Recently I was given the opportunity to visit South Korea for a wedding. My boyfriend’s mate, a New Zealander was marrying a Korean girl. Both lived in Melbourne, Australia but had decided to hold the wedding in Jeonju, South Korea so that the bride’s elderly relatives could attend. My boyfriend and I were invited to attend and we decided to take the opportunity to travel around the country and see (and eat!) as much as we possibly could.
From eating bulgogi during a DMZ tour, trekking 45 minutes uphill at night to banquet at the top of N Seoul Tower and scoffing fried chicken and beer before a theatre performance to sampling street food in markets, sipping cocktails by the beach in Busan and of course trying a range of traditional Korean BBQ (complete with traditional side dishes such as kimchi), we made the most of every opportunity we could. There was a huge array of things to see and food to try over the two and a half weeks or so that we spent there and I wanted to share some of the food adventures we had along the way.
For the most part, I will leave the pictures to speak for themselves but I will try and offer a little commentary in order that the reader knows what it is that they are looking at.
I thought we should start at the most widely known dining experience that Korea has to offer – the Korean BBQ. As we discovered, the BBQ varies dramatically from region to region, but there are certain aspects to the meal that remain consistent:
- The food (usually meat – beef and pork seem to be favourites) is cooked at the table on a small grill. The grills are usually either charcoal or gas fired and once cooked, the meat is chopped up into bite sized pieces using kitchen scissors before being eaten directly off the grill with chopsticks, or wrapped in a salad leaf of some description, along with a sauce and any sides that you may fancy.
- The meat is always accompanied by a series of accompaniments – salads, vegetables, garlic cloves that can be eaten raw or thrown onto the BBQ and of course kimchi, the national obsession (fermented cabbage in a spicy sauce). The accompaniments vary from region to region but there is often a soup served in a little earthenware dish to start (although in one establishment in Busan, we were served some kind of egg dish instead) and almost always a Korean red sauce and/or soy sauce gravy. Kimchi is a given for almost any meal and also varies dramatically from one place to another – everyone has their own special recipe.
Korean BBQs are simply delicious and we ate ourselves silly at several of these!
This literally translates as ‘mixed rice’ which pretty much sums up the dish. You’re given a mixture of vegetables and sometimes meat with a bowl of rice. It often has a raw egg cracked onto the top You mix it all together and it eat directly from the bowl with metal chopsticks. Of course, like with all Korean meals, there are also accompaniments!
Korean chopsticks are unique in that they are made of metal, are quite thin and are often served alongside a metal spoon. They are quite a lot heavier than wooden chopsticks and Koreans are apparently known for having well developed index and middle fingers from years of chopstick use.
We were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to try the dish in a traditional village in Jeonju, where bibimbap was first invented. We tried a traditional style bibimbap with steak tartare and were talked through the process by the bride’s cousin who just happened to be a chef. We were seated on thin cushions on the ground aside a low table and all the food was served at once, with everyone sharing the accompaniments.
There is a huge array of restaurants around, especially in some of the major cities like Seoul and Busan. There’s also a thriving café culture as well as novelty cafes such as a Hello Kitty Café & a café that you can play with cats, dogs or even racoons or meerkats while you sip your coffee!
Chicken and beer is another firm favourite amongst the younger generation, especially in places like Seoul. Huge plates of fried chicken are brought to the table and are shared. Several sauces and salads are also included, all washed down with a local beer or soft drink.
The pictures below are from a restaurant in a tiny village near Jeonju where the wedding was held. The day following the wedding, quite a few members of the wedding party decided to enjoy a sauna to try and sweat out the impressive amounts of soju, raspberry wine and duty-free liquor that they had consumed after the ceremony! There was a small restaurant attached and we all gathered for a delicious lunch consisting of two kinds of chicken soup (a ‘clear’ chicken soup and a spicy red one) and a buffet of accompaniments.
Markets and Street Food:
As with a lot of Asian countries, markets in South Korea are a way of life. We wandered around a lot of them and found that many are split into sections: fish and seafood are in one area, vegetables are in another and so on.
Sometimes entire markets were dedicated to a particular kind of food and we did have a wander through some of the coastal seafood markets such as this one near a fishing port in Busan.
In some of the coastal areas, the time it takes for the seafood to get from the ocean to the plate is minimal.
Street food is also extremely popular and it’s easy to find chicken skewers, gimbap rolls and rice cakes soaked in spicy sauce in almost every market or on popular street corners. There’s roasted chestnuts and crazy coloured ice drinks, ice cream and all things fried.
On occasion, you can find something really interesting, such as this gelatin sweet dish made to look like a large dew drop. This one was served with chocolate and raspberry syrup and some kind of sweet powdered substance (I’m still not sure what it is!).
Alternatively there is a range of bakeries, grocery and convenience stores all stocking a range of weird and wonderful culinary delights.
It was very easy to fall in love with South Korea despite all its challenges. We both made sure to bring home a Korean cook book so that we can continue to enjoy the tastes and textures of this amazing country. I can’t wait to be able to cook some myself when I reach the South Korean challenge!
And, of course, I can’t finish this post without saying a huge congratulations to the bride and groom, without whom we would not have been given the chance to experience this incredible journey.