SOUTH KOREA: WEEKS 26 to 28 MAY (SPRING TIME IN KOREA, SUNNY DAYS 24 DEGREES)
20.05.2017 - 26.05.2017 24 °C
Koreans are extremely passionate about their food. If everyone in Korea decided to pop out for dinner simultaneously there would still be a few free tables and it is often cheaper to eat out than buy the food and prepare it at home. Some restaurants even stay open into the small hours and range from more traditional style of sitting on the floor at low tables to the Korean fast food variety. Even fast food is relatively healthy here (gimbap, bokki and toast) and most restaurants do not serve dessert. If you want something sweet, you are going to have to hunt down specific outlets such as a waffle stall or ice cream parlour.
Our roaming gourmet Thomas put it quite succintly, "Korean food will blow your head off" and after all our travels to many countries in the world, I can say South Korean food is truly unique. In fact, we met three strapping young lads from Korea in Laos and one of the first things they told us was that they missed the food back home. Korean food is hot and spicy, normally from lavish dollops of red pepper paste, so it's no wonder that Korea has the highest rate of stomach cancer in the world. It's not so much the hotness of each dish but the fact there is no respite from it - if you eat Korean food you cannot escape the red pepper paste and kimchi.
I've already committed a few dining faux pas, one of which is blowing your nose during your meal. The spice level is difficult to tolerate and nearly always leads to a runny nose, but it is considered extremely rude to blow your nose during a meal. The correct etiquette is to excuse yourself from the table and head for the toilets, however it would mean spending most of the meal in the toilets if I followed this to the letter.
Fruit doesn't feature much in Korean dishes and is very expensive to buy. Apart from bananas, we have eaten very little fruit here unlike the rest of Asia. Here is a list below with some approximate prices:
Bunch of red grapes: 7 pounds
Six apples: 7 pounds
Large watermelon: 15 pounds
Large bunch of bananas: 3 pounds fifty
Most restaurants have free drinking water and that is all the locals drink with their meal at lunchtime so we just followed what they did. There is normally a wooden box on every table which contains the cutlery (metal chopsticks and soup spoons). Ordering any main dish will mean a bewildering assortment of side dishes will also appear (the most we have been served is eight) and these are nearly all cold, pickled vegetables and kimchi. Kimchi is the national dish of Korea, composed of fermented vegetables in a spicy mixture of salt, garlic and red pepper paste, and is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is always part of a picnic if Koreans go to the park or on a hike. Many families have a dedicated kimchi fridge with four separate quarters for the four different types of kimchi. I force myself to eat kimchi as it is a way to ensure that we are eating enough vegetables, but it is cold and incredibly spicy.
For me, the main stay dish of Korea is bibimbap which we first tried in Seoul. It is a mixture of shoots, leaves and vegetables which can be served with meat/fish, which is then topped with egg and of course a dollop of red pepper sauce. It is served in a bowl on a bed of sticky rice. When it arrives on your table, the first thing to do is to mix all the ingredients together before eating. The dish was originally derived from the five principal colours of Korean Buddhism - red for the paste, yellow for the egg yolk, white for the rice, blue for meat and green for vegetables.
One of Thomas's favourites was gimbap, laver seaweed rolled around rice which surrounds strips of egg, ham and pickled radish. It is normally cut into segments to make it chop stick friendly and is again served cold. One of my favourites was ddeokbokki that is a mixture or rice cake and fish that can often be found on a twigim stall. Twigim is various vegetables including stuffed noodle green chilli peppers, sweet potato, prawns and squid that are flash fried at the stall just before you eat them.
Korean seafood is equally baffling to try and order so we ended up having a set fish menu served over a charcoal grill on our table. The seafood is incredibly fresh, literally off the boat but it is important that we avoided baby octopus unless it had been cooked. This is often served live and every year several people die when their prey decides to make a last futile stab at survival with its suckers - the poor person chokes to death.