People travel for different reasons. To escape, for love, for art and beauty, for Instagrammable moments. Before the retail explosion in the Philippines, before global brands found their way in our favorite malls, we would travel abroad to shop. We’d plan our itineraries around shopping districts in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, the States. But these days, we don’t shop as much as we used to, right? Uniqlo is cheaper in Manila. We prefer to purchase luxury brands on zero-interest here. Except perhaps when we fly to Jersey for the outlets.
In the last few years, my travel plans are just outlines of the convenient ways from one great food destination to the next. I travel to eat, essentially. There’s no better way to explore a culture than to eat what the locals eat.
The first thing I check out is the street food. It’s always a delight to see it in abundance, in a variety of colors, prepared in the strangest ways. Seoul’s is my new fave in Asia, more than Bangkok, because the former is more playful and diverse.
These are my thoughts on Korean cuisine – all conjectures, sans any empirical support.
Their harsh winter influences the type of food they serve. Lots of pickled dishes that keep through the cold. The scraps of spicy stuff they use to flavor other preps. Lean beef, poultry and pork are staples. The iron they provide warms the body, and provides the energy a Korean body needs from all the walking through the hilly peninsula.
They’re used to gathering around the dining table, grilling and stewing together. Hence, the food, including the single servings and the food sold in the streets, is meant to feed more than one. They barbecue a lot for added heating.
The Korean aesthetic is cute and whimsical. You see in how they design their shops and their fashion. The fried and skewered food on display can be as fancy.
Nothing seems to be done slowly. The Koreans are an efficient lot, always in a hurry. If they linger, they’d freeze, said one local. It’s an ideal place for the impatient foodie – food is served fast everywhere.
Wherever you’ll stay in Seoul, you’ll find great-tasting, easy-to-eat treats on the streets. The best ones are found in these areas: Namdaemun, Gwangjang, Dongdaemun and Insadong. Myeongdong, the key shopping district in Seoul, is also teeming with food carts, but it’s just too crowded.
My top picks: red bean dumplings, grilled steak with beansprouts and parsley, fish cakes, corn dogs, ice cream fancily swirled, chocolate covered strawberries, chestnuts, egg tarts, sweet corn.
Go plan your trip to Seoul, if only for these. Stay on the streets of Seoul all day, and be happy.