Wrapping up in Seoul
Seoul is a very international city and it’s huge. The population is quite large, but it does not feel overly dense. There is everything you could expect in a major city including food from around the world some of it adapted uniquely for Korea. One dish recommended to me was black bean noodles. Turns out it’s a dish served at Chinese restaurants. It’s not Chinese, but the Chinese chefs in Korea came up with the dish and is now apart of the culture here. I’m told that kids here love it and what can I say – I do to. This is the first city I’ve been in Asia that you could actually find foreign shop owners. Turkish ice cream is quite popular as well as waffles; all kinds of waffles everywhere. There are of course all the classic dishes to get here and I recommend doing so, but I think seeing some of the mash-ups from other countries is worth a see.
Itaewan is definitely the most international part of the city and the U.S. Army base is nearby, a regular reminder of the war and the closeness of North Korea. Seoul is bustling though and among the myriad of restaurants representing all the nations of the world there are clubs and bars and they stay open late. I can’t give you an exact time and I don’t know what the law is, I just know I’ve watched the sun rise.
There is a definite obsession with newness here. It seems every new innovation here is rapidly accepted which leaves the streets with payphones everywhere that accept credit cards (I can’t say I’ve seen anyone use one.) Seriously though if you come here and have some broken-in jeans or a comfortable old hoody you’ll look like a homeless person. I know because after a few months of travel my clothes are not in the best shape and I stick out like a sore thumb; being taller didn’t help either. Everyone is clean and pressed – sneakers without scuffing or marks on them and if there is a tear in jeans it is manufactured that way and perfectly manicured.
I did try a lot of traditional food and managed to find a few places that I thought were great. First off the seafood market, Noryangjin Fisheries Market. There is all the fresh seafood you could want and you can buy it and take it to another storefront and have them prepare it for you. Do realize though that you’re buying the seafood from one person and then paying another person simply to prepare it for you and give you a place to sit with condiments, utensils, etc. Now although some of the preparation was a little rushed the quality of the seafood is great (reflecting in the price) and the “menu” is pretty large, but definitely give it a try.
Jonny Dumpling is a small spot with hand made dumplings. There are 6 options of dumplings and that’s it. I went there a couple times to try them all and they all were good. There’s usually a line, but the turnover here is fast so it’s not a long wait. Their menu is straight forward, but most non-specialty restaurants always have something extra to give you in the form of little dishes of pickles and the like, the only standard is kimchi, everything else varies per restaurant.
Dongdaemun Market is great, but most of what you’ll find is clothes, trinkets and the usual items at markets. If you’re looking for food Kwangjang Market is nearby and a great market to get street food at. There’s also a kimchi market in the mix as well.
Tosokchon is a famous classic in Korea. They serve chicken and ginseng soup, the same soup, but with a black chicken or a pancake. They’re large and busy. There seems to always be a line, I went at off-hours (3:30pm) and waited 45 minutes to get a seat. They layout of the space is lots of small rooms. So the dish is a smalle whole chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng and several other root and tree parts that are considered medicinal. The chicken is sitting in a piping hot bowl of broth. It was completely unseasoned and my natural inclination was to put salt and pepper in it since they actually had that on the table here. I was corrected by a neighboring couple who told me to put the salt and pepper in a small dish and then dip the pieces of chicken into it. Gracious for the instruction I then watched a Korean grandmother dump her salt in her bowl and point to me for justification when her family told her to stop. So I don’t think there are any real rules to break. It’s a simple dish and no matter who you are I think chicken soup of some kind gives you a sense of home.