If you are following along on our culinary journey through South Korea, part 1 on Jeoju is here and part 2 on Mihwangsa Temple is here. This post is filled with far more visual imagery than our traditional posts, which is appropriate for our subject. Onward we go to the dizzying, dazzling, dream of Seoul, our final destination in South Korea.
Quick context for those unfamiliar with Seoul; largest city in Korea, over 10 million people, site of one of the fastest modernizations in history, from the devastation of the Korean War ending in 1953 to the fourth most economically powerful city in the world.
The city is unapologetically and brashly modern. The contrast with the rural and agricultural country-side could not be more dramatic. The influence of every major modern culture peaks around every corner, creeps onto every menu. And at the same time, they rebuilt their ancient temples and royal homes throughout the city, they use the motifs and symbols of ancient Korean dynasties in their architecture and their art. An ultra-modern city with a traditional drum ensemble performing at a public square.
So that is context, backdrop for our culinary journey through Seoul. The cuisine of Seoul builds up from the traditional dishes we enjoyed in Jeonju, but layers on a stunning set of variations. And the city just as easily accommodates the love of craft beer, French pastry, and churros. Why churros? I have no idea but it is fantastic. Walking down any street you may find some of these menus:
You can visit a restaurant with fresh seafood, often swimming in tanks in the window, a burger shop with the uniquely Korean bulgogi option, get hot dogs including one with jajang, a fermented black bean sauce, and whatever that guy is doing on the end picture above. Fast-food, done with admirable efficiency, feels both familiar to my American sensibilities but slight dis-orienting given the variety of choices and the local innovations.
Down another street there is a dozen or more traditionally Korean open stalls where steam and spices waft out into the city streets:
Steamed dumplings and a fish stew served at a wooden counter as you watch them cook feels very much unique to this modern Asian city.
As you walk through streets teaming with people, perhaps you’d enjoy a quick stop for coffee. The Western European tradition of coffee has only more recently begun to take hold in Seoul, but it seems that as with anything, they have adopted it with characteristic Korean enthusiasm.
You could enjoy a trendy café tucked around the corner from a busy shopping district, with their own roaster in the entry way. Perhaps you’d prefer a set of pastries, displayed in the case of a chain coffee shop. Or you might prefer the stylish, modern take on a cold brewed coffee in the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which is itself a visual phenomenon.
And then as the sun sets, the neon lights flicker on, and a stroll down a secluded path to find the food market. The crowds begin to build as you approach, voices calling out here and there, and aromas building. You enter the spectacle of the senses which is the Korean food market.
Vendor after vendor of kimchi, seafood, meats, vegetable side dishes of every variety. There are a number of booths with wood counters, where you can order a meal, watch them make it and enjoy it fresh from the pan. Many of the dishes are traditionally and distinctively Korean. So many peppers, so many different vegetables, so many fermented foods, so many preparations, so much flavor. It feels as if here, you have touched the very heart of South Korea; vibrant and so alive.
Perhaps a sweet treat to finish the evening – an amazing array of options are available in the outdoor food market, but for a change of pace we choose one of the major malls with it’s own food court.
Mochi or cakes or sweet rolls, or so many more options are available which are Japanese or French or American-inspired. The love of pastries is a more recent cultural phenomenon, with shipments of wheat being provided after the war from the allied countries.
A good friend who accompanied us on this trip, a native born Korean, explained how the youngest generation has grown up on Western European and American influenced traditions utilizing wheat and milk. The nutrient density of those foods as lead to a generation of Koreans who are demonstrably taller than the previous generations. But this influence of other cultures has also lead to a generation which demonstrates a remarkable culturally flexibility.
The cuisine in Seoul is unmistakably built out of traditional Korean foods, but they easily assimilate other modern cultural traditions quite seamlessly. It is somewhat dizzying to stand on bustling corner and have food options including a Korean-branded coffee shop with French-inspired fluffy cheese pastries, or a franchise location specializing in churros, or a traditional Japanese noodle shop, or a Italian-style pizza parlor. This same cultural flexibility shines through in K-Pop, the current Korean popular music taking over the globe – Beats inspired by Indian Bollywood music might get a melody played with traditional Korean instruments, and a Australian-born singer of Korean descent lays down an impeccable American-inspired rap, accompanied by a perfectly choreographed dance routine.
This is the hallmark of the cuisine of Seoul for me – this choreographed dance of food cultures from across the globe. In some ways, the difficulty we have long had on this blog of categorizing the cuisine of Chicago within the Great Lakes Cuisine tradition comes to bear on the food of Seoul also. When a city becomes as much global as it is local, categorizations and clear lines of demarcation between cultures begin to fade. And yet the transformation of Korea, and very specifically the transformation of Seoul, has been so rapid you feel almost as if you are witnessing the transformation from local mega-city to global destination, as if you can see the stretch marks, feel the growing pains.
This culinary journey through South Korea, from traditional and temple, to modern and global, highlights the beauty and the difficulty of searching for “a cuisine”. Trying to define “a cuisine” for a place is almost like trying to describe a city through one person’s personality. But that can also be the joy – finding one story, one idea that seems iconic of a place and a time, representative perhaps without the need to be all-encompassing.
And so with the inspiration of our journey to South Korea in mind, we continue on our journey to highlight Great Lakes Cuisine; as a cuisine that is not exclusive of different traditions, but inclusive in a meaningful relationship between ideas.