I finally took the plunge. I finally lost my Asia virginity. No, it’s not what you’re probably thinking. I mean I finally took my soulless ginger self to the continent. Precisely, I ventured to Seoul, South Korea (because where else would an empty redhead go?). But enough of the senseless babble. Let’s get to my culinary journey because I ate my way through the peninsula country.
We’ll begin with the local cuisine. I had the whole caveat of Korean food: kimchi, mandoo, bulgogi, bibimbap, gimbap and a wide variety of street food. For those unfamiliar, here’s quick rundown of each food item:
Kimchi: is a traditional Korean side dish composed of fermented vegetables. Most commonly, it’s made up of cabbage and typically is spiced with red chili flakes, which gives it its color. Honestly, I’m not being a big fan of cabbage, I only moderately enjoyed this. But I can say it’s a nice change of flavor for a few bites here and there.
Mandoo: Mandoo is the Korean version of dumplings and comes in a number of varieties including vegetable, tofu, pork, chicken, lamb and shrimp. One of my favorite things during the entire trip was a fried version of pork mandoo I snagged from a street food vendor in Itaewon. Even after returning, I still find myself thinking about that crunchy, warm, meaty piece of goodness!
Bulgogi: If the mandoo is first, this is a close second. The word bulgogi literally means fire meat in Korean. Typically beef bulgogi is grilled and served over rice and vegetables in a warm bowl. The perfect comfort food for the cold February Korean days to fill the stomach and warm the soul (or the soulless if you’re ginger).
Bibimbap: Meaning mixed rice, bibimbap also finds itself in the soul food category. It’s served in a very hot bowl of warm white rice topped with namul and gochujang, soy sauce, or doenjang, a fermented soybean paste. A fried egg and some variety of meat are typical additions. Before you indulge, you stir the ingredients altogether and try your best not to burn your face off.
Gimbap: Think: Korean Sushi and you have a good idea of what gimbap is. Steamed white rice and vegetables or fish or meat are rolled inside dried seaweed. These are typically eaten as a small snack or lunch and can even be purchased in portable triangles from convenient stores.
In addition to those local delicacies, I had a wide array of street food ranging from savory to sweet, so of which I have know idea what it was, including jeon (Korean pancakes), a fish-shaped pastry filled with red bean paste and this hot dog on a stick covered in french fries!
The other striking thing about Seoul that should be pointed out is how westernized it is. I’m certain it has more chain restaurants than some American towns. If you’ve had your fair share of rice and kimchi, there are countless other options, some of which should sound very familiar for North Americans. The likes of Outback Steakhouse, Popeye’s Chicken, Quiznos and Baskin-Robbins are joined by the usual international suspects such as McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Starbucks (lots and lots of Starbucks) as well as a 7-Eleven on nearly every street corner, far different than anyone you’d find in North America or Sweden.
But if you really must indulge in quick-service restaurants, you should give South Korea’s own chains a try because they take their fastfood serious. Two in particular that stand out are Lotteria and Valance Burger.
The fascinating thing about Valance Burger is that they advertise burgers and fries as healthy food!?!?! Oh well, I can roll with that! Especially because they have menu items like chili cheese fries and what’s called a Dracula burger, which consists of a beef patty, cheese, fresh garlic sauce, pickles, onion rings, lettuce and tomato.
Over at Lotteria, I had the fastfood sandwich of my dreams. I ordered something called a mozzarella burgers, on the basis of it looked best among the pictures. When I unraveled the paper what I found was nothing short of a minor miracle. In between the bun I found a cheeseburger accompanied by a hashbrown and and a circle mozzarella stick!!!
As you can imagine, my stomach and body took quite a toll so I find myself back in Europe in the middle of a not so successful detox. But damn if I’m not still dreaming about beef bulgogi, fried mandoo and triple decker fast food burgers!