Chef Judy Joo shares Seoul's top dining experiences

The restaurateur, TV chef and author shares her love of Korean cuisine, and her tips on where to eat in the buzzy capital of Seoul.

By Judy Joo
Published 21 May 2020, 08:00 BST
Judy Joo is a London-based Korean-American restaurateur, TV host and cookbook author.

Judy Joo is a London-based Korean-American restaurateur, TV host and cookbook author.

Photograph by Judy Joo

When my Korean parents moved to New Jersey, where I was born, my mom had to make everything from scratch to get that taste of home they so desperately craved. Our porch was crowded with pots full of fermenting delicacies and there were hangers of drying seaweed in our garage. A small garden produced a bounty of perilla leaves, chillies and Korean squash. And, from time to time, large packages would arrive from Korea, stuffed full of culinary treasures. 

Preserved and fermented foods have a long history in Korea, and kimchi (fermented vegetables) is traditionally eaten with each meal. Korean food is also all about the sides; the table is laid corner to corner with small dishes, showcasing everything from vegetables to marinated meats and more. 

When it comes to street food, meanwhile, fried things on sticks are enduringly popular, as are savoury pancakes, the perfect after-work snack with a cold beer.

This is an edited extract from Korean Soul Food, published by White Lion Publishing (RRP: £22).

Korean cuisine has a rich and delicious heritage of fresh produce, fermented dishes and fried street food.
Photograph by Yuki Sugiura

Judy’s top three Seoul dining experiences

Gaeseong Mandu Koong 
Whenever I go back to Seoul, I find myself in one of Insadong’s many mandu (dumpling) restaurants. The large, plump, North Korean-style dumplings at Gaesong are handmade daily and stuffed with a variety of fillings, such as vegetables, meat and tofu.
What to order: Dumpling soup: savoury pillows floating in a light, flavoured broth.

Kalguksu Alley 
Located in the bustling Namdaemun Market, this little alley isn’t easy to find as its hidden behind see-through plastic sheets. Once you emerge through these ‘doors’, you’re aggressively greeted by ajoomas (middle-aged women) beckoning you to eat at their stall.
What to order: The ladies here are all hawking the same thing — hand-cut noodles in anchovy broth, topped with sliced spring onions and dried seaweed. On a cold winter’s day, it’s just the warming umami hit you need.

Balwoo Gongyang
Buddhism has a long history in Korea, and the food has always been an integral part of the country’s cuisine. The Michelin-starred fare at this Buddhist centre is vegan and free of alliums and strong-smelling vegetables (though chillies are allowed). I find the monastic experience a welcome respite from the busy city. 
What to order: The tasting menus change seasonally, but whatever you order will give you a taste of the very best ‘temple food’.

Judy's must-try dish
Bulgogi is thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, Asian pear juice and ginger. Cooked over a charcoal grill, it’s deliciously addictive.

Judy Joo is a London-based Korean-American restaurateur, TV host and cookbook author. 

Published in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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