Kimchi – fermented, seasoned vegetables, most often cabbage, which features in every sit-down meal here – is Korea’s national dish and arguably the only one widely known outside the country. We may chat on Samsung phones and drive Hyundai motors, but, unlike the cuisines of nearby Japan and China, Korean food (as popular as it is in New York, LA, or London) has still not yet entered the Western culinary mainstream in quite the same way.
What an omission it is. From charcoal-roasted octopus tentacle and mung bean pancakes to julienned lotus root and mool naengmyun – cold noodle soup, served with a big pair of scissors to cut through the clumped al dente mass of noodles – the range of this country’s food is as exciting as it is vast.
“We use metal chopsticks because we eat so much red pepper paste,” says 22-year-old student, Han. “The paste stains wooden chopsticks.”
Han, his friend Bae, and I are having dinner in one of Seoul’s many barbeque restaurants where customers cook their own meat and still-wriggling crustaceans on charcoal griddles set into the middle of a table. When his small chunk of steak is ready, Han rolls it in a sesame leaf, adds a couple of the copious side dishes called banchan crammed onto the table, and pops the whole thing in his mouth.
I follow suit but choose the wrong banchan. “What is it?” I ask pointing to the white substance, while trying to swallow my bitter portion with a shot of soju, Korea's national tipple. “Mountain root, you’ve eaten mountain root,” says Han. Doreji, as it's known, is similar to ginseng but has a much sourer taste.
We step out into the after-hours bustle of Hongdae district in the west of the city near Hongik University, known for its indie music culture and underground clubs. Opposite us, a young artist sporting a tight tartan miniskirt and blood-red hair is painting directly onto the pavement. A man who looks well into his 30s skateboards past me.
This is Seoul. Smoky rock joints; iridescent “chicken and beer” shops; subterranean cocktail bars in upscale hotels; brash karaoke rooms. Seoul’s throbbing streets are full to overflowing with places to get sozzled.
“Alcohol is our main release,” says Han. “We go out straight after work and often party all night. It helps us cope with the stress of life in this city and we sacrifice our sleep for it. Ironically, many of us are probably not that productive at work the next morning.”
Let’s add markets to the city’s long list of drinking venues. It's 4am and Han, Bae and I have left Hongdae and moved on to Dongdaemun Market, a colossal 24-hour establishment comprising shopping districts and stretching across several city blocks, where you can buy anything from ginseng roots to knock-off Armani sunglasses.
But we are here to buy neither. Nor, indeed, to buy the pet monkeys chattering in a stall to our left. We are savoring the last few hours before Han and Bae are back at their desks. So we take a glass of makgeolli, a type of rice wine, and– gulp – a carton of braised silkworms.
“People always find something to eat with their drink in this city,” says Han.
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