September 13, 2013
Secret Eats in Seoul
Despite being one of the largest cities in Asia, Seoul can be a hard city to get to know. At first glance, it can seem like a concrete jungle crammed full of people rushing from A to B in eerily similar neighbourhoods, twinkling with neon lights and blaring out a never-ending rotation of the four or five K-pop tunes du jour. Seoul’s charms aren’t apparent at first sight, but if you take the time to peel back the layers, there are some secrets waiting to be uncovered, as I found out when I undertook the Seoul Subway Challenge.
One of my favourite things to uncover when I visit any city in the world? Food. Hongdae, Itaewon, Gangnam and Sinchon are neighbourhoods familiar to people who’ve spent a few days in Seoul, but for a city with a metropolitan population of over twenty million, there’s a lot more than just those four neighbourhoods, despite what the likes of CNN Travel might try to tell you. After reading a fantastic post by Mimsie of Seoul Searching, I decided to delve a little deeper into Seoul and explore some little-known spots that offer up some truly tremendous eats.
Gwangjang Market (광장시장)
Located in Seoul’s Euljiro neighbourhood, Gwangjang Market is different from the likes of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, which are just crammed full of fake designer tack and annoyingly crowded. Gwangjang Market doesn’t feel like its set up for tourists to buy a convincing Louis Vuitton knock-off, but it’s a place where locals go to shop and eat, with the emphasis on eat. Wandering through the market, I did wonder at first where the food was, but persevere and you’ll come to the centre of the market at its magnificent food stalls. At stall number 62, I ate a feast of sundae (순대), tteokbokki (떡볶이), binddeok (빈떡) and mayak kimbap (마약김밥). The tteokbokki was even better than the food I was served up in Sindang Tteokboki Town. I had to waddle out of the market rather slowly and pass up the dumplings, pig foot (족발) and noodles on offer at other stalls.
Euljiro 4-ga, Eunjujeong (을지로4가, 은주정)
One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Seoul and in the vicinity of Gwangjang Market, if your stomach can handle it, you can walk on over to Euljiro 4-ga and try to find Eunjujeong, a restaurant located in the back streets and popular with local residents of all ages. Kimchi jjigae (김치찌개) is the dish of choice at Eunjujeong, crammed full of kimchi and pork, and spicy but not so much so that it’ll burn your taste buds off. Like most local, independent restaurants, don’t expect any of the staff to speak English, so if you don’t know any Korean, play safe and order the kimchi jjigae.
Noryangjin Subway Station, Ilmi Donkkaseu (노량진역 3번 출구, 일미 돈가스)
Most people know Noryangjin for its fish market, but there’s a secret hiding in its subway station, near exits three and four. It’s a basement food court, and most people go for one reason – Ilmi Donkkaseu. Donkkaseu is a kind of Korean pork cutlet, and Ilmi serves up massive portions at a bargain price of 4000 won. Make sure you get there early though – getting there at 5.30pm, I didn’t get to take a bite until 6.30pm, and by 6.30pm, the restaurant was all out of food and had to send people waiting the queue away. Is the wait worth it, though? For sure. Just don’t go when you’re absolutely starving and need a quick bite, otherwise you’ll be crabbier than the waiting area at the GUM clinic.
Little Russia, Samarkant (사마르칸트)
Head to Dongdaemun History and Culture Park subway station (동대문역사문화공원) and wander outside around exits seven and ten, and you might be surprised to see Hangeul characters morphing into Cyrillic. Why? Because you’ve wandered into Seoul’s Little Russia neighbourhood! Central Asia has fascinated me for a long time, and I got to experience the food of the region at Samarkant, an Uzbek restaurant which is the real deal. Run by a group of Uzbek ladies, the TV blares out the latest pop songs from the country, and lamb shashlik, plov (a fairly greasy fried rice dish) and pickled cucumbers were served up. The verdict? I really want to visit Uzbekistan.
Seoul may be a hard city to get to know, but get out of Hongdae, Gangnam and Itaewon and there are plenty of things waiting to reward those who wish to gain further insight into Korean culture. Loosen your belt a notch and see some other dimensions of Seoul that aren’t often sampled by visitors to the city.
So there you have it, folks! Now, I want to hear from you! Have you ever been to any of these places before? Which place here would you make a beeline for? Are there any other areas of Seoul that aren’t well-known that you’d recommend? Let us know in the comments below, or shout out on Facebook or Twitter.