While the highlight of Hong Kong was the view from the peak, the highlight of Seoul was a food tour we took this week. The tour was free, thanks to the Korea Tourism Organization and its German president, Charm Lee – also a naturalized Korean and a Korean TV star – who joined us on the tour.
We began at a small local restaurant for tofu, kimchi, and makgeolli (rice wine), where our guide, Daniel Gray of O’ngo Food, taught us to pour drinks for others and receive a drink with both hands. Charm Lee whipped out a special chili powder, purported to include the five different tastes, to add to the makgeolli.
Next was spicy chicken with yam noodles at a nicer restaurant. Daniel taught us a drinking game: diners take turns flicking a thin piece of metal attached to a bottle cap, and when someone flicks it off, the two sitting next to him have to do a “love shot” – a shot with their arms intertwined.
On the way to barbeque, we stumbled upon a food stall selling bundigie – silkworm larvae. Fred and a few others downed one each; I respectfully declined. We then passed by some exuberent Koreans making dragon’s beard candy – singing a rehearsed song and shouting “Oh! My! God!” as they showed off their skills – and Charm Lee bought us each a box of the nut-filled, honey-wrapped treat. (I respectfully accepted.)
We then squeezed around two circular tables in a crowded alley for pork-abdomen barbeque, flavored with roasted soybean powder, sesame powder, and onions. Charm Lee showed us a drink he supposedly invented that “captures the essence of Korea” – 60% beer, 30% makgeolli, and 10% Soju – and others did shots of a mix of beer, Soju, and Coke. We grabbed the last pieces of crispy pig off the grill before heading off.
Along the way, there was lots of chatter about Korea. One person said that Koreans were focused on copying businesses and practices from abroad after the Korean War, just to speed up economic development, but now they are beginning to focus on creativity. Another said Korea will become a major hub for Asia. I must admit, though I am less comfortable in Seoul than in Hong Kong, there is something more mysterious about Korean culture that is alluring, insofar as there is more to learn.
Our last stop on the tour was Kwangjang Market, a huge outdoor market filled with stalls of raw beef, shellfish, pyramids of fruit and nuts, barrels of kimchi, and North Korean mung-bean pancakes – our last course. We clambered into a restaurant and used chopsticks to cut crispy pieces of this round, eggy pancake, filled with bean sprouts and onions. And the drinking continued, to calls of “gun bae!” (cheers). It’s fascinating how a group of people can bond over sharing tasty food, and how vital food is to a culture. Yum!