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Eating Korea: Food Puts the Soul in Seoul

Three syllables kept going through my mind as my plane flew across the Pacific Ocean headed for Seoul, the capital of Korea: bi-bim-bap. Like the riff of a snare drum, the syllables kept repeating: bi ... bim ... bap.

Seoul pop-up restaurantBibimbap (say it very quickly this way: “bee-bim-bop”) is one of the most popular dishes in Korea, and restaurants from Koreatown in Los Angeles to Korean restaurants in London offer it. But now I was headed into the heart of bibimbap territory, the crucible in which the dish was forged, the mother ship of bibimbap.

Like most Asians, Koreans take what they eat seriously. Sure, there are Pizza Huts, KFCs, and other American, fast-food restaurants in Korea, but the magic is found elsewhere.

In Seoul’s cavernous Kwang Jang Market, rickety tables and tiny stools serve as pop-up restaurants (photo above). Tiny eateries tucked in Seoul’s alleyways specialize in one or two dishes, such as a restaurant called Busan Jib, where I had an unforgettable dinner of marinated crab and Agu Jjim, chunks of steamed monkfish sautéed in Korean red pepper sauce (gochujang) with bean sprouts. (photo below).

Agu JjimIt’s always a good idea to hook up with a local to learn where they dine, and Sujin Park—a Seoul resident who worked in New York City and returned home with such a love for deli food that she opened several of her own delis in Seoul—hosted me to that dinner at Busan Jib.

Our “fixer” during my week of shooting one of my public television episodes in Korea, was Kim Ji Sung, and it was he who led me on day six of our shoot to the ultimate dish of bibimbap.

To Americans, the most famous Korean specialty is Korean barbeque, a feast of beef, pork or chicken that you cook for yourself over an open charcoal or gas flame at your table along with thinly sliced garlic and other seasonings. Korea’s major addition to the wide world of barbecue is a panoply of side dishes called banchan that invariably include kimchi—fermented vegetables (usually cabbage with peppers)—and a host of other small sides such as cucumbers stuffed with chili and spring onions, radishes, and spicy sauces.

While I ate mainly beef, the specialty of a barbecue restaurant in one small town in Korea was pork, as the enormous drawing of a pig’s head on the front window indicated. Inside, we were presented with super-sized slabs of bacon—thick with fat—that would have warmed a cardiologist’s heart.

For bibimbap, our guide, Ji Sung, waited until we arrived at the home of the dish, the city of Jeonju, at a restaurant called Gogung Restaurant. Jeonju is the spiritual capital where aristocrats perfected the art of the dish. Here, I knew I was at The Source.

bi bim bap Rudy MaxaBibimbap (photo left) is a happy marriage of vegetables, rice, raw egg, raw beef, and sauce that arrives as a colorful symphony of flavors. The Jeonju version differed from bibimbap I’d had at Korean restaurants in the U.S.—it wasn’t served steaming hot in a pan. (In that version, the burnt scrapings from the bottom of the metal pan in which it was cooked are coveted; usually the guest of honor gets the lion’s share of that crispy portion.)

But here in the heartland, my bibimbap arrived warm in a brass bowl, meant to keep the rice moist. It was as beautiful as a still-life painting, but I wasted no time mixing the ingredients with my metal chopsticks--Koreans only use metal chopsticks, a holdover from royalty who favored silver ones that would change colors if an enemy had snuck poison into a dish.

The first bite was a mélange of sweet and spicy, soft and crunchy. Bean sprouts, mushrooms, sesame spinach, the beef that had been warmed by the rice, the raw egg that made the entire offering moist ... all conspired to deliver what could truly be termed an entire meal in one bite. This, I often think to myself, is one reason why I love to travel. Like sampling pizza in Naples or a green-lipped mussel on a boat hauling in the catch in New Zealand’s waters, going to the source addresses a personal quest for the authentic.

I had another food experience quite different from the rest, something that in Korea is called a “temple meal” or balwoo gongyang. Temple stays are popular in Korea, where monks open their campuses to overnight stays by guests who are willing to abide by a few rules (among them, rising VERY early in the morning). Meals are taken on a communal basis, and often silence must be observed while eating.

The crew and I visited Guinsa temple near the town of Danyang to shoot the temple complex and have a temple lunch. And while we were premitted to converse while we ate, we all had to be members of the Clean Plate Club. Every scrap of food on one’s plate had to be eaten or no one in the temple would be permitted food the next day, a punishment that could affect hundreds of residents.

I thought I’d followed the rules until the genial monk who was our guide pointed out through our translator that there were still some grains of rice left on the side of my bowl. Be warned: finishing everything means not leaving a single grain of rice uneaten.

Footnote: For more on the food scene in Seoul, check out Seoul Eats, a blog written by Daniel Gray, an ex-pat American of Korean descent who lives in Korea’s capital.

Photos by Rudy Maxa

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About Rudy Maxa

Rudy Maxa

Rudy Maxa is host and executive producer of the public television travel series, Rudy Maxa's World. The 78 episodes he has hosted have won numerous awards, including a 2008 regional Emmy for his episode "Rajasthan." He's a contributing editor with National Geographic Traveler magazine and has written for a host of national travel magazines and newspapers. For nearly 15 years he offered consumer travel commentary on public radio's business show Marketplace as "The Savvy Traveler," which was also the name of a one-hour, coast-to-coast weekend show on public radio that he co-created and hosted for four years. Prior to his career as a travel writer and broadcaster, Maxa was an award-winning Washington Post investigative reporter, magazine writer, and columnist for 13 years, during which time his reporting was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He was a senior writer at The Washingtonian magazine and Washington, D.C., bureau chief of Spy magazine. The author of two non-fiction books, Maxa lives in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.