Seoul food notes

by on October 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm in Food and Drink, Travels | Permalink

There is always a pumpkin, smoked duck, or clam and noodles dish you haven’t seen before.  The way to eat well here is to seek out the small restaurants, on the edge of residential districts, with no English language signs, which appear to not rely very heavily on the division of labor and which serve not too many dishes.  Bibim bap (shaken vigorously inside a lunch box, I might add) is like a fine risotto and the quality of cabbage alone makes Seoul a world-class city.

Particular restaurant recommendations are pointless, and in any case hard to track down.  Just follow basic principles.  The street food, by the way, is only so-so.

At one restaurant, as a kind of joke, I asked “What is best?”, not even expecting my English to be understood.  The waiter became very excited and opened the menu to a page entitled “Best food,” which listed five dishes.  I ordered two of them.

I see no reason to explore upscale dining here.  For surprise and uniqueness, I am not sure the world currently offers a better dining city than Seoul.  My most expensive meals are still falling below $20, averaging $10-$12, and they are occasionally below $5.

Baphomet October 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm

If the bibimbap is a risotto, surely something is wrong?

Taeyoung October 9, 2012 at 1:05 am

Yeah . . . that does not sound like good bibimbap.

harryh October 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

“the quality of cabbage alone makes Seoul a world-class city” is a fantastic Cowenism

sahar October 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm

self-parody FTW!

Ray October 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Ran here to post this.

mk October 9, 2012 at 5:07 am

You’re right, this is an excellent sentence. One to savor, like a fine wine, noting all of the subtle stages in flavor development. This one in particular has an excellent finish.

Adrian Ratnapala October 11, 2012 at 8:56 am

Huh? Even if only one country to stand on its cabbage alone (and surely there are many) then that country must be Korea.

Mogden October 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Can one rise to world-class on the strength of cabbage alone? Sentences worth pondering.

Steko October 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Wait til Tyler tries the cabbage in Pyongyang. The farmers tears add a tiny bit of salt that really ties the whole cabbage together.

Finn October 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm

This seems like a self-refuting post. You travel to Seoul once, you don’t speak the language, you sample a tiny fraction of the food available there, and yet you somehow feel qualified to advise people on how to find the best food there? This is some ripe BS. Kind of like how you once suggested people wander around random side streets in mid-town Manhattan to find the best food in NYC. Totally uninformed. Totally stupid.

Jan October 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm

He said it was “how to eat well [in Seoul]“. Before arriving, TC sought the counsel of literally thousands of people online about where to find the best food in Seoul and what specifically to eat. Then he went there and tested the advice. It apparently worked splendidly. What’s wrong with him passing along what worked for him?

I for one appreciate it. If you know better–apparently mid-town Manhattan is your area of expertise–don’t listen to him.

Taeyoung October 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

I think his advice here is good. If you’re looking for upscale dining, other cities in other countries do it better. There are some restaurants that offer fun quasi-traditional dining experiences that might make it worthwhile,. but honestly, I would steer clear of all of that. Other than good bulgogi or galbi, it generally is not worth the money you will pay, and even with good bulgogi and galbi, it’s only that expensive because meat is super-expensive. The worst is the “fancy” Korean cuisine that people sometimes try to feed their foreign guests, on the assumption that they’ll like that better than common fare, even though to a foreigner (a) common fare is just as exotic and (b) tastes better.

Geoff October 9, 2012 at 1:34 am

I actually disagree. I found certain types of upscale Korean dining (particularly more traditional experiences outside of the downtown areas of Seoul) to be quite unique and definitely worthwhile. Of course, I was taken around by business colleagues when I was living there so I wasn’t challenged to separate the wheat from the chaff myself.

Taeyoung October 9, 2012 at 1:52 am

Yeah, I do not care for the type of place business colleagues and potential business partners take one. Some people took a party of which I was a member to Pil Kyung Jae (just south of Gangnam — forget whether it is in or out of Seoul proper) once, and while it was a fun experience to eat in a restored and semi-modernised traditional Korean manor house, the food itself, while good, was not *that* great. If I’m going to have a big Korean meal, I’d prefer gorging myself at a galbi-jip with some jjigae/stew or naengmyun/cold noodles alongside the meat. There was also a Buddhist vegetarian (sachal umshik) place I went once (forgot the name) and that was kind of fun, but since I don’t particularly care for Buddhist cuisine, it was again a matter of enjoying atmosphere over food.

Al October 9, 2012 at 4:39 am

Taeyoung, are you talking about a place in Insadong? I once had a nice vegetarian meal there in a restaurant affiliated with a local buddhist temple.

Geoff October 9, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Taeyoung, I think you may be overgeneralizing. I was working in Seoul for an extended period of time as part of a Korean company; the places I’m talking about weren’t a “business lunch” sort of place, it was where my co-workers went themselves.

I have no problem with jjigae or naengmyun, but I do worry that fetishizing cheap or street food as somehow “more authentic” means that people miss out on sorts of extremely tasty dining experiences. You may not maximize the flavor per dollar you get, but I wouldn’t count it out either.

Alan October 9, 2012 at 1:01 am

He’s an economist. Every data point confirms his beliefs.

Carl October 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm

What guff. Ex cathedra dining impressions.

anon October 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Yes, we’d all prefer in gastro dining impressions.

Harrumph!

david October 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Centuries of practice of preserving cabbage eventually nets results, I suppose!

ezra abrams October 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I’m in the elevator in the biology dept at MIT, and also in the elevator are two big shot MIT biol profs, and they are having a one up contest….
One of finally wins by saying, the last time the Thai’s invited me to come and speak (all $ paid, goes without saying) I found this great little duty free shop at the airport….

Andrew' October 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm

You have wifi in the elevators!?! Lucky.

Michelle October 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Dollar for dollar, is it honestly better than the best of Singapore hawker food though? :-)

Tyler Cowen October 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Better, no, but more startling and different, yes.

johnny gill October 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm

more startling from the perspective of a single american (who moreover has had lots of SE asian food)

korea might be at the sweet spot of “we care about food (due to historical memories of lack)/kitchen labor is still cheap enough/disposable income is high” to score high on the cowen ethnic-interesting food scene scale. akin to this blog’s analysis of why certain e. european countries produce the most beautiful women.

Sang October 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm

I must disagree. There are some restaurants that you need to seek. Average quality of restaurant is pretty good, but there are some that are very good and cheap.

Also I would add that if the restaurant is using too much sauce for anything (overdoes of sesame oil, gochujang, soy sauce, or anything like that), avoid it. Korean food is at its best when the restaurant let you enjoy the ingredient itself. So look for something that seems to serve very simply food without too much cooking. You will enjoy it.

Una October 8, 2012 at 8:29 pm

I will just leave you with two other pointers about the food culture in Seoul/Korea. Your mentioning residential districts got me thinking about them.
They have something to do with both economy and geography. Ask people around you about these two and you will get to see another interesting aspect of Korean food culture.

1) Because very few Korean workers pack their lunch, there are always clusters of restaurants where office buildings are concentrated. The scale is often quite impressive. And they are affordable and choices are plenty.

2) There are places patronized primarily by taxi drivers. Their dishes are usual Korean offering but they offer high-quality food. The restaurant itself is its own genre.

Will October 8, 2012 at 11:14 pm

I have three hours in the Incheon airport later this year. Do you have any recommendations?

Alan October 9, 2012 at 12:59 am

Yes. Take a look at the museum of Korean culture and history.

Alan October 8, 2012 at 11:40 pm

I’ve had very tasty, nutritious meals served up on a conveyor belt in the workers’ canteen in a Korean car factory and really delicious meals at roadside fuel stops.

Taeyoung October 9, 2012 at 1:04 am

Haha — I *love* the food at the rest stops. Even now, my ideal Ttokbokki is the cheap stuff from the rest stops. Also, Jjajangmyun — love that.

(My tastes are so pedestrian)

Al October 9, 2012 at 4:31 am

It’s a disservice to recommend Seoul street food. There are some exceptions, like the red bean filled pastries, but by and large, it’s a flirtation with diabetes.

Alex October 9, 2012 at 4:37 am

Welcome to Seoul Tyler. You def need to try some of the recommended restaurants. Yes, most are good on average but there are standouts. I grew up in Annandale, VA so I know what you’re used to. If you’re free, I’d love to grab a bite with you.

John S October 9, 2012 at 7:20 am

Still haven’t had gopchang yet? You’re missing out.

Also, don’t get samgyeopsal, moksal is nicer with less fat.

Andy H October 9, 2012 at 10:03 am

Very good advice. I live in Seoul and would endorse pretty much all of this.

CBBB October 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Particular restaurant recommendations are pointless

Precisely.

IVV October 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm

How’s the sannakji?

Steve October 10, 2012 at 10:49 pm

… and the food in Korea is even better and much cheaper outside of Seoul. I am impressed he ate at a place with a menu. That is not always the case in Korea.

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