It may have been the ads that ran in the New York Times featuring well known Korean personalities along with a headline calling out the name of a traditional Korean dish. Or it could have been when Psy’s addictive song Gangnam Style alerted me to the popularity of K-pop and the district the song refers to on the southern side of Seoul. Or realizing that a capital “K” preceding anything means something Korean worth having a look at. While all that was happening, Seoul food (Korean cuisine) in America went from mostly obscure to joining other popular culinary favorites from faraway lands.
Not too long ago you had to go to a Koreatown in a major metropolitan area to get some good Kimchi or traditional Seoul food. Now you need only visit your local supermarket. And going for a quick “Bibimbap” is no more exotic now than having Sushi. But tasting the delights of a foreign culture on a night out, while delicious, won’t teach you much about how it came to be so delicious. For that you have to go to the source. So off we went to Seoul in search of the best cuisine the country has to offer.
“Seoul food in America went from mostly obscure to joining other popular culinary favorites from faraway lands.”
Geography and Korea’s political events have shaped the national cuisine. Waves of foreign occupation caused tremendous hardship and made South Korea a resilient, determined and hardworking nation. The peninsula is made up of more than 70% mountainous terrain, which did not allow much of a farming tradition to develop, making the choice of ingredients in Korean cooking rather limited. But what was lacking in resources Koreans made up for with technique. Fermentation is the core of Korean cuisine, and so ingrained is it in the Seoul food culture that for many Korean families the passing of the year is marked by harvest, preparation, and preservation of the household food store.
Kimchi preparation is such an important part of the culture that funding for it is enshrined in an employees benefit package. It is customary for companies to pay a yearly “Kimchi bonus” so workers can afford the additional cost of supplies, cabbage, radish, etc., once a year. And with each kitchen becoming a de facto mini Kimchi factory once a year, the standard array of kitchen appliances is also somewhat different from what Americans are accustomed. Some years back an array of large terracotta pots lined up in the garden would have been standard equipment. But now they have been replaced by an indoors “Kimchi fridge”. For young couples in Korea, no wedding registry would be complete without one.
To get a taste of this national fermentation obsession, there is no better place to look than in one of Korea’s major metropolitan areas, like Seoul, where the population has been drawn in from all parts of the country, even from North Korea which is only a short distance away. There is great food democracy in the inner city as people from all parts seek out dishes familiar to where they grew up. Between daytime and evening markets, small family-owned restaurants, regional chains, and Michelin-starred restaurants, the variety is dizzying! Narrowing the choices down to just four is a pretty absurd proposition, but take this brief entree into Seoul’s cuisine as a gateway to get you started on your own Seoul food journey through Korea’s capital city.
1 Seoil Farm
Accompanied by our guide, “Sunny”, we travel two hours south of Seoul to the Gyeonggi-do province. Gyeonggi-do province is a bit wide of our “Eat Seoul” scope but I wanted to start with a farm experience, and for that you have to escape the city for a few hours.
Slow-food farm and restaurant, Seoil Farm, still operates in a traditional Korean way. It sprawls over 90,000 square meters of rolling hills and encompasses parks, farmland, pine tree groves, and ponds. In the center of it all a restaurant lets, you sample the farm’s bounty. Every day at lunchtime the farm staff gathers to eat, sitting Korean style in the mess hall adjacent to the guest dining hall. I loved the women’s uniform of flowered cotton pants, quilted flowered jackets, white bandanna, white aprons, and white wellies. I would have liked to find a similar uniform for myself during the trip but we didn’t have time to explore the local markets — it’s on my list for next time.
Entering the restaurant we are greeted with broad smiles and abundant hospitality. We are ushered to our table where we sit Korean-style on square cushions. Several little plates and dishes arrive on our table. This kind of multi-dish service is known as “Bachan”-style dining, a term referring to all the side dishes, characteristic of much of Korean cuisine. Everything served is produced on site. Walking around the farm before sitting down to lunch was helpful in identifying some of the dishes, most of which looked and tasted completely new to me. The flavors were just amazing!
Although there seems to be a great abundance on the table, each dish is quite small so you can eat it all and not feel overly full. And with many of the foods being preserved with fermentation, probiotics make up a large proportion of your meal, adding to its digestibility. Finishing up we are satisfied but not stuffed. Which makes me think that you just don’t see many overweight people in Korea — only about 4% of the population is overweight (compared with 70% in the US).
After lunch, we tour the farm’s main attraction, their 2,000 ancient terracotta jars arranged in large fermentation fields next to the restaurant. The jars house soya sauce and miso paste, some of which we just sampled. A treat for all the senses.
Seoil Farm is also a popular stop for K-drama tours as several TV series have been shot here on location. Especially in spring and summer, you will have the added bonus of sharing your meal with groups of dedicated K-drama fans.
Seoil Farm is an amazing place to get oriented not only to traditional Seoul food but to how its main ingredients are grown, produced and prepared. It’s been a great first stop for our Seoul food tour.
In the heart of Seoul’s fashionable Gangnam neighborhood, we visit one of the pioneers of modern Korean cuisine, Mingoo Kang. Chef Kang trained under three-star Michelin chef Martin Berasategui at his restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. He followed that up with stints at Nobu in Miami and the Bahamas that seem to have had played an important role in enabling Kang’s unique adaptation of Korean cuisine into a new regional fine dining style all his own.
As its name suggests, “Mingles” draws on Kang’s eclectic influences — Japanese, Spanish and French styles of cooking viewed through a lens of Seoul food traditions. Through study and experimentation, the chefs at Mingles have found treasure in expanding Korean cuisine’s repertoire, applying techniques found abroad to local and traditional foods passed down through palace and peasant kitchens over hundreds of years.
Mingles’ seven-course tasting menu changes every few weeks, but guests can expect traditional Korean fermented soy sauces and vinegar to play an integral part in the meal. Think charred beef tenderloin with truffle ‘Jang’ sauce or soybean paste-marinated lamb, grilled over charcoal and covered in vegetable powder. With each dish there is a distinct familiarity, but in the tasting, it is all Korean.
The atmosphere at Mingles is relaxed and the staff could not be more friendly and courteous. A great feature is the large glass window into the kitchen where you can observe chef Kang and his team hard at work on today’s service as well as experiments for future meals. It’s a great place to get insight into the cutting edge of Seoul food culture.
3 Woo Lae Oak
A dish we were told several times that we must try was “Naengmyeon”, a cold buckwheat noodle soup that originated in North Korea and made its way south with refugees fleeing during the Korean War. Naengmyeon is very nutritious because buckwheat is high in protein. It has existed under the radar for ages as a fast food of sorts, healthy and affordable for everybody.
One chef explained to me that with the concept of farm-to-table taking hold in South Korea many chefs have given Naengmyeon a closer look, bringing it out of obscurity and into upscale dining. It also fits in nicely with the current trend of chefs pursuing low-waste strategies in their menu planning. Some refer to this as nose to tail cooking. In this case, noodle to the broth. The water in which buckwheat noodles are cooked becomes a nutritious broth perfect for various soups and stocks, or to drink alone as a buckwheat tea.
To give Naengmyeon a try we went to famed restaurant, Woo Lae Oak, which has been serving Naengmyeon noodles in icy cold broth since 1946. Woo Lae Oak has a distinctly upscale atmosphere and is quite pricey for what’s normally an inexpensive dish. But with their stellar reputation and relentless attention to detail in traditional preparation and flavor, this is the perfect place to sample true Naengmyeon the same way Koreans have for hundreds of years.
Jaine, our knowledgeable guide from O’ngo food in Seoul, introduces us to Mr. Kim Ji-Eok, who is as much an institution as Woo Lae Oak itself. Having run the front of the house for forty years, he is an amazing source of stories and insight. He knows most of the patrons and many have been regulars since they were children. Now they come and dine with their own children!
He beckons us to follow. Through a small door and down a narrow staircase we make our way to the basement kitchen, which is buzzing with activity. Woo Lae Oak takes farm-to-table cooking to a different level, in the sense that wasting anything would seem like an anathema to them — not because it has now become fashionable in the West, but because being wasteful in Korea is not part of the national ethos. With almost zero waste, using all parts of the meat and vegetables, a relatively small crew turns out dishes at lightning speed, everything made fresh from scratch.
At the core of the kitchen sits a hydraulic press that takes a log of buckwheat paste and presses it into noodles which fall directly into a boiling broth. It used to be a manual press but Mr. Kim tells us the hydraulic power greatly sped up the process. With a few swift swishing movements, the noodle cook moves the noodles through a series of baths. Dropping them into boiling hot water first, stirring them once in a circular motion then placing them in ice-cold water with another circular motion. Next, the noodles are portioned into waiting bowls of broth where beef and vegetables are added and, voila! The Naengmyeon is ready.
If you are fond of buckwheat you should also try the “Soonmyeon,” which has a higher percentage of buckwheat. And if the buckwheat noodle soup is not substantial enough for you, try their Bulgogi, cooked on a copper grill, with a house seasoning some describe as “strong”. The diverse menu also includes Yukgaejang (hot spicy meat stew) and Galbi (grilled short ribs). Koreans often finish a meal of grilled meat with a course of Naengmyeon, so save room for the signature dish if you’re ordering one of the meat dishes.
Interestingly, chefs, we met after our visit, even young Korean chefs in New York, speak of Woo Lae Oak in wide-eyed reverence. It is one of the original sources of traditional Korean cooking that today’s chefs draw on for inspiration. Everyone who is anyone in the Seoul food scene eats there. In the summer at lunchtime, long lines stretch around the block. It is certainly a key stop in Seoul to get in touch with food influences coming from the north.
The following day we headed over to Sinsa-dong, a section of the popular Gangnam district in Seoul. Shifting our focus from ultra-traditional to modern, we have arranged to have lunch at the restaurant of Chef Yim Jungsik. A pioneer of “New Korean” Cuisine, Chef Jungsik set up shop here in 2009. Maybe “Shop” is the wrong word. The restaurant Jungsik is more like a temple to modern food and design, stretching over several levels with two main dining rooms and further accommodation for private dining.
Well-heeled Koreans and overseas visitors flock to taste Chef Jungsik’s vision of New Seoul food. Graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Manhattan, Jungsik later honed his skills with positions in both New York and Spain. He is renowned for his talent for deconstructing traditional Korean dishes, ingredients, and techniques and reconstructing them in totally new and surprising ways. With a five-course lunch menu and a nine-course dinner menu, Jungsik plays with flavors like a painter plays with color on canvas.
Currently, with two Michelin stars, Jungsik also maintains a kitchen in Tribeca, New York, where he has been since 2011. If the long flight to Seoul is not convenient at the moment, head to lower Manhattan instead. It is not exactly the same as a visit to Seoul but a pretty good option if you are US-bound.
Many thanks to the great team at O’ngo food tours who helped us to navigate our way through Seoul’s food scene. We highly recommend them should you need a food guide while visiting Seoul. Getting around in Seoul is easy, however, a local guide offers better access to the local scene. O’ngo food offers several food-oriented walking tours which are a great way to learn about and experience Seoul food. They can also take you farther afield. We also worked with them to organize a short trip south of Seoul to Jeonju, notable as the birthplace of classic Korean dish Bimbimbap. For more details go to: www.ongofood.com
1 Seoil Farm is two hours drive south of Seoul. We recommend getting a guide and a driver for the day to take you there. Good Day tours in New York can make the arrangements for you. For details and directions, go to: www.gooddaytourusa.com
2 Mingles: Make reservations as soon as possible, It is sometimes difficult to get a reservation last minute. For details and directions, go to: www.restaurant-mingles.com
3 Woo Lae Oak is located right in the center of Seoul it is easy to reach, some of the staff speak English and will be able to assist you in navigating the menu. For directions and opening hours, go to: Woo Lae Oak
4 Jungsik: Reserve a table as soon as you confirm your trip. For details and directions, go to:
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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