The wonderful food keeps dragging Martin Zatko back to Korea. Here are some of his favourite eating spots from around the country.
1) Buddhist temple food at Balwoo Gongyang, Seoul
It’s impossible to believe that Buddhist monks really eat this well – even at Jogyesa, Seoul’s most important temple, which sits just across the road from this highly attractive restaurant. While calling it “temple food” may be a bit of a stretch, what I come here for are superbly crafted vegetarian meals, all organic, all made on-site. Dishes vary by the week, but I usually keep my fingers crossed for bellflower salad, stuffed lotus, shiitake broth, and their hugely photogenic wafer-thin layers of tangerine. This may sound light, but the dishes just keep on arriving and I always leave full.
2) Naengmyeon at Woo Rae Oak, Seoul
If you’ve ever had Japanese soba, you’re halfway to imagining Korean naengmyeon, a traditional North Korean dish made with cold buckwheat noodles. I’m a real addict, as are most of my best friends in Seoul – all summer long we’ll be trying to trump each other’s naengmyeon restaurants with new discoveries. However, we’re all pretty much agreed that Woo Rae Oak is the best, taste-wise, while the décor and service are also second to none. You can have your noodles in a spicy paste, or an ice-cool soup – I always go for the paste. Slurp.
3) Mung-bean pancakes at Gwangjang market, Seoul
I wanted one of Korea’s zany, fascinating marketplaces in this list, and came very close to choosing Busan’s wonderful Jagalchi fish market. However, Gwangjang is still tops for me, not least because it’s also up there with my number one places to drink in Seoul. There are all sorts of weird and wonderful things available in these covered arcades; ordering is usually as simple as pointing at what you’d like. If I’m in a refined mood I head for a place selling yukhoe (similar to steak tartare), but usually I race straight to the very centre of the market for some bindaeddeok (fried mung-bean pancakes). If I’m there with friends, the bottles of makgeolli (a sweet, creamy rice wine) soon start to add up.
4) Royal banquets at Goongyeon, Seoul
When you visit a restaurant whose head chef has been designated a “National Cultural Treasure”, there’s a certain weight of expectation. This chef is the only person in the land trained to the sky-high standards of the kings of Joseon, who ruled Korea until 1910 – on this evidence, the royals must have eaten very well indeed. My heart sank a little when I heard that this restaurant had moved to trendy Gangnam – yes, that Gangnam – from its original location between two ancient Joseon palaces, but the food’s as good as ever. I always go for the gut-busting banquet option – after all, if you’re going to eat like a king, you may as well go the whole hog.
5) Noodle sausages at Abai Sundae, Sokcho
Abai Maeul, a tiny island forming part of Sokcho city, is my favourite place in Korea for sundae. The term has nothing to do with ice-cream here – it’s a sort of blood sausage in which steamed intestines are stuffed with glass noodles, kimchi, soybean paste and goodness knows what else. Look, some things simply taste better than they sound – just look at what goes into “regular” sausages. The Abai Sundae experience begins with a truly bizarre ferry trip to the island – primarily used by residents of the island it’s not so much a ferry as a floating metal platform, literally winched along by two chaps holding what look like giant tuning forks. The restaurant itself is a simple affair, and if the thought of intestines turns your stomach, you can have your sundae fillings stuffed into a whole squid instead.
6) Harbour food at Chungmu Gimbap, Tongyeong
Little Tongyeong boasts one of Korea’s most picturesque harbours – bobbing squid boats with an almost Neapolitan mountain backdrop. A clutch of nearby restaurants serves the town’s signature dish, one so popular that there’s a small chain devoted to it in faraway Seoul. This is chungmu gimbap, a dish served in three small heaps – spicy radish cubes, spicy squid, and small rice rolls wrapped in layered seaweed. Though the harbour makes a great place to eat, I like to take my meal up a nearby hill to the statue of Admiral Yi, a national hero whose statue gazes out over the island-studded seas he once dominated in battle.
7) Stamina-giving eel dishes at Eel Alley, Jinju
If one Korean male tells another Korean male that he’s going for some eel, there’s likely be a bit of nudging and winking going on. Koreans believe eel to be quite the thing for “stamina”, but aphrodisiacal qualities aside it’s a fine dish that deserves to be tried. The south-coast city of Jinju is renowned for its eel, best sampled at one of a small bank of restaurants abutting the ancient castle walls.
8) Bibimbap at Jongno Hoegwan, Jeonju
You can’t beat a good bibimbap. A rice dish topped with veggies, it is best in Jeonju, a pleasant city in the south-west, whose name is near-synonymous with the dish. Here the humble bibimbap is regarded more like an art than a culinary staple, with attention lavished upon every single ingredient, as well as those forming the armada of delectable banchan (side-dishes) served with it. Jeonju has a lot of restaurants serving Jeonju bibimbap, but I like this one because of its location right next to Gyeonggijeon, a park-like shrine area where you can take a lovely stroll after your meal.
9) Feasts of flowers and leaves at Gomanaru, Gongju
This is the most enduring of my favourites – I’ve been visiting Gomanaru regularly since my first visit to Korea, way back in 2002. The restaurant has been increasing in popularity with each passing year, thanks to a winning location by Gongju’s wonderful Baekje-dynasty castle, and to the gigantic ssambap banquets on offer. Your table – almost every inch of it – will be covered with traditional goodies like grilled fish, seared duck meat, soybean broth, tofu slices, soy-marinated black beans, spicy crab and fern bracken – usually around twenty separate side-dishes, plus a whole tree’s worth of leaves to eat them with. Prices are very low for the size and quality of the meal, and for a little more you can have your dishes covered with edible flowers.
10) Fist-sized sea snails at Haewa Dal Geurigo Seom, Udo
Jeju Island is a highly popular holiday destination for Koreans, but those in the know will also use their visit to head to staggeringly beautiful Udo, a small island off Jeju’s north-eastern corner. Just off Udo there’s Biyangdo, a tiny speck of land whose two remaining residents run a charming guesthouse. It’s pretty remote, but mercifully there’s one solitary eatery a short walk back across the Udo bridge: “The Sun, the Moon and the Island”, a deceptively simple-looking seafood restaurant. I happened to be visiting with a friend from Japan (are there any better judges of seafood?), and her eyes were almost out on stalks when she saw the size of the local sea snails – I’m used to wrenching these from their shells and gulping them down in one bite, but the Udo catch were so large that they had to be chopped up with scissors. And all this washed down with Jeju’s famous tangerine-flavoured rice wine and a view out over the Pacific.