Let's Travel through Space and Time - Seoul Edition

I've not lived in Seoul for about 2 years now, but I recall my time living there with great fondness.  I'm happy to share my beauty "cuckoo for coco puffs" with you, so today, I will share another part of something, some place, I am very fond of.  For you, MOOS.

So let's do it.  Let's travel back in time and to the other side of the globe.

Seoul is a modern behemoth.  I've traveled in Asia to other large cities, but Seoul truly impresses me with the glossy veneer of modernization that is completely interwoven with the ancient.  Perhaps you only know of Korea from that unavoidable song Gangnam Style.  While that crazy shiny life is definitely there, I was drawn to the aspects of Seoul life north of the Han River.  As development and commerce grew out of the original city center of Jongno-Gu, it spread south of the Han River.  But regardless of where you are, you can glimpse crazy skyscrapers built overnight (like I've seen this happen in months) adjacent to ancient palaces.
Jongno-Gu, Seoul
For this post, I will put a page break because it will be very picture heavy.  Click on, me matey!

Speaking of the ancient, Seoul has several palaces, but my favorite has to be Changdukgung.  In the spring, this has some of the most picturesque sightseeing.  Tours are conducted in several languages, including English.

The other palace, which is short walk away from Changdukgung is Gyeuongbokgung.

Here is Gyeongbokgung and the palace guards.

"I see you over there."
But come on, get real.  You come here to see me indulge.  Normally I am indulging in makeup, but a lot of other times, I am indulging in food.

Get on with it, eh?  It's very funny that in growing up in NYC, I developed a very myopic view of Korean food.  New York City and its surrounding areas have a large Korean population.  While not as large as Los Angeles, I would probably be the one to vocally declare that New York City has the best Korean food in the world.  Even more than Korea itself, you ask?  I would say YES, and be really really really embarrassingly wrong.

I've learned the error of my ways!  And so sad to not be eating the most delectable Korean food again!  Woe, Belly.  WOE!

Food is everywhere.  And like many other cities of the world, the street food is all over the place and really good.  You can find little street stands that sell tteokbokki (rice cakes stewing in a spicy red pepper paste sauce) all over the place, but when you are wandering the streets very late at night, be on the look out for these outdoor stands.  While I can not personally avow for the sanitation aspects of these stands, most of these places (normally enclosed, with a small seating area of plastic stools and tables) have some delicious inexpensive foods and cheap booze.  Most of these dishes run a few thousand won each in plentiful portion.

Spicy octopus bokkum (stir fry)

I think this was chicken gizzard with onions
This is also one of my favorite street stands, in Nakwon-dong.  She's roasting little potatoes on a grill which become brown and slightly crisp on the outside which she sprinkles with salt.  She also makes fresh cakes with sweet red bean paste inside.
 I love simple foods like these potatoes!
Nakwon-dong is immediately adjacent to tourist destination Insa-dong.  It is a very working-class area.  Nakwon-dong is famous for a few things:

  • Big musical instrument market
  • Basement traditional market immediately underneath it
  • A very gay area - many Koreans-only gay bars
  • Incredible tteok (rice cake) shops
Nakwon Music Instrument Market (blue sign); basement traditional market underneath; tteok shops on the lower right 

Underneath the instrument market is the traditional underground market.  We used to call it the "scary" market because we'd see all sorts of unusual things there (like a butchered pig's head at the butcher stall).  The produce was incomparably fresh and inexpensive (compared to the regular large supermarkets).  The market is underground and very dimly lit.  While the atmosphere is definitely lacking, the variety of goods to purchase there was mind boggling.  A bottle of Johnny Walker Blue?  Yep.  Imitation Oreo cookies?  Sure.  Cutlery and fans and shampoo?  Of course.  Fish monger, yep.  Among the stalls were several very inexpensive food stalls selling limited menus.  This one place only sold janchi gooksu (a wheat noodle in a anchovy broth), kimbap (Korean maki rolls) and ramen noodles.  I think these noodles were 3 or 4000 won.
Janchi Gooksu at the Nakwon Basement Market.
The only con about this particular stall operated by the sweetest granny, is fighting off the locals during lunch time to grab a limited stool at the table.

As I mentioned in nearby Insa-dong, and tucked into a little alleyway is a place called Toetmaru (link to review, map, more pictures here).  They take a take on the bibimbap that is so savory and delicious.  It's the doenjang (fermented soybean paste) bibimbap.  Served with barley rice and various greens.
 All mixed up, with chives, lettuce and green leaf lettuce.  *CRIIIIIES*  I miss Seoul so!
 Also in Seoul, be on the lookout for Korean Chinese restaurants.  This one was a regular joint I frequented with made handout noodles for the jjajangmyun.  I think this place was on Samil Daero (big road).
 A view of Namsan (excellent place for hiking) with Seoul tour perched above it.

For me, a trip to Korea must include a trip to Gwang Jang market.  It is a traditional market, which is an open market with dozens and dozens of individual stalls selling a variety of products.  And not just food.  This market is also famous for traditional Korean silk clothing.

These markets are a treasure, but many are dying out as larger western-type of supermarkets contributing to their decline.  At Gwangjang market, one specialty is nokdu-jun (or bindaeduk).
 Mung beans are soaked and ground up and fried into hearty and savory pancakes and served with a vinegary soy sauce.
 They are inexpensive and so filling!
All the foods shown above are dirt cheap.  Less than 10,000 won will fill your stomach to bursting, which is my preferred resting state, but of course there are many very upscale eating places as well as traditional foods that are really really expensive in the city.

Expensive does not always equate to delicious in my opinion.  For instance, I've never acquired an appreciation for royal court cuisine.  These restaurants serve the elaborate and labor intensive dishes that look really nice, but taste really blahhhhhh.

But for something with flavor up the wazoo, I am a fan of gae-jang.  Gae jang, which is raw crabs that have been pickled can be prepared in a soy sauce with all sorts of aromatic stuffs (yeah, I wouldn't attempt to make this at home, though my mom does) or in a spicy sauce.  A restaurant called Pro Soy Crab makes an incredible version.  It is expensive, 55,000won for a small serving, but well worth it for the flavor.  Here is a link to Korea Times article in English (here) with telephone number and directions.
source: Korea Times
While Pro Soy Crabs has a gleaming new restaurant, just down the road is the old original restaurant with the humble sit on the floor set up and most decidedly down-scale decor.  I've only eaten at the old restaurant.  Go, please, for the love of Belly, go and eat.

After you've stuffed yourself until you can not be stuffed no more, you can enjoy the animals.  Here's Tom's Cat Cafe, near Hong Ik (Hong Dae) University, for the price of admission, you can enjoy beverage and get to hang out with adorable cats!  (It seems like the cafe may have closed down, but here are some alternatives)

Don't like cat hair to go with your tea?  How about a bird cafe in Insa-dong where birds fly around while you drink traditional Korean teas?  Sorry I couldn't capture the birds in this picture.  It does make me wonder why bird droppings do not end up into the open tea cups.  Hmm.. or does it?
As you stumble from place to place with a full stomach, stumble upon Parisian bakeries  eat some more.  Take a walk from Insa-dong to Samcheong-dong, which is a chic walkable area full of beautiful little shops and cafes.
 Walk from Insa-dong gil to Samcheong-dong.
 But wherever you go, don't be afraid to get off the big main roads and into the alleyways.
 Where you can glimpse a little bit of the old Seoul.
 And maybe run into a Belly, when you travel back in time.
Ciao, friends.  Next time a good photo dump of my trip to Sokcho, a resort city on the eastern coast of Korea.  Or maybe not.  As you know, I am a rather undisciplined blogger.  Maybe next time makeup related as the post office notifies me that my red skwerl brush is here!

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