In planning our trop to Seoul, Korea, Dan and I were very excited to try allll of the food, but we also knew that we would have some trouble accessing some of the more local cuisine, especially of the street food variety, so I booked three (!!!) food tours during the course of our six day trip. Nope, I do not regret it at all and each one was quite delicious. Our first food tour was centered around Gwangjang Market, a busy market frequented by locals, as well as some tourists in the know. More so now with the release of Netflix’s Street Food Seoul episode – featuring Gwangjang Market.
We entered Gwangjang Market early on a Sunday morning and despite it being rainy and cold, the market was largely open and packed with people, mostly Koreans. Our tour guide walked us through the most famous intersection of Gwangjang, as seen on Netflix’s Street Food Seoul edition, and pointed out some less authentic, more tourist oriented stalls in this popular area. He advised us to avoid them at all costs.
Our tour guide then led us to our fist proper stop – a humble stall serving noodles and dumplings – as featured on Netflix’s Street Food Seoul edition (!!), and we sat down for our first taste of the day (well, we did have some breakfast, which would later regret). Sitting at this food stall was quite exciting, as we did not realize this famous one was on the tour! Second surprise, the benches affixed around the cooking area are all heated! Totally genius and this perk made our meal much more comfortable on a cold morning. Our first food was two bowls of kimchi – the traditional red version that we often see is the US and a green variety that, according to our guide, is only found in Korea. We were also given a bottle of soju – Korean liquor – to drink with our breakfast… The kimchi was, as expected, way better than anything I’ve ever had in the US, and the green kimchi was my favorite of the two. It was absolutely delicious! The soju was a little much for a Sunday morning but, when in Seoul? We managed to finish the bottle.
Our main tasting came out next – a bowl of hand pulled noodles in a warm broth topped with seaweed (a/k/a kalguksu). I could have done without the seaweed (not my favorite anywhere) but the noodles were so good and perfectly cooked. The owner also incredibly nice and very serious about her cooking. The one thing I was sad about, we did not try her beautiful dumplings! I was somewhat relieved when I later learned they are all vegetarian and that we would be trying meat dumplings later. Still, next time, I will sample one of those dumplings!
The next tasting on this tour was a few food stalls away at a traditional bibimbap stand, but with all vegan toppings. I am usually not a huge fan of meat dishes without meat, but this one was quite good. Basically, the woman preparing the bibimbap just went down the line and put a bit of everything in our dish. The end result was much better than any bibimbap had in the US, very fresh, and I barely noticed that it lacked meat. Like our first stop, the bench-style seating at this food stall was also heated.
Like many markets, Gwangjang Market is a mix of food stalls in the open market and small restaurants on the outside of the market. Both are fairly easy to access, but tourists may feel more comfortable entering the more formal restaurants. Our next stop was at one of the restaurants affixed to the outside of the marked. We entered and were seated on the second level. The speciality of this restaurant, and Gwangjang in general, is mung bean pancakes. Mung bean pancakes (a/k/a bindaetteok) are panfried cakes made out of Korean mung beans. According to the restaurant, they are gluten free and vegan. Our mung bean pancakes were served with a bit of kimchi and some onions in a brown sauce. We enjoyed the mung bean pancakes, which reminded us a bit of US hash browns.
At this particular restaurant, the mung bean pancakes were paired with the traditional Korean rice wine, makgeolli. Makgeolli is an old school Korean rice drink that is having a resurgence amongst the hipsters in Seoul (and this resurgence is worldwide – there is a makgeolli brewery in Brooklyn, because of course). Makgeolli is pretty good and light on the palate. Its typically a milky white color and served in a silver bowl. We enjoyed makgeolli, but the one served here in the green bottle is one of the least expensive ones on the market; be sure to try some more upscale makgeolli while in Seoul.
Finishing up our mung bean pancakes and makgeolli, we paid at the register downstairs on our way out, which is how one pays at all of these restaurants, and took a brief stroll through Gwangjang Market, just the see what was happening. En route, we tried some fermented things from a colorful stall, such as hot peppers, and what I called a nut and seed store, which makes its own version of protein bars. These were really good and we brought some home to the US. Free samples are always an added bonus.
Our very final stop in Gwangjang Market was yet another market stall serving what looks like hand-rolled vegetarian sushi, called Mayak Kimbap and Tteokbokki, or spicy rice cakes. The Mayak Kimbap was served with a side of excellent spicy mustard sauce. And while we had tried tteokbokki before, this was by far the best ever. Our food was paired with sikhye, or a sweet rice drink that reminded me a lot of horchata. It was tasty but quite sweet.
The final stop inside the market was for a “Twisted Donu.” Basically a warm twisted sugar donut made famous by some Korean celebrity. In any case, it was delicious. Very delicious. Dan and I decided to split one because we were so full; I still regret that decision.
After the donut, we went on a walk through a bit of Seoul, eventually ending in Insadong. En route, despite a tiny bit of rain, we saw a pretty canal running through the city, very local shops, and views of Seoul from the top of a car park! All and all our stroll was about 20 minutes over straight ground.
At the end of our walk, we stopped for one of my very favorite foods – dumplings!! I have no idea where this dumpling spot it located, but this shop only makes dumplings in two forms: fried and steamed. Since the steamed dumplings seemed easier to find in Seoul, we went with the fried dumpling. A few minutes later a huge dumpling was brought out to us. Our guide managed to cut it into several small pieces with his chopsticks and those handy Korean kitchen scissors. We shared the dumpling with some of the most delicious mustard sauce I have ever had. Indeed, had they sold that mustard, I would have brought as much home to New Jersey as I could find!
Our afternoon ended in a traditional tea house in Insadong, coincidentally in the same area Dan and I had dinner our first night. This tea house had a local feel was was quite homey. We sat on pillows around a low table. I choose to have the Chrysanthemum tea and Dan choose a licorice tasting tea that is allegedly good for you… Both were quite tasty, but mine was by far prettier!
Our teas were accompanied by two traditional Korean desserts. While I cannot recall the names of these desserts, they were a bit chewy and only slight sweet. They paired well with tea but were not a standard dessert that I seek out.
At the end of our tour, we were very satisfied with our tour. We managed to try numerous different types of Korean foods, most of which we would never have tried on our own. Our guide also gave us a lot of information on Korea, both historical and modern day information, like how dating works and how Koreans spend their free time. While the tour was a bit pricey (as are most food tours), I very much enjoyed this tour and would highly recommend it to foodies looking to explore the foodie side of Seoul!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Secret Food Tours Seoul: Our tour cost $81 US per person, plus an extra $14 US for the drinks package, which combined included all food and drink mentioned in this blog post. Book online in advance, as tour participants are capped and these tours sell out. However on our tour, it was just Dan and me. Wear walking shoes, bring a bottle of water, and do not eat much before the tour! There’s often a 10% coupon on the website.
ON A BUDGET
If you’re on a budget, visit Gwangjang market and Insadong on your own. Both neighborhoods are free to enter and offer lots of cheap eats and drinks. Be adventurous and ask for help if you get confused. Most likely someone speaks at least a bit of English.