Seoul, the soul of Asia

Our favourite part of the city was Bukchon, an old quarter where ambassadors and people connected to the court used to live. The neighbourhood lies on a steep hill and is full of little alleys and rows lined by tiny but wonderfully preserved houses.

See the little metal plaque in front of my feet? That's the official photo spot and we're NOT on it. Totally flaunting the law.

Bukchon is also where the inspiring “Museum of Chicken Art” is located. After seeing it on a map we tried to decide whether it would be a museum about chickens or exhibited art done by chickens or if ‘chicken’ was simply a really bad translation error so of course we had to go and find out. Turns out it’s simply a museum about chickens in all shapes and forms – oil paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc. Bit of a let down really, I was hoping for some art done by chickens.

While we’re on the subject of chicken, let’s talk about food. Korean food is very good and if you stick to the smaller restaurants and street food vendors, it’s not too expensive either. On the street our favourite snacks where egg-bread and sushi omelette. (I’m sure they have much nicer names in Korean but I have no idea what they are so egg-bread and sushi omelette it is.) Here’s the egg-bread, served in a cup for some strange reason:

Basically it’s a fried egg sandwiched between some batter. But it’s SO good… The batter tastes vaguely sweet, almost like pancake or waffle dough so it’s like brunch, in a cup. Can’t go wrong there.

Sushi omelette was very nice too. I didn’t get a picture of it on our plate but you can see it here in the general offers at one of the stands. They are the little omelette rolls at the back, right next to the big, orange round thing.

I’m not sure what was inside sushi omelette (not sushi, that’s for sure) but it was wrapped in seaweed and egg, hence the name. My best guess would be that it had soy noodles and some veggies inside. There was definitely something crunchy.

Another fun food we picked up on the street was a sweet, which used to be prepared for the king and his royal entourage. There are stands making and selling it all over the city. The name was something like Kkuturae but don’t quote me on that. They look like little silk worm cocoons and when you first put them in your mouth the feeling is distinctly ‘hairy’ but not all unpleasant. The silky outside is made of spun honey and icing sugar (or possibly flour? It wasn’t too sweet…) which dissolves quickly and you’re left with a gooey, sticky paste of peanuts, walnuts or almonds. (We tried the peanut variety.) The stands where these cocoons are made are usually manned by two or three guys, working with their hands in a little hill of icing sugar, kneeding the dough while chanting and talking. (Or telling dirty jokes? We never found out.) Whatever they’re saying must be funny though because there are always throngs of people standing before the carts, giggling and ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’. It’s true that it is slight hypnotic watching the guys kneed the dough, pull it apart into hundreds of tiny little strings, push it back together, kneed it some more, add more sugar, pull the strands apart again and so on until a crucial moment when the dough is ready (or they run out of jokes?) and they start breaking the strands into smaller pieces, press a bit of nutty goo into it and roll it into a little cocoon.

Because they all have their hands full of dough and sugar, payment for these sweets works on the honour system. There’s a little cash box sitting at the front of their cart where you deposit your money and make change if necessary. They can pull the box from the inside if necessary but I have a feeling that rarely comes up. We felt incredibly safe all over the city. I didn’t get a video of the singing candy makers but of course, YouTube is up to the challenge:

There are countless restaurants in Seoul since eating is the national past-time but because the city is a bit chaotic in its layout and function, it’s very hard to get directions anywhere. We tried looking up restaurants online a few times but the addresses were usually so vague that you wanted to give up before you even started: “In Insa-dong, behind the post office there’s a little alley, look for the yellow sign.” What?! Once we did find and follow an online recommendation though: for Seoul’s best bibimbap. That’s one of the dishes Korean cuisine is famous for and it’s basically rice, veggies and meat topped with a raw egg. It’s all beautifully arranged in a bowl when they bring it to you and then you stir it all up into a big mess and enjoy. I forgot to take a picture of our bowls when they arrived (too hungry) but because the restaurant is famous for their bibimbap they had a huge fake bowl of it outside:

Giant mockups of the food available inside seemed to be popular all over the city. We even saw a mechanical ramen eating machine:

Restaurant and bar names were often a source of joy all on their own. Of course there’s “Foreign Restaurant” from the header picture above but we also came across the “Ho Bar” (no ho’s inside) and had lunch at “Don Valley” for Korean barbecue. They explained on their menu that ‘Don’ in Korean means money as well as meat. So the name of the restaurant was really ‘Meat Valley’ or ‘Money Valley’. It had nothing to do with the ‘Don Valley’ in Canada. I wonder how many times they had to answer that question before they decided to just print it on the damn menu.
Korean barbecue was great fun because you get to cook directly on your table.

Knives are usually nowhere to be found in a Korean restaurant but scissors are not uncommon. Which is really not such a bad idea once you get over the strangeness of the idea.

Two seconds later the waitress rushed over, giggling and grabbing the scissors from me. Not sure if that was because you're not supposed to do this 'as a guest' or if I was cutting the poor meat into confetti like the white devil that I am.

Speaking of white devil – photos with us are very sought after! We’ve had several different groups of teenagers approach us all over Seoul asking if they could take our picture. I feel like a celebrity! Next thing you know they want our autographs and ask where in the world I got such beautiful silky hair… *POP* (that was my dream bubble bursting) Actually they probably think we look like freaks who are gigantically tall and they have to record us for posterity because otherwise their friends would never believe them. Here’s one of those encounters:

I obviously need to work on my V-sign posing. Lack of that just totally outs me as the foreigner in that picture.

We tried picking up a few words of Korean but pretty much gave up after ‘Hello’ (Annyounghasehyo). When there is a vowel at the end of a word, which usually happens, that vowel gets milked for all its worth. Translated into English that would probably be the equivalent of British vicar speak: “Oh helloooo, how are youuuu?”
So our mastery of Korean was subpar but since we’re leaving today, that’s okay. Anna que se yo Seoul! (Yeah, yeah, so it’s really ‘annyeonghi gaseyo’ but that sounds just like ‘Anna what do I know’ in Spanish and that way we were always smiling and thinking of my cousin Anna when saying goodbye!) 🙂

3 Responses to “Seoul, the soul of Asia”

  1. Kuru says:

    Am sitting here drooling with all that deeelicious food. Yo quiero.

  2. Alex says:

    Ah, I could have taught you a few korean words before you left, but since they’re all Hapkido related you might have gotten your arses kicked in the street for just trying to be neighbourly.

    Yop Chagui please?
    Oh, sure here you go, side kick to the ribs, bam!

  3. Noodles done in a similar manner.

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