South Korea is Asia's new star food destination
You'll find excellent food to suit every budget on a culinary tour of South Korea, writes Sophie Butler
Spicy pork, 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 silkworm larvae. I was sitting in a small, rural restaurant in South Korea and I'd never had such a spectacular lunch.
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.
For me, this points to the roots of Korean cooking - the countless food outlets: street stalls, cafés, beer houses and small-town restaurants, which offer excellent food for every budget.
I wasn't that confident of exploring it unaided. Outside Seoul, language and cultural differences make it tricky to 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 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.
In Busan, Korea's second-largest city, 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.
Our guide was Daniel Gray, a food-loving American, who had been adopted from a Korean family at the age of six who had become a food blogger, restaurant owner and tour guide.
Our group of 12 introduced ourselves over a Korean barbecue at a small city café in Seoul, gathered around charcoal-fuelled grills built into circular tables.
Picking a succulent piece of beef and one of pork 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 and washed down with a shot of soju (the Korean answer to vodka, traditionally made from rice, wheat or barley).
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, alongside cold, local beer.
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).
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. This came with moju, a herbal rice beer, flavoured with cinnamon.
Hidden canteens in market back-alleys, which looked scruffy and unpromising on the outside, turned out to be spotless and welcoming within
Daniel's breakfast forays 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 silkworm larvae in a 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.
• Intrepid's (intrepidtravel.com) eight-day Real Food Adventure to South Korea costs from £1,715 per person.
DECODING THE 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 or pork cooked on a barbecue.
- SSAM: Meat wrapped in a leafy vegetable, usually lettuce.
– The Sunday Telegraph