Streets of Rainy Seoul – Myeongdong and Insadong. Indulging in Korean cuisine

Rain, rain, go away…

Remember the nursery rhyme? It’s the perfect illustration of our Seoul weekend. The South Korean capital was having its very own London weather ‘moment’, characterized by profoundly grey skies, intermittent rain of varying intensity and temperatures in the low 20s. Not fantastic for sightseeing.My friend D. came to our hotel in the morning, brought the most precious gift – the replacement International Driving Licence, delivered to her apartment a day earlier, freshly inked from California... Amazing how it all worked out in less then a week, I still can’t believe our luck. Thanks, D. and thanks M. (you know who you are!)

So D. , whom I have known from my teen years, was married now with a child (a handsome little boy) and had been living in Korea for the past 5 years. She’ s working as an English teacher and from our conversation I understand that native English speakers or those with a University degree in English are much in demand here.Her Korean husband is in the ‘business and finance’ field and spends long hours at work thereby reducing family time to just the weekend (sadly, I can relate here). I am most shocked, however, to learn that he gets a total of three paid vacation days per year. Coming from the USA, one of the few developed countries on Earth without government regulations on minimum paid vacation, I thought nothing can surprise me as far as ‘little’ vacation is concerned.

We chatted over an hour in the hotel’s lobby, until the rain subsided. Then Miss Z. and Hubs graced us with their company and together, we ventured out, armed with umbrellas and today’s itinerary. I had planned to start with Namdaemun – the biggest market of Seoul, which is a 10 min walk from the hotel. My friend D. verbally discounted the place as ‘just an area where they sell cheap goodies and food and we decided to pass.

Moved on to our next ‘stop’ Myeong dong (명동 (明洞), literally ‘bright town’). Known as Seoul’s trendiest shopping area, Myeongdong’s fairly narrow streets are lined with hundreds of shops selling clothes, shoes, handbags, accessories, and cosmetics. At the more prominent crossroads are to be seen the omnipresent Lotte Department Store, Shinsegae Department Store, Migliore and others carrying the premium labels known to most of the world.  Add on top of it gazillion multi-storey restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, and night clubs and you can already picture the crowds passing through the area even on a wet day like today’s. First impression – it’s noisy. Girls in costumes were inviting passersby to explore local cosmetic stores with a compelling non-stop chatter over their microphones. Another group of people was filming what looked like an interview, surrounded by its own boisterous crowd. Lot’s of young people, very few non-Asians walking around in this part of town. Naturally, most signs are in Korean only. It was lunchtime and we randomly chose a ground level restaurant to avoid lugging the stroller and the baby up and down the stairs (almost all restaurants here are multi-storey). Nothing fancy, just an unpretentious eatery with a one page laminated menu (front and back) mainly serving chulpan –  Korea’s version of the Spanish paella. Turns out , their portions were meant to be shared so we ordered the same thing – chulpan with seafood. I am pretty sure the menu had a brief description in English, but my friend D. helped with communicating our requests to the waiter. Each of us got an apron – dark red to match the brick wall (and possibly hide any unsightly food splashes from the sizzling pan in the middle).

For a start, we’re served banchan (side dishes) – four small bowls of kimchee, dipping soy sauce with scallions, cucumbers in vinegar and a weird-tasting sour-sweet yellow concoction of unknown origin. Banchan was free and we kept the bowls coming while we were waiting for our main dish to get ready. Meanwhile, the waiter is stir-frying right in front of us, with his wooden ladle, on a gas burner placed in the middle of the table. Food’s sizzling and smelling delish!

So what’s chulpan? A stir-fried communal style pile of noodles, loaded with stuff… squid and other seafood, scallions, cabbage, onions,  mushrooms… did I miss anything? Oh, the red ‘thing’ …That would be the w-holy spiciness of it all; mean, mouth-, gut- burning dominating our palates and calling for multiple bottles of cold water! Loved every bite of it! (but it’s not for the faint of heart) Cost was very reasonable – approximately $35 for three, drinks included.After lunch, my friend D. bid us farewell and went to pick her little man from preschool. And we carried on with our walk. We got more rain along the way, fortunately, not for too long.

Insa-dong (인사동), a buoyant (and undeniably touristy) neighborhood in Central Seoul, was our next stop. The area possesses a mixture of historical and modern atmosphere and is famous for its antique shops (40% of all in Korea), art galleries (more than 100!), traditional ceramics stores (a testament to Korea’s heritage in pottery) and your garden variety souvenir shops.Charming tea houses, traditional and contemporary have taken over the area as well.Plenty of restaurants, too…Not many places of character can ‘pull-off’ the presence of a ‘mall’ with dignity, but Ssamzie-Gil (쌈지길), nestled in the very heart of Insa-dong is ‘a different kind of animal’. The open-air, four-level structure prone to playful art installations features a spiral stairway that leads both shoppers and gawkers – probably more of the latter – past cozy little shops selling clothing and jewelryWe walked past snack carts and food stalls, selling recognizable deliciousness such as ice cream, or exotic confectioneries with unfamiliar names such as yeot.  If you have the urge to make your own, wikipedia provides the instructions. The finished product should look like in the picture below.For a while, we were pretty good with not succumbing to the street food temptations around us, but we were immediately drawn by the smell of what looked like freshly made doughnuts. There was already a line formed in front of the stall and each lucky customer was to be handed a golden-crusted, fresh off-the-grill hotteok (also transcribed as hoddeok). This is essentially a pancake, prepared in a way very similar to the American pancakes, usually from a pre-made flour mix. The difference is that the hotteok is much thicker and has a brown sugar syrup filling inside. We had to try it, only ran us a $1 each…Few hours later, we’re already looking where to have dinner. Always a challenge! There is only one stomach to fill, and all these places to choose from…

We’re walking in circles in Jongno, scouting the restaurant scene (and there are TONS of restaurants in the area), but instead our attention is drawn by Beesket. It’s a cool looking juice place with an extensive selection of ingredients. The customers can choose three of the many little hexagonal capsules (each depicting an ingredient), then put them in a beesket, which the cashier scans. Basically, an attempt to have fun with the ordering process… Beesket opened just a few weeks ago and despite their fairly high prices (about $7) , I have hard time believing the business would sustain itself on just juice for very long.Jongno is a fun part of town, which we came across accidentally, while walking south from Insadong. We take an alley off the main road, and there!..boom… we find ourselves in an open air pedestrian area, surrounded by uncountable restaurants, bars, hofs (Korean style pubs) and cafes. It’s the kind of place where you’d visit a bar a day, and you’re still not able   to conquer them all in a year. Jongno is a gastronomic (and alcoholic) paradise and rightfully so, very crowded, especially in the evenings.We have our hearts set on this samgyeopsal establishment which luckily has this one table available all the way in the back. It’s a tight squeeze, so we leave the stroller outside and take turns holding the baby throughout dinner. The menu is simple; there are few things besides the restaurant’s main specialty. By the way samgyeopsal is a delicious (and artery clogging) Korean dish, known to the Western world as ‘bacon’, only sliced thinner (to the extent it’s transparent). Restaurants dedicated to serving samgyeopsal boast copper-colored tubes hanging over each table to absorb the smell of the meat being cooked over a grill embedded within the table.

The waitress brought us a modest plate of raw meat (we ordered the 200gr portion) and one very long tray of lettuce leaves. We also got a few side dishes… A careful look around at once reveals the protocol of how samgyeopsal is meant to be consumed. Place a slice of the cooked meat on a leaf of lettuce, stock up on ingredients from the side dishes, roll it up and eat! Yummm, so simple, but tasted fantastic! When we were done with dinner, it was already dark outside. Well, the sky was dark, however the alleys of Jongno were lit up as if it were daytime, bathing in the sea of neon lights. A must see in Seoul…

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