seoul, where he works at Moon-teok Om-neun Pap-chip, which he translates as the No Threshold Restaurant. “In the United States, your mother sauces are ketchup, mayo, and mustard. Here, it’s red pepper paste, soybean paste, and a bitter soy sauce.” In other words, fly across the Pacific and the palate gets a welcome blast of heat and funk.
At the table in No Threshold, MinGoo introduced us to a dish called hwangtae, a pollack fillet that’s been dried and rehydrated 10 times — a winter-long process to concentrate flavor — before being cooked with rice syrup, red pepper paste, soy, and a fermented apricot extract to yield something sweet, pungent, and intensely flavorful. It was unlike any fish dish I had ever tasted.
We also tried ssambap, a crock of slow-cooked pork belly topped with raw onions over rice. To eat it, we scooped the pork onto a spade-shaped gaenip leaf, and added a dollop of bean paste before folding the leaf edges over to create a bite-sized envelope to pop in our mouths.
After dinner, we wandered the streets and it was striking to learn about the use of public space. In this densely packed city of more than 10 million, one of the largest urban areas in the world, tiny, spare apartments are places for sleeping, not hosting.
Socializing and just about everything else is done outside the home. PC and DVD rooms provide spaces for teens to hang out in a semiprivate setting. The hotel we were staying in turned out to be a “love hotel” with rooms available for both traditional and, um, shorter stays. There isn’t much of a stigma to them; people just need places to be alone.
The place where life comes together most notably is in bars and restaurants. When the three of us grabbed SaeEun for dinner, she suggested barbecue. Later, I learned that if you can’t bond over barbecue, it’s not going to happen.
We headed back near Ujeongguk-ro (the “it’s all food” neighborhood) and entered the fray at a restaurant distinguished by what looked like elephant trunks dangling from the ceiling — adjustable-height ventilation pipes meant to suck the smoke from the hibachi-like grill built into each table.
We donned aprons provided to keep clients spatter-free and SaeEun let Gregory do the grilling for five minutes before she grabbed the tongs, moving the cooked pieces to the edge and adding new ones to the hot center.
“We choose this kind of place because it’s cheap and easy, and you can build your relationships,” SaeEun said, and around the restaurant, there was infectious laughing, ribbing, and drinking from tables of friends, people on dates, and co-workers.
At the end of the meal, we spritzed ourselves with a bottle of the Korean version of Feb-reze, kept by the door to help clients smell a little less like they’ve spent the night in a smoker with a pig, and headed into the night. We popped into a basement bar for beer and a plate of dubu kimchi (sautéed kimchi wreathed by tofu squares), then walked along the Cheonggyecheon stream, which, after the Korean War, had been covered by concrete under a rapidly-industrializing city, before being restored in 2005.
We ended up on red plastic chairs above the stream’s banks at a place that is half convenience store, half pop-up kitchen, eating whelks and fire-tinged spicy scallions, and drinking pints of Cass beer. We had gone from observing the city to merging into its flow.
A few days later, Elisabeth and I met MinGoo again for our last lunch in the city at the curiously-named Cafe Slobbie for home-style Korean.
“Everyone here wants good food, but people now live alone longer and they don’t know how to cook,” said MinGoo, explaining part of the restaurant’s popularity. We slurped cold buckwheat noodles, tempering their spicy sauce with nibbles of lotus root in a sweet syrup before tucking into dub-bob, which MinGoo described as “rice covered with something.” In this case, “something” was three kinds of earthy mushrooms, sesame, and bits of dried seaweed.
We talked about the quality of Korean restaurants (relatively high) and their evolution (slow and steady). I cautiously looped back to something that had been eating at me: why someone with MinGoo’s skill and experience is working at a mom-and-pop place that he calls “an ecological restaurant for everyone” instead of running his own spot or even returning to the States to cash in on the Korean food craze.
“I cooked at the Culinary Institute of America, NYC, Berkeley, San Francisco, Seattle, and Lummi Island. They were beautiful and excellent places, but they were not my place. In Korea, I found my dream place,” he said talking about both the country and his restaurant, “and we are building it together.”