Erica and Matt Chua: Korean Food: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Korean food ran the gambit from the good, the bad and the downright ugly.  On many occasions Korean cuisine surprised us, apparently South Koreans are better at more than kimchi.  Who knew that South Korea makes the best fried chicken in the world?  I feel that I am uniquely qualified to make a judgement on the best fried chicken in the world because I’ve tried my fair share due to my husband’s  fried chicken addiction.  He even believes his future is in fried chicken and beer.  So, while I know your dying to hear about kimchi, let’s start with the ugly and work our way to the highlights.  I want you to enjoy Korean cuisine, so I’ll end on a high note.

You will enjoy Korean food if you avoid two things; Lotteria and pig’s foot.  Lotteria is South Korea’s answer to McDonald’s.  Everything from the menu to the value meals is a mirror of McDonald’s offerings.  While I’m not a huge fan of McDonald’s, we were told several times that we had to try Lotteria.  We decided we didn’t have too much to lose as it is a fast and cheap food option.  Little did we know that the similarities ended with the look alike menu. The cheeseburger we had tasted as if it had strawberry jam mixed with mayonnaise on it and I’m convinced the french fries we were served were made weeks ago.  In short avoid Lotteria at all costs.

The pig’s foot should have been more obvious than Lotteria as something to steer clear of, some may even say that I deserved what I got when I decided to try this local delicacy.  However, I am a firm believer in the old adage “when in Rome…”  We had heard of the popularity of pig feet, but it wasn’t until we saw it prominently displayed by every vendor in Seoul’s Namdaeumun Market that we decided we had to try it.  We hunted out the best pig foot we could find, not having any idea what you look for in a good pig foot.  Because quite frankly “good pig foot” sounds like an oxymoron to me.  However, even as I watched the woman we purchased our foot from working to dismember it in preparation for us to eat it I remained positive. When she set it in front of us it didn’t look too promising and then she gave us each a set of plastic gloves and my optimism started to fade.  Anything too vile to touch with bare hands probably shouldn’t be eaten, but against my better judgement I put a gelatinous piece of foot in my mouth.  It lived up to my worst nightmares, it was a fatty, Jell-O like texture and the taste was so bad I almost gagged trying to swallow it.  Then and there the award for worst item imbibed on this trip was given to the pig’s trotters.  We paid for our foot and passed on the remaining bits to the eager Koreans sitting next to us, laughing at our disgusted expressions.

Pig’s foot was quickly awarded the “worst thing we have eaten on this trip” title

Okay with the “ugly” pig’s foot story behind us we can focus on all the delicious parts of Korean cuisine. South Korea doesn’t have as much street food as other Asian countries we have visited, but there are snack stalls to tied you over between meals.  I liked the “sushi” rolls best of all the different snacks. I am calling these Korean rice rolls sushi because at first glance, they do resemble the Japanese rolls.  But kimbap is not considered high class fare in Korea, it’s a cheap snack food that you eat with your hands. Portable and neat, kimbap is the perfect food for on the go or for a packed lunch. Traditional fillings include seasoned vegetables, egg, meat and/or imitation crab.

Kimbap is a popular snack sold from street stalls throughout South Korea.

The larger version of kimbap is bibimbap, a signature Korean dish.  The word is not only fun to say it’s tasty too, it literally means “mixed meal.” Bibimbap is served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste).  A raw or fried egg and sliced meat (usually beef) are common additions. The ingredients are stirred together thoroughly just before eating. It can be served either cold or hot. Bibim Gooksu is the noodle version of bimibap a tasty and filling meal.

Bibim Gooksu is the signature Korean noodle dish on the left and on the right is the famous rice dish bibimbap

For the ultimate Korean food experience, grab a friend that speaks Korean and head out for dinner at a traditional restaurant.  There are several set meals to choose from or each person can order a main dish, which is served with a variety of side dishes that are shared by the entire table.  You’ll want to brush up on your chopstick skills to get your share of the food, because the bill will be evenly divided amongst the table.  When you visit one of these restaurants you will sit on the floor and you can count on the food being delivered before you’ve even settled into your seat.  Your side dishes are typically refilled at no extra charge so you can eat to your heart’s content.  My favorites from our dinner outing included the melt in your mouth beef bulgogi, the fresh fish and spicy green beans, of course all served with several different types of kimchi.

A traditional Korean meal should definitely be on your to-do list while in South Korea.  Bring a native speaker to get the most out of the experience.

No food post on South Korea would be complete without discussing kimchi and makkoli, which seem to be Korean staples. Kimchi is a traditional fermented Korean dish made of vegetables with varied seasonings. Kimchi may also refer to un-fermented vegetable dishes. There are hundreds, if not thousands of varieties of kimchi made with a main vegetable ingredient such as napa cabbage, radish, green onions or cucumber. It is by far the most common banchan, or side dish served with any Korean meal. Kimchi is also a main ingredient for many popular Korean dishes.  I found it was a hit or miss thing, sometimes I loved the spicy combination of vinegar and chilis and other times it was enough to just smell it and then politely avoid it.

Makkoli, a popular alcoholic beverage, is right up there with kimchi when it comes to Korean staples.  It is made from a mixture of wheat and rice which gives it a milky, off-white color, and sweetness. It is made by fermenting a mixture of boiled rice, wheat and water, and is about 6–8% alcohol by volume.  It is especially good mixed into a fresh fruit smoothie.

In case kimchi and makkoli doesn’t make your mouth water I will end this post with the best Western food we had in South Korea, fried chicken and croissants.  The chicken at the Frypan was perfectly crispy, fried to a golden brown served on top of a bed of crunchy potato chips and washed down with a nice cold beer.  It doesn’t get much better than that, especially if you’ve been traveling in Asia for the past eight months.  And if that doesn’t sound good to you, then you should plan on just eating at one of the 2,900 Paris Baguette stores around town, because you can’t go wrong with a croissant for under two dollars.

The pastry selection at Paris Baguette is amazing and after six months on the road it felt like heaven.

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