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A culinary city guide to Seoul

Classic Korean cooking is making a comeback in the capital as chefs and diners embrace local produce and generations-old recipes.

By Hahna Yoon
Published 1 May 2022, 06:06 BST
A truck selling drinks at Dongdaemun Design Plaza Youth Runway Market, a night market that runs from ...

A truck selling drinks at Dongdaemun Design Plaza Youth Runway Market, a night market that runs from April to October. 

Photograph by Ben Weller

Over the past decade or so, Korean cuisine has firmly been put on the map, thanks to the popularity of the country’s films and TV shows, K-pop music and — crucially — the many diaspora chefs serving up Korean classics from London to Los Angeles. If, in the past, visitors would come to Seoul not knowing what to expect from the cuisine, now they arrive with a checklist of things to try: ‘real’ Korean barbecue; the favourite restaurants of K-pop band BTS; the jjapaguri (instant noodles with steak) from Oscar-winning film Parasite… And yet, there’s so much more to the capital’s dining scene.

Food plays an essential role in how Koreans tend to socialise, and the country’s history — hundreds of years of isolation followed by Japanese rule and poverty in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953) — is reflected in its gastronomy. Not finishing a meal, for instance, is frowned upon, and dishes inspired by the US military, such as Korean fried chicken and budae-jjigae (‘army stew’), have become standards in the nation’s culinary repertoire. 

Although currently limited by pandemic restrictions, Seoul’s culinary scene is still going strong. The concept of sinto buri, meaning ‘body and soil cannot be separated’, is emerging as a theme among restaurateurs, meaning that many are now choosing to source local ingredients, rather than relying on imports as they might have done in the past. Well-reputed franchises, including Mumyeong Sikdang and Nature Kitchen, have interpreted the ethos to highlight seasonal and regional specialities, often collaborating with local farmers.

Seoul is split in two by the Han River, with Gangnam (literally meaning ‘south of the river’) full of skyscrapers and start-ups, while, to the north, downtown Seoul is dotted with traditional palaces and fortress walls, parts of which date back to the early Joseon Dynasty of the 14th century. In hip neighbourhoods such as Garosu-gil and Hannam-dong, bistros featuring family recipes stand shoulder to shoulder with US-style cheeseburger joints and natural-wine shops. 

Yet, for a country that’s relied on its ability to modernise at speed, one of the most prominent food trends to have emerged in the past few years has been the revitalisation of dishes that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s — among them kalguksu (knife-cut noodles), dwaeji-gukbap (pork and rice soup) and soondae (blood sausage). Young people are increasingly turning to nopo (decades-old restaurants) for authentic flavours and to find out how the dishes are made.

Barbecue, meanwhile, is one of South Korea’s best-known food traditions, and you’ll find no shortage of lively spots in which to try it. At barbecue restaurants you’ll find diners knocking back shots of local spirits as cuts of hanwoo (Korean beef) char over the flames. But there are lesser-known specialities worth seeking out, too: North Korean-style cold noodles, traditional spirits such as makgeolli and soju, and spicy stews, to name a few. So, of course, come with a culinary checklist  — but you may need to add to it along the way.

City skyline with the N Seoul Tower and Namsan Mountain in the distance.

Photograph by Getty Images

How to spend a day in Hannam-dong

At the foot of Namsan Mountain, this hillside neighbourhood offers a striking contrast of low-key residential homes and stately foreign embassies. Wander the narrow, winding streets and you’ll also find designer shops, art galleries and chic bistros at every turn.

Start early at Summer Lane, a colourful Australian spot serving the city’s best savoury brunch. There are hour-long queues by noon, but the 7.30am opening time is perfect for the jet-lagged, who can start the day with delicious eggs Benedict. Then navigate Hannam-dong’s alleyways uphill to Namsan Outdoor Botanical Garden, with its 269 plant species and 13 themed areas, which include a fruit-tree garden and another filled with azaleas. Afterwards, make your way to the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. Its permanent collection includes pieces from the 13th century, as well as modern works by artists including Kim Whanki and Anish Kapoor. 

For lunch, try Korean home-cooking at Parc, a charming restaurant featuring owner Pak Mogua’s family recipes. The menu is seasonal, but it always has a good selection of vegetarian options and great banchan (side dishes), which might include cucumber kimchi or dotorimuk (seasoned acorn jelly). Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Hannam-dong’s independent boutiques before heading to the Sounds Hannam complex to view a modern art exhibition at Gana Art Sounds or browse travel books and magazines at Still Books.

Dinner is down the street at Hannaembi, a cosy spot serving warming, Japanese-style hotpots with bone broth and hanwoo, as well as unlimited vegetables. End the night at Pussyfoot Saloon, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar inspired by 1920s America — order a ramos gin fizz and let yourself be transported.

People relaxing on the banks of Cheonggyecheon, a seven-mile-long stream and pedestrian walkway running through the centre of the city.

Photograph by Ben Weller

How to spend a day in Euljiro

Nicknamed ‘hip-jiro’, this warehouse district is known for its nightlife, but it’s also the place to discover artsy bars, vintage boutiques and retro cafes, all tucked between industrial stores, family-run shops and printing presses.

Start with a breakfast snack of hotteok (sweet, stuffed pancake) and bindaetteok (fried mung beans) at Gwangjang Market, one of the oldest in the city. After browsing the rest of the food stalls, head up to the second floor to peruse the lavish hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and the vintage boutiques.

A few blocks north west is Jongmyo, a Confucian shrine originally built in 1394. Although the structure has been rebuilt several times, the main hall is a fine example of traditional Korean architecture. After your visit, enjoy lunch at one of the decades-old Pyongyang naengmyun (cold buckwheat noodle) shops nearby. Woo Lae Oak’s noodles come with a topping of sliced pear, while Eulji Myeonok’s are served with chilli powder and spring onions, and Pyeongraeok offers a tasty side of dak-muchim (vinegary chicken salad).

After lunch, learn more about the city’s history at Sewoon Plaza. Built in 1968, the country’s first commercial and residential high-rise was repurposed as a tech-goods market and then partially demolished in the 1990s. Young entrepreneurs revived it in 2017 as a ‘maker city’, and its current iteration includes coffee shops such as Horangi Cafe, as well as Sewoon Electronics Museum, an ode to gadgets past. Bring your camera and join the many local photographers who come to capture the contrast of decades-old shops and more modern additions.

For dinner, feast on grilled pork belly and kimchi-jjigae (kimchi stew) at Eunjujeong, a noisy hole-in-the-wall known for its spicy soup. Afterwards, head to Nogari Alley, named after a dried fish often eaten with drinks. The street has many bars serving Korean lagers, so make yourself comfy on one of the plastic seats and say cheers over Alaskan pollock or Korean fried chicken. Round off the night at Seendosi, an artsy dive bar adorned with neon signs, or After Jerk Off, an atmospheric wine bar.

Seoul Mule, a Korean take on the Moscow mule containing soju, cucumber and ginger beer.

Photograph by Stock Food

The lowdown on Seoul's drinks scene

Although the history of Korean sool (alcoholic drinks) dates back thousands of years, these beverages are enjoying something of a resurgence. Under Japanese rule, only licensed breweries were allowed to produce alcohol and recipes went from family affairs to homogenised, commercial products. Homebrewing was legalised again in 1995 and people slowly became more interested in chemical-free, regional varieties of sool — giving birth to a new type of Korean bar. 

Today, a night of sool typically involves soju (distilled rice wine) or makgeolli (fermented rice wine) paired with traditional dishes. For a crash course on the subject, visit The Sool Gallery in Gangnam, where you can be led in a tasting by a Korean sommelier. The experience offers the chance to better understand the ingredients and taste samples of the main varieties. 

For a more upscale affair, try Mr Ahn’s Craft Makgeolli in Gyeongnidan, where carefully curated rice wines are paired with a seasonal menu of contemporary Korean dishes. Alternatively, head across town to Mangwon-dong, where Bokdeokbang is a homely bistro operated by a mother and son. The former crafts each dish in the kitchen, while the latter comes to each table to recommend drinks to match your palate. Menus at both establishments are subject to change, but look out for Boksoondoga, a brand of sparkling rice wine sometimes compared to champagne, or Haechang 6%, which has the perfect balance of dry and sweet.

Sticky Korean fried chicken.

Photograph by Stock Food

Where to get the best Korean fried chicken


Ddobagi Chicken 
Just the place for second dinners, this low-key chimaek — chicken and maekju (beer) — joint offers small plates of crispy bites to pair with ice-cold beers. There are several flavours, but don’t miss the bone-in, soy-glazed wings. Enjoy them within the no-frills interior, or order a box or two for a picnic at the nearby Han River. 27 Wausan-ro, Mapo-gu

Mirak Chicken 
Garlic chicken — fried chicken smothered in garlic sauce and served on sizzling cast-iron pans — is the speciality here, but long-time customers go for the thicker-cut, non-garlic version that’s been salted to perfection. Alternatively, opt for a side of ‘whole garlic topping’ (fried cloves of garlic) instead of going all in. 17-1 Jahamun-ro, Jongno-gu

Hanchu
This restaurant is known in Gangnam party circles as the place to begin the night; it has plenty of space for large groups and the ambience is always lively. The chicken served here is on the drier side, and it pairs beautifully with the stuffed fried peppers and tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes). 68 Nonhyeon-ro 175-gil, Gangnam-gu

Bibimbap is served as a bowl of warm white rice with vegetables.

Photograph by Getty Images

Where to get the best bibimbap


Mokmyeok Sanbang
Although bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables) is often overlooked due to its ubiquity, this hillside restaurant is a reminder that the dish, when done right, is simplicity at its finest. Each of the six bibimbaps arrives as a rainbow of plated vegetables and perfectly cooked rice. Every ingredient, right down to the sesame oil, is so thoughtfully prepared it’s hard to believe nothing costs more than 14,000 won (£9). 

A Flower Blossom on the Rice
The signature item here is the bojagi (traditional wrapping cloth) bibimbap. Packaged in a thin layer of egg, the dish, once opened, reveals a medley of vegetables and rice, with subtle flavours shining through. The restaurant’s owner, Song Jung-eun, has been outspoken about her ethos of using only locally sourced, organic ingredients. 

Toetmarujip Doenjang Yesul
Although located in tourist-centric Insadong, this place doesn’t pander to visitors. It’s popular with older gentlemen, who come for the doenjang bibimbap: a large bowl of barley rice, a side of rich doenjang (soybean paste) stew and fresh garlic chives, which the diner then mixes together. 5-26 Insadong 4-gil, Insa-dong, Jongno-gu

Korean milky rice wine called makgeolli.

Photograph by Getty Images

Top three coffee shops 


Namusairo
One of the first cafes in Seoul to serve speciality coffee when it opened in 2002, Namusairo moved to its current location — a renovated hanok (traditional house) in Sajik-dong — in 2013. The central courtyard is the ideal spot to sit and read on a sunny day. 

Manufact
Without a single tea or a sweet treat on the menu, Manufact is the place for coffee purists. Try hand-drip brews from Ethiopia and Tanzania, or the rich, signature Paul Gauguin blend. There are two locations, one in Yeonhui-dong and another in Bangbae. 

Fritz
A barista champion, a coffee connoisseur and a baker teamed up to open this quaint cafe in 2015. Visit the original Doha-dong location, order a madeleine with your latte and pick up a souvenir with the cafe’s logo — a blue seal holding an espresso cup. 

Essentials


Getting there 
Korean Air and Asiana Airlines fly from Heathrow to Seoul. Finnair, Lufthansa and Air France-KLM offer one-stop services.

Where to stay 
L’Escape Hotel has doubles from 200,000 won (£125), room only.

How to do it
Bamboo Travel’s 11-day Highlights of South Korea trip includes a stay in Seoul plus private tours, transfers, flights and B&B from £3,145 per person. 

More info 
visitseoul.net

Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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