Koreans pride themselves on being a unique country and people, and nowhere is this more evident than in their food.
Korean cuisine is rapidly achieving international fame and its unique dishes are closely associated with the land that created them.
Whether you are visiting the trendy urban restaurants of Seoul, the historic towns of the interior or sampling seafood in the lively coastal cities, South Korea will prove to be an assault on your senses.
This bustling metropolis of over 10 million people is at the forefront of the “hip Korea” movement which has swept all before it in Asia.
A quick walk down its streets will confirm that its young population is at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of fashion and technology. It is also a city that never sleeps, with flashing neon lights and crowded streets humming until way after midnight.
However, amidst the modern glitz and glamour, the traditional city continues to live and breathe, and its people, despite their modern ways, still follow the traditions of their grandparents. This is especially so when it comes to food.
Although, there are plenty of fast-food outlets in Seoul and foreign cuisines available in districts such as Itaewon, most Koreans still like to gather in traditional restaurants and eat sitting down with their friends.
Popular dishes to look out for include galbi and bulgolgi. These are pieces of beef, and sometimes pork, which are barbecued on a hot grill set in the middle of the table. When it is cooked, the idea is to wrap it in a lettuce leaf with garlic and a dollop of hot sauce and then cram the whole thing into your mouth.
While the taste may be delicious, the sight of you struggling to chew with your mouth full to bursting point, may be off-putting for whoever you are with.
There will also be scores of side-dishes brought out to accompany the main meal, with kimchi (pickled cabbage) being prominent amongst them. In a meal like this, it is also common for soju ( a potent rice based alcohol) to be served in small shot glasses. However, as a foreigner, a polite no thank you should allow you to escape this ritual.
With Seoul being the capital of the country, it is possible to sample thousands of dishes, and with Korean food being so varied, you could spend a lifetime trying to achieve just that.
However, if you want to experience food in a traditional setting, then the restaurants and tea houses of Insa-dong are a good place to start. This area is a throw-back to the past with its wooden shop fronts and red lanterns hanging over door-ways. Inside these structures delicacies such as rice cakes and herbal ginseng and ginger tea are served.
This place becomes very busy at the weekend as there are often street entertainers and a small market here as well as the food.
If, like many of Seoul’s youngsters, you are something of a night-owl then try some of the food served up by the street vendors, who cater to the hungry crowds of revellers who throng outside their stalls looking to eat spicy sausage, kimchi pancakes or fish skewers.
Often referred to as Korea’s second city, Busan occupies a spectacular seafront setting and attracts many visitors from across the country. One of its major draws is Haeundae Beach. This two kilometre stretch of sand is ringed by hotels and restaurants and during the summer months is packed with holiday-makers. It is not a place to come for quiet contemplation, but if you are seeking a lively beach resort, with lots to see and do then this is a good place to visit.
As can be imagined considering its close proximity to the ocean, Busan is renowned for its seafood. Indeed, a popular visitor attraction is the fish market in Jalgalchi, where all sizes of fish and shellfish are landed daily.
A speciality of Busan is raw, spicy and salty fish which is famed throughout Korea. Many restaurants will serve this as well as Korean versions of sushi and sashimi. However, it is also possible to find cooked fish as well as more unusual dishes such as Blowfish soup.
Situated in the heart of the Korean peninsula, Jeonju is at the centre of the country’s cultural history. The former capital city now hosts many historical attractions, including a re-constructed Korean village which is designed to highlight its culture and history to tourists. The village contains a traditional hot spring alongside music and art performances. There is also the ability to live like in centuries past in the Hanok Living Experience Centre.
If you are seeking a break from the cultural sight-seeing, then Jeonju is famous for the Korean staple, bibimbap. This is served in a clay bowl and consists of rice topped with vegetables, beef and an egg, which is brought sizzling to the table. Then a spicy red paste is added and mixed together to create a very tasty and purportedly healthy meal.
You will find bibimbap throughout Korea, but Jeonju is its spiritual home.
This small island sits at the southern end of the Korean peninsula, and its semi-tropical climate has long made it a favourite holiday and honeymoon destination for Koreans. Besides its beaches, it also has many national parks which are popular with hikers and nature lovers. The Cheonjeyeon waterfall, which cascades down a green-covered mountainside is a particular favourite. And in the centre of the island stands Mt Hallasan which has a large number of birdlife and both tropical and temperate fauna.
For food lovers, seafood figures prominently on the menu, and like Busan, raw fish is a speciality. However, it is also famed for its sea urchins and sea cucumbers which are often made into hearty stews.
Be sure to try abalone stew, made from abalone collected by the famous women divers of Jeju.
These Jeju “mermaids” have for centuries dived into the sea without breathing apparatus and are famed for their incredible feats of endurance to collect their catch.
Their numbers are now dwindling and this fascinating tradition may not be around much longer, so go and view them while you can and then taste the fruits of their endeavours in the restaurants they own. – By Wayne Johnson
For more information www.english.visitkorea.or.kr. Malaysia Airlines flies to Seoul once daily.