Korean food might not appear to be the most innovative in the world, but like the country itself, Korean food has undergone dramatic changes over the past few decades. Even kimchi is under threat from globalization and changing diet pattern as Koreans are trending towards less salty food and western cuisines, which prompted the Agriculture Ministry to try to promote a less aromatic version of its national food.
Helping me navigate Seoul’s food scene was my not-quite-reliable local colleague, who introduced me to some of the most touristy joints in town, because in his mind that’s what tourist should do. He did have a point though — these places are all close to major tourist hot spots so I didn’t have to go out of my way to find them.
I have checked out a few of those places over several business trips.
Seoul’s most famous food market and popular breakfast spot. You can get popular snacks like bindaetteok (mung bean pancake), tteokbokki (rice cake in chili sauce), gimbap (rice roll), jokbal (pork hock) and porridge for about 20% more expensive than less-heralded street stalls.
Supposedly every local has their favorite stall but I just randomly tried one. I had pumpkin porridge and bindaetteok that tasted just about the same as the stall near my hotel — former was tasteless and latter oily.
Recommendation: N/A (small sample size)
Address: 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: 9:00 – 18:00
Noryangjin Fish Market
Watch Oldboy and you would know one of the delicacy of Korean cuisine is live octopus, and Noryangjin Fish Market is the place to be if you want to get your hands on some waggling tentacles.
Besides octopus you can get all kinds of seafood here, such as clams, shrimp, blue crab, sea cucumber, halibut, salmon and snapper. After buying your seafood on the first floor you can bring them to one of the several restaurants on the upper floor.
I can only testify to what I had — a plate of salmon and flounder sashimi bought from a random vendor. The price was USD 10 for about twenty slices of both. Quality was not the highest but fair enough given the price.
Address: 688 Nodeul-ro, Dongjak-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: open 24 hours
In 2012 Korea Tourism Organization conducted a survey with a sample size of 12,000 tourists, asking them where was their favorite destination in Seoul. Myeongdong, the capital’s prime shopping district, came out on top. This is Seoul’s Causeway Bay or Oxford Circus; locals might disdain it but invariably everyone comes here.
Taking the district’s name in stride is Myeongdong Kyoja. First opened its door in 1966, it now has two locations in the area and has established itself as one of the most frequented eateries in town by both locals and tourists. At most times patrons are queuing up for a bite of its meat sauce noodle and steamed dumpling. The former is standard stomach filler; the signature dumpling, originated from China’s Shandong province, is a juicy ball of minced pork and shredded cabbage wrapped with a thin wheat dough.
Many people find the kimchi here to be too spicy. I personally thought it was a little too sour.
Address: 25-2, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 10:30 – 21:30
Jeonju Jungang (main store)
Arguably the most recognizable Korean dish for foreigners, I am of the ilk who believe all bibimbap (stone pot rice) tastes pretty much the same as most of the flavor derives from doenjang (fermented soybean paste). While bibimbap originates not from Seoul but Jeonju it is not hard to find this dish in the capital. One of the more popular outlets is Jeonju Jungang in Myeongdong. As the name suggests it emphasizes on using traditional recipe and ingredients from Jeonju.
The key to eating bibimbap is eating bibimbap is to allow the rice to cook for at least a few minutes before mixing up the ingredients. This will add some texture to the dish when the bottom layer of the rice turns crispy. Jeonju Jungang’s bibimbap is certainly beautiful to look at, a colorful composite consisted of red (kimchi), green (lettuce, cucumber, spinach), brown (mushroom), black (seaweed), white (bean sprout), yellow (egg yolk) and purple (radicchio). The taste of doenjang still dominates but not overwhelmingly as its fresh ingredients manage to stand out.
Address: 19 Myeongdong 8na-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 8:30 – 22:30
When I asked my Korean colleagues what is their favorite dish, most said barbecue. As for comfort food? Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) easily took the crown. The main ingredients are a whole young chicken, stuffed with glutinous rice, boiled in a broth of Korean ginseng and herbs like jujube fruits, gingko nuts, garlic, ginger and wolfberry. For Koreans, this dish is almost the antidote to all ailments, from hangover to common cold to restoration of energy during the dog day of summer.
My colleague strongly recommended Tosokchon near Gyeongbokgung. This is clearly a tourist institution — most tables were occupied by people carrying guidebooks. Tosokchon only serves one dish and it charges more than its competitors, but there is a good reason why it is so popular. The broth here was more flavorful and clear compared to the few samgyetang I tried near my office.
Address: 5 Jahamun-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 10:00 – 22:00
Perhaps no other nations, U.S. included, indulges in fried chicken as much as South Korea. No less than eight national chains specialize in this dish, with Kyochon being perhaps the most well-known and definitely the most expensive. I tried its Dongdaemun branch and ordered the original (honey garlic) and spicy recipes. ₩17,000 for 24 pieces of chicken.
Unlike KFC, Kyochon takes a long time to prepare because they are made-to-order using fresh chicken. I waited 30 minutes for my order. The thighs and wings were crispy but the white meat was too dry. This is not your typical fast food — while quality is much higher than a typical western fast food joint, so are the waiting time and price.
Address: 294 Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: 24 hours