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Seoul’s Food Scene

Korean Barbecue: A Cultural Pastime
Seoul’s Food Scene
Seoul’s dynamic food scene is a boon for curious taste buds. From traditional Korean barbecue to crisp rice wine, gourmands will love the eclectic, East-meets-West offerings found in Korea’s capital city.
By Leslie Patrick, AFAR Local Expert
Lara Dalinsky
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    Korean Barbecue: A Cultural Pastime
    Korean Barbecue: A Cultural Pastime
    Seoul is a carnivore’s dream, with its most popular restaurants serving heaping portions of galbi, or Korean barbecue. At a galbi restaurant, each table comes equipped with its own grill, which diners use to cook orders of raw meat to their liking. The rest of the tabletop is taken up with side dishes of onions, garlic, bean paste, and lettuce, as well as steaming portions of doenjang jjigae—an aromatic soup made from soybean paste—and a bottle or two of soju. For authentic galbi, try the sleek Maple Tree House in Itaewon, which serves quality cuts of tender meat.
    Lara Dalinsky
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    Just Say Kimchi
    Just Say Kimchi
    The most quintessential of all Korean foods, kimchi is a national staple—the dish of spicy, fermented cabbage is served with practically every meal. Hundreds of varieties can be found in Seoul alone, with flavors ranging from spicy to salty to sour. Try it in the traditional restaurants of Insadong, where it’s served either alone, with rice, in stews and soups, or as a side dish to meats. Kimchi is an acquired taste, but once you’ve gotten used to it, you’ll find yourself hankering for more. If you’re intrigued, visit the Museum Kimchikan, an institution dedicated solely to kimchi.
    Photo by Brandon Presser
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    Bring on the <em>Bibimbap</em>
    Bring on the Bibimbap
    If you’re looking for some Korean comfort food, bibimbap may be the answer. This dish of steamed white rice comes in a large bowl, topped with a vibrant mixture of anything from garlic, mushrooms, and cucumbers to bean sprouts, seaweed, kimchi, and chili paste. It’s also frequently crowned by a fried egg. Perfect for vegetarians, bibimbap can suit carnivores, as well, who can add sliced beef. The dish is easy to find in Seoul, as it’s sold everywhere from the sidewalk food stalls of Gwangjang Market to restaurants like Go-gung, where the house specialty is bibimbap served in a sizzling clay pot. 


    Photo courtesy of Kim Jiho/Korea Tourism Organization NY
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    Fusion Food
    Fusion Food
    Ever tried a kimchi-topped taco? How about a Korean pork burrito? In recent years, Mexican-Korean fusion food has surged in popularity throughout the world, and Seoul is no exception. Tomatillo Grill, in Jongno, is popular with visitors and locals alike for its laid-back ambience and bulgogi (spicy Korean meat) tacos, while Vatos Urban Tacos, in tourist-friendly Itaewon, is a favorite for kimchi carnitas fries. Should you get addicted to the flavor, grab a jar of kimchi from the supermarket to make your own Korean fusion back home.
    Photo courtesy of Vatos Urban Tacos
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    <em>Juk</em> Joints
    Juk Joints
    Long believed to nourish the sick and elderly, juk (Korean rice pudding) is suddenly trendy in Seoul. When locals discovered that the steamy concoction is as tasty as it is nutritious, juk restaurants began opening all over the city. While basic juk is simply a mix of rice and water, restaurants like Migabon add everything from vegetables to seafood and meat to make their version even more tempting. Be sure to save some room, as the savory porridge is typically served with a wide array of banchan (side dishes).
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization NY
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    History in a Cup: <em>Makgeolli</em> Bars
    History in a Cup: Makgeolli Bars
    Made from a mixture of fermented wheat and rice, makgeolli is a traditional Korean drink that was once mostly consumed by farmers. Times have changed, however, and this sweet, milky-white liquor is now a stylish cocktail in Seoul. Countless restaurants serve it alongside lunch and dinner, but a few bars dedicate their entire menu to the beverage. Among the trendiest is Mui Mui, where patrons seated at wooden, cafeteria-style benches mix pitchers of makgeolli with their fruit juice of choice. For a more traditional experience, head to Damatori Makgeolli, in Haebangchon, where you can find makgeollis from nearly every region of Korea. Try a flight of five and let the enlightenment begin.
    Photo courtesy of Kim Jiho/Korea Tourism Organization NY
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    Temple Food
    Temple Food
    Introduced to the Korean peninsula in the 4th century, Buddhism is now practiced by almost a quarter of the country’s population. Along with the religion came temple food, a form of vegan cuisine based on the values of Buddhism. Eating it is considered a sacred ritual, with dishes regarded as medicine that sustains well-being and promotes compassion. Most of Seoul’s temple food restaurants are centered around Jogyesa Temple in Insadong. To sample the humble yet sophisticated fare, make a reservation at Balwoo Gongyang, which recently earned a Michelin star. Around the corner, learn how to cook the cuisine at the Korean Temple Food Center, which offers free cooking classes in English on Saturdays.
    Photo courtesy Korea Tourism Organization NY
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    Street Food Extravaganza
    Street Food Extravaganza
    Street food is practically an art form in Seoul, where everything from roasted chestnuts to cream-filled pancakes and sausages-on-a-stick are peddled on the pavement. Street-food vendors often pop up on random city corners, but for a reliable selection of eats, head to Myeongdong or Insadong. The two neighborhoods satisfy cravings with dishes like hotteok (pancakes), odeng (fish cakes), and spicy tteokbokki (rice cakes), as well as a tasty assortment of fried dumplings, skewered food, and more. 
    Photo by Dorling Kindersley/age fotostock
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    The Sweet Side of Seoul
    The Sweet Side of Seoul
    While Koreans don’t typically eat dessert after dinner, they have a decidedly sweet tooth when it comes to snacking. They also enjoy lightly sweetened treats—from fruit pies and tarts to bowls of slushy ice topped with red beans—at tea or during special celebrations. For a traditional taste of Seoul, stop by Jilsiru. This artisanal shop specializes in Korea’s most famous confection, tteok, a delectable assortment of colorful sticky-rice cakes filled with bean or nut pastes. Teahouses like Insadong Chatjip offer a relaxing spot to pair herbal-infused brews with cookies. For another popular Korean sweet (and maybe a cavity or two), head to the street food vendors for hotteok, a Korean pancake filled with melted brown sugar. Additionally, European-style cafés such as Passion 5 have become all the rage for friends wanting to meet up and split multilayered cakes and pastries.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization NY
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    Seoul’s Coffee Scene
    Seoul’s Coffee Scene
    In Seoul, there seems to be a coffee shop or themed café on every corner. For freshly roasted brews and superior service, however, seek out coffeehouses like Coffee Libre, Ikovox, and Fritz. Though most visitors start their mornings with a jolt of caffeine, Koreans reserve coffee for social meet-ups in the afternoon or evening. As such, most coffee bars don’t open until lunchtime—only major chains like Starbucks and Holly’s serve early.
    Photo by Lara Dalinsky
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    Dining with a View
    Dining with a View
    In Seoul, there are several opportunities to complement your dinner with a stunning view. Perhaps the best is at N Grill, located at the top of the 777-foot-high N Seoul Tower in the center of the city. Boasting a Michelin-starred chef, nouveau French cuisine, and an impressive wine list, this decadent restaurant is one of the most romantic date spots in all of Seoul. Other places in Namsan Park for a bird's-eye view include Namsan Harvest, perched on the side of the mountain, and The Lounge, on the 24th floor of the Park Hyatt Seoul.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization NY
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    Learn to Cook the Classics
    Learn to Cook the Classics
    For an insightful way to learn about Korean culture, take a cooking class. Several schools, like F&C Academy and Ome Cooking, offer affordable courses in English that can be easily booked online. Through demonstrations and hands-on practice at kitchen stations, students learn how to prepare traditional Korean dishes such as bulgogi, mandu, pajeon pancakes, kimchi, japchae, and bibimbap. As the knowledgeable instructors cook, they explain the history and origin behind each dish, and class sizes are kept small to ensure plenty of individualized attention.
    Photo by Michael Marquand/age fotostock