A foodie tour of South Korea | Travel

I’m not notably hungover, having caught to native Hite beer the night earlier than, however the restorative results of Korean haejang-guk, or “hangover soup” would most likely treatment even the ache of a very large evening out.

At 8am there’s already a queue outdoors the tiny cafe in the back of Nambu market in provincial capital Jeonju (has the entire metropolis been on the lash?). I slip right into a seat on the counter subsequent to an area couple and watch an overalled girl bashing energetically at enormous mounds of pungent garlic, chilli and spring onion – a merciless racket for a pounding head.

South Korea map

But quickly my panacea seems: a heady beef bone and anchovy broth thick with rice and beansprouts, facet dishes of kimchi and three different fermented greens, and squares of dried seaweed to dip in. Another dish holds a barely set poached egg. Copying my neighbours, I end up by including some broth to the egg, stir, and drink the lot down, following up with the (most likely redundant) little plastic bottle of Yakult-type drink that comes with each serving.

The phrases “set you up for the day” don’t even start to cowl it.

Hangover soup counter, Jeonju. Photograph: Liz Boulter for the Guardian

– Capital: Seoul

– Currency: Won,​ £1=1,500

– Flight time from UK: 11 hours

– Flight time from US (Los Angeles): 13 hours 30 minutes 

– Population: 51 million

– Area:100,210 km2

– Official language: Korean

– Official tourism web site:

– High velocity rail community: KTX

– Looking for extra travel concepts? Guardian Travel on South Korea

I’m two days into Intrepid Travel’s new Real Food Adventure in South Korea and beginning to recognize how this hi-tech nation combines the most effective of east Asia, notably in its delicacies: more healthy and fewer oily than in a lot of China; spicier, sharper and chewier than in Japan.

Starting within the capital, Seoul, we’ve executed the fundamentals – Korean barbecue and moreish KFC (the Okay’s not for Kentucky) – then taken the practice south (virtually all of the journey is on public transport) to foodie capital Jeonju, declared a Unesco metropolis of gastronomy in 2012. Jeonju is thought for its “slow food” abilities: drying, pickling and fermenting kimchis, sauces and pastes to supply a world of beautiful textures and flavours. It’s solely culinary rival was, earlier than the Korean conflict, Pyongyang.

An irresistible dish of KFC (Korean fried chicken).

An irresistible dish of KFC (Korean fried hen).

Jeonju can also be home to the nation’s finest bibimbap, the nationwide dish of rice with an array of toppings, typically together with a uncooked egg. As we’re lunching on the metropolis’s Gajok Hoegwan restaurant, and its proprietor, Kim Nyeon-him, has been declared an intangible cultural asset by the government for her bibimbap, we’re most likely going to eat the most effective bibimbap within the world.

“This is not your meal; these are just the accompaniments,” warns Daniel, our Korean-American tour chief. The tables are coated with a minimum of a dozen chilly facet dishes: pungent fish innards, gentle turmeric jelly and scrumptious fermented spring greens amongst them. Our bibimbaps arrive topped with a dozen extra tasty issues, plus a scorching cloud of steamed egg soufflé. It seems to be very fairly, however we have to destroy it: the way in which to eat bibimbap is so as to add your facet dishes, combine the whole thing up – with chopsticks in order to not mash the rice – then shovel it in with a spoon.

Mrs Kim is an “intangible cultural asset” thanks to her bibimbap.

Mrs Kim is an “intangible cultural asset” due to her bibimbap. Photograph: Liz Boulter for the Guardian

The style sensation is partly right down to the array of tall earthenware jars the place Mrs Kim, sprightly in her seventies, is fermenting sauces of gooseberry, inexperienced plum and different fruits. Daniel tells us bibimbap is consolation meals: in Korean movies the equal of the breakup scene the place a lady eats an entire tub of ice-cream is a lady crying into an enormous bowl of bibimbap.

Korean side dishes, or banchan

Korean meals is all about facet dishes, or banchan

By now our group of 12 Europeans and Australians are beginning to “get” Korean meals. It’s all concerning the facet dishes, or banchan: no meal comes with out a minimum of two. For this we will thank the Buddhist vegetarian affect, which noticed folks brightening up meals with recent, bitter, crunchy, candy, salty or spicy accompaniments. This continues although many Koreans have since embraced meat and fish with gusto.

We’ve additionally rethought our western concepts about programs. Everything comes collectively: there’s almost at all times a soup with a Korean dinner, nevertheless it’s sipped all through the meal, and any candy issues are on the desk from the beginning. Koreans say this makes a night extra enjoyable: you get on with speaking, laughing, having fun with the company, with out interruptions for one more course arriving. There’s additionally none of Japan’s eating formality. “The protocol is there is no protocol,” says Daniel. It’s positive to all dip spoons into one pot, or attain throughout your companions to seize a tasty morsel together with your lengthy steel chopsticks. A desk barely seen below a multitude of soiled dishes and empty bottles is the signal of a very good evening out.

Gochujang ferments in a jar for months.

Gochujang ferments in a jar for months. Photograph: Liz Boulter for the Guardian

The savoury spiciness of bibimbap comes from gochujang, the fermented chilli paste found in each Korean kitchen. The home of that’s close by Sunchang, the place, with the assistance of one other intangible cultural asset, Kang Soon-ok, we find out how “red gold” is made – by mixing powdered rice, barley syrup, soya and dried chillies earlier than leaving it to ferment for half a 12 months.

We additionally have nice enjoyable making a speciality none of us can fairly get our heads spherical: chapssaltteok, or delicate rice truffles (like Japanese mochi). Their sticky, gooey texture is achieved, historically, by pounding the rice flour dough with enormous mallets, earlier than rolling, chopping and sprinkling it with floor nuts. We’ve beloved virtually all the things we’ve eaten thus far, however determine you most likely have to be born to it to rave about this texture, between Blu Tack and wallpaper paste, however much less interesting than both.

Much extra attractive is the quintessential Korean dish kimchi, which we additionally have a go at in Jeonju. There are kimchi factories nowadays in fact, however many individuals nonetheless make it by hand in autumn, to ferment in jars buried within the chilly floor for winter consuming.

Rooftops in Hanok village

Hanok village, on the sting of Jeonju. Photograph: Seungchan Lee/Getty Images

In a sunny courtyard within the conventional Hanok village district, on the sting of Jeonju, the napa cabbages (what we name Chinese leaves) have been soaking in brine. Pulling on gloves and pinnies (towards purple stains) we copy our hosts and gently peel again the pale leaves – with out detaching them from the stems – and therapeutic massage all sides with a paste made by pounding garlic, shallot and ginger with copious gochujang. Once each floor of each leaf is roofed – inexpert vacationer fingers are fumbling and sluggish – the leaves are folded again until the completed cabbages lie like so many swaddled infants. I style a little bit of damaged leaf and it’s scrumptious, however with out that deep fermented flavour of aged kimchi.

There are many extra delights packed into the week. The waters of Bomun lake make an particularly pillowy delicate tofu, served at Matdol Soondooboo restaurant in a punchy broth. You drop in a uncooked egg, add soy, sesame oil and spring onions, then get pleasure from the way in which creamy egg and tofu distinction with the soup’s chilli kick. Spicy beef brief ribs on Daegu’s foodie Dongindong Street have been steamed for hours and come with fishy facet dishes for an umami hit.

The fish market in Busan.

The fish market in Busan. Photograph: Alamy

And within the port of Busan, we barbecue seafood on the desk. The US affect means South Koreans have a really un-Asian liking for dairy merchandise: so you may add grated cheese to a large clam grilling in its shell with onion, chilli and kimchi and, because the cheese begins to soften, gorge on a fusion feast.

But it isn’t all consuming; there’s ingesting too. The craft beer motion is beginning to take off in South Korea: at microbrewery Galmegi in Busan we style IPAs and a ginger golden ale. They’re a success with younger South Koreans used to rice wine, fizzy lager and soju spirit. For us, although, Hite beer and soju make good companions for video games of “sink the ship” – the individual who makes the shot glass of soju sink into the lager having to drink the lot. And if too many rounds of that make for a sore head subsequent morning, there’s at all times hangover soup.

• The journey was offered by Intrepid Travel, whose eight-day South Korean Real Food Adventure prices £1,715, excluding flights to Seoul

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