Seoul's Food Scene

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Seoul's Food Scene
Seoul’s dynamic food scene is a boon to curious taste buds. From traditional Korean barbecue with all the trimmings to a crisp cup of Korean rice wine, gourmands will love the eclectic fusion of East and West found in Korea’s capital.
By Leslie Patrick, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Lucas Vallecillos/age fotostock
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    Korean Barbecue: A Cultural Pastime
    Seoul is a carnivore’s dream, with the most popular restaurants serving up heaped portions of galbi—Korean barbecue. Each table at a galbi restaurant has its own grill, and diners are served raw meat to cook to their own standards. Side dishes accompany the meal, such as onions, garlic, bean paste, and lettuce, as well as a steaming portion of doenjang jjigae—an aromatic soup made from soybean paste. Don’t forget the soju; it’s a must with galbi. Try sleek Maple Tree House in Itaewon, serving quality cuts of tender meat.
    Photo by Lucas Vallecillos/age fotostock
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    Fusion Food
    Ever tried a taco topped with kimchi? How about a Korean pork burrito? Mysteriously, recent years have seen a surge in the popularity of Mexican-Korean fusion food, and Seoul is the perfect place to give this unique combination of flavors a try. Tomatillo Grill in Jongno is popular with visitors and locals for its laid-back ambiance coupled with bulgogi (spicy Korean meat) tacos. Kimchi carnitas fries are a must when visiting Vatos Urban Tacos in tourist-friendly Itaewon. 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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    Just Say Kimchi
    The most quintessential of all Korean foods, kimchi is a national staple. This dish of fermented pickled cabbage is served with practically every meal. Hundreds of varieties of kimchi can be found in Seoul alone, and with flavors ranging from spicy to mild and salty to sour, there’s a kimchi to suit everyone’s palate. Sampling kimchi is easy — try it in the traditional restaurants of Insadong, where it’s served in almost every dining establishment. It can be eaten alone, with rice, in stews and soups, as a side dish to meats — you get the picture. Kimchi is an acquired taste, but once you’ve gotten used to it, you’ll find yourself hankering for more. If you're still curious, visit the museum dedicated solely to kimchi in Insadong.
    Photo by Brandon Presser
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    Dining with a View
    Don't just pop into any old restaurant; in Seoul it's fashionable to complement your dinner with a stunning view. Perhaps the best is at N Grill, located at the top of the 777-foot Namsan Tower in the center of the city. This decadent restaurant, with its nouveau-French cuisine and impressive wine list, is presided over by a Michelin Star chef and is possibly the most romantic date spot in all of Seoul. There are other places in Namsan Park to get a bird's-eye view of the capital including Namsan Harvest perched on the side of the mountain and The Lounge restaurant on the 24th floor of the Park Hyatt Seoul.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
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    History in a Cup: Makgeolli Bars
    Made from a mixture of fermented wheat and rice, makgeolli is a traditional Korean beverage that was predominately consumed by farmers. Times have changed, and now this sweet, milky-white liquor is a stylish cocktail choice in Seoul. Countless restaurants serve the beverage alongside lunch and dinner, but a few bars dedicated solely to the drink exist as well. Among the trendiest is Mui Mui, where patrons mix their fruit juice of choice into pitchers of makgeolli as they sit at wooden cafeteria-style benches. For a more traditional experience, head to the bar, Damatori Makgeolli, in Haebangchon, where makgeollis from nearly every region of Korea are represented. Try a flight of five and let the makgeolli enlightenment begin.
    Photo courtesy of Kim Jiho/Korea Tourism Organization
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    Bring on the Bibimbap
    If you’re looking for some Korean comfort food, bibimbap may be the answer. This dish of steamed white rice is served in a large bowl and topped with a vibrant mixture that may include garlic, mushrooms, cucumbers, bean sprouts, seaweed, kimchi, and chili paste; it's often topped off with a fried egg. Bibimbap is a perfect dish for visiting vegetarians, as Korea has a particularly meat-heavy dining culture. (Carnivores may choose to top their helping with sliced beef.) It’s easy to sample this colorful meal all over Seoul, as it's sold everywhere from the sidewalk food stalls of Gwangjang Market to restaurants like Go-gung – where a version served in a sizzling clay pot is a house specialty.
    Photo courtesy of Kim Jiho/Korea Tourism Organization
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    Street Food Extravaganza
    Street food is practically an art form in Seoul, where everything from roasted chestnuts to sausages-on-a-stick to cream-filled pancakes are peddled on the pavement. Street-food vendors have a tendency to pop up on any random city corner, but for a reliable selection of eats, head to Myeongdong or Insadong. These are the neighborhoods where Seoul’s foodies come when craving that particular flavor of hotteok (pancake), odeng (fish cakes), or spicy tteokbokki (rice cakes). Koreans also have a penchant for fried food. Street vendors and food trucks purvey a tasty assortment of fried dumplings, skewered food, and the like.
    Photo by Dorling Kindersley/age fotostock
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    The Sweet Side of Seoul
    Seoulites have a decidedly sweet tooth when it comes to snacking, and the city’s desserts range from fruit pies and tarts to slushy bowls of ice topped with red beans. For a traditional taste of Seoul, head to Jilsiru. This artisanal shop offers a delectable assortment of colorful, sticky rice cakes. Teahouses, like Insadong Chatjip, are a relaxing spot to enjoy cookies and treats accompanied by herbal infused brews. For a real Korean treat (and maybe a cavity or two), sample hotteok from a street food vendor—a Korean pancake filled with melted brown sugar.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
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    Juk Joints
    Juk (Korean rice porridge) has long been thought to nourish the sick and elderly, and is even used as baby food. Since Seoulites discovered that the steamy concoction is as tasty as it is nutritious, juk restaurants have emerged all over the city. The most basic type of juk is simply a mixture of rice and water, but juk restaurants like the chain Migabon have composed a tempting array of ingredients that include vegetables, seafood, and meat. The savory porridge is generally served with a wide array of banchan side dishes, so be sure to save some room.
    Photo courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
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    Temple Food
    Buddhism was introduced to the Korean peninsula in the 4th century and now almost a quarter of the country's population practices it. With the religion came Temple Food, a vegan form of cuisine that adheres to the values of Buddhism. Eating is considered a sacred ritual; food is regarded as medicine that sustains well-being and promotes compassion. Most of these restaurant are centered around Jogyesa Temple in Insadong. To sample this humble yet sophisticated food, make a reservation at Balwoo Gongyang which recently earned a coveted Michelin Gold Star. Around the corner, learn how to prepare meals at The Korean Temple Food Center, it offers free cooking classes in English on Saturdays.