Korean cuisine is world-famous – and with good reason. It's this wonderful food that keeps dragging our author Martin Zatko back to Korea. Here he rounds up some of his favourite eating spots from around the country.
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 draws people here are the superbly crafted vegetarian meals, all organic, all made on site. Dishes vary by the week, but regular favourites include 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. Prepare to leave full.
An enduring favourite, this 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.
This list wouldn't be complete without the inclusion of one of Korea’s zany, fascinating marketplaces. While Busan’s wonderful Jagalchi fish market shouldn't be missed, Seoul's Gwangjang still tops it. 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 you're in a refined mood then head for a place selling yukhoe (similar to steak tartare), but usually the best bet is to race straight to the very centre of the market for some bindaeddeok (fried mung-bean pancakes). Come with friends and you'll find the bottles of makgeolli (a sweet, creamy rice wine) soon start to add up.
Abai Maeul, a tiny island forming part of Sokcho city, is the top 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. Some things simply taste better than they sound. 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 men 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.
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. The original restaurant has since moved to trendy Gangnam – yes, that Gangnam – from its location between two ancient Joseon palaces, but the food’s as good as ever. While here 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.
If one Korean male tells another Korean male that he’s going for some eel, there’s likely to 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.
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, locals like to take their 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.
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 go for Jongno Hoegwan because of its location right next to Gyeonggijeon, a park-like shrine area where you can take a lovely stroll after your meal.
If you’ve ever had Japanese soba, you’re halfway to imagining Korean naengmyeon, a traditional North Korean dish made with cold buckwheat noodles. It's easy to become addicted to this dish, and new places to sample it pop up all the time. However, most people agree 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 – the paste tends to just have the edge.
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. The size of the local sea snails here is something else. Wrenching them from their shells and gulping them down in one bite is not an option here, the Udo catch are so large that they had to be chopped up with scissors. All this can be washed down with Jeju’s famous tangerine-flavoured rice wine and enjoyed with a view out over the Pacific.
Top image: Pixabay.