After the wedding my wife and I were on our own to explore the city. Seoul has one of the best metro systems in the world so getting around was very easy. We went to the Korean War Museum, the old imperial palaces and a funky hippy/backpacker area whose name I can’t remember. We also did some walking around in our hotel’s neighborhood, saw the recently gentrified Cheonggyecheon Creek and hung out at the lively Insadong area. Probably the best part of our explorations was sampling different kinds of Korean food. My favorites were the spicy soups – particularly the one with tofu and clams, but I also liked the spicy beef soup and the one with pork and kimchi. I still don’t know what these are called, I just point at them on the menu whenever we go to a Korean restaurant. My wife was into the cold noodle soups and “mandu,” meat-filled dumplings that no doubt share a common Asian ancestor (wonton?) with the Turkish “manti” (notice it even sounds similar) and the Russian “pelmeni.”
Korean food has admittedy been an acquired taste for me. When I first tasted it in the U.S. back in the nineties, I thought it was overly spicy and, well, pretty much nothing else. After being reintroduced to it in Dubai by my Asian-food loving then-girlfriend and now wife, it started to grow on me. While probably not among my top five cuisines, it is nevertheless a close contender. In Seoul we tried to venture out of our comfort zone and order dishes we were not familiar with. We sometimes had some nice surprises, like the rice dish we cooked ourselves at the table (again, don’t know the name) but at other times we ended up wasting our money on barely edible strange stuff. Once we ordered a large seafood soup to share, thinking it was going to be delicious. Besides being very expensive, the soup was also quite revolting, a mystery broth filled with weird (hopefully) fish parts that we could not identify. There was something that looked like a brain, and some other internal organ-looking thingies with unfamiliar textures. I was constantly reminded of the “weird parts soup in the cauldron” scene from Conan the Barbarian.
Some dishes that we did like were bibimbap, which is rice topped with mixed vegetables and an egg; and bulgogi, marinated grilled beef pieces that arrive on a hot plate. We also enjoyed cooking our own steak at our table, on the built-in grill right in front of us. I cannot have a section on Korean food without talking about kimchi, probably the best known Korean “dish” out there. Some of you may be under the false impression that I was under for a while that it is the name given to all the Korean appetizers. This is of course not true. Those appetizers are actually called banchan, of which kimchi is one. As far as I understand, any fermented vegetable dish – usually spicy and sour – is kimchi, but the most common version is the one made from cabbage.
Despite my enjoyment of Seoul, I can see how it might not be everyone’s bag. First of all, if you are a “tourist attraction person,” you would be disappointed that there are no world-famous monuments in Seoul. Sure, there are those nice palaces, but they are not as well-known as Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge or even the Hagia Sofia. The food would likely be an acquired taste at best, or a miss at worst for many people. K-pop, while gaining popularity in some Asian countries, will certainly not be the world’s popular music of choice anytime soon (we were very lucky to have visited the place before the whole “Gangnam Style” thing started). Last, but not least, why on earth would you set up your capital city on the border with North Korea? Still, if your expectations from traveling go beyond just ticking off famous monuments from your list and if you are at least mildly adventurous, South Korea might be a good option (if you are more adventurous, try the North!).
We know there’s a life outside of Seoul as well, and if we ever go back one day we would like to explore the countryside of South Korea.
I will finish with a couple of random observations about Korean people:
- Everybody LOVES their cell phones. Get on a metro train and you will see that most people are just looking down and doing stuff on their cell phones. Very little talking goes on. It’s like everybody is in a parallel world interacting with each other there, and the real world we are in is just for their physical bodies.
- For a developed nation, there is an awful lot of public throat-clearing and spitting going on. Surely Koreans today are educated and globalized enough to know that this sort of thing is unhygienic, and at the very least, “uncool?” It would be one thing if it were only the older generation, whose habits may die hard, but a well-groomed young businessmen throwing a loogie on the street is just plain wrong.