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It was love that first hooked me on Korean cuisine--a music school romance with a flamboyant fellow pianist named Jin-Ho. We were besotted by each other's melancholic, wintry cultures. He played wistful Russian tunes and gulped vodka with a Slavic abandon; my mimicry of Seoul's guttural slang was impressive enough to get me free meals at local Korean restaurants, a talent I abused shamelessly.

That love ended. But I couldn't kick the food habit.

Whenever I returned from a Korean meal--my mouth ablaze with chiles and garlic--I'd feel high on the brazen juxtapositions of spicy, pungent and sweet; on the molten, rust-colored soups trailed by a parade of pickles; on the charred caramel scent of barbecued beef. And for years I'd fantasize about taking a trip to South Korea, intrigued as much by the food as by insiders' reports of a turbocharged street scene, an exotic indigenous culture and a population as style-obsessed as Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Finally last summer, I plotted a weeklong tour of the mountainous country with my friend John and our Korean pal Cody. We'd start with a shopping and eating binge in the capital, Seoul, tour the main historic attractions then take in the countryside, with its hilltop temples and fiercely provincial cuisine.

seoul searching

"Welcome to the Land of Morning Calm," a poster greets us at Seoul's international airport. Calm? Cross the high-tech glitter of Tokyo's Ginza with the third-world bustle of Mexico City and you might begin to get a picture of Seoul: a cacophonous sprawl of modernist high-rises festooned with Korean script, crowded avenues spawning mazelike alleys, and countless boutiques catering to Spice Girl wannabes. On our first day, we bob from district to district, indulging years of food cravings and consumer greed.

One minute we're devouring mandu--big floppy dumplings stuffed with minced tofu and scallions--in Apkuchongdong, a yuppie universe of neo-moderne lounges and shocking-pink cafés dedicated to the Hello Kitty cult. Next, we move on to crisp pancakes made from soaked ground mung beans, on the main drag of Itaewan. The neighborhood was once a playground for American GIs; now it's the world mecca for counterfeit labels. Between bites, I amass a collection of impeccable fakes--Versace sunglasses, Prada bags, Louis Vuitton wallets--all for the price of a pair of Reeboks back home.

We're about to collapse, exhausted from haggling, but Cody knows the cure for postshopping fatigue: samgaetang, a whole baby chicken stuffed with ginseng, sticky rice and red dates, bathed in a reviving broth. We find a transporting version of it at a tiny tiled joint in frenetic Myongdong, Seoul's answer to midtown Manhattan. After this lunchtime epiphany, we munch roast-squid-flavored popcorn amid the improbably ornate pavilions of the gigantic Kyongbok Palace complex. This grand royal residence was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1592, lay in ruins for almost three centuries then was rebuilt in 1865, only to suffer again during the Japanese annexation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Today the palace is partially restored as a museum and has been invaded again--by Japanese tourists. Cody hisses in their direction.

the slow road to the temple

"We're having several lunches today!" Cody's friend Sung Hee announces, puffing on her Omar Sharif Lights. Sung Hee, an art-world maven, and her husband, Dr. Han, the author of a treatise on the relationship between acupuncture and architecture, are whisking us out of town to the Pusoksa temple, three hours southeast of Seoul. 

 

A spiritual pilgrimage this isn't. For our food-crazy hosts in this food-focused country every bend and village on the unscenic road promises a treat. "How about bibimbop--that's rice mixed with all sorts of wonderful things," Sung Hee proposes brightly. "And who wants a spicy casserole of unpressed virginal tofu?" Who doesn't?

"Unlike the Chinese, Koreans don't really favor polite, multicourse meals," Dr. Han informs us. "Our restaurants usually specialize in something very particular."

Dr. Han's midmorning yearning for maguksu noodles causes us to pause at a gray roadside canteen, where rural families loudly slurp sobalike noodles from bowls of ruddy spiced broth. We're still digesting lunch number one when Dr. Han slams on the brakes in front of the Nam Gang restaurant in the drowsy town of Wonju. Inside awaits the archetypal provincial Korean establishment: a series of spartan rooms furnished with fans, linoleum floors, low tables and stacks of cushions that say "Sweet Home."

The house specialty, barbecued ox, is the object of Sung Hee's most fervent desire. The meat is extraordinary, grilled over live coals piled into a pit in our table. But we are distracted by the panchan, little side dishes that accompany every Korean meal. Panchan can be as elemental as a few bowls of kimchi, a national staple of vegetables fermented with salt and often mind-boggling doses of chile. Or, they can cover the entire table, transforming an earthy, one-dish repast into a thrill ride. Here at Nam Gang, mosaicked in front of us, are three kinds of marinated raw crab, delicate fish roe glistening with sesame oil, chile-laced oysters and buckwheat-shoot kimchi. Twenty-one dishes in all, each hotter than the last.

Our Korean friends still want their bibimbop and their virginal tofu. John votes for the Pusoksa temple. He wins. It's almost dark when we finally ascend to the graceful ensemble of wooden pagodas and prayer halls landscaped into a lush, terraced hillside. "Unlike the famous Haeinsa temple, this one isn't on most tourist itineraries, but it's a true architectural gem," explains Dr. Han. The air is sweet with honeysuckle and pine and vibrates with chanting and drumming. Fresh-faced monks scurry about in stunning gauzy gray gowns, looking like escapees from a Yohji Yamomoto couture show. How could we have thought of missing something so exquisite?

folklore and short ribs

Another road trip from Seoul--this time with our matronly friend Mrs. Park--takes us on a three-day itinerary southeast to the city of Kyongju, through a landscape of bucolic rice paddies, pine-covered hills and buzzing provincial towns. We start out at the Korean Folk Village, an hour from Seoul. It sounds like tourist-trap kitsch but actually delivers a refreshingly un-Disneyesque reconstruction of a 19th-century hamlet, complete with restagings of ceremonies and daily routines. In the past century, much of Korea's rural culture was destroyed by modernization and foreign occupation, so this is definitely an educational stop.

We spend the morning ambling from the fortune-teller's residence to the Confucian school, from the herbal drugstore to the sesame oil mill, soaking up details of the traditional lifestyle. A typical thatched-roof Korean house, we learn, was built around a courtyard, kept warm by an ingenious heating system under the floor and had walls lined with lovely mulberry paper to absorb humidity. Obsessed with pickling food for the winter, villagers reserved a platform outside for huge stoneware crocks used to ferment different types of kimchi: cabbage, radish, cucumber.

After raiding the village's food stalls for batter-fried vegetables and wild-boar kebabs, we watch a wedding ceremony marked by symbolic fruit and endless exchanges of rice wine. "Oh...the wedding night!" giggles Mrs. Park. "The villagers used to poke holes in the paper doors of the newlyweds' bedroom--and shamelessly peep!"

The historic walled town of Suwon, the day's final destination, was briefly the capital of Korea and had a crown prince who was buried in a rice crate (a foodie, obviously). As we stroll around, we are gawked at by teenage girls dressed with a hip London edge. "Sure, we dress better than you," Mrs. Park notes, "but to provincial Koreans, Westerners are still exotic."

We have better things to do in Suwon than be ogled: Pilgrims of the beef faith flock here for Korea's very best kalbi, or short ribs, which are butchered from special cows that graze in the lush surrounding countryside. The city's most famous dish is kalbi gui: barbecued ribbons of butterflied rib meat soaked in a fragrant dark sugary marinade that caramelizes on the grill.

"Good kalbi should be both chewy and melt in your mouth," explains the owner of Sambu Ja Kalbi, a four-story barbecue temple on the outskirts of town. His kalbi might be the cow's proudest moment, and we polish off several pounds, sizzling the meat at the table, dabbing it with fermented bean paste and folding it into cool lettuce leaves.

a royal banquet

The resplendent city of Kyongju, the country's historic cradle, is a feast of temples, palaces and royal tombs, which are scattered in and around the town. Many, including the not-to-be-missed Pulguksa temple, date from the Shilla Dynasty, which was at the height of its power around the 7th century A.D. Koreans revere Kyongju for the culture but tend to dismiss its cuisine as boring and bland. What's boring to them is an adventure to us.

At the city's electric food market, we wander past pyramids of scallions and sesame leaves, up dim alleys overflowing with ginseng and dried fish, through a sea of bell-shaped traditional gowns, to tubs holding a stunning selection of kimchi. We decline weird intestines in favor of handcut wheat noodles in clam broth. The day's sweetest discovery? Ho dduk--dough fritters filled with sugared brown-rice powder and pulverized peanuts.

Even if Kyongju were an industrial dump, it would still merit a visit for the incredible Yo Suk Kung restaurant. A maze of elegant private rooms arranged around a stylized pebbled courtyard, the place once belonged to a famous kisaeng, a geishalike entertainer. As we arrange ourselves on the floor around a black-lacquered table, our waitress lays out the essentials for hanjongsik, a banquet served on special occasions. Where to begin? Sparkling abalone sashimi and flank steak tartare with shredded pears and sesame oil give way to pillowy scallion pancakes, glazed short ribs, and steamed stingray served with a sweet-sour blanket of chile sauce. We're ready to rest our chopsticks when the waitress returns with a tray holding a meat-laden hot pot called shinsollo, and 20 panchan. There's whole-cabbage kimchi flecked with black mushrooms, pickled wild garlic shoots and sweet-potato sprouts. Candied anchovies, anise-scented beef jerky and sweet-salty balls of dried fish. We walk out into the balmy night, stunned and delirious.

"Look at you, eating like this!" Mrs. Park interrupts our daze. " You need a hiking trip. Korea has spectacular mountains." We smile and nod and plan our next meal.

Anya von Bremzen is the author, with John Welchman, of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook (1990) and Terrific Pacific Cookbook (1995) (both from Workman). 

 

Published April 2000
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